“This ain’t no party. This ain’t no disco. This ain’t no fooling around.”
I awaken to the crunch of footsteps on loose gravel, the roar of passing vehicles on Highway 20 and the snapping of our flags. They rise above the 12ft tall painter’s scaffolding that we erected over the railroad tracks.
What am I doing here?
At 63 years old I am far from the oldest person on this blockade as there are a handful of 70 year-olds, an 82 year-old and a 93 year-old Ragin Grannie. Perhaps one third of the 150 citizens here are over 50 years and the rest are millennials and 20-somethings. The steel rail is icy cold to sit on in our morning meditation. The rising sun warms us all.
The police don’t always arrest you when you block an oil train. Sometimes they multiply then shrink in numbers, only to return again. They arrive helmeted, holding tear gas launchers. Our police liaison rushes forward fearlessly to meet them. They tell her we are trespassing and have to leave. She tells them we won’t leave- but she will give us the message. This is our first warming.
This is what democracy looks like. Every voice, so long as it is on topic, is invited to be heard. We are self-organizing, using “twinkle fingers” up or down to make group decisions. After questions and comments are done, and it seems there is consensus, we check to see if anyone feels strongly enough to “block” the group’s decision. Every meeting begins and ends with songs and chants. We sing that we will “protect and care for each other”, we chant “It is our duty to fight, it is our duty to win”. There is leadership but no one is “in charge” and anyone can volunteer to facilitate the next circle.
Divisions of labor are fulfilled by organized affinity groups who have volunteered. There is a composting toilet team, food team, security, welcome and information table at one end of our occupying space on the tracks. Our “comms” (communication) team reminds us-some here risk more than others-people of color, trans people, women are more vulnerable-the “ask” is for those at lower risk to step in and step up.
The talent here is stunning! I talk with people who are teachers, medics, lawyers and many young college students dreaming of a promising (aka liveable) future. You can call us occupiers, but we are not anarchists. We are not intending property damage or assault. In fact, we want to communicate our motivation is love. We love this Earth too much to let the ravages of the catastrophic climate destruction caused by the rouge fossil fuel industry to continue. We will no longer participate in our own destruction.
While the “Cops” are intimidating in their black boots, body armor, taser guns and standard guns, they make no move to confront us. Our liaison communicates our peaceful intentions and over the course of the next five hours their numbers decrease. By 10pm “word” is they will not make arrests tonight. While this might be true, we know it is legal for the police to lie to citizens, so they may come at midnight or 3am. By morning, there are two patrol cars, four officers who are spelled by others every few hours.
Could they arrest us all if they wanted to? There are close to 150 of us here “holding space”on the tracks of the 20 mile spur track bringing train cars of crude tar sands & fracked oil into the Shell & Tesoro refineries responsible for refining 47% of transportation fuels used in PNW.
We have gathered old rusty used painter’s scaffolding and painted the bottom level green and the top level yellow to evoke a sunflower image. It is called the “structure” and a hub of activity occurs there.
We have practiced for two days to get the scaffolding up as quickly as possible lest the police arrive and arrest us before we have established this place as “ours”. We didn’t know it at the time, but a decoy distraction had been launched by folks in white hazmat suits approaching the refinery on a foot bridge from the other direction. We erect out structure in about 12 minutes with a police presence arriving in about 15 min.
We post three-hour “security” shifts by affinity group. What should we do if the police make their move?
We agree to run the length of our encampment yelling “Police on site, come together”.
Our safety lies in our numbers. Our legal team lawyers assure us the jails are overcrowded by double their capacity. If we stand strong together it will likely be a “cite and release” scenario. Detain, identify, ticket and release on our own recognizance. We know our rights, we have practiced our “magic words”.
“I choose to remain silent.” “I want to see a lawyer”, which we know may or may not happen for a while. We may not be read our Miranda rights -police don’t have to say them and as for “your” phone call from jail…maybe, maybe not.
Our second day hosts all kind of workshops and offerings including de-escalation skills, meditation and chi quong.
5:15 am -Sunday May 15th
Our 350EUGENE affinity group started our security shift at 5am. I leave some grapes on the table for a morning snack with my team and am headed toward a much needed visit to the “port-a-loo’s” with their 5gal bucket, toilet seat and small green privacy surround-tent. 50 feet from the toilet, I hear the sound of a large engine suddenly stopping. I turn and see a large white bus with black ants rushing out the doors then swarming down both sides of the railroad tracks.
This is “it”. I know what to do. I begin to run the quarter mile of our encampment “Police on site, Get Up Get Up” repeatedly. Soon we are surrounded “Hands Up In The Air!” We all freeze. I cannot get back to most of my affinity group near the road. I am not allowed to go to the bathroom. My heart is pounding and I worry that the police might get violent if anyone makes a wrong move. I observe everyone from the blockade sitting down and singing and chanting, so I join my comrades on the tracks to discuss our final decisions. The police read an order out-loud and people who want to avoid arrest can grab their belonging and leave -they have 10 minutes. Many leave, but 52 of us do not leave and wait to be arrested.
So begins a five hour process of zip tied hands, transport to a search and rescue station where we are chained and shackled (hands and feet), name, address, birth date, our belongings labeled, then we are transported again to Mt. Vernon county jail where we held -separated by gender- on a city transit bus where we are photoed (again) and wait our turn to be “processed”. Finally we are allowed to be escorted to a restroom one at a time. “Best pee ever” reports a grinning Seattle U college student. It is humiliating to be shackled like murderous criminals and I wonder if it “standard procedure” or we are being given a “message”?
Why I did it and what I learned:
Anyone paying attention knows “why.” Bold citizen action is necessary at this critical time in our history. Our only home is writhing with the destruction of choked atmosphere and ocean. Scientists continue to be surprised at the accelerating pace of the changes caused by the increasing carbon being released. The business plan of the fossil fuel industry is to take all life on the planet to the edge of extinction.
There is a kindness and fierce love that can happen when a committed group of people are under siege.
There are many places where love is talked about, but it was experience- not talk, at the blockade. Where else in my white, educated, privileged, middle class, 63yr old life have I felt so vulnerable, yet so safe? Not a safety that guarantees “no harm” but a “safe camaraderie ” that only a community committed to whatever shared harm may befall- holds strongly together.
I have never been arrested before and have not gotten a ticket of any kind in over 40 years. Yet along with the ten arrested in my 350EUG affinity group I will plead “not guilty” to second degree criminal trespass in hopes of a trial where we can inspire and inform others to take bold action to save our children’s future and only home.
Our Gov’t knowingly implements policies and actions that interfere with our basic life support systems. This is a violation of our constitutional rights and that is why I sat on the railroad tracks with 51 fine upstanding citizens! It was a powerful experience and it is all about what we love and will fight not to lose.
What is the difference between citizens who will decide to risk arrest engaging in civil disobedience and those who won’t? I think those who have not yet decided to take that risk don’t understand the power of direct action or the amazing personal and relational meaning of putting your body where your values and commitment rest. There is astonishing joy in a small group of people, united in love and committed to a moral shared goal. Perhaps some have not yet come to understand that our Gov’t knowingly implements policies and actions that interfere with our basic life support systems. This is a violation of our constitutional rights and that is why I sat on the railroad tracks with 51 fine upstanding citizens! It was a powerful experience and it is all about what we love and will fight not to lose.
We are citizen defenders, not criminals. We are giving this precious time and resources from our lives because we know this kind of citizen action has been necessary every time our society must stop a great evil. Hope to see you there next time!
If you want to follow our trial & next steps or make a donation to our legal fund go to http://world.350.org/eugene/
Deb McGee Eugene,Ore.