Anatomy of a Protest: The Break Free from Fossil Fuels Rally

Over 300 people gathered at Whiting Lakefront Park on Sunday, May 15 to protest the BP Whiting Refinery. 41 protesters were arrested. Scroll through to learn more about each event on the schedule for the Break Free from Fossil Fuels Protest.

The Blessing of the Water: Everything Begins with Water

On a clear, sunny Indiana spring morning, more than 400 people gathered in Whiting Lakefront Park in Whiting, Indiana. The kayakers and canoers pulled up later.

Whiting, Indiana, population 4891. (Danielle Prieur/Medill)

The people stood in a circle outside the pavilion of the Whiting Lakefront Park wearing sweatshirts and coats. They came from as far away as Alaska and as nearby as Chicago.

They were there to protest the fossil fuel industry, specifically the BP Whiting Refinery.

They were hip hop artists, environmental activists, railroad engineers and union organizers, tribal representatives, advisors to presidential nominees, and nurses.

They were grandparents who started out as environmental activists in the 1960s mingling across the generations with freshman from Northwestern University wearing their Wildcat purple.

Local protesters came from the American Indian Center of Chicago, the East Chicago Environmental Activists group, the Chicago Southeast Coalition to Ban Petcoke, and Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing our Environment (SAFE).

They chanted and sang at the march: “Love water not oil!”, “Keep it in the ground!”,“Whose streets? Our streets!” They called for an end to water pollution on reservations, storage of pet coke in South East Side neighborhoods, and fracking throughout Illinois.

And they united around a common goal: to break free from fossil fuels, the industry and fossil fuels themselves in order to ensure seven generations in the future had clean water, air, and a habitable planet.

“It doesn’t matter who you pray to, what flag flies over your house, what language you speak or your favorite cuisine. It doesn’t matter who you sleep in the bed with-we as a people of earth need to come together and stop those who have been corrupted by greed,” rapper Malik Yusef said at the rally later that day.

As tribal representatives and their families walked around the circle carrying incense during the water blessing ceremony, they stopped in front of each protester. The protester would make a “washing motion” with the incense and say a silent prayer or reflection. What were they praying for that morning?

During the ceremony, one tribal representative said, “It’s happening in Chicago. It’s happening all over. It’s happening in the Navajo reservation. They’re poisoning us. This is our home. We all live here. We all need this water. If we all lose hope, what are we going to do with these babies? What are we going to do about our future?”

Laughing and nervously-excited for the event, protesters walked in a line from the pavilion to Lake Michigan as a tribal representative played the flute and protesters with homemade drums, started to beat out a rhythm to walk by. Once they reached the rocky shorefront, Coast Guard boats became more apparent along with the police helicopters. Were they praying for safety during the march?

Protesters walk to Lake Michigan for the culimination of the water blessing. (Danielle Prieur/Medill)

To their left, the Chicago protesters could just make out the skyline of their city, and to their right, the smokestacks of the BP Whiting Refinery where they would march later that afternoon. Over 40 protesters were going to risk arrest as direct action protesters later that day. Were they praying to see their homes again soon, if they were arrested?

Protesters stood next to their mothers, their sisters, their neighbors, their colleagues, their religious leaders, and their new friends, helping people climb over the rocks to get to the sandy shorefront. Some people collected samples of water from the lake to bless, while others quietly looked out at the waves that were beginning to form.

Protesters stand on the shores of Lake Michigan before the drum meet-up. (Danielle Prieur/Medill)

The protesters gathered as part of one of the largest environmental movements in the United States targeting the fossil fuel industry and fossil fuels. But the movement called Break Free, part of the environmental organization, is also a global one. The month of action began in Wales, UK when protestors shut down a coal mine for twelve days.

The same weekend the Break Free from Fossil Fuels Midwest event took place, protesters in Germany shut down a coal mine, in Washington called for a ban on offshore drilling, in New York called for a ban on oil bomb trains and in California attempted to shut down one of the largest, urban oil fields.

Bill McKibben, environmental activist, author and founder of the organization, spoke to protesters in Chicago about the movement later that day saying, “The main message is simply that you’ve got brothers and sisters all over the place. This has been an amazing ten days around the world as these Break Free actions have rolled out. Its been amazing to watch.”

Throughout the month of May, according to Lindsay Meiman a national spokeswoman for the United State’s Break Free organization, these actions served as a “call on institutions and politicians to break free from fossil fuels” with cleaner, greener alternative energy sources like wind and solar power.

“The goal of this mobilization is to fill the gap between the words of politicians and what our government is actually doing,” said Meiman. “Each action is targeting a specific fossil fuel infrastructure. The first action of Break Free is to successfully shut down a coal mine [in Germany]. There are actions specifically here in the United States targeting refinery pollution from fracking infrastructure to oil trains in ongoing sites in communities,” said Meiman.

“The goal of this mobilization is to fill the gap between the words of politicians and what our government is actually doing,” said Lindsay Meiman, national spokeswoman for Break Free.

But if climate change has been going on for decades, why May and why fossil fuels, for the month of action?

Meiman said the political climate nationally and globally, after the Paris Climate Conference (COP21) in December, makes it an ideal time for action. International leaders at the conference agreed to lower fossil fuel emissions as a critical step toward the goal of limiting global warming to a maximum of 2 degrees Centigrade (about 3.3 degrees Fahrenheit).

“For us it was really always the road through Paris. Looking at this pretty significant moment in December when over 200 world governments agreed on a treaty. It was the road through Paris, looking past Paris and through to a moment when folks around the world could mobilize and escalate,” said Meiman.

Bill McKibben speaking again to the protesters at the rally said fossil fuels in particular were important because climate change has never been more apparent than it is now.

“The reason is our backs are kind of to the wall. This is the hottest year that we’ve ever recorded on this planet. April crushed the records for every other April we’ve ever measured and the effects are showing up all over the place,” said Bill McKibben, founder of

Climate scientists have linked the burning of fossil fuels, like gas, oil and coal to an increase in carbon dioxide or greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere. These gases make it harder for heat to escape, warming the planet and causing these record-breaking temperatures globally, according to NOAA and NASA.

McKibben described traveling to the Pacific Islands where entire coral reef populations have been destroyed by rising temperatures and shoreline communities are on the brink of disappearing due to rising ocean levels.

Although protesters at the Break Free from Fossil Fuels Midwest event came from different states with different environmental goals, that Sunday they joined in sending a loud and clear message to the leaders of the Whiting, Indiana community and the leaders of the BP Whiting Refinery.

As McKibben said, “The Midwest is rising!”

While the day began with the water blessing ceremony, throughout the day, organizations highlighted the impact of fossils fuels and polluted water on the local community and organizers offered training on non-violent, direct action.

Map of the Whiting Lakefront Park and list of events at the Break Free from Fossil Fuels Midwest Protest. (Danielle Prieur/Medill)

Before we join the protesters at the Drum Meet-up, listen to some of the morning’s events below:

Tribal representatives speak at the Water Blessing Ceremony, as one member plays the flute. (Danielle Prieur/Medill)

The Drum Meet-up: Preparing to March with Drums and Direct Action

Half an hour later, at 10:30, most of the protesters were back in the pavilion in the center of Whiting Lakefront Park.

Many of them read the poster boards that had been set up at tables along the back wall by the organizations that were represented at the event. The protesters learned about the lack of clean water on many U.S. reservations from the American Indian Center of Chicago, while they signed petitions to end fracking circulated by SAFE members. In the dusty light of the pavilion, away from the midday sun that was beating down outside, they learned more about the people and communities they were marching for.

The "Why We March" poster board from inside of the pavilion at the Whiting Lakefront Park. (Danielle Prieur/Medill)

By 11:00, the protesters could smell the barbecue that had been turned on and was starting to warm up outside of the pavilion. Later, they would buy lightly barbecued, sweet corn for lunch. But in the meantime, a man with a shock of white hair, wearing a fedora hat and carrying a huge snare drum from a strap around his neck, began to beat out a rhythm. He was soon joined by a group of five young men, one of whom wore the sky blue shirt of the Break Free organization, for the drum meet-up.

Some of the young men were professional musicians with store-bought drums, but the majority had never drummed before. They had brought home-made percussion instruments made from recycled materials like cartons or cans. Leaning against the wall were additional percussion instruments supplied by the organizers of the event for the protesters who hadn’t brought their own, but wanted to join the drum circle.

In the circle, they began tentatively following their drum leader, but soon broke off to make their own variations on the tune, practicing for their role in the march later that afternoon. Their drumming would be the only consistent sound the protesters would be able to hear during the march: they would set the pace, starting the chants at the beginning of the march, keeping the energy of the protesters up in the middle of the march as they passed by more and more police, and slowing them down at the end of the march as they reached the gates of the BP Whiting Refinery.

Protesters practice drumming for the march at the meet-up. (Danielle Prieur/Medill)

The drummers smiled as they made music together, and learned how to follow cues from their drum leader. After they were done, they joined the protesters in line for the sweet corn.

On a grassy hill to the right of the pavilion, white municipal pickup trucks with stickers that read “City of Whiting” patrolled the dirt road near 20 protesters gathered in front of a rusting swing set. The drumming was quieter on the hill, but the droning noise of the police helicopters and an occasional child who was being pushed on the swings were louder than they were in the pavilion.

This group of protesters were listening to their leader who was training them for what they were about to do during the march.

These 20 protesters were the self-selected, direct action protesters. They had responded to an email sent a few days before the event by Break Free, inquiring whether any protesters were interested in taking more direct action, such as trespassing on BP property, during the march.

These protesters would march with the other protesters, but would break off and form the first two rows of the march when they reached the gates of the BP Whiting Refinery to trespass onto BP property.

They had each had signed a release that was now in a Ziplock bag in case it rained, saying they consented to being arrested or anything else that might happen to them once they reached the gates.

These protesters were unintentionally representative of the larger group: they were from states throughout the Midwest, some had been protesters since the 1960s, used to incurring bodily harm from police when they took direct action at Vietnam War protests, while others were high school students at their first protest with their parents.

As they listened to their trainer, they paired up for the first simulation of what direct, non-violent protest at the march might feel like: the partner on the left would act as the protester, while the partner on the right would act as the police officer.

Direct action protesters practice how to protest non-violently. (Danielle Prieur/Medill)

They tried out different techniques they could use against verbal or physical threats they might encounter once they reached the BP refinery gates. In the discussion after the training, they all agreed on quietly, sitting on the ground in a circle when they reached the gates, instead of responding to or confronting police if they were confronted.

Several of the direct action protesters, even expressed empathy with the police officers as they were “just doing a job like they were,” while others expressed fear, sharing stories of police using plastic ties on middle-aged female protesters.

Protesters discuss the direct action training. (Danielle Prieur/Medill)

They discussed when and where they’d break off from the larger group, what they should do in terms of direct action, what they shouldn’t do, and most importantly what they should do if they were arrested or confronted by the police.

A “jail liaison” joined the group, as they practiced their slow, even marching, arm in arm across the field. He collected their forms and told them what to expect if they were arrested. He told them most of the protesters would be released on bail that night, but that he would work through the night if he had to.

Why had these 20 protesters decided to take direct action, to risk arrest over a refinery that’s been in the Whiting community since 1889?

According to the Break Free Midwest press statement released shortly after the event, “BP Whiting is at the hub of the growing web of dangerous fossil fuel infrastructure that companies like Enbridge are working to build across the Midwest.”

The release called BP Whiting Refinery the largest tar sands refinery in the country as it “receives dirty crude oil from pipelines like the controversial (Enbridge) Line 3 and the Alberta Clipper tar sands pipeline.”

Most importantly for Chicago protesters at the event, the refinery has been linked to, “massive amounts of pet coke.”

Pet coke is the black dust left behind when crude oil is refined into the clear gasoline people use in their cars. Pet coke from BP and other refineries was originally stored in open piles on Chicago’s South East Side at KCBX Terminal Co.’s facilities.

Last year, facing a Chicago ordinance that required pet coke piles stored at the terminal to be covered, KCBX announced it would only serve as a transit facility for pet coke. Now open rail cars, not required covered by the ordinance, bring pet coke in for transfer to covered barges. BP now stores its pet coke elsewhere, but other refineries in Illinois still use KCBX.

Not only is pet coke linked to increased asthma, but lung and heart disease in South Side communities, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Once the direct action protesters donned their arm bands indicating their role in the march, they joined the rest of the group on the grassy field where a bandstand was being set up for the rally. A train which some of the protesters called an oil bomb train whistled in the distance, over the people crunching their sweet corn.

The Press Conference: Reading Statements, Calling for Change

As it neared 12:15, most of the protesters were sitting on the grassy field waiting for the rally.

In the meantime, protesters who had been part of the drum circle drummed together to prepare for the march. Signs started to appear from trunks of cars and from under picnic tables where they had been stowed. They were colorful and handmade, acrylic paint on cloth. They read “Oil, Gas, Coal=Climate Chaos” and others made with fish net and orange letters tacked on net called for the closure of Enbridge Pipeline 5 built under the straits of Mackinaw in Lake Michigan. Another protester, started to fly his kite in the wind off the lake: it was a giant black octopus with neon eyes and tentacles that called for an end to Enbridge’s pipelines.

A protester's sign on the grassy field at Whiting Lakefront Park. (Danielle Prieur/Medill)

At the same time, across the parking lot near the lakefront, another bandstand mirroring the one on the grassy field, brought together different environmental organizations. Representatives from these organizations offered their support for the event and the people of Whiting, Indiana and called for changes in the fossil fuel industry, beginning with the BP Whiting Refinery.

Representatives of Chicago organizations like the American Indian Center in Chicago, the East Chicago activists, the Southeast Side Coalition to Ban Petoke, and Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment (SAFE) spoke, while cameras took their pictures and video cameras recorded their statements in a line in front of the bandstand.

The first representative, a tribal representative from the American Indian Center in Chicago, said that fossil fuel infrastructure is endangering already limited water resources on reservations throughout the country.

“The fight against tar sand oil isn’t just a fight to stop climate change, but a fight to save our people and for our very existence as sovereign indigenous peoples,” the tribal representative said.

She asked for the continued support of the other organizations at the event, as cleaner water on reservations would benefit all people, seven generations in the future.

“We need that same level of commitment from everybody here today to protect the land and water for future generations,” she said.

Kristin and Marta Frank of the East Chicago Environmental Activists group, said that although it employs East Siders in the energy industry, BP Whiting Refinery is also contributing to air and water pollution in the area.

Kristin said she commutes to work past the refinery every morning where she can see and smell the air pollution. She is also concerned about the potential water pollution if another spill, like the one in 2014 that emptied into Lake Michigan, were to happen. (The spill totaled 1,638 gallons of oil, according to a press release from BP Whiting.)

“I want to first secure the just transition for my community as we enter the end of the future fuel era. I want a healthy planet and I want my neighbors to have jobs they can be proud of and that will provide a living wage for their families,” Kristin said. “I believe that we can and should put our greatest efforts into supporting and creating a just transition into a green economy and frontline community.”

Martita Torrez Allen, a representative of the South East Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke, said that she first noticed the fine black dust, at one of her niece’s birthday parties, where it covered the bouncy castle and birthday cake. When she asked what the dust was, her family and their neighbors told her it was dust from the BP refinery, stored on the South Side.

She continued to research it and found out that that dust was actually pet coke.

Torrez Allen wants to see a ban on pet coke, as even now pet coke on the South East Side is stored and transported in semi-open railroad cars.

“We need to take action. We need to rid this community of toxic petcoke and we won’t stop until it’s completely gone. We need to make sure that this poison is completely removed from our community. And that they’re prohibited by law to transport these toxic substances throughout our communities,” Torrez Allen said.

“We need to take action. We need to rid this community of toxic petcoke and we won’t stop until it’s completely gone. We need to make sure that this poison is completely removed from our community. And that they’re prohibited by law to transport these toxic substances throughout our communities,” Torrez Allen of the South East Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke said.

The fourth and last representative from Chicago, Elizabeth Donoghue, a representative of Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment (SAFE) said Chicago should be, “leading the nation in renewable energy growth,” instead.

“Illinois has the potential to be a leader in sustainability but instead, instead it chooses to cling to the idea that a fossilized and dying industry can save us. Instead of working to bring renewable industries to our state, instead of streamlining policies to make sustainable growth possible,” Donaghue said.

“Illinois has the potential to be a leader in sustainability but instead, instead it chooses to cling to the idea that a fossilized and dying industry can save us. Instead of working to bring renewable industries to our state, instead of streamlining policies to make sustainable growth possible,” Donaghue said.

The most conspicuous organization missing a representative at the press conference?

BP Whiting Refinery.

In an interview with BP representative Michael Abendhoff earlier in the week, he said, “BP is committed to safe and compliant operations at the Whiting refinery and across the company’s global portfolio.”

He didn’t discuss the 2014 pipeline leak but focused on the company’s increased efforts to be prepared when oil spills do occur, including practice drills one of which was happening across the lake at the BP Whiting Refinery during the Break Free from Fossil Fuels Midwest event.

“In keeping with this commitment, the Whiting Refinery maintains oil spill response plans and a dedicated emergency response team on site. We update these plans and incorporate lessons learned from other parts of our global business.”

He also focused on the undeniable financial and social benefits fossil fuel companies like BP have brought to cities like Whiting, Indiana.

“BP also takes pride in being a significant part of the region’s economy and a good neighbor. The Whiting Refinery provides jobs to 1,700 BP employees and thousands of local contractors,” Abendhoff said. “In addition, it is a major contributor to the local Lake Area United Way and supports a number of other community organizations and educational programs.”

Infographic of BP Whiting Refinery. (Photo courtesy of BP Whiting)

According to the “Environmental Statement for Year 2015,” published on the BP Whiting website, BP Whiting Refinery has had an Environmental Management System (EMS) in place since 2001.

This system acts as “a formalized structure for ensuring that a facility prioritizes it’s environmental aspects and has plans in place to address and document progress towards improving environmental practice.”

In conjunction with the Environmental Protection Agency, BP Whiting has reduced its air emissions since 2001 through, “an enhanced valve monitoring program, an enhanced pump monitoring and repair program, and a program aimed at reducing hydrocarbon flaring,” and “through use of emission reducing additives at the Fluidized Catalytic Cracking units (FCUs).”

In total, according to the report, “we invested more than $1 billion in environmental enhancements to the facility including wastewater improvements, air emission reductions, and systems to remove sulfur from gasoline and diesel. These controls include technology to produce lower sulfur fuels, specialized burners and controls to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions from heaters and boilers, and improved automated controls that optimize process units for lower emissions.”

Air emissions at BP Whiting Refinery since 2001. (Courtesy of BP Whiting Business)

Along with reducing air emissions, BP Whiting Refinery improved water management systems (both intake of water from Lake Michigan and emissions of wastewater), by “adding capacity to handle storm events,” improving metering of stormwater, internal plant-wide “permitting” processes for sewage, and equipment.

The company also “installed a new final effluent filter as an upgrade to the previous filter.”

Since 2001, discharge levels of total suspended solids (TSS), a water quality measurement, have been reduced.

Total suspended solids (TSS) at BP Whiting Refinery since 2001. (Courtesy of BP Whiting Business)

But protesters still worried about the levels of air and water pollution at BP Whiting Refinery.

At the close of the press conference, the speakers joined the other protesters on the grassy field for the rally as the wind died down, and the sun began to beat down even harder. Sitting on the grass, the protesters began to shade themselves with the pamphlets that were being circulated about the fossil fuel industry and fossil fuels.

Before we join the protesters at the rally, listen to some of the speeches at the press conference below:

Before we join the protesters at the rally, listen to excerpts from the press conference:

Speeches at the protest. (Danielle Prieur/Medill)

The Rally: Hip-Hop, Tears, and Stories of Triumph Before the March

By 12:40, the protesters who had been sitting on the grassy field drumming and holding signs for almost an hour were baking in the heat. They applied sunscreen and donned hats, getting ready for the march when they were interrupted by a man already wearing a wide-brim straw hat who had started a call and answer.

“Keep it in the ground,” he yelled into a megaphone, standing up in front of the bandstand. And by the third line of the well known Break Free chant, all the protesters sat back down on the grass and answered with “Keep the oil in the ground!”

They were united once more: the direct action protesters with the drum circle with the representatives from the press conference and they were ready for a march.

“Keep it in the ground, keep the oil under the soil, keep the gas under the grass, keep the coal in the hole, system change, not climate change, renewable energy, sustainable life,” they chanted twice over until the emcees of the rally, environmental activists Naomi Davis and Bryant Williams came on stage.

Angela Davis, the founder and president of the Chicago, all African American environmental organization Blacks in Green (BIG), began the rally by saying, “On this blue sky day, we do declare that we are breaking free!” to resounding applause.

Like the protesters, the rally speakers were from across the Midwest. They were hip hop artists, environmental activists, Native American attorneys, nurses, and railroad workers. Their goal was to prepare the protesters for the march that would take place in an hour, a march which protesters already knew would include a strong police presence.

Malik Yusef, Chicago’s five-time Grammy award winning hip hop artist and poet, inspired the crowd in prose and poetry, reminding the protesters of the crucial role that each individual protester played in the march.

He reminded protesters that the march would be in opposition to the fossil fuel industry, not the workers – not even the police.

“If we don’t turn up together, we’re gonna burn up together,” he said.

“To the people who work in these industries, we don’t shame them, we don’t hate them we want them to understand that they are being used by the larger powers that be. We know you have to make a living. We know this. But we need to create a new industry. It is time for new jobs. It is time to leave it in the ground,” said hip hop artist Malik Yusef.

Olga Bautista, an environmental leader in the South East Side Coalition to Ban Petcoke was moved to tears discussing the triumphs her organization had made in their continuing efforts to ban pet coke on the South Side.

Joined by her mother and daughters, she asked what protesters might have been asking themselves before the march, “Why do we fight? We fight for our children and the people who sacrificed so much to get here.”

“I want them to see what it looks like from here, from this view when you have this kind of support. When people like the National Nurses United say, we got you, Ban Pet Coke Coalition; when the Rail Workers United say, we got your back,” she said to applause from the different organizations.

She said the movement had to begin with the workers, both the labor unions present at the march and the workers in the fuel companies.

“We know we can’t do what we want to do without labor. That’s where it starts – with the rank and file,” she said. “In the future, we want a green economic industrial corridor that puts our families to work with good paying jobs and they’re not going to mess up this beautiful community that we love so much.”

Mark Burrows a representative of the Railroad Workers United union and a railroad engineer who himself had transported rail cargo of oil tank cars spoke about the dangers of these trains in an age when companies are “cutting corners.”

“The reckless, irresponsible profit driven methods of extraction, processing, transportation, and production of the various resources for energy and industrial needs is a moral outrage as is the never ending turf war power struggles for these resources and the tragic human toll that continues to mount,” he said.

Burrows used this analogy to warn protesters of the damage oil tank cars that he called “oil bomb trains” could cause:

“Before oil bomb trains hit the scene my biggest concern had always been that a tank car load of ammonia or chlorine could bust open in a densely populated metropolitan area this would be instant death for anyone down wind if one tank car of liquefied petroleum gas explodes it’s estimated a quarter mile radius would be reduced to rubble,” he said.

Some speakers weren’t from Chicago, but spoke about issues relating to the BP Whiting Refinery.

Tara Houska, a member of the Couchiching First Nation, native attorney and Native American advisor to presidential nominee Bernie Sanders, began with an Ojibwe legend.

“We have a story it’s called the seventh fire story. And in the seventh fire, there would come a time when the people would have to make a choice: there would be two paths before them. One path would be the path of destruction and greed and the other path would be the path of green and brotherhood and love for all and we have to make that decision,” she said.

Houska said the protesters were “in that time right now” and had to choose a side.

“It is my job as a woman to be a water keeper, that is my cultural required duty, and it’s wonderful to see everyone join up and join forces with us because these things impact all of our communities,” she said.

“We are not going to pick profits over our futures, over our children’s futures. This is about the seventh generation. We matter, we have to matter our lives matter more than money,” said Tara Houska, Native American attorney and adviser to Bernie Sanders.

Jean Ross, fellow environmental and political activist is co-president of National Nurses United. She has fought for workers’ rights for over three decades.

“We will no longer allow them to hold our health and futures hostage or drive our planet to the brink of disaster so we demand a just transition away from fossil fuels to clean energy and clean jobs,” Ross said.

She emphasized that these new jobs in a cleaner, greener industry should still be union jobs, that guaranteed the health of workers and financial stability of their families and communities, with their skills and experience in mind.

Naomi Davis left protesters with one final question before the march: “How far are you willing to go and what will you do next?”

Before we join the protesters on the march, listen to speeches from the rally here:

Before we join protestors on the march, listen to speeches from the rally here:

Speeches at the rally. (Danielle Prieur/Medill)

The March: All Things Begin with Marches

Led by the tribal representatives of Honor the Earth, an indigenous environmental organization carrying a sign that read, “Love Oil, Not Water,” the other protesters feel into rank.

The official Break Free chants for all Break Free protests. (Danielle Prieur/Medill)

They marched 10 abreast, their signs raised high above their heads, using them to punctuate the down beat of the chants as the drummers kept the pace, “Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Fossil fuels have got to go!” and “Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!”

They were nervous, excited, taking selfies, posting to social media, talking with the protesters around them, some of which they had just met at the water blessing ceremony four hours earlier.

Protesters marching to the BP Whiting Refinery. (Danielle Prieur/Medill)

Younger protesters on their first march visibly lit up when they quietly started a chant with one or two friends that was taken up by the rest of the group. Older protesters kept up the chants after they walked past the first line of parked police cars with police officers, their arms crossed and sometimes on their walkie talkies.

Police officers didn’t confront the protesters, and the protesters didn’t confront the police officers. It was as if both groups were simply out on a sunny, Sunday to observe each other at work, as one direct action protester had put it earlier during the direct action training.

People watched from their neighborhood homes and along the main street as the protesters marched towards BP Whiting Refinery. (Danielle Prieur/Medill)

The police officers weren’t the only eyes that were watching the protesters as they marched through the park, across the railroad tracks. Soon, they began to see faces that appeared in the windows, behind pulled back curtains as they passed by neighborhood homes. Several families of two or three generations were sitting on their front porches watching, not smiling, but not confronting anyone either.

As the protesters reached Main Street, they stopped before crossing the railroad tracks for a second time to pick up more signs and a mock Enbridge pipeline made out of papier-mache. With its huge black pipeline body and putrice-green, skull head, it took several protesters to lift it and make it dance through the crowd like a puppet.

People marched with signs and a papier-mache pipeline on their way to the gates of BP Whiting Refinery. (Danielle Prieur/Medill)

Looking backwards at the protesters, one last time before they entered BP property, almost every protestor had a sign lifted high above their heads. As the sun shone through their mostly white and bright yellow signs, it looked like a field of dandelions in the midst of a refinery.

When the marshals in their bright neon yellow jackets who were directing the march, gave the signal, the crowd started to move forward, chanting and drumming once more.

Protesters chanting and singing at the beginning of the march. (Danielle Prieur/Medill)

Slowly, almost imperceptibly the direct action protesters found one another and took their place near the front of the march. Another 21 people joined the direct action group that had been trained that morning, bringing their total to 41 direct action protesters. They didn’t talk to one another as they didn’t want to draw attention to themselves, but smiled knowingly at one another.

After passing white signs that read “BP Property!,” downtown Whiting with its mom and pop owned nail salons and meticulously kept baseball diamonds, slowly turned into the identical, smooth white buildings of the BP operations. They were giant buildings whose peaks and smoke stacks reached into the sky, surrounded by smoke and the glint of silver. Tall, chain link fences surrounded the property that the marshals made sure the protesters didn’t go near.

For the most part, the protesters stayed on the roads the trucks use for the refinery operations. They marched, they chanted, they sang, and in the long walk in the heat, on white concrete with the buildings reflecting the sun, many of the protesters left their signs behind leaning them against the chain link fence.

They passed more lines of police cars and police officers, as they got nearer to the intersection which would lead them to the final road to the gates, the entrance to the BP Whiting Refinery.

It was before this intersection, as the marshals were yelling to slow down, to stop completely as there were even more police up ahead, that Bautista gave an impromptu speech, but since her microphone wasn’t working she asked that the protesters act as her microphone. Hundreds of people repeated and amplified her words.

“We’re here today to talk about the root causes of this crisis. The climate crisis is real. Corporate power has been winning until today. We are standing up for people who have been burned by BP, Exelon, and the Koch brothers and the entire fossil fuel industry,” said environmentalist Olga Bautista.

“We’re here today to talk about the root causes of this crisis. The climate crisis is real. Corporate power has been winning until today. We are standing up for people who have been burned by BP, Exelon, and the Koch brothers and the entire fossil fuel industry,” said environmentalist Olga Bautista.

Charles and David Koch own and operate KCBX Terminals Co., the Southeast Side transit point for pet coke.

After her speech, some of the tribal representatives began to sing. A blessing, a prayer, a song? It was haunting in the silence, as they sang in front of at least five police officers with the drums answering their voices. And eventually, after the men and then the women sang, the marshals told the protesters that they could continue through the intersection before they would have to stop one last time.

Olga Bautista speaks at the march. (Danielle Prieur/Medill)
Tribal represenatives sing at the march. (Danielle Prieur/Medill)

BP owned the land beyond.

Most marchers made it to the last stretch of concrete, where what looked like huge white silos gleamed in the afternoon sun on their right. Up ahead, the police barricade made up of three or four police cars blocking the road was visible, the lights and the white side doors of the cars flashing.

It was almost 4 p.m. . Many of the protesters were tired, hot, ready to get back on the buses that had brought them to Whiting almost six hours ago, but they remained, especially now since they knew their fellow direct action protesters needed them.

As the group slowly walked towards the police barricade, listening to the directions from the marshals, the 41 direct action protesters moved to the front of the march. With arms linked, they looked determined as they approached the gates.

When they finally arrived at the police barricade, the rest of the protesters stood behind the direct action protesters who sat on the ground, almost touching the police cars with their elbows, their arms still linked singing, “People gonna rise like the water, let’s shut down BP now.”

To their right, were the railroad tracks for the third time that day and to their left the gates, guarded by as many riot police in face shields, green suits, and batons. They stood in formation, watching the protesters as the protesters continued to sit in front of the police cars.

After the coordinator of the direct protest spoke with the police attorney, it was clear the protesters and the police each had their choices to make: the protesters could sit there all day and the riot police wouldn’t arrest anyone or the protesters could trespass through the gates onto private property and the riot police could act accordingly.

The direct action protesters made their choice.

They began to move onto BP property to shouts of “modern hero.” Arm in arm they walked towards the gates and the line of riot police, who stood as still as they were when the protesters were still seated. The protesters sat back down in a circle, this time almost touching the riot police with their elbows.

They chanted, they sat, and eventually the riot police began moving.

One, by one, each of the 41 protesters were arrested by two riot police at a time, each taking an arm. Some protesters went quietly. Others shouted, “Power to the people!” as they were put in vans that would take them to jail.

The direct action protesters are arrested at the march. (Danielle Prieur/Medill)

It’s important to note that none of the police confronted the protesters in any way that day, except for arresting them and putting them in vans.

As most of the protesters found their way back onto the buses, and other protesters walked back collecting crops of signs as they went, all that remained were the police cars, and the vans that pulled out to take the protesters to jail.

And then there was nothing, but the seemingly endless sky over the white silos, and a few locals who were bike riding with their families down the road back into town on a beautiful, Sunday evening.

Laura Sabransky, spokeswoman for Break Free from Fossil Fuels Midwest, said all 41 of the protesters were released the next day with criminal misdemeanor charges for trespass.

But the end of the march and their release was far from the end of the movement.

Sabransky said Break Free from Fossil Fuels Midwest is already planning their participation in the People’s Summit in Chicago on June 17, where they will protest the fossil fuel industry yet again. Several of the participating organizations are planning follow-up events as well.

Kristin Frank, who spoke at the press conference, said she was thrilled with the event calling it a “positive shift.”

As a result of the march, Indiana will have its first ever chapter to be headquartered in Gary, Indiana, something she thought she would never see.

“There is a lot of pride in the intelligence and strength and perseverance that gets you through all of that and to be associated with the ugliest, dirtiest work and you feel like are you throwing your own families under the bus,” Frank said. “But, at the gathering everyone was able to speak and everyone was very supportive from neighbors to police officers to sheriffs and legal representation, it was a paradigm shift.”

“There is a lot of pride in the intelligence and strength and perseverance that gets you through all of that and to be associated with the ugliest, dirtiest work and you feel like are you throwing your own families under the bus,” Frank said. “But, at the gathering everyone was able to speak and everyone was very supportive from neighbors to police officers to sheriffs and legal representation, it was a paradigm shift.”

Martita Torrez Allen, who had also spoken at the press conference, said it was the first time that so many environmental organizations from around the country had come together to build relationships with one another.

She said whether these groups are fighting against pet coke or for indigenous rights, “relationship building and working together is crucial.”

“It’s really important that we all we are all together in this. It is everybody’s planet,” she said. “The more people power the better.”

Sheilah Garland, a representative of National Nurses United echoed Torrez Allen saying, “We accomplished most of what we set out to accomplish with the event in Whiting. People put their bodies not the line in an effort to stop, if even for a few hours, the destructive operations of these industries.”

As Break Free plans more events in the coming month, this people power is only growing stronger.