Written by Gregg Brekke
The Rev. Jim Antal, the UCC's Massachusetts Conference Minister, was one of 65 people from across the US and Canada arrested at the White House Aug. 20, 2011, the first day of a two-week sit-in aimed at pressuring President Obama to deny the permit for a massive new oil pipeline. Over 2,000 more people are expected to participate in the “Tar Sand Action” by joining in daily acts of civil disobedience through Sept. 3.
In what activists call “the largest environmental test for President Obama before the 2012 election,” the president is to decide if he will grant a Canadian company a permit to build the 1,700-mile “Keystone XL” pipeline from the Alberta tar sands to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico.
Environmentalists warn that the pipeline could cause a BP-like disaster in America’s heartland, over the largest source of fresh drinking water in the country. The world’s top climatologist, Dr. James Hansen, has warned that if the Canadian tar sands are fully developed it could be “game over” for the climate.
“It’s not the easiest thing on earth for law-abiding folk to come risk arrest. But this pipeline has emerged as the single clear test of the president’s willingness to fight for the environment,” said environmentalist and author Bill McKibben.
Joining Antal in civil disobedience, McKibben was among those arrested, along with the co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and former White House official Gus Speth, gay rights activist Lt. Dan Choi, author and activist Mike Tidwell, Firedoglake founder Jane Hamsher, and many others.
The protest began with a small rally in Lafeyette Park, where participants listened to McKibben address the crowd and prepared themselves for what would likely be an afternoon in jail. At about 11:00 AM, the group formed two lines and marched to the White House fence to the applause of onlookers. A group of participants lined the fence, holding two large banners that read “Climate Change is Not in Our National Interest: Stop the Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline” and “We Sit In Against the Keystone XL Pipeline. Obama Will You Stand Up to Big Oil?”
Within a few minutes, police issued warnings to clear the area. Police then began arresting those who refused to leave.
Forty-five of those arrested Saturday, including Antal, and another 50 protestors arrested Sunday, were held over the weekend by District of Columbia police pending a hearing and potential sentencing or fines Monday.
The Rev. Maria Castellanos, the UCC’s policy advocate for domestic issues, called the two-day detention of these protestors “unusual.”
“The police generally arrest protestors and release them the same day,” she said. “I’ve never heard of the police holding peaceful protestors so long.”
Antal did not comment from jail but Speth relayed a statement through his wife encouraging continued protest of the pipeline. “We the prisoners being held in the Central Cell Block
of the D.C. jail need company and encourage the continuation of the protests
against the tar sands pipeline,” he said. “Help us stop this disastrous
proposal! I’ve held numerous positions and public office in Washington but my
current position feels like one of the most important.”
Prior to his arrest, Antal wrote an opinion article about the ecological consequences of the pipeline in which he said, “As the first generation to foresee and the final generation with an opportunity to forestall the most catastrophic effects of global warming, this is the time. Now is the moment.”