Lessons from Tar Sands Blockade
The following story was written by Dandelion, a youth activist from Oregon who had the opportunity to go to the Tar Sands Blockade in Texas to help out.
First I would like to clarify that I am a white, middle class woman, with a high school diploma, pursuing a degree in Environmental Studies. I went to Texas expecting to live in the woods with a bunch of anarcho-environmentalists, working on back woods strategy and reaching out to a primarily white landowning community. I ended up spending most of my time living in Houston, working on urban strategy and organizing with a primarily Latino community. Most of the tasks I took on entailed endless hours of research, creative design, interfacing with an impacted community, and securing food/monetary donations.
I worked with the Manchester community; a neighborhood boxed in by industry, including a Valero oil refinery, which is continually poisoning the surrounding area. This was the biggest challenge for me. I had never worked with a community that is directly impacted by extractive industry; a primarily Latino community living with the threat of deportation; a community that does not share the same privilege as my own. I mean privilege in the sense that I can get myself arrested protesting and I know that I won’t be deported or that I was targeted because of the color of my skin. Institutional racism is perpetuated in too many ways to count–I don’t understand all of them nor do I claim to–but this form of racism perpetuates the legacy of racial inequality in the United States and the world. I can speak out and know that if I am not taken seriously it is not because of the color of my skin.
I was unsure of how I could be as useful as possible in the fight for justice. Another influence in this situation was that I was only down in Texas for two weeks. One thing I have learned from my own organizing experience and from observing other campaigns is that building connections with a community isn’t something to take lightly. If you are only with the community for a short time, you shouldn’t take on the face of the organization. To build trust with a community, there can’t be different people parachuting in for a week here and a week there. If you are one of those people, it’s important to work behind the scenes.
I spent the majority of my time researching the effects and impacts of the Valero refinery on the surrounding area. I looked into the amount of different pollutants the refinery is emitting, which of those are known human carcinogens, and the EPA limits of those pollutants. I thought this would be a walk in that park—it’s all public information right? NOT. The team and I worked day in and day out the whole 10 days we were there trying to translate the legal jargon into words and concepts we could understand and disseminate to the larger community. In this process we had to learn way too many acronyms, codes, and contacted environmental lawyers to assist us. As a college-educated person I thought that I would be able to understand the information that is deemed public. I was wrong. The information that the public has access to is so heavily encrypted with legal jargon and codes that the only people who can really understand it are those with law degrees. It is an outrage that this information is so difficult to understand. This language disenfranchises common people from their role and power as the stakeholders in a democracy. Within this jungle of legal jargon, Valero hides their inability to function within their own environmental limitations. It goes to show that if you have money, you obviously can buy your way out of any accountability process.
Another project I helped with was the free store. The idea behind this store is solidarity, not charity; the concept of mutual aid where we come together to help each other. The Manchester community is a food desert, where there are few grocery stores that carry unprocessed food, and where residents don’t qualify for welfare benefits because of their citizenship status. The free store is stocked with dumpstered and donated spoils from grocery stores. ‘Expired’ food is sourced from grocers, who have to throw out because they are beyond their expiration dates, but are actually fine to eat. The free store happens between once and twice a week, depending on how much food we can secure. Coordinating the food donations was a difficult task, and I often felt like we were reinventing the wheel. I learned that there are groups who have already established food donations and that reaching out to these groups would save us time and resources. One of the pitfalls of many grassroots organizing campaigns is folks get tied up reinventing the wheel. With the food donations, instead of contacted grocers directly—who often require a month or two to process requests and lots of paper work—time spent contacting groups who already have these connections has proved to be less resource intensive and create allies.
Going to the Manchester neighborhood was the most difficult and most rewarding part of the time I spent working down there. I was only down there one day, setting up the free store and distributing food and information about tar sands extraction. I was totally unprepared for the things I was going to hear. I was totally unprepared in how to interact with a community that is being directly impacted by the pollution and maltreatment of the environment that I am researching but have nowhere to go and whose voices are crippled by the threat of deportation. How do I talk with these folks about how I am researching the corporation in their neighborhood and how they are living in poisonous conditions, and that ‘yeah, I’m only here for a week to help.’ Fortunately, I speak Spanish which made meeting and chatting with these folks easier, but there was a definite disconnect due to my short-term visit and privileged background. I found that simply listening instead of talking and taking up space was important.
I met some beautiful people, whose families are being torn apart by illnesses like cancer and asthma that are caused by industrial pollution. The pollution that apparently is not subjected to any of the accountability processes that one might think are there to protect us.
While I was in Houston I noticed the dialogue among the Tar Sands Blockade crew was shifting from the folks in the woods, “holy shit they’re laying the pipeline right now, we gotta stop this, everyone to the frontline.” To folks in Houston, “holy shit people are being poisoned every day and are dying and families are being poisoned, everyone to the computers so we can figure out how to shut that shit down?”
This is the belly of the beast; when you can’t just step in front of an excavator to stop whatever is happening. We don’t know how to fight this. There are so many levels of corruption, which may or may not be working together, that as soon as you think you’re onto something useful you get denied access. That’s when you know that you’re looking in the right place. When you get threatened with arrest or the FBI starts watching you, listening to you. The real world we live in is a police state where any voice of dissent or person who doesn’t prioritize profits over people is considered a terrorist. Where corporations bully people in order to get what they want and then are protected by the state for “providing jobs.” But when we bully corporations about their treatment of the environment and people, we are considered terrorists. It’s time to get creative. It’s time to think of new and different tactics. There is no better time than now to take a stand.
What I learned in Houston is that there are really huge problems occurring around the world, and that those of us who have the privilege to speak up and feel only minor implications need to do so. More importantly we need to listen to the folks who are being directly impacted, and we need to stand in solidarity with them on the premise that the government and our elected officials are working out of the pocket books of the entities that are causing such harm and that it is our responsibility to educate ourselves on allyship, anti-oppression, and mutual aid if we want to stop perpetuating the patriarchal systems of oppression that control the decision making processes in most of the world.