It was 6:30 in the morning and George Packard, dressed in a dark suit, a purple clerical bib and a clerical collar, was at church. Or, rather, at what has become church for the retired Episcopal bishop, activist and highly decorated Vietnam War veteran.
Packard stood with 20 other protesters on a chilly morning Nov. 9 to block two roads leading to the staging area for Texas-based Spectra Energy’s Algonquin Incremental Market (AIM) pipeline project. After an hour, he and eight other protesters were arrested by New York state police.
Carrying out sustained acts of civil disobedience is the only option left to defy the corporate state, says Packard, who over the years has been arrested at an Occupy Wall Street protest and other demonstrations. It will be a long, difficult and costly struggle. But there are moral and religious laws—laws that call on us to protect our neighbor, fight for justice and maintain systems of life—that must supersede the laws of the state. Fealty to these higher laws means we will make powerful enemies. It means we will endure discomfort, character assassination, state surveillance and repression. It means we will go to jail. But it is in the midst of this defiance that we will find purpose and, Packard argues, faith.
“This is the renewed presence of the church, people of spirit wandering around in the darkness trying to find each other,” Packard said to me before he was taken into custody by police during the Montrose protest. He stood holding one corner of a large banner reading, “We Say No to Spectra’s Algonquin Pipeline Expansion.” “When you find a cause that has spine, importance and potency you find the truth of the Scripture. You find it inside your gut. There is an ache in the culture.” Gesturing toward his fellow demonstrators, he added: “These are a few of the people who are speaking to it. This is what the church used to be. It used to be standing in conscience.”
The high-pressure, 42-inch-diameter pipeline, slated to run within 100 feet of critical structures of the Indian Point nuclear power plant and 400 feet of an elementary school, under major power lines, across a fault line, and below the Hudson River, would expose residents along the route to toxic emissions from compressor stations, along with the threat of ruptures, leakages and explosions. If an explosion caused a meltdown at Indian Point it would jeopardize the more than 21 million people living in and around New York City and the Hudson Valley. Pipelines are prone to leaks, breaks and explosions and are poorly monitored. On average in 2014, there was an accident involving a gas transmission pipeline every three days.
The gas in the AIM pipeline, bound for foreign export, will not be available to local communities along the route or provide many jobs to local residents (workers in pickup trucks blocked by the protesters at Montrose often had Texas or Oklahoma license plates). Residents, as is common along pipeline routes, have found themselves powerless to prevent the state from seizing their property under eminent domain and turning it over to the industry.
The protesters were from a local organization called Resist AIM. They had spent more than two years attending hearings and meetings with elected representatives and county and state officials, as well as reaching out to regulatory agencies such as the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). But these officials and agencies, cowed or controlled by corporate power, ignored their pleas. The oil and gas industry controls FERC, the federal agency in charge of issuing pipeline permits, by placing members from the industry on the board. FERC has denied only one pipeline request in the last decade. The agency is a corporate front posing as a regulatory agency; most of its budget comes from permitting fees paid by the oil and gas industry. It rubber-stamps requests so the fossil fuel industry can transport fracked gas or shale oil in a series of pipelines from Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and other areas in the Marcellus Shale region to export terminals on the East Coast. The New York AIM pipeline, which replaces a smaller pipeline, is part of this vast infrastructure project.
“Front-line communities start out by being obedient and attempting to influence legislation and regulation,” said activist Susan Rubin, who is part of Resist AIM. “They put a lot of time and energy into their two-minute talk with FERC thinking that will make a difference. We wasted about a year and a half going to these regulatory meetings and writing letters. We did not understand that FERC is a rogue agency run by gas and oil insiders.”
“It is a hard conversation to have with people, even explaining how broken FERC is, that being nice to our congresswoman is not going to fix it,” she said. “We have to turn up the heat. We have to get loud. But we live in a culture of obedience. When I was arrested in front of the White House in 2011 it caused a shift in me. I realized signing a petition would not work. I realized I needed to be in this for the long run. There would be no short victories. I do little happy dances for a few hours and then I get back to work because I have kids. This is what I have to do.”
The frustration, mounting across the country, is bringing with it a new radicalism.
“They tell you there are things you are supposed to do,” said activist and attorney Jessica Roff, who was at the protest. “You do them. But even when we present legal challenges the construction continues. If you win a legal challenge it [the project] is already built. It is too late. This forces people to take different courses of action. The system, actually, is not broken. It works exactly the way it is designed to work. It serves the corporations. It is up to us to break the system. There has to be a massive shift to renewables now.”
“They are building these infrastructure projects across the country and yet no one is talking with local first responders,” Roff went on. “There is no increase in training, funding or access to resources and equipment. We just spoke with seven state troopers. Not one of them knew this pipeline was being built. Not one of them knew the possible repercussions of having a 42-inch, high-pressure gas pipeline going through three counties, under the Hudson River, across two major power lines, a fault line and winding up within a hundred feet of critical structures of Indian Point, where 40 years of spent nuclear fuel is being stored. There are 21 million people living within the blast zone of Indian Point.”
“We now have massive infrastructure systems crisscrossing the nation to transport oil and gas and we have no standard response in how to deal with an emergency,” she said. “We have pipelines, such as the Constitution pipeline and the Northeast Energy Direct pipeline, built next to each other. What happens if there is an explosion and the fire department arrives before the gas company responds? What happens if the gas company can’t shut off the valves? And we have to remember that the shutdown valve for these high-pressure pipelines is controlled from afar—Texas for the AIM pipeline. And once you do shut it down, how much gas is left in the pipe? Are there pockets of gas? Was the pipeline leaking before an explosion? Miles separate shutdown valves. … Our safety precautions deal with the known, not the unknown. The question with pipeline accidents is not if but when something will happen. And we are not ready.”
The refusal by the political, legislative and judicial system, along with regulatory agencies such as FERC, to respond to the concerns of those who live along pipeline routes leaves us with no other option than sustained civil disobedience. This sustained civil disobedience cannot be designed merely to send a statement. Statements are symbolic gestures in our corporate state. Day after day, acts of civil disobedience have to physically shut down the pipelines, rail lines and industries that are carrying out the assault on our communities and the planet. These actions must involve hundreds, even thousands, of people willing to be carted off to jail in rotation. They must successfully cripple the fossil fuel industry by making its work impossible. There is no other mechanism left.
An angry worker in a large, black pickup truck with Oklahoma license plates got out of his vehicle to shout and take pictures of the protesters with his phone. He told the activists they were trying to take away his job “based on what you believe.” Roff countered by telling him that this was “not about belief, but about facts.” The anger of blocked workers—which in this case led one man to rip a banner out of protesters’ hands and another to try to edge his truck through the demonstrators—will only rise with further actions. The state police, respectful and polite, separated the two groups. Packard said this act of civil disobedience was “a country club visit” compared with the ones that will follow.
The driver of the truck with the Oklahoma plates, who declined to give his name, told me: “They want to shut this down because they think the state of New York can function without natural gas or fossil fuels. If they shut this down what’s going to run? Nothin’. What’s their plan? To live off of wind and solar? What makes their cars run? An’ look, that lady is smokin’ cigarettes. That causes cancer. Her secondhand smoke offends me. Cars leak oil all the time. It’s not the pipelines. How many people a year get killed by cars? Why don’t they stand in front of a Ford dealership that’s makin’ cars that kill people?”
Packard does not expect much help from religious institutions in this fight. He says most mainline religious communities wallow in stale liturgies and rituals, what he calls “theatrics,” and have become socially, politically and culturally irrelevant. The dwindling members of these congregations rarely leave their houses of worship—which often are little more than social clubs for the elderly or the elites—to join the struggle in front-line communities or in groups such as Black Lives Matter or Occupy. He calls the outreach by most religious institutions largely meaningless, little more than a “patina of social service.”
It is only the outlaws who will save us. And it is only among outlaws that Packard’s religious faith makes sense. The bishop, in his church in the streets, worships surrounded by many who do not consider themselves religious, but whom he sees as carrying the spirit and passion for justice and commitment to life that embody the essence of his faith and mine. Spirituality, he knows, is found on the barricades.