Saturday, October 13 - Guest post by Lorenzo Serna a freelance journalist who was embedded on the timber scaffolding wall for a week before he was arrested by TransCanada and later released without charges because he is with the press.
I arrived in East Texas September 29th, 2012. Drove into a small Eastern Texas Town, where the houses pushed back from the yards sprinkled with drought dried grass. I came to cover a story about some folks who built a wall against the KXL pipeline. A pipeline cutting a swath across the belly of the United States like some deep burnt scar. It’s tube to be filled with Tar Sands Bitumen.
I learned about the Alberta Tar Sands, where the bitumen was being shipped from, years ago at a workshop at an enviromental conference called PowerShift. Indigenous folks told stories of machines that dug up around their communities pressing the sand into some sort of high pressure goop that’s pushed through the pipes like a super heated laser. Turning the top soil into a dead scar.
A place of burnt Earth refereed to by some as Mordor, the death ground in the Tolkien Lord of the Rings trilogy. The home of the … well, I guess it looks like the images of that dark land when you read those novels, but the truth is that the Tar Sands are located in the midst of peoples homes. It’s a devastated piece of Earth the size of New York State, in the middle of Alberta, Canada. Homes and communities of people such as: Mikisew Cree First Nation,
Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Fort McMurray First Nation, Fort McKay Cree Nation, Beaver Lake Cree First Nation, Chipewyan Prairie First Nation, and local Metis peoples. These indigenous folks sacrificed in the name of so called progress, an old tale whose truth bruised reality. I learned all this in a presentation by the Indigenous Environmental Network at PowerShift. The stories they told waned in accuracy in each of my retellings as time passed, but the reality of the situation? Strange cancers seeping their way into indigenous communities. Chemical ponds wafted their fumes into the air. Progress. Colonialism continues to play its racist hand. Human lives sacrificed in the name of profit.
Some risk calculator probably counts the sums numbered off in some sort of heartless tongue. Death/Profit ratio. Lawsuit loss/Profit Gain. The black line pushed up as that red line burns bright as blood into the lives that are left behind. It often weighs in my heart and mind. And I mention that place, the sad tale breaching my lips. I tell it to anyone who’ll listen. The Tar Sands, what I know of them, a disgusting stain on this Earth, a disgusting stain on the idea of a just and humane society. They’re real. In all that people can create and invent on this Earth, the paintings, and architecture, the smooth line of poetry playing that small bone in your ear into a chilling hum, in all this, a manufactured dead land exists.
I knew all this when I read the call of the Tar Sands Blockade. I saw the call for media assistance, and livestreaming and felt the urge to go. From what I read there was a literal tree village and wall erected in the pipelines path, and they needed folks to help cover it with cameras as the construction edged its way towards the blockade. I saw one video link and realized that I could help. I could be holding that camera, or stream that video. It might not have needed to be me, but I was willing. I shot up a wepay link and told myself if one person donated, regardless of the amount. I’d go. It happened and I traveled to East Texas to add my camera and work to the media effort and embed myself, along with my press partner @occupymusician into the wall to help bring out to the public what was happening.
We moved through the East Texas woods loaded with gear with the intention of getting up to that wall and figuring out how to cover this event. It felt like a threshold of something big in United States, something happening in the now. I needed to be in it to grasp it, and I needed to be able to hear the peoples voices who held down this wall. I moved along the countryside as the full moon shone our way, and came to the wall.
I’d never climbed a rope before and watched as my press partner struggled up thinking that somehow I’d have an easier time. I learned things like prussic knots and footloops, struggled into a belt, and locked carabiners. I’d never done this before, and proved it as I struggled up the forty feet in about an hour. Sweat spilt down my body and I reached the top just as Maggie Gorry ascended the timber pole in minutes. The obstruction used to block a roadway Transcanada had cut in order to move equipment around the blockade. I spent the next 42 hours watching and documenting this woman as she blocked the pipeline’s progress. She stopped TransCanada’s work crews from continuing, and while I struggled through cold nights laying on the platform of the wall, she sung her way through them powering a small crank radio with her hands.
The cops listened too and seemed confused and awed by the whole ordeal. They’d ask her to come down, back to Earth, but she just let them know she was fine. Maybe, she was on the Earth. You know? Grounded. The timber pole laced into it’s four cardinal points. Putting herself in the path of the snaking certain environmental destruction.
A person masked sat next to me on the wall and we watched Maggie together. They told me in frustration that they didn’t understand why they were looked at as some sort weird tree hugging spectacle. They said, “This isn’t a spectacle, this is the simple truth. How do you block a pipeline from going into the ground? You get in front of it.” Those words hit like a gong ringing out echoing through the trees, shivering their leaves in agreement. Maggie sat up on that timber pole, and the corporation who brought us the tarsands bitumen, also brought in spot lights and paid off duty police to set up 24hr camps, and suddenly, coming down from that wall without being arrested became impossible, and maybe that was okay.
They were right. The blockade isn’t a spectacle. It wasn’t counter spectacle against a giant political convention, that tried to draw off the attention the convention garnered to get a protest message out there. This was direct action. There was a wall, a timber pole and a tree blockade. The pipeline flags marked off an ending point in front of the Tar Sands Blockade, and folks up in those trees let me know they weren’t coming down.
Maggie did come down after the police intervened and folks were unable to get her food. They had drawn up a plan to throw a shot line to her and slide some food along the line, “Hey, Maggie, we got some cheese. You want some cheese?” The cops lined up in front of it and let us know that if that shot missed and struck one of them it was a federal offense. Maggie suggested they ditch the plan for the peoples’ safety on the wall. She stayed up another twelve hours or so…Police lined up around her and watched her rappel down as she yelled gleefully into the night. The police begged her to be careful, explained that she’d be weak after being up there so long, but she slid down quickly and sprung her knees to soften her landing. The police walked her out, forming a sort of honor guard around her. I never saw her cuffed. The cops moved back to the monopod when she’d been carted off and walked to the east anchor and slashed the rope with a knife and the tree trunk toppled back to the ground. Almost 2 days up. I still can’t believe that anyone could stay up that long, but she did it.
The next days turned into a blur. With blimps of extreme joy. I meant to spend one day up learning the situation and trying to figure out how to properly cover it, and ended up for seven days. I can’t explain everything that occurred, basically days of talking, eating cold beans and drinking from the stores of water. I learned a lot that week. I learned why those folks had chosen to be up there. I got a variety of answers. The simple felt truth that it’s the right thing to do, that there wasn’t any way to stop a thing unless you got out there and physically stood, or climbed or placed yourself in front of it. Someone also told me that if they didn’t do it the land owners daughter would have a wasteland to play in instead of a beautiful forest.
We read books to each other, and listened as we roller coasted through the ride of emotions that were our reality. We were watched 24hrs a day. Spotlights and watch fires in the night. The police and private security trained their eyes on us, as a sitter said, “They’re here to protect and serve their community and they watch us like we’re the criminals. They watch us as their communities are being destroyed, the pipeline primed to poison their water ways. We’re the ones, we’re the one’s who are protecting and serving,” she told me as Transcanada camera people glassed the village with their cameras with their local law enforcement backup.
TransCanada pipelines aren’t rated as indefinite holds out that’ll never burst. They’re rated in whens…. Bitumen being pumped from the Alberta Tar Sands along the heartland of our country is said to even corrode the pipes faster than other fossil fuels..
Fossil fuels. I sat on that wall and realized that it’s all happened before. The land we sat on ripped from the indigenous folks that were here before us. Land now taken in far off countries from the hands of folks in third world countries where corrupt governments sold their people out for instant profit. Neo-liberalisms beautiful formula exploiting people’s lives for fossil fuels, for land, for mineral rights. For anything that can be dug, slurped, and exploded out of the Earth. Now, here we are in the midst of of one of the largest economic disaster in United States history. Federal and States government hemorrhage their economies. They take their queues from the good old U.S. of A’s own history. What I learned up there, as the bulldozers tore soil, the cutters toppled trees, and the foreign corporation accessed the United States government to tear people away from their land…this moment is the threshold of this country slipping down into third world status. Slipping down into a category it helped create. And these folks up in these trees? They’re trying to save the waterways and land, and trying to put a stop to this destructive direction.