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The Darkest Hour

Blockade Halts Megaload at Port of Umatilla

by ALEXANDER REID ROSS

On Sunday night, fifty activists with Rising Tide and members of the Umatilla and Warm Springs tribes held together through the cold to stop a megaload from embarking on its treacherous path. It would prove to be only the beginning.

Weighing in at 450 short tons (900,000 lbs), this megaload is slated to pass over decaying bridges and through sensitive ecosystems from Eastern Oregon to Idaho and Montana before landing in the Alberta tar sands—commonly known to as “the worst project for the environment in the world.”

Rather than wait to see what damage could be wrought, the well-organized group of environmentalists and tribal members leapt to the frontlines yesterday evening with only a week’s advance notice. Converging on the Port of Umatilla from far and wide, the group developed and deployed its plan as though the event had been planned months in advance.

Word soon spread that the megaload was delayed until 10pm as the rally came together. At 10pm, the engine kicked into gear. Without hesitation, a group of people entered the path of the beast. The human blockade threw hair-raising chants of “Whose land? Cayuse land!” and “No tar sands on tribal lands!” at the megaload.

As the police wondered what to do, two more blockaders emerged from the shadows, coursing up to the machine locking down with deft efficiency. The first blockader threw himself, literally, under the megaload, wrapped his arms around an axel, and encased them completely in a “blackbear” lockbox. The second blockader, a native Oregonian, hustled up to a ladder on the side of the megaload and deployed a similar blackbear device.

Now, a megaload is not an average 18-wheeler load. In fact, a megaload is so wide that it takes up virtually every lane on a highway, backing traffic up considerably along its 5-20 mph tilt. At 380 feet long, this particular megaload is larger than any megaload to attempt the hazardous journey through Oregon. To put this into perspective, the largest Megalodon (prehistoric shark) is recorded at around 70 feet long—which is, incidentally, a close approximation to the average size of an 18-wheeler. So this megaload, secured to a truck known as Mighty Matt, is longer than five 18-wheelers (or Megalodons, depending on the reader’s preference).

Imagine throwing yourself under an 18-wheeler, engine running, on a cold day in near-icy conditions. Now imagine throwing yourself under a Goliath the size of five 18-wheelers.

Using heavy tools, the police and industrial hauling company, Omega Morgan, employees extracted the blockaders after over an hour and a half of tense anticipation. By that point, however, the lapsed time had precluded the chance of Mighty Matt arriving at its permitted destination. Hence, the night’s journey was cancelled, and the blockaders emerged victorious—for the time being.

Background on Megaload Resistance

The kind of dedication expressed by the activists who stood up to the Omega Load does not come with NGO dollars however dire their monetary needs may be. It comes from thoughtful experience, community-building, and love. When the megaloads first started to roll through the US, resistance was largely restricted to Idaho and Montana. In fact, the some megaloads are manufacture in British Columbia and barged down to the US and through the Columbia River, because Canadian officials do not want to reckon with the First Nations who persevere in stalwart opposition to the deadly-toxic tar sands. But activists in the US have shown Omega Morgan and the tar sands that people will not stand idle while their lands are broken to pieces.

When the megaloads started to roll in 2010, the group Wild Idaho Rising Tide began doggedly monitoring and protesting megaloads through Idaho and Montana, and built alliances and coalitions with other environmental groups as well as tribal and non-Native citizens throughout the region. In early August of this year, it was the Nez Perce who rose up with environmental allies against the megaloads. Around 150 people stood in front of the moving machine on Highway 12 with nothing more than signs, chants, and a spirit of resistance. They blockaded the megaload with their bodies, having little training in activist devices, and almost their entire tribal council was arrested in the process.

“I don’t look at this as a symbolic issue,” explained Silas Whitman, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribe. “Otherwise, we’d just issue a press statement, put up a few signs and just let it go. No. We’ve run out of time and initiatives. So that leaves us with disobedience, civil disobedience.”

After the blockade on Highway 12, the Nez Perce filed a legal case for an injunction against tar sands megaloads. They won. The forced diversion of the route brought the megaloads into the Port of Umatilla, and Portland Rising Tide along with 350.org and All Against the Haul in Oregon emerged to join members of the Umatilla and Warm Springs tribe, whose ceded territory lies along the route and who remain unconsulted by either Oregon Department of Transportation or Omega Morgan. Umatilla tribal member Shana Radford explains, “We have responsibility for what happens on our lands, but there are no boundaries for air. The carbon dioxide this equipment would create affects us all. The Nez Pierce tribe said no to megaloads, and so should we.”

Sustained and Escalating Resistance

At a solidarity protest taking place yesterday in Fife, Washington, Rising Tide Seattle occupied Omega Morgan’s office, and attempted to deliver a message to the office’s general manager. The occupation caused the office to shut down for at least an hour. The entire North West regional network of Rising Tide, from Washington to Oregon to Idaho, is now mobilizing in a decentralized fashion to confront the megaloads.

After waiting for a day, however, Mighty Matt left early Monday night. A woman sat in front of the megaload to prevent it from moving, but she was brutally removed by police and taken into custody. Still, the struggle continues. As of time of writing, activists are regrouping on the ground.

If Mighty Matt does make its way out of Oregon, activists will continue to develop and adapt tactics to halt the next megaload. The current megaload blockade is just beginning its initial stages, and activists on the ground are committed to sustaining resistance to stop the megaloads from destroying the land and to prevent the expansion of the tar sands.

Warm Springs tribal member Kayla Godowa explains, “It’s our duty to protect the native salmon runs in this area. They want to make this a permanent heavy haul route without even consulting our tribes. Loads like this are unprecedented here. What if a bridge collapses? And what about the impact to native communities being destroyed by the tar sands where this equipment will end up? We can’t just look the other way while native lands and the climate are being destroyed. We have to stand up.”

The struggle against the megaloads is a struggle against the tar sands and expanding fossil fuel infrastructure, but it is also part of a larger movement of solidarity between Native peoples and settler activists across the US. From Elsipogtog lands in New Brunswick, Canada, where just last night Highway 11 was set ablaze in response to police brutality against Native women attempting to halt fracking, to the Lubicon Nation in Alberta who have maintained a blockade against oil extraction, First Nations and their allies are saying “Enough is enough!” This is a struggle with no end—a constant engagement against the forces of destruction that threaten the future of survival on this planet.

Alexander Reid Ross is a co-founding moderator of the Earth First! Newswire and editor of the forthcoming anthology Grabbing Back: Articles Against the Global Land Grab (AK Press 2014). He is also a contributor to Life During Wartime: Resisting Counterinsurgency (AK Press 2013).