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Saturday, Apr 1, 2023

Arrested Students Protest ‘Environmental Racism’


Four students were arrested by police on Monday, March 11 at the northeast U.S. office of the TransCanada Corporation in Westborough, MA during a protest of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

The students — Anna Shireman-Grabowski ’15.5, Jay Saper ’12.5, Sam Koplinka-Loehr ’13 and Lucy Whipps ’14 — had handcuffed themselves together with 21 other young people, who refused to leave the office when asked by police. All 25 were arrested. The youth group acted as part of a broader protest that included some 75 others.

“We’re here in solidarity with front line communities who are facing the health effects of the past, present and future as a result of the extraction, transportation and refinement of tar sands oil,” said Koplinka-Loehr in a telephone interview on Monday evening.

“We stand in solidarity with them, but are also here recognizing that all of our futures are affected by the tar sands when it comes to climate change,” he added. “And climate change knows no borders.”

Shawn Howard, a spokesperson for TransCanada Corporation, pushed back by email.

“This really isn’t really about Keystone XL, diluted bitumen, emissions or a substance that is in a particular blend of oil,” wrote Howard. “It’s about a group that wants to end the use of fossil fuels entirely.

“This publicity stunt will not provide an American construction worker with a job to provide for their family and their needs. It will not reduce global emissions or the continued need for fossil fuels in the United States. It will not improve the safety of moving a critical product to market,” he continued.

Howard suggested that TransCanada “agrees” with the President that a move to a less carbon intense economy is necessary, but suggested that it will “take decades” for this transition to occur. He noted that TransCanada has invested billions in wind, solar, hydro and nuclear facilities.

“TransCanada knows what these technologies can do today (and what their current limitations are), because we have invested billions of dollars in emission-less energy production,” he said.

At Monday’s protest, Shireman-Grabowski, Saper, Koplinka-Loehr and Whipps were joined by students from Green Mountain College, Tufts University, Brandeis University and Brown University as well as members of the Massachusetts Methodist clergy and community members. According to Shireman-Grabowski, the protest represented a “sharp escalation” in the non-violent tactics of the protesters.

At approximately 11 a.m. on Monday morning, the 100-member group walked up to the third floor of the northeast U.S office of the TransCanada Corporation. They carried a fake coffin featuring the words “our future” — a symbolic representation of the impact of the proposed pipeline. The group sang a eulogy, carried flowers and walked in procession.

Approximately one hour later, the group of 25 youth, who had refused to leave the building, were arrested and transported to a local jail. They waited in a communal cell before being released on $0 bail at approximately 8 p.m.

At that time, the students were informed that they would be arraigned in court in Massachusetts on Wednesday, where they would face charges of trespassing and disorderly conduct.

Though student arrests are not commonplace, the four are not the first to receive attention for controversial environmental activism in recent memory. As a member of the Youth Climate Delegation at UN climate talks in Durban, South Africa in 2011, Abigail Borah ’13 interrupted the international proceedings to express her displeasure with “obstructionist congress” and the inaction of President Obama on climate change.

Borah received a significant amount of press for the demonstration, including an interview with the New York Times.

“Something I’ve learned through my time at Middlebury is that people have all sorts of ideas of what activism ‘should be’ and what produces ‘change,’” said Borah. “Whether we agree with one another or not, it’s hard to argue that the courage it takes to stand up for what you believe in isn’t admirable. As young people, it’s our job to push the envelope and rally for the urgency and ambition that is required to achieve social justice.”

The arrest of the four students in Massachusetts came on the same day as the New York Times published an editorial calling on President Barack Obama to “say no” to the Keystone XL pipeline — a commercial venture that would see 830,000 barrels a day of crude oil shipped along an 875-mile pipeline from Alberta tar sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast.

“A president who has repeatedly identified climate change as one of humanity’s most pressing dangers cannot in good conscience approve a project that — even by the State Department’s most cautious calculations — can only add to the problem,” the editorial read.

While the students expressed a similar motivation, they took a different tone.

“This is environmental racism,” said Koplinka-Loehr. “Poor people and people of color are disproportionately affected by fossil extraction and refinement, creating generational health problems and death.”

Focusing on the College community, Koplinka-Loehr elaborated, “We need to talk about environmental racism at Middlebury, and it needs to be driving the way in which we think about our endowment. [We need to think about] who is actually impacted by our stocks the most. Why is that not a part of the conversation?”

Saper was critical of the study of environmental justice by the College’s environmental studies department.

“We’ve talked more about environmental racism today — just today — than we have at a place where there is the longest standing environmental studies program in history in America,” said Saper.

On the national stage, the group’s action joins a much larger chorus of dissent against the Keystone XL Pipeline.

In February, approximately 50 members of the College community attended the “Forward on Climate” rally in Washington, D.C. where they were met by approximately 50,000 other protestors. The event was the largest climate rally in American history.

To date, over 50,000 have signed a petition to resist the Keystone XL pipeline and thousands more have joined the Tar Sands Blockade in East Texas. Protestors there include landowners, climate activists, members of frontline communities and Native American peoples.

According to the blog “Funeral For our Future,” which provided information about Monday’s protest, March 16 - 24 will serve as a “week of solidarity” with Tar Sands Blockade protestors, during which groups across the country will target the offices of TransCanada and its investors.