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Environmental protests on the rise

The morning of Aug. 24, Judy Wicks put her driver's license and $100 cash in her pocket. She wore no jewelry.

Now, she was ready to be arrested. So many would join her that she needed to be unencumbered, so she wouldn't hold up the processing line. Wicks, former owner of the White Dog Cafe in Philadelphia, and 1,251 others _ including a dozen or more from this area _ were arrested during a two-week action in front of the White House to protest the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil from Canada's tar sands to the Gulf of Mexico.

Organizers termed it "the largest environmental civil disobedience in decades."

Experts predict more such protests. They say the nation is entering an era of environmental civil disobedience rivaling that of the 1970s.

It may also signal a larger discontent. Since Oct. 6, Occupy Philadelphia, an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement largely focused on what it sees as corporate greed, has been occupying City Hall.

In the environmental realm, frustrations have long been more focused.

In recent months, eight activists climbed the smoke stack at Chicago's Fisk coal plant and painted "quit coal" in 10-foot-high letters on it.

They flew a red "airship" _ similar to a hot-air balloon _ over the Portland coal plant on the Delaware River in Northampton County, Pa. It read, "If you can read this, you're breathing coal pollution."

For over a year, the Philadelphia group Earth Quaker Action Team has demonstrated at PNC Bank branches to oppose its funding of mountaintop removal coal mining.

Last month, about 25 members held a mock trial in the lobby of PNC's regional headquarters on Market Street, charging it with "impersonating a green bank."

"I would expect it to continue and accelerate," said George Lakey, visiting professor of peace and conflict studies at Swarthmore College, which recently unveiled a database of global nonviolent action. It has information on about 430 cases so far.

He and others were arrested in an Earth Quaker action last year in Washington, where protesters built a dirt "mountain" in a PNC branch and sang with a gospel choir.

Even so, Earth Quaker organizer Zachary Hershman described a polite relationship between bank officials and activists _ many have accounts in the institution, which has some Quaker roots.

A bank spokesman dismissed "these rare events" as having any effect. But last November, the bank announced measures to lessen its funding of companies that use mountaintop mining.

Like many other acts of nonviolent civil disobedience, the PNC actions and the Washington arrests were highly choreographed, almost scripted.

Demonstrators often attend training sessions. While terrorism fears may up the tension, everyone knows the drill.

When Wicks was in Washington, police informed the crowd several times of a requirement to keep moving, but protesters stayed seated. So, one by one, quietly and methodically, they were arrested.

Nonviolent civil disobedience is as old as Thoreau. It played a crucial role in the civil rights movement, the labor movement and the women's suffrage movement.

For more than 35 years, peace activists have regularly protested against weapons maker Lockheed Martin and its predecessors in King of Prussia, Pa. Often, they are carted away in police vans. On Oct. 6, they engaged in a "stand-up" _ a vigil _ to support the Occupy Philadelphia event and one in Washington.

Generally, those involved in the environmental movement say that the activism of the 1970s was followed by a tamer period in which environmental groups focused on scientific studies, lobbying, public education, political action, and lawsuits.

But now _ as in the 1970s _ optimism followed by frustration may be fueling more dramatic action.

As Swarthmore's Lakey sees it, environmental groups were stirred by the election of Barack Obama, who professed a belief in science. Since they felt the evidence on climate change was clear, surely he would act.

But the climate-change conference in Copenhagen was a bust. Other initiatives failed, including a proposal for tighter ozone standards, which the White House recently decided to withdraw.

"That's when people do civil disobedience, when conventional avenues are blocked," Lakey said.

He also thinks protesters may be getting inspiration from the citizen action in Tunisia and Egypt. "You have a lot of people saying, 'OK, the political process is choked up,' and there are people in other countries showing what you do when the political process is choked up."

Organizers keep stressing nonviolence. But in the past, events have escalated.

In June, in a federal court in Salt Lake City, Timothy DeChristopher was sentenced to two years in jail for disrupting a federal auction of oil and gas leases.

In September, PBS aired a documentary, "If a Tree Falls," about Earth Liberation Front activist Daniel McGowan, who was convicted in a series of arsons involving a timber company and other businesses that the group accused of destroying the environment.

He was labeled a terrorist, a term his supporters reject, and in 2005 was sentenced to seven years in prison.

While some portrayed the Keystone protests in Washington as anti-Obama, Wicks and others said they were doing it to give him leverage to stand up to big business.

"I think it's one of the most patriotic things you can do," Wicks said.

Also arrested were Michael Gagne of Wallingford, eco-justice organizer with the Philadelphia Yearly Meeting of Friends, and his wife, Jennifer Karsten. He said he expects to attend more. "People have to put something on the line to win change."

Keystone organizer, author and activist Bill McKibben said the protest was needed "because the other side has all the money. . . . We had to find an alternate currency, and for a few weeks it was our bodies."

Last month, during a natural-gas industry conference in Philadelphia, hundreds attended a rally and march outside the Convention Center.

The next day came strategy sessions, including one called "When Marching Isn't Enough." It was about direct action, a term that includes civil disobedience, which often refers to breaking laws.

Co-leader Daniel Hunter, who works for the Philadelphia activist training group Training for Change, asked the group to list possible benefits from direct action.

Their answers: It raises the stakes. It says the rules of the game aren't working. It brings focus to an issue.

Next, the downsides: It's scary. If you do it too much, it loses potency. You might lose control; if someone tosses a brick through a window, you've lost the moral high ground.

"I believe direct action is healing," Hunter said. "How do we move that, shape it into a way that is effective for our issue?"

One person who has seen both eras is Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

In the 1980s, she was among hundreds arrested _ after lying down in front of a bulldozer _ at the site of the proposed Point Pleasant Pumping Station, a project _ ultimately built _ to supply drinking water to portions of Montgomery County, Pa., and cooling water for the Limerick, Pa., nuclear power plant.

Now, she's focused on a new issue for the river _ natural-gas drilling. There has been a moratorium in the Delaware River basin. But the basin commission, which oversees water quantity and quality, has proposed rules. If they are adopted, drilling could proceed.

"We are using every method we possibly can" short of direct action, she said. But that may soon end. The commission has called a special meeting for Nov. 21 at the Trenton War Memorial to consider the regulations.

"We are inviting and encouraging people to come and protest," Carluccio said. And now, borrowing the currency of the "Occupy" movement, a Twitter feed and Facebook account, both called OccupyDRBC, have been formed.

So far, there have been no public plans for civil disobedience. But Carluccio said there had been talk. So the Riverkeeper is hosting a training the night before _ just to make sure everyone knows the rules. And the stakes.

Carluccio said the goal was to have "an effective, law-abiding, nonviolent event ... yet still encourage people to speak out and exercise their First Amendment rights."