Breaking Free from Fossil Fuels

Photo courtesy of Bob Simpson.

Photo courtesy of Bob Simpson.

By David Holmquist

During the first half of May, tens of thousands of people on six continents held protest actions under the banner of “Break Free From Fossil Fuels.” Called for by and organized by hundreds of regional and national environmental and social justice organizations, each action was unique, but the purpose was the same: to keep fossil fuels in the ground and build a just transition to a new kind of 100% renewable economy … and do it now.

In Germany, over 4,000 people shut down one of Europe’s largest lignite (think soft and dirty) coal mines for over 48 hours through successive acts of civil disobedience. In Washington state and Albany, New York, protesters blocked oil trains around refineries and rail transit points, resulting in scores of arrests.

Locally, at the southern end of Lake Michigan in Whiting, Indiana, a thousand people converged on British Petroleum’s tar sands refinery on May 15, the last day of the global action. That refinery is the largest processor of bitumen in America and the site of a 2014 spill that discharged over 1,600 gallons of  crude oil into the waters of Lake Michigan. Break Free Midwest began with a rally in Whiting Lakefront Park, supported by over 75 sponsoring groups from nine states. The spotlight was on demands for Environmental Justice, from activists resisting new fossil fuel pipeline projects, oil-by-rail transit through the Chicago area, petcoke storage and distribution around Lake Calumet, the handling of the Flint, Michigan, water crisis, and the exploitation of indigenous lands throughout North America.

The rally was followed by a march on the refinery, for which permits had been negotiated. As the march began, pride of place was given to the indigenous leaders and environmental justice activists, mostly people of color, who bear the risks and costs of having their communities used as sacrifice zones by fossil fuel and chemical processing corporations.

Near the end of the planned route, at the point of the first police barricade, 40 of the protesters moved to the front of the march, gathered into two rows, and locked arms.

Photo courtesy of Bob Simpson.

Photo courtesy of Bob Simpson.

They had come from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, and the Chicago area. The night before, they had gathered for the first time as a group at First Trinity Church in Chicago’s Bridgeport neighborhood to plan their non-violent direct action, join in solidarity, receive legal advice and fill out jail support forms. They were committing to risk arrest, and after weeks of negotiations with authorities in Northwest Indiana, the organizers had very few clues as to how the authorities would react.

When the march resumed, the Whiting 40 became the Whiting 41 when a young woman decided, on the spot, to risk arrest with the others. They led the crowd past the police line and on to Gate 15 of the refinery where, after a pause to reaffirm their commitment, they walked onto BP property and sat in a circle in front of a phalanx of police and sheriff’s deputies, blocking the entrance. They sang and chanted, supported by other marchers at the edge of the property, until a police sergeant came forward to give them three warnings. He told them they were trespassing, and that they would be arrested if they did not leave the property.

They had no intention of leaving, and were arrested one by one and led to waiting police vans. As each protester was removed by police, those still seated on the ground closed ranks, joined hands and formed a new, smaller circle. Brief planning had generated deep solidarity and profound trust among this courageous group of committed activists.

The Whiting 41 were transported to the jail in East Chicago and were charged with misdemeanor criminal trespass. They were released, one each hour or so, through the night of May 15 and the following morning. They return to answer the charges at a hearing scheduled for June 13. If you would like to contribute to their legal costs and probable fines, you may donate here.