When Grandma Was Arrested
By Ann Christenson
When Grandma was arrested, the earth shook. Well, actually Grandma and Grandpa and a number of others. And maybe we weren’t responsible for the August 23 earthquake that rattled the East Coast. But we were trying to shake up this Administration.
My husband and I joined 2,100 other protesters in a wave of daily civil disobedience scheduled from August 20 through September 3, demonstrating our opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline. Some 60 dedicated environmentalists on our day joined in front of the White House to call President Obama to account. He alone has the final say on this issue. We knew an arrest was in the cards.
The proposed pipeline would transmit one of the world’s dirtiest fuels, tar sands oil, from Alberta, Canada, to Texas. It would run across six U.S. states, many waterways, including the Missouri, Yellowstone, and Red Rivers, and the Ogallala Aquifer, a source of drinking water for two million people and irrigation water for many of our nation’s farms.
It takes three barrels of water to extract each single barrel of oil, currently roughly 400 million gallons of water a day. Ninety percent of this polluted water is dumped into large “tailing ponds,” after it’s used. Communities living downstream from tailing ponds have seen spikes in rates of rare cancers, renal failure, lupus, and hyperthyroidism.
My husband and I feel that potable water is more important to the future than oil. Our grandchildren won’t be able to drink oil. No matter how much energy or how many jobs this pipeline would produce, without unpolluted drinking water, untainted agricultural lands and pure air, all is for naught.
When the call went out from writer and environmentalist Bill McKibben and his Tar Sands Action committee for protesters at the White House, we felt we could no longer be bystanders to the unrelenting devastation of Mother Earth and so we traveled to D.C. from our home in Iowa. We had participated in an Awakening the Dreamer seminar led by a Sister of Mercy. We write letters and sign petitions. But while these actions are important, they simply aren’t enough.
When we volunteered, we were asked to allow three days in D.C.: one for training, one for the actual protest and the third to deal with any legal issues. Our trainers were thorough, supportive, and well organized. They allayed fears and nervousness, told us what to expect, asked us to dress as well as possible, and to stand with dignity at all times. We were to remove all jewelry, even wedding rings (not easy after 42 years), bring no phones, laptops or electronics. We were told to get a good night’s sleep, eat a good breakfast and report to Lafayette Park at 10 a.m. the next day.
August 23 dawned bright and clear. A sense of camaraderie pervaded the gathering. Our trainers had become cheerleaders. The media were out in force. As were the police, including a SWAT team.
Bill McKibben, recently released from three days in jail stemming from his protest on the first day, gave a pep talk and thanked us all for our support. We assembled in two long lines and marched to the sidewalk in front of the White House, where we were to stand in dignity awaiting arrest. Picketing the White House is permissible as long as the protester keeps moving; a sit-in is illegal.
After three formal warnings from police, the arrests began, women first. With hands behind our backs, we were handcuffed, asked for our IDs, frisked, numbered and loaded into a paddy wagon. Wagon full, we were hauled to jail, accompanied by a police escort, sirens wailing.
At the jail in Anacostia, across the Potomac from D.C., we were put in a holding cell. One by one, we were again searched and patted down, this time much more thoroughly—in bras, between legs, front and back—and taken through to an officer who took down our personal information. We were given the option to pay a $100 fine or spend the night in jail. Most, if not all, paid the fine.
As intimidation, Bill McKibben and the first day protesters were not given this option but incarcerated for two nights. It didn’t work. Protesters kept coming, dozens everyday.
As we were released, supporters with welcome refreshments greeted us. By now it was almost 2 p.m. and there had been no lunchtime. There was, however, an earthquake as we joined our comrades.
The next morning we returned to LaFayette Square, as many of our fellow arrestees did, to support the next group of protesters. Then, with a few free hours before our train home, we had time to visit the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. It seemed an appropriate closure to our civil disobedience.
Ann is a friend of the Sisters of Mercy and participated in Awakening the Dreamer.