The Break Free (From Fossil Fuels) action in Anacortes Washington was part of a coordinated global ‘week’ of 30 actions across a dozen countries. You can read about some of them here.
The Pacific Northwest Action spanned 4 days from May 12th through the 15th and included trainings, workshops, events such as speakers and meals, a lot of beautiful art making, 3 marches, kayaks on the water and a railroad track blockade that lasted 2 days. All together an estimated 2500 people participated in various aspects of the action.
I found the whole event uplifting and nourishing.
Many of the people who participated stayed in the Deception Pass campground. Others stayed in hotels or were hosted by local people. The landscape around the campground is gorgeous. Going up to the campground from Anacortes there is a bridge to cross. The view of the water and islands from that bridge is spectacular.
I arrived the night of Thursday the 12th to be ready for the events starting the next morning. In the campground was the central organizing hub. There was an info tent and a legal tent where volunteers helped the new arrivals get their bearings. During the day and throughout the weekend there were “Know Your Rights” trainings, legal brieflings for the people who would be risking arrest, and general and working group meetings along with lots of art being made.
Kayaks on the Water
Friday late afternoon I went to take some photos in downtown Anacortes harbor as something like 75 kayakers (plus a few canoes) were preparing to go out on the water. Each Kayak had an illuminated globe attached to a vertical pole on the back of the Kayak.
The Kayaks went out into the sound, illuminated by the laterns. The looked beautiful out on the water and it was a sharp contrast with the refineries in the background with their ceaseless belching of smoke and smell. The entire weekend, the smell of the refineries was everywhere. Every action I attened was accompanied by the acrid fragrance.
The kayaks had boards with LED lights. Each board held a letter. The kayakers lined up and spelled out a couple statements. One was “100% RENEWABLE ENERGY NOW” and the second was “ENERGY WITHOUT INJURY”. Kayakers were out on the water all 3 days of the event. They were prepared to blockade any ships that arrived. However, the refineries had rescheduled any ships that had been due to arrive.
Blockade of the Tracks
Friday evening as I was photographing the kayaks, the message came that a blockade had just been set up on the railroad tracks just east of the big Shell and Tesoro refineries on March Point. Oil trains are one of the 3 ways crude oil is delivered and refined products are shipped out. With the bloackade in place, no oil trains could arrive or leave. When I arrived at the tracks there was a van, painted like an Orca Whale, blocking the tracks. Inside was one person who was locked down through the floor of the van to another person who was on the ground under the van.
Near the van and sitting in the tracks were a cadre of grandmothers in chairs and bundled up in the chilly evening air. Farther along were a few dozens tents, scaffolding with ‘batman’ sitting inside and a big banner reading “Coal, Oil, Gas – None Shall Pass”. What a beautiful site the blockade was! There were a couple hundred people on the tracks and the spirits were high. Some were quiet with solemn expressions, some were laughing or being playful with friends, some were busy organizing logistical stuff like food etc.
Break Free was a diverse action… from the blockade of the tracks, to boisterous marches, beautiful art on both land and water. There was action, education, contemplation, music, joy, anger and sorrow. There were children laughing and a 93 year old grandmother camped on the tracks. It is not easy to pigeon-hole the climate movement into a single stereotype and that is one of our strengths.
I talked to one local person who came out to support the blockade. She said many locals had the idea that black clad activists were coming to throw rocks through windows. Ironic considering that just about everything but that showed up… including a goat.
The blockade was maintained for 36 hours. It was in the early morning light on Sunday that the police closed off the access road and gave people the choice to leave or be arrested. By 7:30 am 52 people had been arrested and shortly after the tracks were cleared.
On Saturday the 14th was the Indigeous March, rally and water blessing. About 1500 people attended. Along the march, various Indigenous leaders spoke through a wireless mic to a PA system on the back of a pickup so it could be heard. I personally appreciate the messages spoken by the various native representatives. The language reflects the still existing connection to place and nature. It is an important message for the broader society where many people are more connected to their cell phones than to the land and the community of creatures that live on it.
Some of the native speakers also spoke about struggles against corporate predation and the fossil fuel indistry happening in other parts of the country. These connections are important because whatever aspect of social justice different individuals and groups work on, we are truly in this together.
The march arrrived at the rally point where the marchers, a couple hundred kayakers and tribal members gathered. Diane Vendiola a Swinomish Elder greeted everyone “I want to welcome you all today to unceded Swinomish territory right here. The key work there is UNCEDED. That means it was taken. With that, as long as we understand what’s happening, I’m proud to see all my people, all my relatives here…”
Representatives from other native peoples were honored. Then the people who wanted to participate in the water ceremony gathered at the shore and the blessing was made.
A wooden canoe approached the shore. It carried 13 people from the Lummi nation. It circled once and then came close to shore. The Lummi sang a song, asking permission to come ashore in Swinomish land. Then they were formally granted permission to come ashore. The Lummi climbed out of the canoe which was about 25 feet long. Everyone was asked to help carry it up to where the people was gathered.
Swinomish leaders invited the Lummi ashore with celebration because the Lummi nation had just defeated a proposal for the Cherry Point coal terminal, which would have been the largest coal export facility in the U.S. It felt meaningful to be able to congratulate the group of Lummi in person. How powerful to be standing at the site of a monster of a refinery — a thing we hope to close down — and invite to the site those who have just protected their land from a similar facility. We invited the possible to us with loud cheers.
In the evening was a salmon dinner for all.
Reflections on the Climate
The climate news these days is shocking. The word shocking does not communicate the utter calamity we are facing. A city of 100,000 in Canada recently had to be entirely evacuated and thousands of buildings were destroyed by a massive and unprecedented wildfire that is still burning out of control and may do so for months. The current heatwave in India and Pakistan has approached a wetbulb temperature of 35°C – a measure that combines temperature and humidity and at which most humans cannot survive more than a few hours of exposure. Drought is the new reality in many areas of the world including California and the Southwest. Lake Mead has hit an all time low. The water level has dropped 130 feet in 15 years. Another 15 years of such drought –which is likely because this is no longer drought but rather the new baseline reality — and many of the 2 million residents of Las Vegas will be leaving as climate refugees due to lack of water.
These are only a few of the worldwide effects of climate change that are happening right this moment. Not a month or two goes by these days without new weather/climate events that can be described as apocalyptic (without exaggerating). Just a decade ago, much of what is currently happening was predicted for 40-80 years from now. Climate change has accelerated and is happening faster than the science can keep up with. Arctic sea ice has shattered the record low for this time of year and 2016 could well be the first blue ocean event (ice free summer) since before humans walked the earth.
Most of this news and information remains un-reported or under reported and without the context of human driven climate change. There is very little social discussion on the subject. Daily life goes on business as usual in a deep state of denial yet business as usual means the end of organized human society as we know it.
As I’m writing this article, I am sitting in a local cafe. Many of the people have laptops and I look at the screens and briefly listen in on various conversations, and it is so obvious we are collectively sleepwalking while the environment we live is well on its way to becoming uninhabitable for organized human society.
It is in this context that I found the Break Free event uplifting and nourishing. It is satisfying to be out there, working with people who are also trying to do something on behalf of the climate and social justice, who are willing to talk about how dire the circumstances are, who can admit that they are shaken, disturbed and afraid. It is a relief to stand shoulder to shoulder with people who have the courage to face the truth rather than pretend everything is fine while a deep unease gnaws at their guts.
Saturday at dusk, after the salmon dinner, the Luminary March took place… slowly weaving through downtown Anacortes were about 75 people carrying illuminated globes and glowing silk salmon swimming in the air. The march was led by a native musician, Paul Cheoketen Wagner, who played a wooden flute. His music was timeless, haunting and beautiful. The march was calm and meditative with the amplified flute music never ceasing.
Since this march was in downtown Anacortes, it was the most visible event of the weekend for the people living in Anacortes. With the music audible for blocks and with the police escort, it attracted a lot of attention. It was far from those local imaginings of who was coming to Break Free.
Sunday March and Sit-In
Sunday was planned as a day of action. The morning was bittersweet as the news that the blockade had been broken and 52 people arrested spread to everyone. Bitter knowing that the blockade was gone, but sweet knowing that business as usual had been interrupted for 2 days.
With the blockade gone, people gathered to come up with a new plan of action. It was decided to go to March Point (which is suitably named) and march to the entrance of the Shell refinery. If possible, to occupy the tracks, and if not, do a sit-in at the entrance.
About 100 people gathered at the park-n-ride. There, everyone put on white “hazard” suits that had been given green X’s on them to represent the thin green line of resistance to the massive expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure that has been planned in the Pacific Northwest over the past few years. From there everyone marched with arms locked past the road closed signs and towards the entrance of the refinery. The chants were loud and vigorous. Approaching the refinery, the police had put up a barricade and there was a row of riot police, some with guns in hand.
It is such a contrast. A bunch of unarmed and peaceful but serious and concerned world citizens facing a row of militarized riot police with their faces covered and no name badges on their armored uniforms. The police are there serving monied interests. I doubt that it ever even occurs to the owners of the refineries to come out and talk honestly with people. The crisis we face will spare no person including those owners and the army of enforcers who serve them.
The police should be marching and so should the workers in the refineries. We are all dependent on a healthy planet. None of us can live without clean water, forests to make oxygen, and a climate where we can grow food. Well, all those people are still acting as if doing their job will somehow keep them safe. Eventually that lie will be broken.
Everyone sat down at the barricade. There were some songs and a few people spoke. Then the march continued up the road towards the Tesoro refinery. The march walked out across the water a ways to meet up with a contigent of kayakers. However, the wind was so heavy that the kayakers were still far in the distance and not making any visible headway.
The police had blocked the road from there so again, everyone sat down at a police line. There was some great music (wish I had a recording) and some powerful speakers on the subject of climate justice. The police, communicating through the police liaison, informed everyone that they were not going to arrest anyone, no matter how long they sat there. Finally the decision was made to leave.
Where to go from here?
The climate movement is gaining in strength and there have been some notable successes both locally and globally. From getting a “No New Fossil Fuel Infrastructure” policy passed in Portland, to the canceling of the Pembina propane facility, to Shell being pressured to leave the arctic and the Lummi victory. These are encouraging events. There are the beginnings of change. However, we all know it is nowhere near enough and not close to fast enough. We need fifty times as many people to show up at such actions as Break Free. We need not 2000, but 100,000.
Living in Portland, I can guess some rough demographics. Likely 70% of the population of Portland would say they are concerned about climate change and understand that it is a crisis. Yet maybe 1% of those people will actually do something about it. We need to understand this profound disconnect between thought and action. We need to do everything we can to crack through that opaque veil of denial. If we do not do it consciously on purpose now, it will most certainly happen later and in a horrible way. Physics (truth) can only be denied for so long. So speak up, use your voice, talk to the people you know, take action. The challenge of our times demands it.
Transcript of Chief Reuben George speaking during the Indigenous March