Guest author Carlo Voli
Edmonds Unitarian Universalist Church
It was Saturday August 20th in the evening and I opened an email from YES magazine noticed the article by Bill Mckibben – “This is getting exciting”, about the Tar Sands pipeline issue and the civil-disobedience campaign that was about to begin. I immediately went to the Tar Sands Action website, watched a couple of videos, and read the news that Bill and a group of other protesters had just gotten arrested and jailed that very same day. At that moment, something inside of me completely took over and I immediately decided to sign up for the sit-ins. Even though I was not in a financial situation to be able to afford the trip and I had no vacation days left at work, it did not matter. This inner force within me was over-riding all logic and insisting that I go. This was the moment I had been waiting for since I graduated in Social Anthropology from the London School of Economics, back in the early nineties, ready to save the world.
From the moment I signed-up to the Tar Sands Action my life has not been the same. I felt really excited; on a mission; empowered; committed; finally making a bold action in a larger arena. I informed all my networks, including the members of the Edmonds Unitarian Universalist Church I have been attending for the last 7 years, know that I was going to take part in this civil-disobedience action in DC and the reasons behind it. I was overwhelmed by the responses and shows of support I received, including several spontaneous offers from fellow EUUC members to help me financially.
The days leading to my DC trip were at times nerve-wrecking. First, the earthquake on the East Coast. Then the news of the upcoming Hurricane Irene which was going to coincide with my stay in DC. But no, I was determined, and on Thursday August 25th I flew out of Seattle open to all that was to happen.
I was supposed to have taken part of the scheduled sit-in on Saturday 27th, but the previous evening we were informed that that action had been cancelled because the Park Police were going to be focusing all their attention on emergency preparedness. Instead, our group of about 80 got to decide, in a fascinating democratic process facilitated by the amazing trainers of the Action, what to do instead of the sit-in. We all decided to do a rally in front of the White House anyways, so as to show resolve and that we weren’t going to give up the protest just because of the Hurricane. I also decided to join another small group, led by a Buddhist lady priest, which was planning to meditate in front of the White House prior to the rally.
Saturday morning, as I arrived in front of the White House, I could feel lots of butterflies in my belly as I was confronted with the enormity of the actions I was about to embark on. However, I still went ahead and sat with the rest of the group to meditate. That meditation proved to be one of the most powerful meditations I have ever done and allowed me to feel grounded and overcome my fears. And just as we were beginning the rally, the rains of Hurricane Irene started coming down on us. It was a powerful and symbolic action.Saturday evening I attended a party they were having for the protesters with local artists and musicians, and in between dancing and connecting with others, I briefly sat down next to Bill McKibben and asked him if he believed, as I did, that as individuals we can completely change the system by lowering our carbon footprints, using less resources, becoming more local and community oriented, not buying products from corporations that are creating social and environmental injustice, etc… Bill’s response was that he also believed in that, but that the problem is that we do not have enough time for that to happen in a wide enough scale to really make the difference and the changes that are required fast enough. We also have to work on making changes on a wider, macro-regional and global scale. We are running out of time.
Sunday evening came and I headed to the training session for Monday’s sit-in. This time there were almost double the number of people than on Friday and the energy was buzzing all around. I found out that there was an inter-faith delegation present and, to my delight, I quickly realized that in that group there was a large contingent of Unitarian Universalists, including pastors, UU members, and Robin Nelson, the Environmental Stewardship Manager for the UUA. I have been a very active member of the Edmonds Unitarian Universalist Church’s Sustainability Committee for the last 6 years, so it was also great meeting someone who was very involved in the same pursuit of “greening” UU congregations as I had been and still am. I was very proud of, and not surprised, that UU’s had the largest turn out in that inter-faith delegation.
During that training session we were advised as to what to expect the following day during the sit-in: legal ramifications; what to bring and not bring; and how to behave. We did some role playing, and ended with singing and chanting. It also was a great chance to meet and connect with more people from all over the country and learn about their stories and motivations.
Monday morning came and I headed to Lafayette Square to gather with all the other soon-to-be arrestees and all the other people that were there to support us. Finally, the day I had been waiting for had arrived. The energy and excitement were in the air and cameramen and reporters were swarming all over the place. After the inter-faith gathering had ended we all gathered in a circle once again, and this time Bill McKibben introduced James Hansen, NASA scientist and one of the world’s top climatologists, who gave a really emotive “I have a Dream” speech urging Obama to wake up to the reality of Climate Change and to fulfill the promises he had made during the electoral process that he would help us be the generation that would break our addiction to oil.
The time came for the sit-in and we all started walking solemnly towards the gates in front of the White House.
There were 140 of us, and I ended up sitting in the front row. At that moment I remember really being present to why I was really there, and my whole body, spirit and facial expression reflected that. I wasn’t there for the fun or excitement of getting arrested in front of the White House. I was there because all my life I had been carrying out actions to bring forth a more environmentally sustainable and socially just human presence on this planet, and I was very seriously requesting and demanding that Obama really make a stand and really prove that he is who he said he was, and that he play a major role to help our country steer course in a direction with much better chances of reaching my life-long goal. I was there because when Obama was elected president and during the inauguration period I spent weeks crying of happiness, emotion and hope. I was there representing the whole of creation that is being ravished by short term material and political interests. I was there because enough is enough!
The area was cordoned off by the police and the three warnings were given. We all stood and sat there defiant. The park police started arresting all the women one by one. And then continued with the men. My turn came and I stood up, was handcuffed quite tightly, and led to the police wagon. I remained solemn and somber reflecting the significance of the occasion. The wagon filled up with 9 other protesters and we were then driven to the police station. During that journey, I and the fellow wagon companions had a chance to meet, share our stories and form a special camaraderie. After a fairly long wait at the police station, we were processed, booked, allowed to pay a $100 fine, after which we were free to go. The whole process from the beginning of the sit-in till I was released lasted about 4 hours.
Outside the police station we were greeted by the organizers and other arrestees, and it felt great to reunite. A group of us walked together towards the nearby metro station and I had the privilege of walking next to, and conversing for 20 minutes with, Rabbi Dobb, a well known Rabbi in the DC area. I was very impressed with his positive spirit and his commitment to the environmental and social justice causes. After that, I caught the metro to the airport just in time to catch my flight back to Seattle.
Those 4 days deeply immersed in the Tar Sands Action in DC had been incredibly powerful, exciting, intense, and unique. I felt I had been part of the birth of this historic people movement, and felt really grateful that I had allowed myself to be part of it. I also felt motivated and inspired to continue being powerfully involved in this movement in whatever possible way I could.
In the days following my return I could sense a big shift in my whole being, physically and psychically, in all areas of my life. I felt more confident, powerful, determined and committed. I was humbly overwhelmed by the beautiful responses from all the people in my different networks that I shared my experience with. I was also itching to continue with the action, so two days before the last official sit-in protest was to take place in DC, I decided to organize a local rally in Seattle in solidarity with the Tar Sands Action protesters. Once again, I allowed myself to be driven by this inner force and ignored all the logic against organizing such an event with less than 43 hours notice. I decided to completely trust that the forces of the universe and Mother Nature would help me. And so it was that, two days after, about 15 of us gathered in the streets of Seattle with banners and a megaphone and held the solidarity rally and protest against the Tar Sands pipeline. And the beautiful thing about that was that my 16 year old son chose to join us and powerfully express himself out in the streets. I was so proud of him. A testament to what a beautiful and positive influence the Unitarian Universalist youth programs have on our young ones. An influence that I am eternally grateful for.