The case for civil disobedience:
my personal journey from oil sands consultant to arrested carbon buster
As I packed for my short journey to the seaside town of White Rock, I explained to my 15-year son why my picture might be in the next day’s newspaper or TV. And I burst into tears.
I told him about my concerns about my coming act of civil disobedience: the risk of large fines, lawsuits from the railway company, violent reactions from anarchist outsiders or provocateurs, and the possibility that I would not be able to visit the US with a conviction on my record.
But you know, I think my tears stemmed from a more fundamental fear of being scorned; treated as an outsider by my old-timers hockey team, or with thinly veiled contempt by some family members. Like a first-time nudist, I feared exposing myself to my own community.
But inaction on climate change is not a moral option—not for government and not for you and I as citizens. Yes, this may sound arrogant; and you, the reader, may be frightened and even hostile to any call to change your life’s journey away from a carbon-fuel based lifestyle.
But there are many benefits if you and I act in a positive manner on the climate change crisis—more sustainable and social communities, more public spaces and conviviality, more local control of our jobs and economy, cleaner air and a diverse habitat for wildlife. But that is another article.
After my talk with my son, I left the house to travel on the ferry with a small group from Vancouver Island to White Rock. Over breakfast, we discussed our personal lives. We were a tad scared—none of us were professional protesters.
As breakfast on the ferry finished, my wife phoned with the news that a lawyer was looking for me. The Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF) railway, owed by Mr. Warren Buffet, had persuaded the court to issue an injunction. Evidently, BNSF had found my name from an article in the Peace Arch News—the local White Rock paper. It had said:
“Amtrak and BNSF are being informed of the protest, he [Nix] said, that the aim of the group is not to disrupt passenger or freight traffic—only coal trains. We like trains—they have less carbon emissions than other forms of transportation.”
And so I was forbidden from standing on or near the tracks at White Rock. But my mood brightened when I heard Dr. Mark Jaccard give an interview on CBC radio—an internationally recognized energy economist. He was also on route to meet our group at the train tracks, to face almost certain arrest and he said:
“…I ask myself how our children, when they look back decades from now, will have expected us to act today.”
The BC government policy of reducing carbon emissions at home while exporting them elsewhere in the world makes no sense. And because we know the severe consequences of burning fossil fuels, it is immoral.
A Manitoban Supreme Court Justice has said that civil disobedience is our right if done for a moral purpose, if conducted peacefully and if one accepts the consequences of their action. We have a constitutional right to protect our children’s future.
And so on May 5th, we arrived at White Rock early in the morning—on a section of the railway line where there is a public park and boardwalk, a series of stairs rising to a platform overlooking the rising sun over the ocean, even a bathroom—a great venue for civil disobedience.
The RCMP said they would respect our right to protest—how civilized compared with the mayhem in most parts of the world. But they did have a concern that we had not anticipated—that people might jump on the stopped train and so expose themselves to danger. So we sent teams of supporters down the tracks to prevent this from happening.
We thought of moving our blockade down the beach, possibly out of the area covered by the injunction. But the police requested that we stay put—her officers would waste time and energy looking for us and it increased the possibility of an accident. So we agreed to stay at our original location, near those washrooms (some of us are senior citizens).
At one point, about 30 officers dressed in black, combat-like uniforms rushed past, evidently to intimidate us. But our press release and our demeanour were consistent—if any violence occurred from outsiders or provocateurs, we promised to stop them or leave the area immediately.
After 10 hours of blockade, a train approached and was stopped, to the applause of several hundred supporters lining the boardwalk. The police allowed us each to make public statements before handcuffing us. We did not resist—it was the government, not the police that we were acting against.
We were arrested for simple trespass; not for contempt of court (remember, the railway had an injunction against us). In fact, the exact words used by the police were “catch and release”—like catching salmon swimming upstream against the wishes of government. One officer whispered “well done sir” as he loaded us into the paddy wagon.
We spent one hour in jail—actually we stayed in the hallway of the police station and were never put into a cell. And we were fined $115—the equivalent of a parking ticket.
What if a thousand people stand on those tracks the next time? Then our blockade would become an earthquake, an irresistible tsunami of political action forcing the BC and federal governments to take on the difficult task of phasing out the burning of all fossil fuels.
So you too can join us at our next event by signing up at www.stopcoal.ca—as a witness, or supporter, or activist. Or do whatever is possible for you.
As for me, I would rather stand on rail tracks and stop a coal train than deny the scientific evidence of the breakdown of our climate and do nothing to protect my kid’s future.
Peter Nix is an Environmental Scientist, retired Cowichan Carbon Buster who resides in Maple Bay, BC.