When I remember what happened, I remember the beauty first. The blue sky, the soaring hawk, the oak sapling mangled by the backhoe we’d stopped. That oak was very inspirational to us as we awaited our fate. By surviving TransCanada’s clear-cutting, it symbolized our own plans to weather the forces marshalled against us.
It was Tuesday, September the 25th. I was anchored to the back of heavy machinery with someone I’d just met. We’d both travelled to East Texas to help derail TransCanada’s massive tar sands pipeline. Climate change is a global problem, but this terribly destructive project was coming right to our backyard; how could I sit idly by?
For years now, TransCanada has been abusing eminent domain to expropriate Texans’ land for their phenomenally wasteful pipeline. Years of political lobbying had led to project delays, but had been insufficient to stop TransCanada from breaking ground. Despite multiple lawsuits, TransCanada was busy clear-cutting forests on disputed land, and so I joined TarSandsBlockade.org – a nonviolent direct action campaign started to stop the KXL Pipeline.
I joined the Tar Sands Blockade for three reasons. One: We hoped to prevent the tar sands carbon bomb from being released, with the goal of preventing catastrophic levels of climate change. Two: As a proud member of Occupy Houston, I felt I had a responsibility to help prevent a multinational company from perverting Texas law so it might misuse eminent domain for its own private gain. Three: A belief, rooted in my Unitarian Universalism, that I have a duty to assist nonviolent tactics and help demonstrate that they are a successful path to change.
Things began calmly enough. Around 10 a.m., a small group of us discovered a backhoe that was working on a path perhaps a thousand feet away from – and rapidly approaching – the trees containing our friends’ aerial blockade. We had a chance to delay the threat; we took it. At a run, we approached the machine. The driver stopped promptly, and Rain and I attached ourselves to the hydraulic arm at the back with a “lockbox” — in this case, a steel pipe modified so that we could latch via carabiners onto a center pin. Rain and I had known each other for less than a day, but now I can’t imagine enduring what happened without her.
TransCanada’s workers were upset when we locked ourselves onto their machine, but the situation remained verbal and stayed peaceful, if tense, for hours, until around two o’clock in the afternoon. Even after the arrival of the local police, we knew we were still in civilization; one of the TransCanada workers brought us water so quickly and quietly that the officers watching us didn’t even notice. When things changed, they changed suddenly and with startling brutality.
It started with the arrival of TransCanada’s senior supervisor. The regular employees became scarce as the supervisor called for a huddle with the police. The huddle broke and a phalanx of officers marched on us to announce that we were under arrest. Failing to unlock immediately was resisting, which would result in additional charges and justify the officers’ use of “pain compliance.” I suppose TransCanada had grown tired of waiting.
They started like schoolyard bullies – taunting us while twisting my arm behind me, and jumping on my back to put me in a choke hold. The lieutenant asked, “Is your goal just to go to jail? You can go to jail without the pain; it’s your stubbornness that’s making us do this.” I had to stop myself from replying, “I wish this cup would pass me by.” I didn’t say it because I was sure they would misinterpret it as blasphemously casting myself as Jesus, but I meant it; I wished there was another way to accomplish our goals. I wasn’t looking forward to what my time with the ACLU led me to expect they would do to us. But I don’t believe in giving in to terrorism; to follow one’s moral compass in spite of extreme challenges is the way we move forward.
The lieutenant told us he understood – the state had just taken some of his land to build a freeway. I tried to explain that this was different; Transcanada was still in court to see if they even had the right to be there. Even though he admitted that he had never seen anything like this in his twenty-two years of law enforcement, I failed to get through.
Before breaking out the pepper spray, the officers handcuffed my unlocked arm to the backhoe. One officer then maneuvered my right arm so the nozzle of the can of pepper spray could be inserted into the lockbox anchoring us to the machine. Pepper spray is designed to be sprayed from a distance so the aerosol can dilute the active ingredients with air. Surprisingly, it didn’t hurt badly at first, and I thought, “Oh, this is like peppers that gradually build up in intensity.” Then they repeated the spray on Rain’s side and I could feel it entering the cuts on my fingers.
I realized it would be a slow-building pain, and that’s when I remembered that I had known what to do when your hand is stuck in a pain-box since I’d read Herbert’s Dune as a boy; for ages I silently chanted, “Fear is the mindkiller. Fear is the little death.”
It was through a single finger each that Rain and I were linked to each other. The pepper spray made our fingers slippery, and Rain’s fingers were already numb from how our arms were twisted. But compassion only needs a tiny connection to be more powerful than despair.
In a moment of dark humor, we discovered that we knew to hold our breath when the pepper spray was being dispersed, but the cops didn’t, so it was the aggressors who first felt the effect of it, coughing and choking. We had closed our eyes, sure that they were going to spray us in the face, but we were spared that.
The cops were surprised that we didn’t immediately let go, and they tried to joke away the wait. So when one of them said, “But Lieutenant, the pepper spray is expired!” I didn’t believe them at the time. The officers showed me the canister afterwards when we were in custody; it had expired in 2000. While the burn was building, the lieutenant assured the TransCanada supervisor he would buy a whole new crate for us protesters.
When the pepper spray failed to produce immediate compliance, they broke out the taser.
The police’s announced plan was to taser us repeatedly for increasing intervals until we detached. The older, plainclothes cop calmly explained that he was going to say “taser” three times, then engage for one second in my leg. Each repetition would be for an increased duration.
“Taser… Taser… Taser…” Pain. My voice in my head, quoting V for Vendetta’s famous torture sequence: “But for three years, I had roses. And apologized to no one.” One second of intense pain takes you outside of time; nothing exists but the pain.
A taser is sold as a weapon-tool for halting controlled motion: to make someone stop. While the torture device was on, I was able to remain standing and silent, but the pain was intense. I could not have gathered the concentration required to detach the carabiner even if the pipe hadn’t twisted it out of my grasp.
I had a few seconds to clear my head, then he switched to my upper left arm – the arm where they had handcuffed me. It’s hard to describe. The world was pain, and I repeated Valerie’s quote from V for Vendetta to myself as I heard the lieutenant speculate to the TransCanada supervisor that my fat was insulating me, making it harder for the taser to “bite into the meat,” which is why it wasn’t hurting me as much as they were hoping. The pain was fluid, and by the fifth second, my left pectoral muscle was tingling. But like all things, it passed. The pain, like the fear, washed through. The taunting, however, continued.
The officers informed us that I was too “mule-headed” to be chivalrous and spare Rain pain I had just experienced. When they moved on to torture Rain, the young Wood County deputy who had been selected to taser her was reluctant. He asked if he really had to; he interrupted his count to ask if she was sure she wouldn’t let go. I don’t know what combination of humanity and patriarchal programing was at work, but it was a notable difference from the officer who tortured me. Rain was clearly in more pain from her treatment than I was, and she has a health condition that made sustained tasering significantly more dangerous to her. Rather than have the police continue to dice with our lives, we decided to detach.
Throughout our ordeal, Rain and I were able to reassure each other by holding fingers inside our steel pipe; this human contact sustained us while we had to endure each other being tortured. It also allowed us to be sure that the decision to detach was mutual. Due to the earlier twisting of the tube and the effects of the torture, we were unable to untangle ourselves from the restraints without assistance from the cops.
As soon as we were fully in custody, the TransCanada supervisor thanked the Wood County lieutenant for “a job well done.” The lieutenant’s reply? “If this happens again, we’ll just skip to using pepper spray and tasing in the first 10 minutes.”
Unbowed. Unbent. Unbroken.
Photo: Tar Sands Blockade