September 1, 2011 —
My name is Virginia Kennedy. I am a 50-year old mother of three. I was one of 65 citizens arrested in front of your house—my house really, the country’s house—the White House, on the first day of the tar sands action on August 20, and I was kept in jail for the weekend.
We spent the weekend in jail because we asked you to reject the Keystone XL Pipeline. To reject tar sands oil, the extraction of which is destroying indigenous people’s lands and lives and decimating boreal forest lands. The oil which if extracted and burned will mean, in the words of NASA climate scientist James Hansen, “game over for the climate.” That’s game over for my children, for your children, for everyone’s children.
I was in a holding cell with 12 other women who participated in the action. Most were not perennial activists. Many had never participated in such an action before. These women, from ages 20 to 70, were retired schoolteachers, grandmothers, college students, working women supporting themselves or families.
Each had decided that this is the issue of issues, because we are talking about the viability of human life on the planet we are irreversibly harming. They decided to join with the other voices, trying to make you listen and to give you courage to take this step, to take this stand against the fossil fuel industry—the moneyed interests that regularly demand you yield to them.
We were in a holding cell for the majority of the time. A freezing cement cellblock with no windows and one solid metal door, no way to see out. No blankets. Nowhere to lie down. An open toilet in the corner. Glaring fluorescent lights that never dimmed. We were kept without food or water for 18 hours, then given a cold cheese sandwich and water.
I want you to know I thought about you a lot during those long hours. I wondered about the power you have or maybe don’t have. Maybe it has just gotten impossible for any politician to stand up to the brutal, greedy bullying of the fossil fuel companies. Or maybe you don’t want to.
I wondered how I could be in a jail cell with women who were guilty of nothing but trying to get their President to listen to reason. Women who stood peacefully with a whole group of citizens who said we want clean energy and an end to oppression by a fossil-fuel industry that wants the world to believe we have no choices but the choices they want to give us.
I wondered if you knew about Tim deChristopher, the young man in jail for two years for posing as a bidder to save public lands from being auctioned to mining companies. The auction itself was found to be illegal. No consequences for that, though. I wondered if you ever think about the 11 dead men killed in the BP Horizon disaster, the 29 coal miners dead at the Massey coal mine, the reports of negligence, the environmental decimation, all the lives and livelihoods destroyed. Not one indictment. No repercussions really at all.
And then there is us, tax-paying, law-abiding folks freezing in a filthy jail cell for standing politely in front of the White House and asking for clean energy. For asking you to do the right thing. For trying to give you the courage to do the right thing for your daughters and for ours.
I thought about you together with your family in Martha’s Vineyard while we were body searched, shackled, and paraded, ankles chained, into a federal prison cell to await our time in front of a judge while our families worried about where we were and what was happening to us. I wondered how you’d feel if Malea or Sasha ended up in such a situation for such an “offense,” what that would inspire you to do.
I wondered if you ever spent any time in the DC prison right in your front yard, filled with mainly African Americans of every age, many of whom are guilty of nothing much more than being caught in the terrible cycle of poverty and defenselessness generated by a system that would jail them instead of supporting their rights, education or humanity. A system that would incarcerate a poor woman for being drunk on the street and reward a CEO ultimately responsible for the deaths of his own workers with more profits.
I wondered who you are, Mr. Obama, what your values are. Because I can’t really tell. I hold out hope you’ll send a signal and reject this pipeline because I have to hold out hope. But, contrary to that famous slogan of yours, since you came on the scene, there hasn’t been too much change, and you do not make hoping easy.
[Virginia Kennedy is a resident of Dingmans Ferry, PA.]