Written by Gregg Brekke
For the Rev. Jim Antal, the irony loomed like the big white blob depicting Hurricane Irene on the national weather map.
“The irony of us doing a two-week-long civil disobedience action at the same time the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial is being dedicated – and the desire of this nation to domesticate Dr. King and pretend that he wasn’t in jail 23 times – that irony is so massive,” said Antal, UCC Massachusetts Conference Minister.
That the dedication planned for Aug. 28 has now been postponed due to the pending arrival of Hurricane Irene does not diminish the irony for Antal, who along with 64 others spent three days and two nights in a Washington, D.C., jail after being arrested Aug. 20 during a Capitol sit-in.
The purpose of the protest was to pressure President Obama to deny the permit for an oil pipeline that would transport Canadian tar sands through the heartland of America to Texas, where it would be processed into oil.
According to NASA climatologist James Hansen, the tar sands would become the second-largest “carbon bomb” to be released into the atmosphere, behind only the oil fields of Saudi Arabia.
"We expected to be arrested and given the opportunity to bail ourselves out that same day," said Antal. “But we were arrested at noon on Saturday and released on Monday at 4:45 p.m.”
The arrests occurred one weekend before the scheduled dedication of the 30-foot-tall granite King memorial statue at the Capitol on Aug. 28 – the 48th anniversary of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Officials say the dedication will be rescheduled for September or October.
“[The police] were so shaken by the prospects of having maybe 100,000 people for the dedication of the King memorial and 100 to 200 people getting arrested, they made an example out of us,” said Antal. “They wanted to send a message to protesters for the next 13 days of planned action that you are running the risk of being in the slammer for three days and two nights.”
Antal, who was arrested twice in the 1970s and ’80s during nuclear protests, said he and fellow protesters thought they would be released the day of the arrest.
“For most of the duration of the arrest, I was kept in a 7-foot-by-5-foot cell with another protester as a cellmate,” said Antal. “They had a stainless steel toilet and sink and stainless steel bunk beds, with no mattress or bedding of any kind. Lights were kept on 24 hours a day, and the temperature hovered in the upper 80s. We were fed only every 12 hours, and the potability of the water was questionable.”
Asked if it his public witness was worth the hardship, Antal said "Yes, unambiguously."
On the morning of Aug. 22, detainees were handcuffed, shackled and transported to a holding pen for the day, where the 45 male protesters were combined with a dozen general-population prisoners. “We were treated like hardened criminals,” said Antal.
The group was released late that afternoon. No fines were imposed.
“However, our belongings were in the custody of the Park Police, and were not available until the next morning,” said Antal. “Even then, we were given the wrong address to retrieve our items.
"It was Kafkaesque. We were peas in a shell game being pushed around, never being told why or for what reason. What little information we were able to get turned out to be inaccurate and misleading."
Twenty years down the road, Antal says Obama’s decision will be reviewed as a critical turning point. “If President Obama says yes to the pipeline, his name will be cursed among the people of the world. If he says no, he will be one of the heroes of human history.”
Antal encourages participation the Sept. 24 global effort titled “Moving Planet” – a worldwide rally to demand solutions to the climate crisis in which participants are invited “to come on bike, on skates, on a board, or just on foot.”
More than 250,000 people, including President Obama, had planned to attend the King memorial dedication.
For further information on the global movement to solve the climate crisis please visit <tarsandaction.org>, <moving-planet.org> or <350.org>.