On January 14, 2017 I went to join the Suwannee Riverkeeper for a paddle down the Suwannee River in conjunction with the planned massive civil disobedience action at the Suwannee River State Park. First we met at the boat launch and then we carpooled to the park. When we got there, we were told that the park had reached capacity and was closed for the first time in history.
John Quarterman went to talk to the rangers and park managers to see what the situation was at the same time they opened the gates for the media. It was eventually decided that cars could drive out and bring people in to carpool them back into the park. Originally they said it was possible that cars along the road could be towed, but in the end they decided as long as cars were not blocking traffic they were safe. The image below shows the cars driving out and then turning around to take people back inside the park.
While I was walking around photographing outside the gate, this beautiful woman whom I had met at a Center For Peace Building's workshop a couple of months ago came up and hugged me. I was so touched she was there speaking out for water. She'd been very moved when I'd described my journey photographing water in Florida and around the country. I sensed instantly that she was a very empathetic soul and dedicated to upholding the rights of ecosystems. The day was off to such a great start knowing that someone like her was present for this cause.
We opted not to carpool into the park, since we needed to get to the other side of the river and launch our vessels for the water protest. On the way back to the boat launch, we had to drive by the construction site on the ranch land adjacent to the park. I was riding in the back of a pickup truck, so I could photograph the security there. They saw me taking a photograph and waved. I have to say that the civil disobedience seemed civil on both sides all day, which was not what I expected. Yes, many of the people I know that attended, myself included, are strongly opposed to the pipeline in Florida or anywhere. I also suspect there was way more security than was needed at the park, Yet, on the other hand, I was at Standing Rock when things went awry and understand the importance of communication on both sides. That is why I value the objectives of the Center for Peace Building so much.
I got John Quarterman to drop me off, so I could hike up the riverbank to the construction site and see what was happening. First I saw a couple of people in riot gear on the top of the bank. Then, I came to the site and saw people stationed like this every few feet. They left a row of trees to form a screen.
While I was walking up the path, a most extraordinary thing happened. Two women recognized each other from opposite sides of the fence. Turns out they were neighbors and their children played together. They had a great conversation in which they both acknowledged what the other was doing and expressed how they respected each other's position. I know it is difficult sometimes. It is hard to understand when you are standing up for clean water to keep your children and the planet healthy and safe how anyone could be working for the other side. Sometimes people have jobs they can't afford to lose in order to support their families. The battle really is at a higher level. Maybe because these two women were able to talk this way that day, this sheriff may decide in the future that she can no longer work extra hours for the pipeline company.
All these sheriffs and armed security personnel were poised to defend the construction site. These people were all standing at the corner of the construction site, shortly before the route took a turn to the right. All along the site, there were people with riot helmets. I am not sure what they were expecting from peaceful protestors. It was announced that there would be a mass civil disobedience, but no one ever said anything about violent actions, at least as far as I heard.
These protectors were all camped out at the corner, where the pipeline took a sharp right and headed along an easement the pipeline company acquired just outside the park boundaries. The yellow sign reads, "Unless Someone Like You Cares a Whole Awful Lot, Nothing is Going to Get Better. It's Not.
By this point, I have seen a lot of pipelines. However, never have I seen so many calculations scrawled on the side of one. Perhaps it had something to do with the sharp turn this one had to make. I am not really sure. It did make me realize just how complicated this whole venture is from a surveying standpoint. Were there any figures that could tell them how to avoid the Falmouth Cathedral Cave System below.
The image above shows a piece of pipe perpendicular to the direction of the river crossing. How these pipes were to be joined and secured making such a sharp angle, I am not really sure. Hopefully, the connections will be entirely safe, but I suspect no aspect of a pipeline is ever that.
This is an example of the beautiful and lush vegetation directly across from the pipeline corridor, and an example of the vegetation that was likely lost when everything was clearcut.
Protectors were advised of a safe zone, which was here, behind a fence, and a gray area where people might be allowed to stand on an access road through the route. The route itself was a red zone and people were told it was a felony to trespass there. When I arrived there, the sheriffs were not objecting to people walking around. They seemed to be giving people a chance to take a peacefully protest at least for awhile.
The sheriffs came equipped with a very large mobile command station. They were prepared to deal with whatever civil disobedience they were going to encounter.
Here are some of the people who milled around in the access road. There were people playing music and making speeches. After I left, in the late afternoon, there was a sit in with people holding hands and chained together in pipes. Still, by the end of the day it remained peaceful and there were no arrests.
Panagioti Tsolkas was an organizer for the event. He has been working tirelessly in bringing people together to stand up to Sabal Trail and attempt to revoke the permits for the pipeline.
This was the youngest protector I encountered. Of course the reason many were out here was to stand up for a cleaner, healthier planet for future generations.
What this generation seems to understand that many from my own do not is that the time is now to take action and that we have to be constantly vigilant, or more and more of the environment will continue to be irreparably destroyed.
A member of Veterans for Peace was there and is sign was totally on point. So many veterans are joining water protectors right now. They have seen the face of war and understand that the last battle was over oil and the one for the rest of our days will be over water, because as the indigenous say "Water is Life."
I was very glad that I was still there when this Muscogee tribe member told a legend about water and what happens when someone tries to hoard it. Sadly, I was so focused on taking photographs of him that I do not remember all the details. Hopefully, someone will fill me in, as I am sure it was very cautionary and had a great lesson to teach.
Singing a Spiritual Together
Then these two women sang a spiritual together. Again, I was so focused on their connection and making an image that evoked the emotion between them that I do not remember what song it was. I was very moved watching them look into each other's eyes and sing from their souls. Shortly after they concluded, I heard an announcement that if you did not want to be arrested it was time to go back to the safe zones behind the fence. I knew the Suwannee Riverkeeper was waiting for me on the river, so I decided to go back.
On the way out to the site where everyone was congregated, I had met these two musicians. They had told me they were on their way back to play for the guards. In fact, when I passed by the drill site, this is where they were still. I thought that was a truly remarkable thing to do and such a gesture of goodwill.
After we paddled back to the launch, John asked me if I wanted to join him on a walk through the woods. I'd been on this same walk a month earlier and I was curious how things were progressing on this side of the river. Last time I'd walked here, I could hear some noise in the distance. This time it was very loud. We didn't see any wildlife at all.
When we emerged from the trees, this is what we saw. We weren't exactly sure what was going on. The pipe was hoisted up, but it wasn't moving. It was difficult to see what was going on behind the berm. Perhaps they were pumping drilling mud.
There were about 15 State Trooper cars and multiple sheriffs vehicles lined up around the construction site, both down the side and in front. I was very surprised to see so many and wondered where they all came from. At many of the construction sites I have visited so far, especially in controversial areas, I have encountered sheriffs. This was the first time I'd seen State Troopers. Were these personnel also off duty like the sheriffs typically hired by the pipeline company? I am still not clear why off duty officers are allowed to wear their uniforms and drive official vehicles. since the pipeline company is private. Nevertheless, despite the presence of so many officers people behaved respectfully on both sides. None of the State Troopers said anything to us about being where we were either. John had called the sheriffs and told them he'd be doing a paddle and asked to make sure walking in the park was still allowed and it was.