Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content


Civil disobedience

High-profile oil-sands protesters take last stand outside White House Add to ...

Susan Casey-Lefkowitz had never been arrested. A lawyer by training and activist by trade, she has battled against the oil sands for the past six years.

But as the United States pushes toward the approval of a massive new pipeline to connect the Alberta oil sands with refineries in Texas, a frustrated Ms. Casey-Lefkowitz decided to court arrest in a civil-disobedience protest at President Barack Obama’s doorstep.

“It feels we’re up against such a fierce opponent in the oil industry. It took putting our bodies on the line. It’s about saying: This is so important that I am willing to be arrested,” said Ms. Casey-Lefkowitz.

She was among more than 1,200 who were handcuffed over two weeks in front of the White House, including liberal Canadian writer Naomi Klein and climate scientists. The protest ended Saturday and was a deliberate, strategic escalation of action against the oil sands, and activist anger over governments’ perceived inaction on climate change.

Organizers decided they needed to be louder and chose civil disobedience. The move comes as environmentalists sense they are losing the fight, even with a Democrat, Mr. Obama, in the White House.

The President has final say on the proposed Keystone oil-sands pipeline, which is backed by Calgary’s TransCanada Corp. The project is expected by industry to be approved in the name of national security and, in late August, Keystone received important State Department backing.

Ms. Klein, activist author of No Logo and The Shock Doctrine, was also arrested for the first time.

“Ever since the climate talks collapsed in Copenhagen, there’s been more and more talk that nonviolent civil disobedience is going to have to be really resurrected as a mass tactic,” said Ms. Klein.

“A lot of the people arrested are the types who have gone to all of the UN summits and played by the rules. We’re watching the process go backwards. These are people really immersed in climate science and feel a tremendous sense of urgency.”

James Hansen was one of those scientists. Mr. Hansen, 70, is head of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies and has long warned about global warming. On Aug. 29, after shouting in a microphone for the President to stop Keystone for “the sake of your children and grandchildren,” he was arrested.

As for others such as Ms. Klein, arrested on Sept. 2, Mr. Hansen was cited for disobeying an order and fined $100. It is illegal to loiter in front of the White House and the U.S. Park Police ordered protesters to disperse and, when they did not, arrested them.

Protests against Keystone, and the oil sands, remain tiny compared with other public agitation around the world, or in the past. The U.S. civil-rights march in 1963 drew more than 200,000 people. This year, the battle against Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak quickly pulled more than one million people to the streets. In Israel on Saturday, an estimated 300,000 gathered in Tel Aviv to protest against lack of affordable housing, dim employment prospects for young people and other issues.

For the oil sands, protest organizer Bill McKibben said the arrest strategy made the two weeks in Washington a success. It drew attention that anti-Keystone activists had previously failed to garner.

Mr. McKibben, founder of environmental group 350.org, said civil disobedience would be employed again against Keystone on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Sept. 26, and during the final months in the U.S. ahead of Mr. Obama’s decision. And while it looks like environmentalists face another loss in the face of likely approval of Keystone, Mr. McKibben is unwavering.

“We need to find a different currency to work in and for the past two weeks that currency was our bodies,” said Mr. McKibben. “The odds, I suppose, remain against us but we’ll continue to use our wits, creativity and our bodies. Canada will be the next locus for civil disobedience.”

Report Typo/Error

Follow on Twitter: @davidebner

Next story




Most popular videos »

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular