Letter from the Tar Sands Protests

Nancy Romer Aug 28, 2011

I spent 53 hours in Washington, DC lock up after being arrested for participating in a nonviolent civil disobedience action at the White House on the morning of Aug. 20. Sixty-five of us sat in front of the White House protesting the Keystone XL Pipeline that President Obama alone has the ability to approve or stop.

You see, the Keystone XL Pipeline will carry crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada through the United States and to the Gulf of Mexico, destroying farmlands, watersheds and indigenous lands. On top of that, it’s probably the dirtiest oil in the world: whole forests are being leveled to access the sands and vast quantities of water and carbon-spewing natural gas are needed to process the tar, all of which are dramatically compounding climate change.

Read all about the issue, the demonstration and watch a video produced by Amy Goodman of Democracy Now!

After we were arrested on Saturday morning, handcuffed, put into a paddy wagon, brought to the U.S. Park Service jail, processed and fingerprinted, we were dumped into a tiny cell with about 20 other women. Shortly thereafter six of the women, all from the D.C. area, were sent home. The rest of us were considered a “flight risk.”

We were handcuffed again, packed in another paddy wagon and shipped to the D.C. women’s lock-up. There were 14 women, all white, ranging in age from 19 to 65 from 14 different states. We were put into a cell with one Latina and five Black women, held on a range of domestic violence charges. For almost two days, the 20 of us stayed in a 15’ x 35’ cell with no bedding or beds whatsoever, just a cement floor, a toilet, florescent lights permanently on, and bone-chilling temperatures. Most of the protesters, me included, were dressed in sundresses or shorts because of the hot weather during the sit-in. To sleep, we would lay on the cold floor, shivering and occasionally pass out for a few minutes from sheer exhaustion. I got perhaps two or three hours of sleep during the 53 hours we were jailed.

Every 12 hours we were served processed cheese sandwiches on white bread plus water (and twice terrible tasting fruit punch) but the silver lining was that the sandwiches were packaged in plastic wrap and we used that to insulate our bare arms and legs. On Sunday afternoon, some additional clothing was brought to us by loved ones and we shared the few warmer clothes we got with the 20 women. Nonetheless, we froze the second night as well.

From the beginning, we protesters used our collective organizing skills to keep up our spirits, exercise and have as much fun as possible. We did frequent yoga and pilates sessions, played lots of different games, told stories, shared personal information, especially how we got involved politically, how we fell in love, and lots of silly stuff as well. We kept busy, chose a representative to consult with our (volunteer) lawyer and kept watch over each other, caring for those who were ill (one protester had a migraine requiring a trip to the hospital) or scared.

The non-protesting women commented on how great the experience was and how afraid they had been of being locked up. One of the local D.C. women was shocked that none of us had met prior to the arrest because we worked so well together and shared so much in common. What she was observing was activist culture in action. It was a white version thereof but I am quite sure that women of color activists would find all of this very familiar as well. The race difference—all the protesters were white and all of the other women, both in our cell and later at the court lockup, were women of color — was predictable and shameful. I know that I went into the situation with all of my privileges in hand: race, age, class. I didn’t worry much about my personal safety whereas my sister inmates of color had every reason to fear for their safety at the hands of a racist system and guards who might take advantage of their vulnerability. But even with those privileges, it was pretty hair-raising for me.

At 7 am on Monday morning, we were again handcuffed, put in a paddy wagon and driven to the DC criminal court house, shackled as soon as we got there and put into another holding cell with other women. The noise from women in the other cells and the clanking of cell doors and keys was deafening and rattling. We worried that we’d be kept yet another day. Again the cold was intolerable but this time we had metal benches to sit on, much warmer than cement. We exchanged info on our favorite environmental books and films and strategized about how to conduct ourselves in court and consult with legal counsel.

At 4:30 pm Monday we were released and told to leave, charges were dropped. We hugged and kissed, walked out (shackles finally removed), saw the 40 men in lockup and heard them cheer us as we left, went into the building and were met by the support team ready with food and drink. There were lots of cheers and hugs, very little corporate media though lots of alternative media. (The NY Times did have an editorial on Sunday, Aug. 21 opposing the Keystone XL Pipeline.) The men had it rougher, if warmer. They were separated into two-person cells with almost no visibility other than a slot. They had trouble communicating much between cells. The bunk beds were metal with no mattress and the top bunks were so close to the ceiling and the fluorescent lights that it was difficult to stay up there much less rest. The cells lacked air conditioning so they sweltered in the heat and humidity. What’s more, they were denied the possibility of camaraderie that we women so enjoyed.

All of us felt it was worth it to step out and declare our opposition to policies that are killing our planet. We all felt that we contributed what we could to call out to our people and ask them to join us, to risk arrest, to give of themselves in any way they can to dial down the climate change that threatens our lives and especially the lives of our children and grandchildren.

Before the sit-in, my husband Lew and I visited our 20-month-old grandson and our son and daughter-in-law who live near D.C. He has a wonderful life and is being raised with an enormous amount of love and care. He is a happy boy, laughing and smiling his way through each day. Seeing him helped strengthen my resolve. I cannot stand by and watch our planet deteriorate without being part of a movement of resistance and, hopefully, change.

Mostly I work on food democracy issues though the Brooklyn Food Coalition, including the non-sustainability of our present food system (which currently account for one-third of all greenhouse gases — more than personal transportation). The issue of the tar sands oil that would be transported by the Keystone XL Pipeline ignited my interest and determination because I wanted to see the environmental movement become more militant, involve more people and stand up to the oil, gas and coal industry. We need a “Manhattan Project” to develop sustainable, renewable energy sources. We need to cut down on energy usage, not create yet another source of carbon-producing energy. We need a population that stands up to the corporations and their puppets in the White House, Congress, the cities and states, and demands we invest in renewable energy and slow down the rate of climate change. Please go to and read more about the issue. And please also read the New York Times editorial on tar sands.

The demonstrations are still going on in D.C. and will culminate in a big protest on Sept. 3. Please consider coming down to participate in the sit-ins or the Sept. 3 demonstration. While those of us who protested on the first day of the action, Aug. 20, were detained for more than two days – we were told repeatedly by the prison guards that it was at the request of “people VERY high up” – all other protesters were detained for less than 8 hours and released the same day.

The plan is to have the largest rolling sit-in on the environment in history. If you can’t come down, please follow the issue and tell your friends. Do it for yourself and those you love and all those who will come after us. It feels great to step out and voice your resistance. The planet cannot wait for us to summon up the courage. We need to do it now. Thanks for reading this.

And finally, please consider making a contribution to Tar Sands Action or join the Brooklyn Food Coalition, both of which are fighting against climate change.

With love for the present and the future.

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