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The Grassroots Battle Against Big Oil | The Nation

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The Grassroots Battle Against Big Oil

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Activists with Tar Sands Blockade lock themselves to equipment used to build the Keystone XL pipeline, near Nacogdoches, Texas, November 19, 2012. (Elizabeth Brossa)

One morning in mid-July, I drove north out of Houston at the crack of dawn, three hours up Highway 59 into the cleaner air and dense, piney woods of deep East Texas. It was Sunday, and I was on my way to church.

I’d been up that way before: my father was born and raised in northeast Texas—in fact, my whole family is from Texas—and I’m no stranger to Bible Belt Christianity. But I’d never been to a church like the one where I was headed that morning: the small, progressive Austin Heights Baptist Church in Nacogdoches, which meets in an unassuming building on the edge of town.

About the Author

Wen Stephenson
Wen Stephenson
Wen Stephenson, an independent journalist and climate activist, is at work on a book about climate justice to be...

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If you live in a toxic environment like this, surrounded by refineries, you’re probably not thinking about some future apocalypse. You’re living in one.

“Environmentalism” has failed. The planet now needs a movement far more radical.

Austin Heights was formed as a breakaway congregation in the charged atmosphere of 1968, when its founders could no longer accept the dominant Southern Baptist line on issues of race and war, and it established a lasting fellowship with the leading African-American church in Nacogdoches, Zion Hill First Baptist. The first morning I was there, the Rev. Kyle Childress, Austin Heights’ pastor since 1989 (and the only white member of the local black ministers’ alliance), preached on the Old Testament prophet Amos, who, he noted, was among the favorites of Martin Luther King Jr. Childress began his sermon by reminding us that this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the protests in Bull Connor’s Birmingham in the spring of 1963 and the March on Washington later that summer, and that one of King’s most-used lines (found, for example, in his 1963 “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” and “I Have a Dream” speech) was a verse from that morning’s Scripture reading in Amos: “Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.” 

The prophet Amos, Childress told us, was called to be a fierce advocate—among the Bible’s fiercest—on behalf of justice for the poor and oppressed. “Amos’s strong preaching was hard then, and it’s hard today,” Childress said. Just as in Amos’s day, when the wealthy trampled on the poor while worshiping piously in the temples, so today our “programs of care for the poor and needy” are dismantled “with a religious zeal.” Meanwhile, “giant corporations get a free ride. They can diminish people, destroy the earth, pour out climate-changing carbon, all in the interest of short-term profit, and no one can do anything about it.” But Amos knew, Childress assured us, that God is the spring of justice—and that without God, “we are unable to keep up the struggle for justice and goodness and love over the long haul.”

“God calls us to justice, to be a people who embody justice,” said Childress, himself a longtime activist on issues of race, poverty and peace. And yet, as King and all those who fought for civil rights knew, “serving and battling for justice is a long-haul kind of calling.”

Childress—deeply influenced by the likes of Wendell Berry, the late Will D. Campbell and, of course, King—is not a Bible-thumper. He doesn’t shout. Heavyset and ruddy-faced, with a whitening, close-cropped beard, he speaks with a soft, flat West Texas accent. But his voice carries real power and conviction. I would have been impressed with his sermon even if I didn’t know that his words that Sunday morning held a heightened significance for his congregation—not just because of the civil rights history, but because this little East Texas church, which can count perhaps 100 souls in its pews on a typical Sunday, is involved in a new battle. I wasn’t there just to hear the preaching.

In the past year, the Austin Heights congregation has found itself in the thick of the intense fight over the Keystone XL pipeline, specifically the southern leg of it—running from Cushing, Oklahoma, through East Texas (within twenty miles of Nacogdoches) to Gulf Coast refineries in Port Arthur and Houston—which was fast-tracked by President Obama in March 2012 and is now nearing completion, according to TransCanada, the Canadian corporation building it.

I’d reached out to Childress, and following the morning service I was scheduled to meet and interview, there at the church, several members of Tar Sands Blockade, the diverse group of mostly young, radical climate and social-justice activists (many of them Occupy veterans) who one year earlier had mounted a high-stakes, headline-grabbing campaign of nonviolent direct action—including a dramatic, eighty-five-day aerial tree blockade and numerous lockdowns at construction sites—to stop or slow the pipeline’s construction in Texas. In the process, they’ve worked with everyone from local environmentalists raising the alarm on the dangers of tar sands leaks and spills (as seen in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Mayflower, Arkansas) to conservative landowners fighting TransCanada’s use (and, they will tell you, abuse) of eminent domain. Most of those who have engaged in and supported the direct action campaign—a true grassroots uprising—have been Texans, young and old, twentysomethings and grandparents. 

Last fall, a number of the young blockaders, living at an encampment on private property just outside Nacogdoches, started coming to church at Austin Heights. And though they came from all sorts of cultural and religious backgrounds, and often had no religion at all, they formed a close bond with many members of the mostly white, middle-class congregation—who welcomed them into their homes like family—and had been working with the local grassroots anti-pipeline group Nacogdoches STOP (Stop Tar-Sands Oil Permanently), co-founded by members of Austin Heights.

Since the blockaders began showing up at his church, Childress told me as we drank coffee on his back porch the next morning, people have noticed a change in his preaching. “There’s an urgency that maybe I didn’t have before. They’re reminding us that climate change is not something we’re going to fiddle-faddle around with. I mean, you’ve got to step up now.” 

But there’s more to it, Childress continued: “I’m preaching to young people who are putting their lives on the line. They didn’t come down here driving a Mercedes Benz, sitting around under a shade tree eating grapes. They hitchhiked. They rode buses. And they get arrested, they get pepper-sprayed, they get some stiff penalties thrown against them.” (In January, Tar Sands Blockade and allied groups settled a lawsuit brought by TransCanada seeking $5 million in damages for construction delays, forcing them to stay off the pipeline easement and any TransCanada property.) 

Childress noted that some of the blockaders, especially the Occupy veterans, refer to the corporate capitalist system as “the Machine.” “And they’re exactly right, using that kind of language,” he said. “They’re going up against the Machine in a real, clearly defined way. Not subtle—really upfront. And I’m trying to help them realize what it’s going to take to sustain the struggle.” 

* * *

When it exploded onto the scene last summer and fall, Tar Sands Blockade galvanized a climate movement that was ready for escalated direct action to stop the Keystone XL and build resistance to extreme fossil fuel extraction: everything from the exploitation of tar sands, to shale oil and gas fracking, to mountaintop-removal coal mining. As several climate organizers engaged at the national level have told me, the East Texas blockade showed the movement what it looks like to stand up and fight against seemingly insurmountable odds. Now, a full year since it launched, and with the southern leg of the pipeline all but in the ground, I wanted to find out how—and even if—Tar Sands Blockade would go forward. 

In some ways, the challenges it faces reflect those facing the climate movement writ large. There’s a tension, which many in the movement feel, between the sheer urgency of climate action—the kind of urgency that leads one to blockade a pipeline—and the slower, more patient work required for organizing and movement building over the long haul. I wanted to know what it will take for Tar Sands Blockade to sustain its struggle—not only what it took to get into the fight, in such dramatic fashion, but what it takes to stay in the fight. 

That first Sunday at Austin Heights, I talked for several hours with four blockaders who were still living at the camp outside town. All of them had been arrested while participating in various direct actions on the southern pipeline route. One of them, a young woman in her early 20s who asked not to be identified, was an Occupy veteran who’d engaged in a high-risk tree-sit on the pipeline easement and whose legal case was still unresolved. Another, a recent MIT grad named Murtaza Nek, whose family is Pakistani-American and whose Muslim faith is central to his climate-justice activism, told me he finds a lot of common ground with Childress and the Austin Heights congregation. He was arrested while serving as support for an action near Diboll, south of Nacogdoches. 

A third blockader, 42-year-old Fitzgerald Scott, also an Occupy veteran (Tampa, DC, Denver), is a former Marine who was born in Trinidad, grew up in Newark and East Orange, New Jersey, and has a master’s in urban planning from the University of Illinois at Chicago. The only African-American blockader I met, he’d recently been arrested, not once but twice, for locking down at Keystone construction sites in Oklahoma. He told me that he’d joined the blockade out of solidarity with other activists and with people in frontline communities fighting the industry, not out of any deep environmental commitment. “To me, the environmental movement was far removed from blacks,” he said. 

The fourth blockader was 22-year-old Matt Almonte. In December, he and another activist named Glen Collins locked themselves to each other and two 600-pound barrels filled with concrete inside part of the pipeline that was under construction—and came close to being gravely injured when police used machinery to pull the pipe sections apart by force. Though he was charged only with misdemeanors, his bail was set at $65,000, and he spent a month in jail. 

For Matt, a veteran of Occupy Tampa who grew up working-class in urban New Jersey before his family moved to a “gated suburban thing” in south Florida, the lasting impact of Tar Sands Blockade “was to show ‘ordinary people’ that it’s absolutely vital to take direct action, and that even in a community like East Texas, people are rising against the fossil fuel industry.” He emphasized that trainings and actions are being networked out across the country, in South Dakota, Oklahoma, and elsewhere along the northern pipeline route and beyond—“places that don’t typically see a lot of environmental resistance.” Matt seemed impatient for more escalated direct action, the kind that was no longer happening along the southern Keystone XL route. Shortly after we talked, he and another member of Tar Sands Blockade decided to move on. 

By the time I arrived in Nacogdoches, the blockaders’ numbers had dwindled—some who had come from out of state had returned home or drifted off to join other direct-action campaigns, against Keystone and extraction projects—and the group was at something of a crossroads. Indeed, they were wrestling not only with tactics and strategy but with the very nature of the campaign, now that there was essentially nothing left, in the near term, to blockade. 

But a solid core of about twenty organizers, many of them young native Texans, had regrouped in Houston and were shifting into something more like community organizing, engaging with environmental justice efforts on the city’s hard-hit, largely Latino east side. As several told me, they wanted their campaign not only to carry on the fight against Keystone and tar sands but to build a base of grassroots resistance to the fossil fuel industry right there in Texas, especially in the frontline communities—most often communities of color—that are most affected by fossil fuel pollution. The kind of places, they point out, where the climate movement has established little, if any, foothold. 

Back in Houston, I sat down with several members of Tar Sands Blockade, who talked with me openly about the campaign at this pivotal moment. Kim Huynh, 26, was born in a Vietnamese refugee camp in Indonesia and immigrated with her family to Florida, where she went to the University of Florida and studied political science and sociology. A year ago, she left a job with Friends of the Earth in Washington, DC, where she’d focused on Keystone and climate, and came to Texas to join the blockade. I asked Kim if she has any trouble reconciling the urgency of climate action, as seen in the pipeline fight, with the kind of long-term commitment required for movement-building. 

“I certainly feel that tension,” she told me. “A lot of folks that I’ve worked with feel that tension very strongly, feel it in their bodies. It’s an anxiety.” At the same time, she said, she also feels “a commitment to the idea that we need systemic change, like actually hacking at the roots of what climate change is and what’s created climate change.” That kind of change is a long-term thing, she acknowledged. “It isn’t going to come just from stopping the pipeline. Stopping the pipeline is a good start.” 

“The challenge and struggle for TSB,” Kim said, “is to figure out how we define escalation, as a campaign that started from this extremely escalated place.” 

“Personally,” she said, “I draw a lot of inspiration and lessons from the black freedom movement, the civil rights movement, thinking about groups like SNCC and the way they defined escalation as going into the most deeply segregated areas in the South and doing voter registration.” That’s a whole other kind of escalation, Kim said, “doing the organizing in the areas where it’s possibly most important to do. Maybe that strategy is less like direct action as we know it—lockdowns—and more like community organizing. But that doesn’t mean it’s any de-escalation.” 

“The communities that are most impacted by these industries,” she said, “the people who are living and breathing it every day—they need to be leading the fight.” 

That idea—the disproportionate impact not only of climate change but of the fossil fuel industry on hard-pressed communities that can least afford it—is at the heart of what Tar Sands Blockade means by climate justice. They want a radical movement, one that grasps the problem whole, at the roots of the system, and fights alongside those who are already on the front lines—and always have been. 

* * *

When I first met Ron Seifert, we were standing outside on a sweltering early evening at Hartman Park in Houston’s Manchester neighborhood, just east of the 610 Loop along the Houston Ship Channel, across the street from a massive Valero refinery. Ron is a founding member of Tar Sands Blockade—and, at 32, also among the oldest, with the first early flecks of gray showing in his trim black beard. Having trained for years in long-distance endurance racing, his slender frame seems to conceal a reservoir of stamina. Ron grew up in Wisconsin and South Carolina and came to Texas in late 2011 from Montana, where he’d been exploring grad school in environmental science and law. He had joined the historic sit-ins at the White House in August 2011 and was one of the 1,253 people arrested protesting the Keystone XL. Later that fall, along with another activist named Tom Weis, Ron biked the full length of the pipeline route, from Montana to Texas. In the spring and summer of 2012, after Obama fast-tracked the southern leg, he helped launch Tar Sands Blockade, together with members of Rising Tide North Texas, on landowner David Daniel’s property near Winnsboro, in northeast Texas, site of the storied eighty-five-day tree blockade. 

Rural and small-town East Texas is a world away from Manchester. Overwhelmingly Latino, the community is surrounded by oil refineries and other heavily polluting industrial facilities—a chemical plant, a tire plant, a car-crushing facility, a train yard and a sewage treatment plant—and sits at the intersection of two major expressways. The people who live there already breathe some of the country’s most toxic air, and they have the health statistics to prove it. Not just asthma and other respiratory problems—a recent investigation by researchers at the University of Texas School of Public Health found that children living within two miles of the Ship Channel have a 56 percent higher risk of acute lymphocytic leukemia than those living only ten miles away. Yudith Nieto, a local environmental justice organizer who grew up in Manchester, told me of her family’s health struggles, including her own childhood asthma, which improved when she moved out of the neighborhood to attend art school. 

The Ship Channel and nearby refineries—along with the refineries near the poor and African-American communities of Port Arthur—are also a prime destination for the vast majority of tar sands crude that will flow from Alberta to the Texas Gulf via the Keystone XL if it’s approved, only increasing the toxic emissions in these fence-line neighborhoods. 

I was there in Manchester that evening to tag along with members of Tar Sands Blockade as they canvassed the community door to door, conducting a health survey in collaboration with the local Houston group TEJAS (Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services) and letting residents know about the upcoming Healthy Manchester Festival there at the park. Later, TEJAS co-founders Juan Parras, a longtime labor and environmental justice organizer, and his son Bryan talked with me about the challenges the climate movement faces in places like Manchester, or anyplace where immediate health, economic and social pressures are paramount. Broadly speaking, Bryan Parras told me, most efforts at climate action “tend to leave the same folks that are already in bad situations in bad situations. There’s no incentive for them to get involved.” (He expanded on this and other ideas in an interview posted on my blog at TheNation.com.) 

Robert Bullard, dean of the Barbara Jordan–Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern University in Houston, is widely acknowledged as the father of the environmental justice movement, thanks to his pioneering work on the disproportionate impacts of pollution in African-American communities, documented in his landmark 1990 book, Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality. “We could stop every pipeline being built from Canada to Texas, we could stop every fracking operation, and still not deal with the justice question—what happens in these communities,” Bullard told me. “What we’re trying to drive home with our friends and colleagues in our larger environmental movement, our larger climate movement, is to talk about these communities that are at greatest risk, put a real face on this. Make it real.” 

Tar Sands Blockade is listening to what those like Parras and Bullard are saying. “Disproportionate impact is very real,” Ron said. “And what the communities that are most disproportionately affected actually look like—we need to acknowledge the reality of that, and to understand that climate justice is tied in with racial justice, with environmental justice, with class struggle.” 

Ron told me that Tar Sands Blockade wants to support and amplify the work of TEJAS and other environmental justice groups in Texas, not try to commandeer it. He and his Tar Sands Blockade colleagues are highly conscious of what might be called the “parachuter syndrome,” in which outside activist groups, however well intentioned, are perceived to be pursuing their own agendas. Given that apparent tension, I asked Ron if there’s not a disconnect of sorts between the kind of urgent climate action that Tar Sands Blockade has embodied (literally) in its direct action campaign and the slower, and in some ways more difficult, work of environmental justice organizing in these communities. 

Maybe, he said. But, ultimately, “it doesn’t matter.” 

“Pipelines and refineries and droughts—those are not different things,” Ron continued. “That is climate change. The refineries are climate change. Keystone XL is climate change. Tar sands exploitation is climate change. It’s all the same thing. And we understand that these communities are bearing the brunt of this industry—which is one and the same as climate change. And it’s in their backyards.” 

“We’re not there to tell them what the problem is and what to do about it,” Ron said. “It’s the same as organizing with landowners in East Texas. We’re not salespeople coming to these communities saying, ‘Time to rise up!’ People have cancer, leukemia. They have children in the neighborhood die. They understand this industry will kill you for profits.” 

Over the course of multiple conversations, Ron told me that a core group of Tar Sands Blockade organizers are dedicating themselves to the kind of climate justice organizing that national environmental groups aren’t doing in Texas. From the start, Ron said, Tar Sands Blockade has shown a willingness to defy a status quo within the larger movement, in which only “winnable campaigns” are taken on—and funded. With the fight in East Texas, and by digging in now for the longer, even harder fight in Houston, “we’ve been able to say, ‘This is worth fighting no matter what, even if it looks like we can’t win.’” 

“That type of real investment and commitment,” Ron said, “the idea that you have to go into where the problem is worst—like Mississippi during the civil rights era—you have to get in there and get a foothold. We hope we can empower local-led action and resistance. In Houston itself, there are literally millions of people who are being poisoned. We should be able to empower folks here to rise up and defend their own homes.” 

“If the climate movement is ever going to win in a really robust way, it’s gotta come to Texas, the belly of the beast,” Ron told me. “Houston, and the Texas Gulf, is the lion’s den—the largest petrochemical complex on planet Earth. If the base isn’t there, if the communities there aren’t organized and informed, empowered to take action, the movement isn’t going to be successful when it needs to be.” 

“The industry,” Ron said, “has shown every intention of escalating the climate crisis beyond certain tipping points, and people in these communities are affected by the industry right now, in desperate ways.” In a situation like this, he said, “we need to ask ourselves as organizers, ‘What does escalation look like? What could possibly be too escalated?’ Physically blockading infrastructure is a great place to start that conversation.” They may have failed to stop the construction of the southern pipeline, “but we can still build and cultivate a culture of resistance and action, capable of escalating to the point of shutting this stuff down in the future.”

I asked him what happens if Obama approves the Keystone XL and construction of the northern segment begins. Will Tar Sands Blockade still be committed to Texas? “I can guarantee you that if that segment is approved, and our friends and allies in Montana and South Dakota and Nebraska give us a call, there will be physical blockades in those areas as well, by local folks interested in that kind of resistance. But that doesn’t mean abandoning our base in Houston and East Texas. These are not mutually exclusive things.” 

“There are two distinct lines of work that need to be done simultaneously,” he said. “One is to smash these systems that are oppressing us and destroying the world. The other is to build up the world that we want to see.” 

“It’s a long-term commitment that we are making,” Ron said. 

* * *

Before I left Nacogdoches, the blockaders gave me directions to their camp outside town. I arrived mid-morning, and the four I’d interviewed at the church were the only ones there. Murtaza showed me around. There was the small, ramshackle house that was used as a makeshift HQ and the communal outdoor kitchen under a blue plastic tarp, which had served fifty or more at one time. There was the outhouse that one of the Austin Heights members had built for them. As we walked a footpath into the woods in back, I saw the few remaining tents and an ingeniously rigged (if less than private) shower. Some climbing tackle still hung from a large tree. Nearby was a big pile of buckets and containers once used for hauling water. Murtaza thought the camp now had a vaguely post-apocalyptic look to it—or perhaps, I thought, like a guerrilla encampment after the battle shifts to new ground. 

After my tour, I sat down with Fitzgerald at the picnic table by the kitchen, next to a campfire he was tending. I asked him if the “blockade,” as such, was over. 

“It’s hard to define ‘over,’” he replied. “When I got here, blockading was as direct action as direct action can get. That part of TSB in Texas, I think, is done.” 

What about building a deeper resistance that can go forward? 

“TSB didn’t come here to create a resistance,” he said. “That resistance already existed. We partnered in that resistance, and we’re still partnering in it.” 

Had Tar Sands Blockade strengthened that resistance? “Without a doubt,” he answered. “As far as resistance is concerned, we are far from done.” 

Since we spoke, Fitzgerald has moved to the Beaumont–Port Arthur area, engaging in environmental justice work with the African-American communities there. But he told me that he and the others want to remain engaged with Nacogdoches. He feels close to the Austin Heights community, and he’s been reaching out to the Zion Hill congregation. “I’m trying to get the African-American community more involved,” he said, “because that’s just where I come from.”

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The next weekend in Nacogdoches, I sat down again with Kyle Childress, this time in his office at the church. A portrait of Martin Luther King Jr. hangs on the wall. I told him, only half joking, that it was a little intimidating to sit there under Dr. King’s gaze. 

“There’s a line in the old King James,” Childress told me, “that says the prayers of a faithful person ‘availeth much.’ One person, one small community, acting in faithfulness, can bring healing, hope, change.” 

“Some of these blockaders,” he said, “were risking their lives up there in a tree trying to block that pipeline. And TransCanada has billions of dollars and says, ‘We’ll just go around you. You slowed us down for a day.’ Well, if that’s all there is, by sheer mathematics they win. But I think the prayers of a faithful person availeth much—and those blockaders are acting in fidelity to the goodness, the rightness, of God’s earth. That keeps me going. That’s my hope. And if I didn’t have hope, well, I’d probably just cash it in and go do something else for a living. I mean, you know, I’m not going to be pastor of a church without any hope.” 

This summer, Zoë Carpenter reported on a protest by former Obama campaign staffers against the Keystone Pipeline.

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