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Jailed Over Big Oil's Latest Attempt to Kill the Planet

After being arrested protesting the Keystone XL pipeline, activist Bill McKibben shares what he learned.
 
 
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I didn’t think it was possible, but my admiration for Martin Luther King, Jr., grew even stronger these past days.

As I headed to jail as part of the first wave of what is turning into the  biggest civil disobedience action in the environmental movement for many years, I had the vague idea that I would write something. Not an epic like King's “ Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” but at least, you know, a blog post. Or a tweet.

But frankly, I wasn’t up to it. The police, surprised by how many people turned out on the first day of two weeks of protests at the White House, decided to teach us a lesson. As they told our legal team, they wanted to deter anyone else from coming -- and so with our first crew they were… kind of harsh.

We spent three days in D.C.’s Central Cell Block, which is exactly as much fun as it sounds like it might be. You lie on a metal rack with no mattress or bedding and sweat in the high heat; the din is incessant; there’s one baloney sandwich with a cup of water every 12 hours.

I didn’t have a pencil -- they wouldn’t even let me keep my wedding ring -- but more important, I didn’t have the peace of mind to write something. It’s only now, out 12 hours and with a good night’s sleep under my belt, that I’m able to think straight. And so, as I said, I’ll go to this weekend’s big celebrations for the  opening of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial on the Washington Mall with even more respect for his calm power.

Preacher, speaker, writer under fire, but also tactician. He really understood the power of nonviolence, a power we’ve experienced in the last few days. When the police cracked down on us, the publicity it produced cemented two of the main purposes of our protest:

First, it made  Keystone XL -- the new, 1,700-mile-long pipeline we’re trying to block that will vastly increase the flow of “dirty” tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico -- into a national issue. A few months ago, it was mainly people along the route of the prospective pipeline who were organizing against it. (And with good reason: tar sands mining has already wrecked huge swaths of native land in Alberta, and endangers farms, wild areas, and aquifers all along its prospective route.)

Now, however, people are coming to understand -- as we hoped our demonstrations would highlight -- that it poses a danger to the whole planet as well.  After all, it’s the Earth’s second largest pool of carbon, and hence the second-largest potential source of global warming gases after the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. We’ve already plumbed those Saudi deserts.  Now the question is: Will we do the same to the boreal forests of Canada. As NASA climatologist James Hansen has made all too clear, if we do so it’s “essentially game over for the climate.” That message is getting through.  Witness the  incredibly strong  New York Times editorial opposing the building of the pipeline that I was handed on our release from jail.

Second, being arrested in front of the White House helped make it clearer that President Obama should be the focus of anti-pipeline activism. For once Congress isn’t in the picture.  The situation couldn’t be simpler: the president, and the president alone, has the power either to sign the permit that would take the pipeline through the Midwest and down to Texas (with the usual set of disastrous oil spills to come) or block it.

 
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