Trying not to stick my head in the sand


After walking two miles behind a “Stop Frac Sand” banner, we arrived at the Port of Winona where 18-wheel trucks were unloading their cargoes of silica frac sand on to barges in the Mississippi River to be shipped to natural gas fracking operations in Texas or other locations. A second group of friends walked over three miles to another Winona, MN site where already-mined frac sand was being washed before loaded on to the trucks that were arrive at the port. With the support of dozens of other friends, 35 of us were arrested on trespass charges as we nonviolently blocked the trucks this morning in what may have been the largest protest to date against fracking.

I traveled to Winona at the invitation of the Winona Catholic Worker, the community which was hosting the annual Midwest Catholic Worker “Faith and Resistance Retreat”. Members of this group who offer hospitality to the poor and marginalized from at least 9 nearby states gathered from Friday evening until today for a time of reflection, renewal, fellowship, and resistance. We recited a pledge to practice nonviolence before the march to the protest sites and many of us carried a letter sent to the gathering from the farmer-philosopher Wendell Berry. In it he writes:

“You have offered me the privilege of joining by letter with you and your friends in Winona in opposition to “frac sand mining,” and I am happy to accept.

I will say, first, that there is never, for any reason, a justification for doing long-term or permanent damage to the ecosphere. We did not create the world, we do not own it, and we have no right to destroy any part of it.

Second, most of our politicians and their corporate employers are measuring their work by standards of profitability and mechanical efficiency. Those standards are wrong. There is one standard that is right: the health of living creatures and the living earth.

Third, we must give our needs to eat, drink, and breathe an absolute precedence over our need for mined fuels.

I wish you well.”

Others carried a letter written by Sandra Steingraber, an upstate NY scientist and mother who is in jail for her nonviolent protest at Seneca Lake, NY. We carried a Statement of Purpose drawn up by the Catholic Workers on “Ending Fracking and Silica Sand Mining.” But mostly we carried ourselves – with our strong desires to help save our environment so it can be passed on to future generations. Our message was placing our bodies in front of the trucks to shut down the shipping of this sand used to extract more fossil fuels.

Greed, fueled by short-term profits is a major reason we are shackled with climate disruptions and the extinction of huge numbers of various species. Shared sacrifice and community are some of the tools we choose to use to claw our way back (or ahead) and this inter-generational gathering provided both challenge and hope. This weekend offered an opportunity to reflect and act with others who share a vision of a more compassionate approach to life and want to be part of a nonviolent struggle to make that an alternative path for us to pursue.

Only 35 risked arrest because each of those communities need someone who remains committed to providing hospitality for the marginalized in their home areas in case those arrested get the maximum sentence of 90 days in jail. The state “criminal trespass” charge also allows for a hefty fine as well but most Catholic Workers on principle would refuse to pay such because to do so would lessen their abilities to serve the poor.

I am not a Catholic Worker. I’m not even a Catholic but I am humbled and blessed to be welcomed into their midst. But even others are not Catholic. The relatively new “Mennonite Worker” community from Minneapolis was well represented as well as the Phillips-based “Rye House”. So those acting and living within the spirit of Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin, founders of the movement, are welcomed. Seasoned activists led the Sunday afternoon nonviolence training but it is always good to have a refresher every once in awhile and to provide a welcome format for the “rookies” to civil disobedience and nonviolent direct action.

The Winona police were very courteous to us even after our refusal to leave led to our arrest. When I mentioned my problems with carpal tunnel as I was being handcuffed, the arresting officer asked if I was OK with being ‘cuffed in front instead of the standard behind-the-back position. I am grateful for the kindness shown. Many of these police officers know of the possible health risks to themselves from breathing in these sand particles. They also know how “get rich quick” schemes brought about by outsiders wishing to profit from exploiting these local resources have created a multitude of conflicts within this southern Minnesota river town.

Getting arrested while working for nonviolent change – especially when joined with like-minded friends – is a privilege in our democracy at a time when corporate voices try to drown out citizen concerns. Polished advertising on our TVs try to convince us that there is “clean coal” or that exploiting oil and gas resources can make us “energy independent” or provide hundreds or thousands of jobs. All in the attempt to continue what has been called our “American way of life” – the over-consumption of finite resources in a world where many are desperate for adequate food and water. Many Americans want to stick their heads in the sand, pretending there is no need for a change of heart and a change of course. My friends and I want to risk our own freedom in order to say “no!”

Related articles and blogs:  

Articles about fracking
• Frac sand or farmland: Wisconsin farmers face showdown
Pretty neat small town learns frac sand trucks from next county may roll right over them
Preferred Sands of Minnesota touts “maintaining and sustaining” while Wisconsin site’s runoff woes continue