Civil Disobedience and the Fight Against the Fossil Fuel Industry

The author recounts his two nights in a D.C. jail following his arrest after a display of civil disobedience.

| November 2013

  • With "Oil and Honey," author Bill McKibben recounts a time of civil disobedience and describes leading a resurgent movement on both the global and local scale in the fight against the fossil-fuel industry.
    Cover Courtesy Time Books
  • Civil disobedience against those that cause global climate change is a safe and responsible way to protest.
    Photo By Fotolia/Grandeduc

Oil and Honey (Time Books, 2013) is a timely call for environmental awareness as we face the reality of global climate change. Bill McKibben, founder of the organization, was one of the first to warn of the dangers of global warming. The excerpt—taken from "Storms," the second chapter—chronicles the early stages of the Keystone XL pipeline protest. The author was one of protesters jailed early in the event, but even he could not have predicted the outcome of the protests: more than 1,200 arrested in the largest display of civil disobedience in thirty years.

A Call for Civil Disobedience

We weren’t really planning to actually go to jail.

Our advance team had been on the ground in Washington for three weeks. It turns out that in a market society there are people equipped to fill every need, including organizing civil disobedience. The crew we’d found, and who would soon become close colleagues, was headed by Matt Leonard. With his shaved head and earring, he bore a striking resemblance to Mr. Clean. But he was more like Mr. Calm; in what became a rapidly mounting storm he never lost his cool. His posse included Rae Breaux, Linda Capato, Duncan Meisel, and Josh Kahn Russell, each the veteran of many such actions.

But because of that history, they were pretty sure only a small number of people would turn up—it had been at least thirty years since people had been hauled away in the thousands. (That had occurred during protests at the Rocky Flats nuclear test site in the Western desert.) Matt kept saying that we’d be fine with five or ten arrestees a day over our two-week protest; even as the number of people signing up kept mounting, he cautioned that many would melt away. The D.C. police must have felt the same way, because it was next to impossible to get their attention—our team was bounced from one sergeant to another, and none seemed to take the whole thing very seriously. I began to worry they’d just let us sit there, that we wouldn’t get arrested at all.

We’d told each daily wave of potential arrestees to gather the night before at a Washington church for training. So it wasn’t until five p.m. on Friday, August 19, 2011, when we convened the first of these sessions at St. Stephen and the Incarnation Episcopal Church in the Columbia Heights neighborhood, that we got to find out if anyone would really show. People started streaming in early; soon there were more than eighty people planning to risk arrest the next day, which was more than we’d anticipated—many more. We practiced for an hour, walking in columns down the center aisle and fanning out in front of the altar as if it were the White House lawn. A procession of lawyers from the National Lawyers Guild answered questions (“What if I have a green card?” “Will they take my medicine?”) and assured us that the routine for arrests was well established. We’d sit down on the sidewalk directly in front of the White House in a fifty-yard zone called the “postcard window” reserved for people taking snapshots. The police would handcuff us, load us in paddy wagons, drive us to the police station, process us, fine us a hundred dollars apiece, and release us that afternoon: we even handed out slips of paper with subway directions from the police station back to the airports and train stations, because most people were planning to travel home that evening.

But it turned out that the police were not as pleased by our turnout as we were. When we arrived the next morning at Lafayette Square, across the street from the White House, there were a scattering of police cars—but as the crowd swelled, more and more cops kept arriving, too. And though the rest of us didn’t know it at the time, an angry lieutenant was giving Matt the first indication that the arrests might be anything but routine.

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