Ithaca College students and professor arrested in landmark civil disobedience
One by one, bodies rose from the human rows spread along the sidewalk, filing slowly into the back of police vans parked just feet away. Ren Ostry and 11 other women squeezed into a van and shuffled around the tight space to make as much room they could. As the car pulled away, they began to rejoice in song, their hands bounced to the beat while tightly clasped behind their backs.
On Sept. 2, five Ithaca College students and one professor, along with 20 other activists from Ithaca, drove nearly 350 miles to Washington, D.C. to participate in what would become the largest act of environmental civil disobedience in decades. All six were among the 244 arrested the next afternoon after protesting against the proposal to build the Keystone XL pipeline.
Participants in this nationwide campaign protested for two weeks. Notable figures like environmentalist Bill McKibben joined in the action, speaking to the crowd of activists and asking President Obama to deny permit for the tar sands oil pipeline, which would stretch from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. With this environmental threat pending, citizens decided to put more than just a foot down.
A police approached the seated rows of bodies, his voice just breaking through the humming loudspeaker: “This is your third and final warning. If you don’t leave the area you are subject to arrest, and you will be arrested.”
Last month junior Ren Ostry began organizing a student group to join in the national Tar Sands action. She worked closely with the Green Umbrella, a New York state youth network of environmental activists, to recruit 20 other individuals from the Ithaca area to join in the fight against this “fossil fuel monster.”
“We as the generation that elected Obama demand a future that we can respect and we can welcome,” she said.
As a leader of the environmental movement on campus, Ostry has participated in everything from Powershift to anti-fracking hearings and local action trainings. But when organizing this trip to D.C., she never anticipated she would return to Ithaca with a new band of brothers and sisters.
Elan Shapiro, professor of Environmental Studies and Sciences at the college, has become a mentor figure to Ostry, inspiring her environmental activism in Ithaca. As the lone faculty member to join the students in D.C., Shapiro said he was impressed by both the group’s spirit and discipline.
“I was just struck by how idealistic yet sophisticated the students were,” he said. “People had a very keen sense of the gravity and the dangers involved right now and continuing to use fossil fuels.”
Linda Capato, one of the four organizers contracted for the Tar Sands action, said it wasn’t just the youth who expressed their environmental concern this time. When Capato and her team put out the call, people from all walks of life responded. She said that on the first day alone, participants as young as 17 and as old as 84 stood side-by-side, demanding redress.
“That speaks volumes to dedication people have to holding Obama accountable and also to making some sort of change in environmental issues right now,” Capato said.
If approved, the Keystone XL Pipeline will carry 900,000 barrels of oil per day along its 1,700 mile-long stretch. As the second-largest repository of oil in the world, the Alberta tar sands could help expand development of U.S. energy sources, thereby decreasing national dependence on international markets. However, it also has the dangerous potential to increase the earth’s temperature. In its projected fifty-year lifecycle, the pipeline could release up to 1.15 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.
Emily Shaw, a junior environmental studies major, first learned about the Tar Sands action only two days beforehand. She spent most of her time preparing for the action studying the details of the drilling process.
“It’s not something where you can just get oil, there’s also natural gas that goes into it,” Shaw said.
Sophomore Ben Knowles warned against the pipeline’s use of natural gas. Knowles, who is heavily involved in Ithaca’s anti-fracking movement, said Obama’s approval of this pipeline is likely to spur natural gas drilling here in Ithaca.
“The gas they use to power the machines is natural gas most likely drilled from the Marcellus Shale,” she said.
Capato said participants took this energy from the campaign back home to educate their communities and make connections to their local environments.
“The biggest thing that came out of this action is that people went home and got pretty fired up to do something locally,” she said.
Sharing stories with the community is one way activists are keeping the energy of the protest alive, but Capato said it’s important to focus their strategy on talking to Obama, too.
“Most of us worked our butts off to get Obama elected,” she said. “This is really our line in the sand right now. We know that he’s serious about climate issues if he says no. If he says yes and allows the pipeline to exist, we know that we’re going to be in a position where it’s going to be really hard for us to switch to an alternative in the future.”
Shapiro said this action is urgently important in order for real change to occur. Shapiro hasn’t participated in civil disobedience since 1968, when he protested against the Vietnam War with other students at Columbia University. This time, however, he recognized the gravity of putting their bodies and clean records on the line.
“Being willing to take a stand and live through the consequences really inspired a lot of other people,” he said.
Across the street, thousands of eyes were locked on the chanting activists, cheering them on as police escorted them.
“I had to walk in between the fence of the park where the rally was and the paddy wagon,” he said. “You had all those people thanking you — that was really gratifying.”
The solidarity this movement has built is monumental. The national support these activists have built as a group outweighs the costs to each individual: a mere scratch on the records and dent in the wallets do not compare.
“We’re hearing about communities that were arrested on the same day continuing to organize together,” Capato said with a newfound excitement. “It really creates this bridge that we didn’t have in the environmental movement before.”
While Shapiro notes the important ecological dimension of the movement, he also emphasized the challenges in helping this campaign succeed. Most notably, the gross inequalities in society inhibit people from thinking about the quality of their environment.
“When you have poverty and racism, people can’t be thinking about implications of wasting,” Shapiro said. “Empowering people and supporting them to be healthy and to have the right kind of jobs is such a powerful way to address global warming.”
All activists agree that society needs to move to the next level. Shapiro specifically noted that Americans are too comfortable with their situation. But to get out of “business-as-usual” mode, people have to start thinking differently about their power.
According to Shaw, creating awareness in hopes of changing people’s mindsets was part of the goal for participating in this action.
“There are people who care. There are people who aren’t going to stand for this; we will get arrested for the cause. It’s something that we’re not just going to sit back and let happen… We’re doing this for everyone,” she said.
By drawing connections across all dimensions — ecological, economic, racial, political — activists could pave the way toward a clean energy future. Knowles said the Tar Sands action is just the beginning.
Phase two is slated for Oct. 7, when thousands are expected to descend on Washington for the final hearing before Obama decides whether or not to approve the pipeline. Until then, the White House can expect to see environmental activism at its finest.
“We’re going to continue fighting,” said Shaw. “We’re going to continue sending letters, sending petitions, showing the Obama administration this isn’t something we’re just going to let go.”
Megan Devlin is a sophomore journalism major who’s not opposed to hand cuffs or zip ties. Email her at mdevlin2[at]ithaca.edu.