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The Shameful Truth: Compliance or Democracy

image Author's Husband Getting Arrested, with Josh Fox in the Background; Photo by Shadia Fayne Wood http://www.flickr.com/photos/tarsandsaction/

Government power, the oppression of a people, and the destruction of land, are all endorsed by compliance.

"Cowardice asks the question, is it safe? Expediency asks the question is it politics, vanity asks the question is it popular, conscience asks the question is it right? There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because his conscience tells him it is right." [Martin Luther King, Jr.]

I was born into women of protest. My grandmother spent endless hours writing letters and working in committees for social change. My mother took me to protest for Equal Rights for women when I was not yet wearing a bra. She now spends most of her free time on action committees, environment committees, at anti-fracking hearings and protests, and writing editorials about our nation’s detrimental actions to the earth. This includes the tar sands which I first learned about from her. 

If you think your children do not follow in your footsteps – when taught to do right, think again. There is a moral obligation that comes to us one day, from a voice that has been singing out our whole life. Finally, it is this voice that becomes louder than those who say ‘there is nothing we can do.’

So, on September 1st, I sat on the sidewalk in front of the White House protesting one of the biggest environmental debacles in history: the Tar Sands oil extraction and the Tar Sands pipeline through the United States. (To give one example – it spews 36 million tons of carbon dioxide into the air per day). Perhaps because of the enormity of the issue, people decided to protest in a ten day act of civil disobedience, the idea of civil disobedience being that you risk arrest by peacefully and non-violently breaking the law to show that you are not in compliance with the powers that be and that you are demanding change.

The law we were breaking was obstruction of the sidewalk. It is, in fact, illegal to obstruct traffic on a sidewalk. So, we sat. Still and silent while the policeman rang into his megaphone our three warnings before he declared that the hundred and thirty of us were under arrest (on this particular day – the total number after ten days came to 1,253!). At that point, we were not allowed to cross back over the police line while the police handcuffed us one by one with thick, hard, "plastic cuffs" and led us through processing in a small white tent before being loaded into a bus or paddy wagon in my case – where we were held and transported to the jail before being processed again several hours later. Some of us had a couple hours on the pavement before being handcuffed and others longer, so as the individual arrests began, we began to sing... 

"This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine, Oh, this little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine..." 

Then we sang, "We shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome, we shall overcome someday...oh, deep in my heart, I do believe that, we shall overcome someday..."

And, yes, we sang, "this land is your land, this land is my land..."

I must note, as a credit also to the organizers of the protest who stressed the CIVIL in the civil disobedience, that the federal park police in Washington DC were respectful and almost gracious in the manner in which they carried out their arrests. While the heat without water or bathrooms for the better part of a day was not comfortable, the hands cuffed behind the back became painful, and the locked and gated-in small portions of the paddy wagon that we spent hours in because of the numerous arrests and processing leant its way to claustrophobia by the most fluid personality, we were going to jail and we were meant to experience some discomfort. But the police did not contribute to or enhance that discomfort, nor did they treat us with any indignity or cruelty. I found, to the contrary, they were, almost, kind.  

I will say that this called to mind my new heroes who sat in civil disobedience together before me. Those who were clubbed and beaten and did not fight back. Those who spent days and weeks in jail for protesting. Those who truly changed the course of history by sacrificing with great discomfort and, often, danger to themselves. Those before us who were often beaten and clubbed were not treated with respect or anything resembling the thoughtfulness with which my too-tight cuffs were put my wrists. "I need to make them tight so you can not get out, but I will try not to make them too tight...here I will put a finger in them as I close them to be sure," then the police officer spent at least a minute trying to get my beaded Santeria bracelet out from the cuffs. "Oh, let’s see if I can get this out...," and he eventually succeeded.  

Though the other cuff turned out to be so tight that my thumb was numb after the first hour, it helped that he had been so gentle in a true act of humanity. It also made me think about those, on this day and especially in our past, who were not cuffed with care and regard to the beaded bracelet on their wrists, and the pain that must have come, in numbness, caught flesh, and twisted shoulders and elbows. 

Government power, the oppression of a people, and the destruction of land, are all endorsed by compliance.

The beauty of this action and putting oneself on the line is that it is an action that must be acknowledged by the system simply because it can not be ignored.

My husband’s favorite chant of the day was "[a support group called out] Show me what Democracy looks like! [Our sitting group answered] This is what Democracy looks like!"

Because it was just that: It was democracy at its finest. It was people lovingly screaming out to be heard. It was a way of saying "yes we can" to the man who might have forgotten his own words and speeches and resolve.

Until September 1st, I have been complying with the administration which I have been speaking out against. If you have read any of my columns, you know about my disappointment and disillusionment with the "Man of Change." Thus far he has been conciliatory to the point of participation with corporations, destroyers of the environment, nuclear weapons manufacturers, war profiteers and antagonists to his health care bill. In most of these things he has been participative to the point of support, far exceeding acquiescence.

That is the shameful truth...

I watch him as our elected "leader," someone we stood behind and for whom we practiced our voting rights because we believed in him as a representation of democracy. He turned out to be neither a leader nor an instrument of change, and some of us who believed in democratic change have become forlorn. But some of us have also become angry. Angry enough to do something that can not be ignored.

There are those who still make excuses for Obama, that he does not have the power to forge the change he hoped. This is forgiving, but inaccurate. Even the day after my action, on September 2nd, he overruled the EPA’s plan to enforce smog emissions and reduction of ground-level ozone.

Now Obama is about to face one of his biggest tests yet. He alone has the power to deny a presidential permit for the Keystone Tar Sands pipeline in the U.S. It is ruining the earth – both the ecosystems, lands and water of native peoples and creating the highest carbon emissions of any oil processing. TransCanada- responsible for building the Keystone pipeline- claims their pipelines to be the safest in the world, yet their last pipeline had twelve leaks in the first year. This proposed pipeline will cross 1,904 waterways in the U.S., including the Ogallala aquifer – the largest source for fresh water in the U.S. 

I urge you all to participate in this protest, to call the President, 202-456-1111, fax the president, 202-456-2461, or to sit in front of his steps. But no matter what you do or do not do, I urge you to understand that there is a time when each of us must sit down in action so that we can not be ignored.

For I now understand much more clearly what non-violent protest means as "... a powerful and just weapon which cuts without wounding & ennobles the man who wields it... a sword that heals." (Martin Luther King, Jr.) 

ld napier

Please see this short video by Josh Fox, Academy Nominated filmmaker of "Gasland," to understand the true devastation being created by the biggest industrial disaster ever.

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