Exiles on Main Street: When Ordinary People Resist the Oil-pocalypse
It seems every week or so you can hear language borrowedfrom the War On Terror, the Salem Witch Hunts and the McCarthy hearings. Some prosecutor is hurling invective at fossil fuel resisters, who sit in the courtroom with their pro bono lawyers, staring with the disbelief of newcomers to Evil. We know that there are heroes like the Sea Shepherd sailors, the Arctic 30, and Tim "Bidder 70" DeChristopher. Although some of these activists are young, we tend to think of them as veterans who are making a stand for the rest of us. But a new movement seems to be building, in which the heroes are people who might be described as amateurs. These are volunteer citizens who oppose fossil fuel projects near where they live - who resist with their bodies and no money. Something about these under-equipped protesters is making Big Oil go crazy.
Three Michigan women - Lisa Leggio, Barbara Carter, and Vicci Hamlin - chained themselves to an excavator in the little town of Mason. They were polite in that midwestern way throughout their protest of Enbridge, the Canadian firm that leaked 800,000 gallons of oil in their community, and can't seem to clean it up. After the conviction was read, Judge William Collette, a Republican and former bomber pilot, marched the ladies - one of them a great-grandmother - straight to jail from their defense table, despite their intentions to appeal.
Here we have a signature tactic of fossil fuel justice. Call it "overcharging," accusing nonviolent defendants of felonious crimes that will later be dropped, but meanwhile holding them in prison because the bail is too high. In this way, the personal turmoil in the families of the accused is maximized. Also, this is how the government and its partner corporations cast a pall of guilt on the innocent, making them look dark and dangerous on the local evening news.
Over-charging can quickly slide into creative charges that re-write the law. Our American alphabet soup of security, the DHS, NSA, FBI and TSA - is using a new charge on banner-droppers in Oklahoma City. Two activists in the Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance are facing charges on perpetrating a "Bioterrorism Hoax" at the headquarters of extraction giant Devon Energy. This is a strange charge - that we cannot take an action that might excite the morbid imaginations of police. When some cheap glitter shook from one of the banners, the police reasoned that this might be chemical warfare. Stefan Warner and Moriah Stephenson face ten years in prison.
Over-kill is easy when you're Enbridge and Devon Energy, companies whose assets are in the $30 to $45 billion range. Behind the front line of fossil companies are the banks that finance them, such as Bank of America and Chase, HSBC and Royal Bank of Scotland. The fossil-fuel-investing banks are bigger than most countries, with assets measured in the trillions. When these giants look over the shoulders of prosecutors and see someone everyone seems to know, who lives over on Elm Street, standing up to them - was anything more outside their business plan?
Even with the corrupting consultation of Big Oil, much happens in these courtrooms that seems unintended. The efforts to cast these home-made activists as dark assassins often backfires.
Vera Scroggins lives in a heavily hydrofractured area near the town of Montrose, in northeastern Pennsylvania. She has nonviolently but flamboyantly opposed the oil companies, even organizing a rally with Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon. The Cabot Oil and Gas Co., now owns much of property rights in and around Montrose, with a tangle of difficult-to-understand leases and easements, as well mineral rights beneath the homes of long-time citizens. Cabot is so upset with Ms. Scroggins, a 63 year old grandmother, that they persuaded a judge to issue an injunction that forbids her from walking anywhere on the 312 square miles around Montrose that Cabot somehow controls. This puts her under virtual house arrest. After being tailed by police for a few days, she realized that she couldn't figure out where it was legal for her to go. She couldn't walk to the pharmacy or her favorite diner. Scroggins has, surreally, asked the court for a map with legal trails through her own hometown.
The more innocent the protesters, the more terrified the billionaire's men. Grandmother Scroggins showed up in court to face Cabot alone, while the Cabot wall of suits was six lawyers deep. So they made her the exile on Main Street. Do they really believe that will be enough? Doesn't Vera Scroggins resemble the citizen volunteers who showed up early in the civil rights, the peace and gender rights movements? Isn't this entrenched power's historical nightmare - returning again to haunt them? The willingness to risk injury, jail or worse have made "ordinary people" into legendary figures. And these folks have kids and grandkids. What if these citizens really listen to what the scientists are saying, and realize that they nothing to lose but their loved ones - won't this make them the fiercest warriors of all? You can't stop Vera Scroggins, or the Enbridge Three, or the Oklahoma City glitterati. You can't stop the families who over-ran the fracking equipment in West Sussex. You can't stop Bo Webb, the ex-marine in the coal-blasted mountains of West Virginia. You can't stop Idle No More, the natives in Canada and Utah blocking tar sands equipment from their sacred lands. You can't stop the young UK activists who climbed EDF Energy's smokestack and stopped those emissions for a week. You can't stop Grace Cagle from living in the pipeline-blocking treehouse. You can't stop the Zapatistas, the ultimate revolution by nonprofessionals, the families in the mountains of Chiapas, still going strong after twenty years. You can't stop Drew Hutton and the Lock the Gate ranchers in Queensland and New South Wales. You can't stop the Grandmothers Knitting Against Gas; or Wahleah Johns and the Navajo community trying to go solar; or Yvon Raoul in Alberta, playing bagpipes against tar sands; or the Liberate Tate museum-invaders, trying to pry big oil from the prestige of fine arts...
There are too many Vera Scrogginses to chase down, and too many to publicly defame, and too many to lock up. In the coming years, the irresistible force of the changing Earth and the supposedly immoveable object of fossil fuel industry will have a fight to the death. Whatever sort of apocalypse we're in for, the Earth will survive, and in the end I bet that Vera walks where-ever she wants to.