If the Sandman’s job, as legend has it, is to put us to sleep, a growing movement in Minnesota and Wisconsin has taken up the opposite task: wiping the sleep from our eyes.
First it was tea. Then it was salt. Now it’s sand.
Successful nonviolent action often hinges on fusing the transcendent with the everyday. While it frames the struggle in visionary terms like “justice,” it does so in ways that we can touch, feel, see and experience up close. So, for example, the civil rights movement’s lunch counter sit-ins in the 1960s indissolubly linked the trans-historical crime of racism with the need all of us have to eat three times a day, driving home monumental injustice in terms most people could viscerally grasp: an obstacle to straightforwardly meeting the most basic of human needs.
American revolutionaries got the point across about their British overlords by pitching a colonial staple into Boston harbor. Gandhi shook the same imperial system 150 years later by illegally making salt. Both cases pointed out the crises of their time by using material both highly symbolic but also utterly at hand, thus managing to transform an often abstract and elusive form of oppression, the overarching machinery of empire, into a reality that people could touch — and, by touching, change.
Now, sand has entered the mix.
Earlier this month, 30 people were found guilty in a Winona, Minn. courtroom of trespassing at two local facilities where silica sand used in hydraulic fracking is processed and transported. Stemming from a nonviolent action organized last April 29 by the Winona Catholic Worker and others from throughout the Midwest, the four-day jury trial held February 3-6 kept the original protest alive by trying to put “frac sand” on trial. (See a slideshow on the protest here and a local news report here.) Judge Jeffrey Thompson imposed a sentence of fines, court costs and probation.
Silica sand is a necessary component of fracking, which reportedly uses 10,000 tons of silica sand to frack a single well. Wisconsin is the biggest producer of frac sand, with hundreds of mines. Winona, located near the Wisconsin border and the Mississippi River, has become a key transshipment point, with about 100 trucks carrying thousands of tons of sand crossing the city daily.
If the Sandman’s job, as legend has it, is to put us to sleep, a growing movement in Minnesota and Wisconsin has taken up the opposite task: wiping the sleep from our eyes. They have done so through concerted outreach to the city council and the larger community aimed at raising the visibility of the immediate and long-term consequences of both fracking and the sand that makes it possible, including the impacts that harmful silica sand emissions pose to human health. As Inside Climate News reports: “The extent and effect of pollution from mining, processing and transporting frac sand is only partially understood. The biggest concern is the release of extra-tiny dust matter called PM 2.5, which are 2.5 micrometers in diameter and can penetrate lung tissue and enter the bloodstream.”
The movement to end the burgeoning frac sand industry has organized a growing series of public events, with the April 2013 blockade being the largest to date. Just before that action, organizer Diane Leutgeb-Munson laid out why people had decided to take this action, including risking arrest. “We will not be complicit in the hydraulic fracturing industry, known for poisoning water and land across the country,” she said. “We will not stand by and watch our landscape be forever altered. If there is no other way to stop this from happening, we will simply stand in the way.”
That morning people stood in the way at two sites. Half the group assembled at the CD Corporation at the Winona Port Authority, where sand is loaded onto barges and then shipped down the Mississippi. Eighteen people nonviolently blocked trucks there, preventing them from unloading sand for about an hour. The others headed to a nearby sand washing and processing facility. Seventeen people occupied the driveway, shutting it down for two hours. Thirty-five people were charged with trespass. They finally had their day in court earlier this month.
A trial of this kind is unusual for Winona, as judged by the glut of local print and TV media attention it garnered, with many local news outlets reporting every day on the proceedings. The Winona Daily News led off its coverage of the trial’s first day this way: “The charge is misdemeanor trespass, but there’s no question that sand mining, hydraulic fracking and the international petrochemical industry are at the heart of what is easily the largest and most political trial in recent Winona history. Monday was not a typical day at the county courthouse.”
Defendant Steve Clemons posted a blog each day of the trial. Meanwhile, all 30 defendants were given an opportunity to give testimony. On the concluding day, for example, Mike Miles testified that he found himself “walking up driveways I shouldn’t have because of my commitment to nonviolence.” He knew if he got arrested he would have his “day in court and hopefully be able to tell the truth, the whole truth, to a jury serving as the conscience of the community,” a not so oblique reference to the fact that the judge had throughout the trial repeatedly squashed any attempt by the defense to address the motivation and intent of the action. When asked by the defense attorney why he risked arrest, Miles said he was motivated by the urgency of the crisis facing us, declaring “we must do everything within our power [to try to prevent or mitigate climate change].”
Peaceable civil disobedience is warranted when every other remedy for change has been exhausted. But it is also warranted in response to an emergency, even if every mechanism for change hasn’t been used. Indeed, it becomes a powerful tool by helping to both interrupt the harm in question and by alerting, educating and mobilizing the population to demand an end to that harm. In his testimony, Miles got at the necessity to respond to the escalating emergency of the climate crisis. He and his community could not wait. Willfully trespassing to save a baby in a house that is on fire is justified, or so the argument goes. In this case, the sand is headed to the next fracking well and they had to prevent the harm in the making.
And so the community was alerted. A Wisconsin-Minnesota coalition is working on frac sand; the Winona City Council is considering establishing frac sand emissions monitors; and a few miles from Winona on the Wisconsin side of the Mississippi River, a local school district has just announced a legal battle to oppose the Glacier Sands truck-to-rail frac sand facility that’s proposed to be located across from one of its schools.
Pace e Bene’s Marie Shebeck was among those arrested and convicted in this case. She was deeply moved by the action and its process. “Many of the participants were from Winona or had ties to it, and the rest of us were invited by the Winona community to take this action,” Shebeck said. “When forming the action, we reflected deeply on what it means to care for creation. And now that the trial is over, there is the sense that this effort is going to continue.”
This commentary first appeared on Waging Nonviolence.