A middle-aged white guy named Al Smith walked past me down the hallway of the crowded Thurgood Marshall Center in Washington last Saturday. He stood out with his long blond hair under a gray knit-wool hat, grizzled and graying beard and tattoos covering his forearms. The back of his dark hooded sweatshirt bore the face of a wildcat in black and white, the logo of the Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands, also known as MICATS.
Smith was talking to one of his comrades on a cell phone as he passed. “What does he look like?” He was referring to me, another middle-aged white guy with graying stubble but short cropped hair, a Red Sox cap and a navy J Crew sweater.
In fact Smith and I both stood out in the crowd. The place was teeming with hundreds of energized and determined college students and recent grads from more than forty states and 100 schools, assembled for a training in nonviolent direct action. The next morning, Sunday, March 2, more than 1,200 young people would march from Georgetown University down Pennsylvania Avenue to Lafayette Park and the gates of the White House, where nearly 400 of them would be arrested for peaceful civil disobedience protesting the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and Barack Obama’s lack of seriousness on climate change. The student-led protest, dubbed XL Dissent, would be the largest one-day civil disobedience action at the White House in a generation. In a show of solidarity, the student organizers had invited Smith and his MICATS comrades Chris Wahmhoff and Jarret Schlaff, along with others from frontline communities fighting tar sands extraction and pipelines, to join the march and speak at the rally in Lafayette Park.
Smith’s presence that weekend had a special significance. His wife, Vicci Hamlin, was one of three women, known as the MICATS 3, facing two to three years in prison on felony charges after locking themselves to construction equipment last July in a peaceful protest against the expansion of the Enbridge Line 6B tar sands pipeline—the same one that ruptured in 2010, spilling catastrophically into the Kalamazoo River. On March 5, Hamlin, a 60-year-old great-grandmother, and her MICATS sisters Lisa Leggio, 35, and Barb Carter, 22, woud be sentenced—having already spent over a month in jail since their conviction on January 31. A petition with 60,000 signatures was delivered to the judge pleading for leniency. Perhaps it had some effect: on Wednesday, to great relief, the three were sentenced to time served and thirteen months probation and were released.
But on Saturday in Washington, Al didn’t know what to expect, and was bracing for the worst. “There’s no human being I respect more,” Al told me, speaking of Vicci, a lifelong activist who most recently worked at a shelter for abused women. “The one human being I believe should never be in jail. She has done nothing but love and care for people.”
I asked him why he and Vicci were protesting tar sands pipelines, whether TransCanada’s Keystone XL or the Enbridge Line 6B. “We had a strong emotional response to the Alberta tar sands,” he said. “We both believe that our survival, and the survival of life on the planet, really is at risk. And when we found out the way the indigenous people [in Alberta] are being treated, we were mad. We were angry.”