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15 UUs arrested during Tar Sands Action

Two-week protest draws Unitarian Universalists from across the country to highlight perils of pipeline and climate change.
By Donald E. Skinner
9.5.11

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The Rev. Craig Roshaven and Wes Ernsberger were arrested during the Tar Sands Action.

The Rev. Craig Roshaven, Witness Ministries director for the UUA, and Wes Ernsberger, member of the UU Congregation of Binghamton, N.Y., were arrested in front of the White House during the Tar Sands Action on Aug. 29. (Kat Liu)

More than 1,000 people were arrested in the past two weeks in front of the White House for protesting the proposed construction of an oil pipeline from Canada to Texas. At least 15 Unitarian Universalists, including the Rev. Craig Roshaven, the Unitarian Universalist Association’s Witness Ministries Director, were among those arrested.

The 15-day protest, called Tar Sands Action, ended Sept. 3 and is being called the largest collective act of civil disobedience in the history of the climate movement. Also arrested was author-activist Bill McKibben, NASA scientist James Hansen, one of the first scientists to warn of climate change, and actress Daryl Hannah.

The mass arrests were aimed at pressuring President Obama to deny a permit for construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, which will carry oil extracted from clay and other materials in the tar sands region of northern Alberta to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico. Tar sands oil is called one of the dirtiest fuels on earth, resulting in higher emissions during the refining process and releasing much more carbon into the air than conventionally produced oil. Hansen has said it is essentially “game over” for stabilizing the climate if tar sands oil is put into production.

Tar Sands Action was organized in part by Peaceful Uprising, a group formed by Unitarian Universalist Tim DeChristopher, after he was arrested for disrupting a federal oil and gas lease auction in Utah. In July he began serving two years in prison.

Roshaven and 13 other UUs were arrested Monday, Aug. 29, along with 130 other people of other faiths as part of an “interfaith day of protest” at the White House. They were all charged with an infraction, “failure to heed a legal order” for refusing to move away from in front of the White House.* They were handcuffed, taken to a police station in a van, fined $100, and released. About 170 other people gathered at Lafayette Park across from the White House to support those being arrested.

“It was a deeply meaningful experience,” said Roshaven. “I was motivated by the fact that the people who live near the land that is being destroyed in Canada for the oil are deemed expendable people. Their way of life and their health is threatened. I wanted to stand in solidarity with them.”

Others arrested with Roshaven included the Rev. Terence Ellen, executive director of UUs for Social Justice, and Vince Pawlowski, Barbara Ford, and Terry Wiggins of the UU Ministry for Earth, an affiliate organization of the UUA.*

Other UUs were there in support roles, including three UUA staff members: Robin Nelson, Environmental Stewardship manager; Kat Liu, UUA Witness Ministries program associate; and Taquiena Boston, Multicultural Growth and Witness director. The Rev. Mark Hoelter served as chaplain. Around 40 other UUs were also there in support. A day of nonviolent resistance training was held before the protests began.

Multiple arrests occurred every day of the protest. As of Friday, Sept. 2, the count had reached 1,009. The protest was called off on two days, Saturday and Sunday Aug. 27 and 28, because of Hurricane Irene. A planned worship service at All Souls Church, Unitarian, in Washington, was cancelled because of the possibility of a power outage.

Reita Ennis, from First Parish in Brookline, Mass., was arrested on the second day of the protest. She said later, “I feel that we’re at a very dangerous point with many issues, climate change being the one with the shortest time frame. I told myself a while ago that the first group I’m connected with that called for civil disobedience I was going to join that effort.” That turned out to be 350.org, a group that helped organize the Tar Sands Action.

She added, “I didn’t know how good it would feel to be in a large community of people risking arrest. The trainings, the young people who led them, the non-hierarchical leadership at the event, I felt I had come home to my America.

“What I would tell others is `Come on in, the water’s fine.’ We’re at a time when writing letters and the other traditional ways of working for change are not going to get it. We all have to give up distractions that are not meaningful to us and pay attention to serious issues.”

Wiggins, of the First Unitarian Society of Milwaukee, was one of those arrested on the interfaith day Monday, Aug. 29. Traveling home on Amtrak three days later, she reflected on her experience.

“It was humbling. At first I thought I was taking a really big important step for social justice. And it was important to put myself on the line. But I’m realizing how few people actually know about the tar sands issue. We, in all our congregations, have to educate people about this. When we do, they pretty much see it’s not a good thing. So it feels like our job has just begun.”

On the UUA’s Green Sanctuary blog, participants provided a running description of the protest. Green Sanctuary members are urging UUs to write letters and op-ed articles to their local newspapers, talk to friends and neighbors, and lobby Congress and the White House to end subsidies to oil companies.

Construction of the pipeline requires a permit from the State Department, signed by President Obama. A decision by Obama is expected by the end of the year.


Correction 9.16.11: An earlier version of this story asserted that the highest number of people arrested from any one faith group were UUs. We have been unable to corroborate this claim. Click here to return to the corrected paragraph. The article also incorrectly stated that arrestees were charged with misdemeanor; they were charged with an infraction. Click here to return to the corrected paragraph.

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