XL Dissent: Why I Chose to Get Arrested

Cole Norgaarden, YEA! MN Alum, Student at Cornell University
Cole Norgaarden, YEA! MN Alum, Student at Cornell University

At noon on Sunday, March 3, 2014 I used a plastic zip-tie to lock myself onto the fence in front of the White House and remained there for nearly six hours in protest of the Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline. Alongside me, 304 fellow young people did the same thing, while another 70 or so of us collapsed on a giant black plastic ‘oil spill’ we had created in the center of the sidewalk. Mounted park police were at the ready and began to cordon off the area as soon as we assumed our protest positions. It was very clear that we would be arrested if we stayed – and 372 of us chose to do just that. According to the yellow band still hanging from my left wrist, I was #348.

We are given many reasons not to be arrested. In our culture, a fixation on self-centered financial security deters us from taking risks for purely ethical reasons, which are deemed idealist. The myth that civil disobedience will hinder youth from future opportunities is pervasive, which in turn maintains the fixation – a mindset that encourages our submission and insults our empathy. We are conditioned to view disobedience as reckless, shortsighted, and futile, which – under some circumstances – it may be. But in the context of this protest, there is no question: the truly reckless, shortsighted, and futile thing to do is spend millions of dollars on building extensive pipeline infrastructure for transporting the dirtiest fuel on Earth. Keystone XL is a pipeline that severs indigenous land and further assaults treaty rights while potentially contaminating precious fresh water resources like the Ogallala Aquifer and ensuring the release of tons more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Somewhere along the way, proponents of this project have forgotten that humans need water to live, not oil. And while many (including the firm hired to complete Keystone XL’s environmental impact review) seem to believe the economic benefits of the pipeline far outweigh its ecological risk factors, this too is a myth. Are dangerous sand mining/pipe construction/oil refining jobs what compose the foundation of a sustainable and secure domestic energy economy? No – such operations simply capitalize on a finite but incredibly lucrative fuel. Further, the exceptionally crude quality of Alberta tar sands oil makes it so inefficient to process that it can only be sold profitably on an international market, creating only a slight difference or none at all to the countless American families struggling to pay for gas. All in all, it only takes a little critical thinking to understand that the Keystone XL pipeline does not make environmental or economic sense for those of us who do not control multi-million dollar, transnational energy companies.

Of course, one can agree with the ethical basis for an action without endorsing the action itself. More than half of those who marched with us from Georgetown to the White House chose to keep a safe distance from the zone where they were liable to be taken away in a paddy-wagon. I’ve heard several people ask why we chose civil disobedience as a tactic instead of other, supposedly more ‘safe’ alternatives. My answer is this: last spring, almost 50,000 people encircled the White House for the sole purpose of stopping the Keystone XL pipeline and a year later, no meaningful change in plans has occurred. Logically, there is a need for escalation, which in this case took the form of 372 student arrests. On a personal level, I am completely confident in my decision to be arrested because unlike many of those who directly face the pipeline’s dire effects, I can afford to do so. I am a financially sound student who attends an Ivy League university and has the privilege of paying a nominal collateral fee requested by the park police for my release with minimal consequences. Because of this, I should get arrested. Can a Cree mother whose children drink poisoned water from the Athabasca River in Alberta drop everything and head down to DC for her voice to be heard? Should a father struggling to support his family in the shadow of the Marathon tar sands refinery in Boynton, Michigan afford to risk losing his job for a protest? Defiance has a price, and those who can, must pay it. Our protest was one of solidarity with the victims of an extractive fossil fuel industry, not of cause-appropriation or [god forbid] restless angst.

Therefore, the impetus for this protest becomes clear, because:

1) Playing by the rules has yet to yield a meaningful result, which creates an opportunity for disobedience and defiance against a system that refuses to accommodate.

2) Those most impacted by the pipeline most severely are systemically less able to pay the price of defiance – so those that can must do so out of solidarity.

These are the reasons I chose to get arrested. I am proud of my actions and will accept any and all consequences associated with them. This struggle goes far beyond one afternoon on a fence or even one pipeline snaking across the plains – it is the tide beginning to turn against every system that oppresses and extracts. And I am committed to doing whatever it takes, including further disobedience, to turn that tide into an unstoppable wave.

Cole Norgaarden is the former Co-Chair of Youth Environmental Activists Minnesota (YEA! MN). A core program of the Will Steger Foundation, YEA! MN supports a network of high school environmental clubs working together across the Twin Cities Metro to empower student leadership on climate change solutions, facilitate shared skills and strategies, and take coordinated action at home, at school, and in the wider community.

Climate Generation: A Will Steger Legacy policy on civil disobedience and direct action states that program staff and participants representing CG may only take part in demonstrations that are peaceful and lawful. 

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