Swatties arrested at D.C. mass sit-in

People from all over the U.S. and Canada rallied in Washington D.C. from August 20 to September 3 to protest the proposed project, the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, to be built from Alberta, Canada to Oklahoma. (Courtesy of transcend.ws) 


Earlier this month, a group of six Swarthmore students took a two-day trip to Washington D.C. to participate in one of the largest acts of civil disobedience in decades. Over two weeks of protests that lasted from August 20 to September 3, a total of 1253 people were arrested as part of a movement to stop the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline from being constructed, according to tarsandsaction.org. The proposed project calls for a 1,661 mile crude oil pipeline that would run from Alberta, Canada to Oklahoma.

The group of Swarthmore students who went to D.C. to participate attended the last day of the two-week long protests. They represented six of the 244 people arrested that day for participating in the action.

“Our getting arrested in and of itself didn’t mean so much, but the idea is that over 1,000 were willing and able to come and pay the fine and be arrested,” Rachel Giovanniello ’14, one of the students who went, said. “Hopefully Obama and other people in the White House would see these people standing in front of their homes for the full two weeks and be moved by [them].”

The group from Swarthmore arrived the night before their day of arrest, and lodged in a church that was open for protesters to stay in for only four dollars a night. The church also hosted a training before the next day’s event, informing protesters more about the issue and giving those who wanted to risk arrest information about how they should behave.

The next day, protesters assembled in Lafayette Park across the street from the White House. Holding banners, they walked in single file lines across the street and then sat down right in front of the White House. Shortly thereafter, police came and delivered two warnings to the tar sands protesters. “After the second warning, those who did not want to fully risk arrest left,” Pat Walsh ’14, another Swarthmore student at the action, said. After the warnings, all remaining protesters sitting in front of the White House were formally placed under arrest. According to Ali Roseberry-Polier ’14, another of the Swarthmore students who attended, these arrests began at 11:30 a.m., approximately half an hour after the protesters arrived.

The police did not finish arresting all 244 people until after 3 p.m. that afternoon, three and a half hours later. “We had to just wait around. Then the SWAT team came up to us and told us to turn around. Then they put [zip tie] handcuffs on us and we were taken away,” Walsh recalled.

Arrested persons were put into either paddy wagons or even a metro bus and were taken to a nearby police facility to be processed. Processing took about two hours, after which each person paid a $100 fine and then was released. According to Roseberry-Polier, their charge was a traffic violation, the repercussions of which are “about the same as a speeding ticket.”

The arrest process was highly civil and orderly, according to those who went. The organizers of the action had made arrangements with the police beforehand to ensure that the arrests could be done quickly and without incident.

Walsh emphasized that the importance of the arrests was its symbolic nature. “It’s showing that these people are willing to give up the privilege they had and give up part of their day to get arrested,” he said.

Some of the most valuable experiences taken away from the rally for those who went were conversations with the other people protesting there. “We had so many great conversations: on the sidewalk waiting to get arrested, in the paddy wagons on the way to the facility, and then waiting outside the jail afterwards waiting for the rest of our friends to be released,” Roseberry-Polier recalled.

Walsh and Giovanniello found that meeting people from communities that would be affected by the pipeline was a powerful experience. Learning the stories of groups that came to D.C. from places such as Nebraska, North Dakota, and indigenous communities in Canada really revealed the scope of the project’s effects.

The students felt privileged that they were able to be a part of the tar sands action. “It was a great opportunity because we had the ability to go down in the van and to take time out of our weekend to go and be there,” Walsh said.

Giovanniello agreed. “The [action’s] show of solidarity is sort of a turn I hope the environmental movement will start to take. People [were] coming together to recognize how these issues affect all of us even though only certain communities are affected . . . [and were] really taking time to learn about the people who are hurt by the things that are happening and not just the earth . . . I think it’s important that the environmental movement start to care more about that,” she said.

Now, these students are planning more trips to go protest in D.C. They will be attending another action put together by the same organizers over fall break, and are planning to return for another large event in November.

“I’m really excited because this wasn’t just something that I did in September. I’m going to be going back to D.C. twice over the next six weeks because the people who organized this one protest is organizing a larger campaign to make sure the pipeline doesn’t get built,” Roseberry-Polier said.

The group remains hopeful that their participation in this action will help yield political results. “We don’t know what the consequences of what all of us being arrested will be, but hopefully it will affect Obama’s decision,” Giovaniello said.

Anyone interested in learning more about the issue of the tar sands pipeline or about upcoming political actions regarding it should e-mail Ali Roseberry-Polier at arosebe1@swarthmore.edu.

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