The last stand at the Alamo was in west Texas. East Texas now has a county in the midst of its own last stand against another foreign invader. At the Alamo in 1836 it was the Mexican army over-running all in its path. In Wood County today it’s the Canadian corporation TransCanada and its Keystone XL Pipeline over-running all in its path – only this time the Texas government is on the side of the invaders. And so is the U.S. government.
But there are also determined people getting in its path.
On September 24, eight members of Tar Sands Blockade climbed 80 feet into tree houses in the path of Keystone XL construction, vowing to remain there until the pipeline is permanently stopped. Members of Tar Sands Blockade are committed to nonviolent direct action ”to stop TransCanada from trampling landowner rights, endangering waters supplies and the stability of the global climate.”
Tree-sitting is just the latest in a series of Blockade actions against Keystone XL since construction started on August 9 in Livingston, Texas, but mainstream media attention has been largely absent. An occasional piece in the Houston Chronicle or the Texas Observer might qualify, and possibly one in the Paramus Post in New Jersey, but otherwise most of the coverage has been local, or on environmental web pages and friendly blogs like firedoglake.com
Previous Blockade events have managed to shut down pipeline construction temporarily, sometimes for a full day. To date, 14 people arrested after they blocked or chained themselves to equipment. During the summer, Blockade trained more than 70 people in non-violent direct action. The tree house occupation is a deliberate escalation in tactic, designed to be permanent, with a supply chain in place to support a long siege.
Blockade members are forthright about how their passive resistance could end badly if TransCanada decides to take down the trees they’re in anyway. “We know they can murder us,” said one.
The first day passed without incident, as the construction crews had not yet arrived at the tree line where a banner read: “You Shall Not Pass.” By the end of that day, TransCanada’s construction force was about 300 yards from the tree houses, slowed slightly by tipping over one of their own feller bunchers without any help from Blockade. A feller buncher is a large construction machine that moves on treads, and that can uproot fairly large trees.
On the morning of the second day of tree-sitting, two members of Blockade on the ground, a man and a woman, brought construction to a halt by chaining themselves to one of the heavy machines, a giant backhoe. While Shannon Beebe, 26 of Dallas and Benjamin Franklin, 34, of Houston waited, TransCanada workers sat nearby watching. The eight tree-sitters watched from above and were later joined by a ninth.
After an hour or so, around noon, Wood County Sheriff Billy Wansley showed up to assess the situation. Almost two hours later, three more law officers joined the sheriff and the waiting workers. The officers talked to the protestors in a pleasant and peaceful manner, without changing the standoff.
Eventually TransCanada supervisors came on the scene and consulted privately with the law officers, away from cameras. After that the officers shifted to very different tactics that some call torture:
The officers took Beebe and Franklin’s free hands and handcuffed them to the backhoe in stress positions,
The officers applied prolonged chokeholds.
The officers twisted their arms.
The officers shot pepper spray at them.
The officers tasered them multiple times, still chained, to make them give up.
The construction crew pulled back and called it a day.
In the early evening, Blockade members paid bail of $2,000 each, and Beebe and Franklin were free. News of their treatment prompted Credo Action to launch an online petition that gathered over 17,000 signatures in the first two days in support of the proposition that: “TransCanada employees must immediately stop encouraging brutality against peaceful protesters. There is no excuse for these shameful actions.”
Government use of violence on helpless protestors, while hardly unknown elsewhere, nevertheless marks a dramatic shift in the Texas response to non-violence and its use of state power on behalf of a foreign corporation, apparently at TransCanada’s direct request. Asked for comment on the event, TransCanada did not respond.
In a separate incident, caught on video, a TransCanada feller buncher operator played cat-and-mouse with a Blockade protestor until he sat down in front of the machine. The then the operator dropped a large tree close enough to the seated man that he had to jump out of the way.
State power has supported TransCanada in other ways, including a friendly permitting process and an unusual application of eminent domain laws in favor of a foreign corporation against American citizens and land owners. At a public protest in Paris, Texas, in February, environmentalists and libertarians expressed outrage at what they see as a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Fifth Amendment that allows taking land for “public use” when the beneficiary here is a private, foreign corporation, TransCanada.
Dave Breemer, a property attorney for the Pacific Legal Foundation told Public Radio International at the time: “It looks, in a lot of ways, like other things that have always been allowed as public uses like utilities — cable companies, power companies, there’s easements all over the place of these things buried underground that were taken by eminent domain. But this case is strange in my opinion because the pipeline hasn’t even been approved and they’re going around taking people’s property, and I think that gives it a whole new gloss where something doesn’t smell right.”
TransCanada has argued that it has the right to do what it’s doing under Texas law.
In August, when Texas Judge Bill Harris ruled peremptorily against Julia Trigg Crawford, third generation Texan and former Texas Aggies basketball star, another, distant Keystone XL opponent expressed a shared outrage.
Julia Kleeb, executive director of BOLD Nebraska, wrote in part:
“The fact that a foreign company can claim rights to American private property without having to prove that it is a Common Carrier or prove that a single drop of the oil will remain in America is an affront to landowners’ liberties. TransCanada has used its financial and legal resources to bully landowners like Julia Trigg Crawford in order to clear the way for their multi-billion dollar tar sands pipeline.
“Throughout the process, landowners have been cast aside and their concerns about land and water ignored. Judge Bill Harris went so far as to dismiss Ms. Crawford’s entire case with a 15 word ruling sent from his iPhone—an action that speaks to the appalling ways ranchers, stewards of the land, have been treated in this fight.”
After the Crawford decision, ecowatch.org suggested there might be basis for hope:
“Texas courts have long held that property owners could not challenge property takings by pipelines, but a recent, unanimous Texas Supreme Court decision, which highlighted the fight between Texas Rice Land Partners versus Denbury Green Pipeline changed that equation.
“In the Denbury Green court case, the justices unanimously ruled that the pipeline company had to prove it was meeting the state’s statutes and serving a common good before it should be given the right to ‘take’ private property. “ [emphasis added]
As of August 22, the Texas Supreme Court had ruled for the third time against a pipeline company’s use of eminent domain – despite legal arguments from the Texas Oil and Gas Association, Occidental Chemical, and the Koch Pipeline Company, among others. Julia Trigg Crawford has appealed the decision against her and it, too, may get to the Texas Supreme Court.
TransCanada VIDEO – B-roll, construc, no sound – Aug/Sept? 2012 – 3:21.
TransCanada VIDEO – Keystone start – sound –1:23. Hartford Pump Station, IL — hilarious lowkey celebration no date.
Democracy Now – 8.19.11
Pipeline to Texas on hold – WashTimes – 11.10.11
Naomi Klein on Democracy Now. 11.11.11