Using her body to stop Keystone XL
Grace Cagle, 22, was alone, 80 feet up in the southern corner of the tree block, when the company brought the bulldozers in. “They drove this giant machine that cuts trees right up to the base of my tree and I really thought they might kill me,” she said.
The machine operators looked surprised to see protesters in the trees and notified their superiors. But before long, the machine operators got back in their cabs and began to clear the area around the village.
When the Texas biologist first discovered that the Keystone XL pipeline was set to cross an area about three hours from her home in Fort Worth, Texas, she and a group of friends got in the car. They cut across the state and met with a landowner with property marked to be sliced by the pipeline.
A stunning landscape and a family long tied to the land greeted her. As she walked the land, the beauty of the place blew her away. Listening to the owner describe his situation, Cagle was moved. The man's love of the land was palpable.
“It is a very sacred piece of land, a very special place. Hearing stories from the landowner, how he felt about the land, stewarding it for his daughters, that’s what initially drove me to participate in this campaign.” She joined a handful of other people and founded the Tar Sands Blockade.
Last September, Cagle and friends set up a tree village nearly 80 feet in the air on an easement set to be cleared for the pipeline. For a total of 80 days, they took shifts occupying a piece of the forest the size of a city block, making their way down the trees at night to resupply to avoid getting arrested. TransCanada enlisted police and private security officers to try to remove protesters. Throughout the protest, construction continued around them.
“There were points when I was worried about my own safety,” Cagle said. TransCanada knew we were there, had been flying over in helicopters.”
The idea was to test TransCanada’s assertion that there was no possible way to change the route of the pipeline to accommodate landowners, at least one of whom had his vineyard destroyed, Cagle said. The company failed.
“What they proved to us that day was that they lied to all those landowners. They could move the pipeline because on a whim they went around our tree village. They just ploughed around it at the drop of a hat.”
On the seventeenth day, Cagle decided to come down. She hit the ground and a few men with no visible identification surrounded her. She argued with them while they put her in handcuffs, then in a car and drove to the nearest main road where she was officially placed under arrest by the police, she said.
“They wouldn’t tell me who they were. They wouldn’t show me any badge. I was basically kidnapped. I was arrested not being told by whom or for what.”
The whole experience was disturbing, she said, but not because she was accosted by large men who refused to identify themselves. Not because she spent the night in jail.
“I sat up there about 80 feet up, and just watching them clear the forest around me was absolutely devastating, watching these hundred-year-old trees just get snapped in half and blown away,” she said. “It was a very traumatic experience to be honest.”
Cagle knows she's privileged to have the freedom to put herself in harms way, and that this is critical to her resistance.
The communities that bear the brunt of air and water pollution and toxic runoff from oil sands extraction are typically poor communities, often composed mainly of people of colour and those who depend on the land for subsistence. They usually aren’t in a position to take time off work or risk the legal action that can result from civil disobedience, she said.
Tar Sands Blockade organizers call this environmental racism. It can be seen in the cancer rates in the primarily Latino neighborhood of Manchester in Houston where the Valero Energy Corporation owns a refinery.
It can be seen in the toxic seafood fisher people are pulling from the Gulf of Mexico. And it can be seen in the First Nation people on reserves in Alberta that are required to boil water to drink, and in the communities in BC whose livelihoods would be destroyed by the Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline, she said.
Cagle said she is standing up for people with less political agency than she has.
“It’s not that I’m getting arrested on their behalf. It’s that for me, because I am at a point in my life that I do have the ability or this privilege, that’s my contribution. We all have different things to contribute and if we’re all able to do that, that’s what will make us successful.”
Cagle said she reached a point where she felt it wasn’t enough to just sign a petition.
“Not only has it been ineffective, it also doesn’t generate a lot of media the way a tree sit does or a road blockade does.” She said organizing people and teaching them how to use their bodies to get in the way of the oil companies gives ordinary citizens power.
“It’s very empowering when we feel like all of our land is being taken away that we can still use our bodies to stop this.” The commitment those involved have shown is also an indication of how badly the legal processes in place to govern land use and development have failed the people.
“People have really taken every possible action allowed by law against the pipeline and it’s being built. It’s already being built. This is the only way right now. This is the only way to do this.”
Cagle says it makes perfect sense to link issues of First Nations sovereignty, land rights and environmental protection across the continent.
“How we can help by taking actions here in our home to help reach these common goals? Because those are goals that we share and we want to support those people in.”
The next step is to build stronger relationships between the groups working to block tar sands development both in the US and in Canada.
“It’s easy to make connections to the other pipelines. The US oil sands want to build in Utah. Once we start talking about these issues, we can see how they’re part of a broader interest. People will start to notice how badly our earth is being hurt and how difficult life is going to be on this planet if we don’t do something about this now.”