Oil Train Blockades in the Pacific Northwest and the Transformative Power of Direct Action

Direct action can deeply transform participants in ways critical to mobilization and innovation in the climate movement

“One, two, three, lift!”

With that command, a group of about eight people from Portland Rising Tide and South Sound Rising Tide shouldered three heavy, 30-foot steel poles. Balancing the poles, they slowly walked down the railroad tracks leading to the Global Partners oil terminal about a mile away on the Columbia River, and 60 miles northeast of Portland, OR. Within minutes the poles were converted into a tripod and Sunny Glover was climbing up and assembling a platform some 25 feet from the ground. Individuals were dispatched to inform the port authorities, and those on the ground awaited word from the teams up and down the tracks in the event of an approaching train. No trains carrying Bakken oil would come through that day. The blockade lasted some nine hours into the night until the police dangerously cut the tripod legs one by one, a couple feet at a time, while Glover’s neck was still locked to one of the poles.

Oil Train BlockadePhoto by Trip Jennings A protester sits atop the apex of a tripod blocking the train tracks at the Global Partners oil terminal in Oregon.

While the duration of the blockade was itself impressive, this action also contained something little acknowledged, but equally powerful: the ability of this kind of direct action to transform the participants themselves.

The massive nature of the climate crisis and the unwillingness of existing political leaders and institutions to act has created a cynicism and paralysis that often quiets us in the very moment when it is most critical that we act. It is not sufficient for direct action to target only those individuals and companies responsible for the crisis. These actions must also offer the possibility of a transformation that changes our sense of power, inspires others, and overcomes the cynicism at the heart of disengagement. We must also be the targets of our own actions.

The Global Partners blockade was part of a series of actions over the summer of 2014. It followed on the heels of a similar tripod blockade at the Everett rail yard several weeks earlier. In that instance, Seattle Rising Tide blocked an oil train in the rail yard for over eight hours. One person sat atop the apex of the tripod while four others were locked to the tripod’s legs. Earlier this year, Rising Tide, a network orienting to confronting the root causes of the climate crisis and promoting community-based solutions, also organized blockades at the Anacortes refinery in Washington, which receives oil trains, and at the Arc Logistics oil terminal in Portland, OR. In both actions individuals were arrested after blocking the train tracks with concrete-filled barrels that they had locked themselves to. In another event at Arc Logistics, five protesters blockaded the entrances to the terminal while a hundred supporters rallied nearby. In that case, the terminal operators preemptively shut the facility down after learning of the impending blockade. When all was said and done, a total of ten people were arrested in these five actions targeting the Everett rail yard, the Anacortes Refinery, Global Partners and the Arc Logistics oil terminal, which represent just a few of the 12 proposed or existing oil-by-rail facilities in the Pacific Northwest.

The surge in action during the summer of 2014 came in response to industry proposals that would move some 850,000 barrels per day via oil-by-rail to terminals and refineries in the Northwest. These projects have been developed in response to the fossil fuel boom occurring in North America, including in the Bakken shale field, and the broader increase in coal, oil, and gas export facilities. The enormous spike in oil rail traffic, increasing from 5,000 rail cars in 2006 to 400,000 rail cars by 2013, has lead to serious catastrophes throughout North America, including most significantly the explosions that killed 47 people in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec in July 2013. (Read the Journal’s Summer cover story “Highly Flammable,” for details.) Despite these disasters, politicians and existing regulatory agencies have offered only rhetorical concern while still enabling dangerous rail projects. As a result, citizens throughout the Northwest have begun to mobilize.

Despite the recent announcement of a US-China bilateral climate agreement, those of us concerned with the climate crisis have to confront a harsh reality: In the very moment where a rapid, just transition away from fossil fuels is needed, the opposite is occurring. A project of massive fossil fuel expansion, enabled by the same administration responsible for the recent climate agreement, threatens the slight and insufficient carbon dioxideemissions reductions made by the United States. This reality is readily transparent to the public, who correctly understand that existing institutions are not moving fast enough to address the climate crisis. It is often this dissonance, and the lack of forms of action that address it, that prevents action and causes many to divert their gaze from the impending disaster of climate change.

That’s why actions that offer the possibility of a transformation are essential in climate organizing. Direct action presents new understandings of who we are, what kinds of power we have, and broadens our view of the avenues possible for social change. In this sense we should consider ourselves the targets of our own actions, alongside any other targets we might be aiming for.

Oil Train BlockadePhoto by Trip JenningsProtesters at the Global Partners oil terminal in Oregon.

On the tracks at the Global Partners oil terminal in Oregon, as in other places, this personal transformation was most definitely apparent. Not only did the blockade restrict access to the oil terminal and garner high profile media attention, it also created a new sense of being in participants, reversing the powerlessness we often feel when trying to access vertical power structures dominated by industry lobbyists and campaign contributions. For Glover, this kind of action “felt stronger… it upended that pyramid a little bit because we were doing something was impossible to ignore or dismiss entirely.” What is more, it “felt like it encouraged a deeper sense of connection… and brought people together more strongly.”

Key participants in these blockades, many new to this kind of direct action, described the empowering, joyful, liberating experience of the action on themselves. In taking action in the Everett train yard, Abby Brockway described how the experience was the “first time that I’ve ever really felt like I was acting on making a difference rather than experiencing the frustration of attending hearings, or writing letters, or meeting politicians, or voting.” Participation in the blockades changed who these protesters were and how they acted, not only during the blockade, but also, critically, after the action was over.

Over the last decade there has been an explosion of climate related direct action, and the climate crisis has become better accepted among the general public. “This blockadia movement…it’s not just this underground culture, it’s now people that are more mainstream,” Brockway says.

As more and more people experience these actions as either passive observers or active participants, something is starting to happen. A line is crossed in these actions from protesting only within the limits of what is legal, to doing what is right. From doing what we are allowed to do, to what we have a responsibility to do. From appealing to others to make changes for us, to discovering our own agency to create those changes. Such shifts constitute new ways of being, and participants are discovering entirely new horizons of what is possible and ways in which we can rearrange our relations to one another.

Direct actions that facilitate these personal experiences have the potential to create a climate movement that can strike at the root causes of the climate crisis while also opening doors to exciting personal transformation. As Glover reflected, “There had been this barrier created about how you’re expected to behave and the rules you’re expected to follow - while it was a little scary to transgress, having done so once opened up a whole new area of my life. It feels really freeing and exciting.”

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