Lessons From Tar Sands Blockade

Sitting on this screened-in porch surrounded by the electric green leaves of the forest of deciduous trees, the sound of the rushing creek drowned out by the chirping birds, I feel like I must be in paradise.

I am in Eastern Texas staying in the beautiful home of a Tar Sands Blockade organizer. This past weekend we met at a non-violent direct action training at the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, and she offered me a ride to Texas so I could cover the resistance here before the worst of the summer heat set in.

But to my host, there is danger lurking beneath the beauty. Pipelines shipping natural gas, oil, and even dirty tar sands run beneath our feet, all over the state.


On the property of Eleanor Fairchild, a Texas landowner still fighting TransCanada

My host is an organizer with Tar Sands Blockade (TSB), the group that organized a tree sit and other actions in the way of the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline. She and a group of other organizers were at the training the weekend in part to share skills and what they learned from their unsuccessful attempt to stop the shipment of tar sands through Texas.

As Nebraska and South Dakota gear up for their own battles against the Keystone XL pipeline should Obama approve the northern leg, activists are trying to move forward and learn from the history of fighting TransCanada.

One organizer tells me that if they were to organize a blockade movement again, they would start with a really clear strategy for escalating tactics, so that everyone was clear how far the group would be willing to go to win.

Some members of Tar Sands blockade early on decided that appealing to conservative Texas landowners was the best way to gain traction with the public, while others wanted to focus on appealing to radicals. The majority hoped to create an alliance across political boundaries.

Several landowners did end up on the frontlines fighting TransCanada’s attempt to roll through their land. But many others were either uninterested, or fought the company with TSB until the stakes were too high or the incentives improved. TransCanada offered money to those who were resisting, and when that didn’t work threatened to sue them. Several signed out of fear that they might lose their property, families, businesses if they continued to fight. Those who signed contracts allowing the pipeline on their land were made to sign gag orders saying they would not speak out about the project, and refused to speak to or work with the group again.

This kind of messaging also failed to speak to the struggles of those in refinery communities and those who were not landowners, which meant the campaign became focused on wealthier white people rather than people of color and lower class people. This was in part because those people had already been forming groups and reached out to TSB, but one organizer expressed regrets that a greater effort wasn’t made at the time to identify other less privileged allies.

“We also needed the resources these more privileged organizations offered us,” added another organizer. “And it wasn’t until we money, attention, and resources that we were even able to fulfill our obligation to turn the spotlight on the privileged.”

The focus of the group has now shifted toward struggles faced by less privileged communities, which has been harder, less glamorous, and more risky. But the sense I got was that this work was also crucial to uniting those affected by the fossil fuel industry and thus challenging that industry.

One organizer told me that she really learned what privilege was during the TSB campaign. “Privilege,” she said “is when TransCanada approaches you and asks you to sign away your land. Whether or not you sign, privilege is when you are seen as a decision-maker, someone who needs to be consulted. Most people are not asked. It doesn’t matter what most of the affected people think.”

There was also concern expressed that the funding that came from nonprofits ended up being a barrier to the group doing more escalated actions that may have been more successful. Members of the group who were interested in monkey-wrenching and other tactics were discouraged from doing so because funding might be withdrawn if people engaged in those tactics. One organizer suggested that developing a firewall between autonomous actions and Tar Sands Blockade name might have helped maintain the funding and public support while also leaving more effective tools on the table.

Security culture also ended up keeping conversations from happening that might otherwise have led to escalation. While talking about the dates, times, and locations of actions, as well as the specifics as a group is unnecessary and dangerous, at times general conversations about what the group was willing to tie its name to were discouraged for the sake of security culture. The consequence of that was that TSB never put its name on escalated actions, and so if such actions happened they never got the media attention that might have pushed the boundaries set on environmental resistance or challenged the norms of non-violence.

The take-away from the experiences of the organizers I spoke with do not represent the views of all TSB organizers. To the organizers I spoke with, it seemed that sometimes non-violent direct action works. Sometimes it doesn’t. For a movement to work, there needs to be room for diverse tactics. Sources for this piece asked to remain anonymous.

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