They call it a tipping point. It began with the "Shell No" mobilization last spring, when activists in Portland and Seattle thwarted the oil giant's Arctic drilling plans. Now, after days of successful mass actions with the Break Free From Fossil Fuels campaign, in which thousands of protesters on six continents took defiant action earlier this month to keep fossil fuels in the ground, from the coal fields of Germany to the oil wells in Nigeria, a cross-regional campaign that's taken root in the Pacific Northwest is vowing to continue the momentum.
"We have no choice but to take things into our own hands," said Sarra Tekola with Women of Color Speak Out, one of the groups involved in the mobilization.
"Our government isn't taking the risk to our lives or our children's seriously," Tekola added. "As American citizens we have a lot of privilege, as well as a lot of responsibility." The US is not only the country that has polluted the most, but also "the US is the one who's kept climate negotiations from having enforcement mechanisms," said Tekola, whose father migrated from Ethiopia because of famine and desertification resulting from climate change in the 1970s. Until the federal government takes definitive action to keep temperatures below 1.5 degrees of warming seriously, she added, "we'll be back."
For now, Tekola and others who participated in the collective action last weekend that shut down rail lines and roads leading to the Shell and Tesoro oil refineries in the coastal town of Anacortes, Washington, are savoring their victories. Many see the victories -- which united Indigenous tribes, youth and mixed generations from Oregon, Montana and Washington -- as threefold. Rail lines were occupied and shut down for 34 hours. Shipping to the refineries was apparently halted for the weekend. Neither Shell nor Tesoro would confirm this fact, but the absence of ships in nearby waters was clear, say organizers. In addition, climate justice efforts were resolidified between non-Indigenous organizers and Indigenous Northwest tribes as well as with First Nations from Canada.
The rail line occupation began on the night of Friday, May 13, when members of Seattle's Raging Grannies, an activist group composed of women old enough to be grandmothers that has managed to stake out a presence in nearly every fossil fuel fight in the Pacific Northwest, chained themselves to each other and their rocking chairs, which were lined up along the tracks.
Tents along BNSF tracks leading to refineries in Anacortes, Washington. (Photo: Courtesy of Elliot Stoller)
Organizers set up a diversion for law enforcement while the grannies took their places, and while tents, a van with an orca emblazoned on its side and scaffolding were quickly put into place. By agreement, the grannies were the first ones police and security guards would confront, says David, a young participant from the nearby college town of Bellingham. "I felt like they were my grandmothers and the grandmothers of the earth," he said. In the lead-up to two nights of sleeping in tents on railroad tracks that run oil trains, "They were protecting us and grounding us," he added.
Caroline Partridge with 350 Eugene, a local affiliate of the global grassroots climate organization 350.org, says group members heard the BNSF Railway might shut down operations along tracks leading to the refineries, but no one knew for how long. That was the gamble. "We took the space for as long as we could," she said.
Asked for comment, BNSF spokesperson Courtney Wallace said in an email, "We adjusted operations for safety reasons and worked with law enforcement throughout the weekend regarding the trespassing on our property."
By 5 am on the morning of Sunday, May 15, 34 hours after the rail occupation began, it was terminated. State and county law enforcement and BNSF security raided the encampment, guns drawn, rousing those who slept in their tents.
Fifty-two activists were arrested. Some six hours later, they were released "on their own recognizance." Organizers say jail capacity in the area is limited and unable to accommodate lengthy stays by those engaged in civil disobedience. A court date for the activists who shut down the railway is set for June 2.
"It starts here. It's one more battle ... a battle to save the earth and one we can't lose."
Meanwhile, on May 14, an Indigenous Day of Action to March Point (the thumb-like projection of inland sea between the Pacific Ocean and Fidalgo Bay, east of Anacortes) drew an estimated 1,500 people. Shell and Tesoro began to build refinery capacity on this land -- the land of the Swinomish tribe -- over 50 years ago. The Day of Action, as tribes explained, was a kind of collective cry for Mother Earth and incorporated ceremonies, chanting and drumming by Salish Sea tribes, including the Lakota, Lummi and Tulalip, as well as the Waututh Nation from Canada.
Keep it in the ground sign, with image of sunflower and dinosaur. (Photo: Courtesy of Elliot Stoller)
"T'ze weh," Tulalip tribal leader Deborah Parker told the crowd. "Thank you for being her voice. It's up to us to stand up for Mother Earth; the young, the old, white, black, yellow and red nations. We're all one people on this planet. We come here in unity." Lummi leader Jewell James urged the crowd to "go to that sacred spot inside of you."
"Use that power and send it around the world," James told the crowd. "It starts here. It's one more battle ... a battle to save the earth and one we can't lose."
"Hyswka siem, oh great spirit, forgive them," he added, referring to the fossil fuel industry and federal government's need for forgiveness "for not loving Mother Earth."
James encouraged all to "lose their fear." The Lummi Nation recently prevailed in its fight to block the largest coal port ever proposed in North America at Cherry Point, near the city of Bellingham and north of Anacortes. Last week, the US Army Corps of Engineers, the agency reviewing permits for the deepwater port project, agreed with the tribe that it could not grant a permit for a project that would infringe on the Lummi Nation's treaty-protected fishing rights.
The decision wasn't lost on those involved in the three-day Break Free action. If coal could be stopped in its tracks, so too could oil and gas. "Up until now we've been on the defensive, stopping new proposed fossil fuel infrastructure projects in our region," said Carlo Voli, a Rising Tide organizer and liaison with Indigenous tribes. "But with Break Free PNW, we've gone on the offensive and directly targeted existing units of diesel production and gas, at the same time elevating the issue of a just and equitable transition to an economy based on 100 percent renewable energy without leaving communities or workers behind."
Shell Puget Sound Refinery belching smoke with the US flag blowing in the wind. (Photo: Courtesy of Elliot Stoller)
On May 15, after arrests had been made on the rail tracks that had been occupied, organizers vowed to occupy another line of tracks adjacent to Shell's Puget Sound Refinery. With oil trains visible, they walked in strict formation, chanting: "Oil, coal, gas; none shall pass. Leave it in the ground and turn the trains around."
Ten minutes later a phalanx of state troopers in riot gear blocked the protesters' movement on a public road 400 feet ahead of the tracks. Undeterred by the troopers, the protesters held their ground for an hour before moving further down the road to a bridge adjacent to the waterfront, where troopers again blocked their movement. Each time they were stopped, protesters renewed pledges to devote hearts and minds to Break Free. "It is our duty," they chanted, as their words echoed over the water. "Break Free, we will devote, Break Free, to lift all boats. We're gonna calm this crisis now. The people going to rise like the water. We're gonna calm this crisis down."
"Shell No" was the beginning, say organizers here who challenged the oil giant's plans in Portland and Seattle last spring. Break Free is now a confirmation, said Zarna Joshi, a Women of Color Speak Out organizer, "that the fossil fuel industry no longer has anywhere to hide."
Organizers in the Pacific Northwest remain committed to stop all 10 terminal or infrastructure proposals still on the table for coal, liquid natural gas, oil and fossil fuel byproducts such as methanol, propane-like gases and xylene. Nine have been proposed for Oregon and Washington and one has been proposed in British Columbia.
Martha Baskin is an environmental reporter, whose work on the subject began with a project for the King Conservation District in Washington State. She writes regularly for Crosscut.com, an online news magazine in Seattle. She was one of the founding reporters of Pacifica's Free Speech Radio News and has been a contributor to the National Radio Project's Making Contact. Her work is supported by the Puget Sound based, Human Links Foundation, committed to empowering people to improve the systems that affect their lives.