I woke up Sunday at 5:15 a.m. to police in full riot gear shouting from every direction, “Get out of your tent! Hands in the air!” More than 60 police officers, who had arrived in two buses, flooded a camp of more than 100 activists who had been occupying the railroad tracks leading to the Shell and Tesoro Oil refineries in Anacortes, Washington.
My adrenaline immediately spiked. My heart was pounding. This was a first for me. My hands were shaking as I put in my contacts; I stepped out of my tent blearily. Amid the confusion, I reminded myself why I was there camping on railroad tracks in western Washington: to send a loud and powerful message that I am ready to break free from fossil fuels by blocking oil infrastructure with my body. But, in that moment, I also realized that I wasn’t really prepared to be arrested—not yet anyway.
A week and a half before, I sat in a meeting of climate activists in south Seattle. The room hummed with excitement and anticipation as we discussed Break Free PNW, a mass protest that would span March 13 to 15 at the Anacortes oil refineries. This point of resistance would represent the Pacific Northwest within an international movement. The moment seemed pivotal—word was already spreading that England’s largest open cast coal mine had been shut down in Ffos-y-fran, Wales, earlier that day.
Key organizers briefed the room on current and evolving plans to stop inflow and outflow of oil from the refineries. Similar talks were given the next day to full rooms in Bellingham, Washington; Portland, Oregon; and as far away as Montana and Idaho. The plan was to form a three-day encampment on the railroad spur leading to the refineries, blocking 50 percent of its incoming crude.
Simultaneous peaceful actions, such as the Indigenous march on March Point were scheduled to occur throughout the weekend, but this and the kayak blockade on the water held the most potential for direct confrontation with police, and the most potential to truly undercut the economic bottom line.
“They have already said they’re not going to bring tankers over that weekend,” said Ahmed Gaya, a co-founder of Seattle’s Rising Tide collective of environmental activists who had locked himself to the tracks in Anacortes in 2014. “They have not said they’re not going to bring trains in. May they choose not to? Anybody’s guess,” he explained. There are many uncertainties in this breed of protest, and Break Free’s tactical team began stockpiling contingency plans and alternate scenarios months ago.
“One hundred people that want to camp on tracks for three days feels like such a huge escalation,” Gaya said. And so it was; the worldwide Break Free actions were set in motion after the failure of world leaders to come to an accord that would limit global warming to 1.5 degrees C.
In the Pacific Northwest, the Shell and Tesoro refineries offer a potent target. Together, they process up to 265,000 barrels of crude oil a day and are one of the region’s largest point sources of carbon emissions.
The objective of targeting the refineries for this action was not specifically about calling for their shutdown. “Our objective is to shift the national conversation and to talk about the fossil fuel industry as a whole.” Gaya said.
As an organizer and musician, my roles in Break Free had thus far involved coordinating a benefit concert and supporting anyone who wanted to come by bicycle to the protests. I had held at bay the question of whether I wanted to participate in direct action. But I also knew it was the heartbeat of this diverse movement—a symbol that was inspiring everyone to participate in other ways. I had been inspired to action by people like Tim DeChristopher and the Delta 5, whose January trial had used the necessity defense to argue that breaking the law to prevent the greater harm of climate change was justified.
Over the previous two weeks, the Alberta wildfires had brought the impacts of climate change even closer to home. First Nations people I had met last year when I traveled to the tar sands had lost their homes in the flames and were now staying in hotels and makeshift hostels. Break Free was an opportunity for people to stand up and demand a different world. That’s why on May 13, shortly after arriving at Deception Pass (the meeting hub of the action) with 27 cyclists, I headed down to the tracks with a small group, nervous but excited.
Over the next day and a half, I camped with 100-200 people. I slept on the railroad tracks—using cardboard as a cushion—took shifts on the security detail at the encampment, organized food donations and participated in nonviolent de-escalation and “know your rights” legal trainings. I helped build massive art projects, lifting a large, splendidly painted parachute into the air to be photographed from the sky. I was building my own power while also building this movement.
So, at 5:15 a.m. on Sunday, when shouts of “Police are here!” lurched me to my feet, I thought I would be more prepared to stand my ground. I wasn’t. Police decked out in riot gear surrounded us. Activists were locked together on either end of the encampment, but being in the middle, my group needed to quickly make a decision about what we would do next.
We decided to support other members who were ready to be arrested. We packed up their gear and cheered them on from across the road. It was a good and important thing to do, but I also struggled, as I was leaving with my hands full of sleeping bags and tents, not to feel a sense of failure. Was I was letting down my friends on the front lines?
It was an important feeling to recognize, but also one that revealed a deeper need for conversation around what valid or strategic participation with the climate movement looks like. Direct action is an increasingly important tactic for the environmental movement, and no social movement has ever truly made headway without it.
According to nonviolent resistance scholar Erica Chenoweth, there is a population threshold where civil disobedience tips the scale to revolution: “In fact, no campaigns failed once they’d achieved the active and sustained participation of just 3.5 percent of the population” she says in a TEDx talk, “and lots of them succeeded with far less than that.”
So at this critical juncture, and in our moment of dire climate urgency, does my participation count if I don’t get arrested?
I decided to ask Tim DeChristopher, the founder of the Climate Disobedience Center who famously spent 22 months in jail after he bid, in 2008, on 22,000 acres of Utah wilderness that he never intended to buy.
“There’s nothing magical about getting arrested,” he told me. “The powerful part of it is the vulnerability. Getting arrested is one manifestation of vulnerability. Being willing to step into vulnerability to what’s necessary to address this point in the time that we’re in right now—that’s the value that comes with preparing for any arrestable action.”
Thinking about one’s participation in terms of vulnerability helps frame the act of civil disobedience in terms that acknowledge the ways systems of oppression in the form of race, class, geography, and gender discrimination operate in the climate movement. I have many privileges as a White person; I know that friends on the tracks faced greater discrimination and police harassment than I did.
Sarra Tekola, an outspoken climate activist and a member of Seattle’s Women of Color Speak Out! said that when she was packing up her tent to leave the blockade wearing her #BlackLivesMatter T-shirt, three police officers loomed over her. Most of us were monitored by a single officer as we gathered our things.
“As a Black person in America, my level of risk for an action is higher. But as the daughter of a climate refugee from Ethiopia, the level of urgency of climate change is also higher,” Tekola posted to her Instagram account.
It’s well-documented that climate change is, and will continue to be, felt much more strongly by the Global South, Indigenous communities, and coastal communities than by inland North American communities like the ones I’ve grown up in. Putting myself on the line would help carry the weight, rather than leaving the heavy lifting to communities that are already struggling with other forms of structural oppression.
“I put my body on the line because I am able to,” A. Grace Steig told me. A 23-year-old Yale graduate turned Seattle activist, Steig was part of the deployment crew that set up the initial encampment on May 13. She and 51 others were arrested. “As a White person and a woman, I felt that I was being treated by the criminal justice system in a way that many other identity groups don’t have the privilege of,” she said.
Still, when the moment came to be arrested, Steig was scared. What pulled her forward was the knowledge that she was part of something bigger. “I am acting alongside folks from Brazil to Wales to Turkey,” she said, and the action itself “would not have been possible without medics and lawyers and artists and builders and photographers … everyone who was giving their expertise, care, and love to this effort.”
Steig, like me, had also participated in legal trainings held before and during the action that prepared her to be arrested. Knowledge, information, and training on the possible legal ramifications are just some ways that, as Tim DeChristopher put it, we can build the resilience “necessary to responding to any part of the climate crisis.”
Direct action, like any activity, is a learned skill that requires education. Choosing to risk arrest has real consequences to individuals, and not everyone can or should do it. But even beyond equity concerns like whether you could be targeted as a person of color, or if you might need specific medication in jail or money for bail, there is a simple truth:
It’s damn scary to look into the face of a man holding a gun and tell him you’re not going to move. DeChristopher’s advice is to fake it.
“One of the best things about courage is that fake courage is almost as good as real courage.” he told me. “It’s OK if you’re scared. Just pretend that you’ve got the courage. That’s how courage is built.”
I wasn’t ready to get arrested then, but I realized that’s OK. Break Free, and other protests like it, are about more than just tallying arrests to make the news cycle. We are building capacity to challenge the system and demand a just transition.
Standing across Highway 20 at 6 a.m., I chanted, sang, and cheered on friends as they were hauled away by the police. A woman brought food to share with the protestors, and someone driving past gave us several dozen bear claws and maple donuts.
An older woman named Susan, after hearing me quietly sing a Simon and Garfunkel tune that was stuck in my head, said, “This movement needs some better music!” She began teaching the crowd songs that coal and iron workers used to rally for better wages and safer working conditions.
Thinking back on it now, one song in particular stands out in my mind as a kind of allegory for the winding path to a just transition: a coal miners’ labor rallying cry used today to cheer on those fighting for a world free of all the devastation wreaked by fossil fuels. The Anacortes community is still haunted by the massive explosion at the Tesoro refinery in 2010 that killed 7 people.
“The value in engaging in civil disobedience is that it’s an intentional response that says: We’re not going to sit back and wait for that vulnerable future to come and smack us in the face,” DeChristopher told me. “We’re going to step into it, boldly and together.” He hopes the international Break Free actions will have an exponential impact, “internally and externally,” and invite more people into the movement.
“I think what has held us back traditionally is that people have an idea of what it looks like to fight for their life, or for the lives of their children,” DeChristopher said. “Generally, the professional climate movement doesn’t look like that, with petitions, etc. That’s not most people’s image of fighting for your life. When we step into vulnerable positions our actions match the crisis and people see that.”
I hope that next time, in a similar scenario, I do summon the strength and power to stay on the front lines. But I also know that the value of my participation goes far beyond whether or not I choose to risk arrest at any particular action.
After the protest, I looked up a song Susan had taught me. Published in 1864 in the constitution of the newly formed American Miners’ Association, it was a rallying cry for the first organization in the United States that attempted to unite coal and iron ore miners’ unions across the country for better working conditions:
“Step by step the longest march,
Can be won, can be won
Many stones can form an arch,
Singly none, singly none
And by Union what we will
Can be accomplished still
Drops of water churn the mill,
Singly none, singly none”