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The Keystone Pipeline Revolt: Why Mass Arrests are Just the Beginning

Inside the growing movement to shut down the environmentally devastating tar-sands project

September 28, 2011 8:00 AM ET
keystone xl tar sands oil alberta texas canada protest arrest
Police arrest protesters of the Keystone XL oil pipeline in front of the White House in Washington, DC.
MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

Let's get the jail part out of the way right at the start. Central Cell Block in Washington, D.C., is exactly as much fun as it sounds like. In fact, the entire process of being jailed unfolded more or less as any observer of, say, the 84,000 episodes of Law & Order might imagine.

When we were hauled away from the gates of the White House on the morning of Saturday, August 20th, where 65 of us had been peacefully sitting in for an hour to urge the president to veto the proposed Keystone XL pipeline – a 1,700-mile fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the continent – we were taken, hands cuffed behind our backs, in paddy wagons to the Park Police headquarters across the river Anacostia. There we sat – hands still cuffed – on a lawn for a couple of hours, until one by one we were called inside, uncuffed and stripped of all but our clothes. (I mean all – they took away my wedding ring, which hadn't been off in 23 years, saying, "Where you're going, they'll cut off your finger for that.") An officer with a ballpoint pen filled out every form in triplicate. (The Park Police still seem to be deciding if the whole digital thing is going to work out – there were three IBM Wheelwriter typewriters circa 1974 on a desk, but Bic apparently remains the technology of choice.) We stood 15 men to a five-by-seven cell for five or six hours (until need finally overcame squeamish reticence and we used the toilet in the center of the cell). Eventually, they recuffed us and put us back in the wagon for the ride to Central Cell Block, still with no idea of our prospects.

There the District police fingerprinted us and locked us up, two apiece, in four-by-seven cells. No beds, just two stainless-steel slabs without mattress, sheet or pillow. (Shoes make decent pillows, but it's harder than it sounds to sleep on bare steel – my hips were still bruised two weeks later.) We stayed there all night, all the next day and all the next night; baloney sandwiches and a Styrofoam cup of water arrived at 3 a.m. and 3 p.m. The lights never went off, the din was constant and the heat stifling. (We counted ourselves lucky, however, when we found out that the 20 women under arrest had been left in a single cell without beds of any kind, huddled together to keep warm as guards blasted an air conditioner at them.) The hours passed with incredible slowness, especially since the guards, who had taken our watches, kept lying about the time. But on Monday morning at 5 a.m. (we walked past a clock), they shackled us again, this time by the feet – you really do have to put your hand on the next guy's shoulder, and shuffle down the hall, just like in the movies – and took us to the holding cell at the courthouse, where the 45 of us stood, feet cuffed together, in a giant cage with the rest of the District's weekend criminals for about 10 hours. No food, no water – until finally, all of a sudden, they simply called us out and let us go. The judge, apparently, had dismissed all charges, and we were free.

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