Arresting Fear with Hope

2 Sep

My mother says I was never afraid of anything as a child.  I would run laughing into huge waves on the beach and climb trees so tall it made my brother dizzy to try and follow.  I am fortunate enough to have a family and personal safety net that means I do not fear the lack of food or a roof over my head.

And yet I live every day with fear, a deeply personal and also political kind of fear that is at the same time a bit laughable in the light of day and devastatingly realistic.  Climate change threatens my future and the people and places I love, and the physics of the atmosphere mean that there is no way to undo the damage we have already caused–all we can do is wait to see what the effects will be.  I find this terrifying, and even more so that our country has been so helpless (and in denial, and backwards, and corrupted) in response to the threat.

I usually deal with this diffuse sense of fear and helplessness in self-consciously quirky ways, like practicing survival skills and learning first aid, navigation, and other useful post-apocalyptic strategies.  I also try not to think about it too much if I don’t have to.  Last night, however, I did think about it, and I talked about my fear.

Aerial photo of open pit bitumen (tar sands) mining in Alberta, Canada, by photographer Louis Helbig.

At Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC, over one hundred people gathered for a four-hour peaceful action training to prepare for a demonstration the next day.  We had come from all over the nation: California, Texas, Colorado, Massachusetts, Nebraska, West Virginia, even Alaska.  Some were from DC, of course, but it was astonishing how many had come from so far away.  They had come for one purpose: to protest the Keystone XL pipeline and the increased tar sands mining and burning it will facilitate.

As we role-played, filled out legal forms, and committed ourselves to nonviolence for the next day’s protest action and risk of arrest in front of the White House, I spoke with my “jail buddy,” Kathy.  Kathy had come from Texas with her husband after an illegally placed natural gas pipeline blew a leak under her property and destroyed the creek her children had grown up playing in.  She and Steve were disgusted with how unethically and illegally the gas company had behaved and were horrified to learn that the 36″ wide Keystone pipeline was slated to run through the middle of their county, carrying corrosive bitumen fuel from Alberta’s tar sands.  Neither of them had ever risked arrest before.  Neither had I.

One of the most affecting signs at this morning's action.

As we spoke together about why we were there that night, I found myself crying.  So many of us had come from so far to risk arrest and get the President’s attention.  Obama and the State Department have sole approval power over this enormous pipeline project–it does not require a congressional vote.  We were there to learn how to peacefully tell the President how much this matters, to “use our bodies as collateral” in the words of Bill McKibben.  We came there to testify about the impact of tar sands and bitumen transport on frontline communities, and to share our vision for a future without tar sands.

I thought and spoke about what I am really scared of.  I am afraid that rising average temperatures, loss of clean water, and rising sea levels will exacerbate hunger and conflict around the world.  I am afraid desperate people will commit desperate acts and that the increasing resource pressure of an overpopulated planet will mean that my parents’ generation’s standard of living will be just a dream when my future children are grown.  I am afraid that storm surges and more powerful hurricanes, combined with saltwater penetration of the aquifer, will destroy the beautiful place I still call home–Miami, Florida.  I am afraid of losing the beauty of familiar species and the mystery of rare ones.  I am afraid for the health of the oceans, our planet’s lungs.

Getting arrested at the White House during a sit-in in protest of the Keystone XL pipeline

And when I let myself think about all this too hard, I get angry.  Last night I was sad and angry–and today, I was ready.  And hopeful.  I stood in front of the White House and protested peacefully, chanting and singing.  Maude Barlow spoke to us about the risk the pipeline poses to water supplies from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, including the vast Ogallala aquifer which it will traverse for much of its path.  Hundreds of supporters who could not risk arrest demonstrated nearby in Lafayette Square, buoying us with their voices and applause.

I disobeyed police orders to move and was arrested, along with 110 others on that day and over 700 over the course of eleven days so far.  The day was bright, clear, and hot.  The industrial strength zip ties cut into my wrists and my shoulders ached as I waited on the bus to be processed.  But the police were respectful and even friendly, doing their jobs and taking their part in the action, too.  I was processed and released after two uncomfortable hours.

One protestor said to a SWAT member, “I appreciate what you do.”  He looked at her and responded, “I appreciate what you do.”

It’s good to appreciate and it’s good to find even a small glimmer of hope.

111 demonstrators were arrested today in front of the White House, and many more joined us in solidarity.

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3 Responses to “Arresting Fear with Hope”

  1. Michael September 7, 2011 at 6:37 pm #

    Eliza, Michael Parks of FES here. This is really beautiful. Would you be interested in contributing something about this to Sage this year? Aaron Reuben and I running it and are launching a website, among other projects; maybe you could even kind of cover the issue as it goes forward? We could talk about anything, but this is incredible. Thanks so much for being there.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. “Arresting Fear With Hope” Published in SAGE Magazine! « Eliza F. Cava - October 14, 2011

    […] the link: Arresting Fear with Hope: Protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline.  If you’ve read my essay published earlier on this blog you won’t notice many differences, but check out the wonderful […]

  2. This is what a victory looks like! « Eliza F. Cava - November 17, 2011

    […] have been an environmentalist for my whole life, but I’ve only become an activist this year. Bill McKibben and Gus Speth inspired me to dive headfirst into the Tar Sands Action […]

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