The Weather

Bum Logic: What Color Are You?

This is the eighteenth installment in Peter’s “Bum Logic” series, about his investigation into our inadvertent complicity in climate change, continued from his last post, Texas Is Big.

From an email sent by Eric Moll, a.k.a. Seagull, in advance of my attendance at the Tar Sands Blockade action camp, in Texas:


Our Mass Actions have always had numerous roles for anyone who wishes to participate without risking arrest. This is especially true for this action as we plan to roll out some new tactics. Three of our friends are still in jail from our last action so we are looking to minimize any arrests. If you choose to risk arrest we will support you in that role but you are responsible for posting your own bail.

Those friends he mentioned were Isabele Brooks, Matt Almonte, and Glen Collins. They had locked themselves to a segment of the Keystone pipeline. For that they were held on bail to the tune of $65,000 each. For that they each spent over thirty days behind bars.

One of the Blockade’s mission statements is to normalize non-violent direct action. I saw the prolonged incarceration of Isabelle, Matt, and Glen as a blatant attempt at intimidation. That led stubborn little me to be only more determined to “gum up the works.”

“Civil disobedience is not our problem. Our problem is civil obedience. Our problem is that people all over the world have obeyed the dictates of leaders… and millions have been killed because of this obedience… Our problem is that people are obedient all over the world in the face of poverty and starvation and stupidity, and war, and cruelty. Our problem is that people are obedient while the jails are full of petty thieves… (and) the grand thieves are running the country. That’s our problem.” – Howard Zinn

To differentiate individuals based upon the extent that they were willing to peacefully transgress and risk arrest, the Blockade used a color-coded spectrum:

Green: Zero risk. Of course zero doesn’t exist except in theory and if you meet that special officer you might find yourself in the back of a patrol vehicle for the sin of yawning. But if you chose green you would be doing everything you could to sleep in your own bed at night.

Orange: This group had a less than 50 percent chance of being charged with a crime. Dark Orange: A more than 50 percent chance.

Red: Barring the unexpected, individuals in this group would be arrested, 100 percent guarantee.

Then I received legal advice: “If you are charged with a misdemeanor expect, regardless of your plea or eventual verdict, to spend six months of your life navigating the courts. If you are charged with a felony, you should be prepared to commit two years.”

Upon hearing that, I knew I could take one calendar year off from school no questions asked, but anything more than that would risk my shot at a terminal degree in my field of dreams, writing. Felony: No thanks. Misdemeanor: Yes, please.

After camp attendees determined their colors, the colors themselves clumped into smaller “affinity” groups of five or so. These groups were provided with suggested roles to play or goals to achieve on the “day of action.” The group I found myself in was hoping to gain access to and gregariously disrupt the daily operations of the Corporate Offices of Keystone, the American subsidiary of TransCanada. Those offices were located in Houston. They had security, both in the form of rent-a-cops and in the form of architecture. The challenge was to avoid setting off alarms, to appear as though we belonged. Deception. The next morning, I was going to dress for the job I wanted—to undermine. In preparation, I unflinchingly clear-cut my old growth mustache.

You can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.

That night, exhausted and freshly shaven, I crawled back in my tent. Apparently Face, a new friend whom I’d come to know as a documentary film student from Ithaca College, wanted to have a little pillow talk.

“So, what color are you?” he asked. Then, on noticing the absence of my customary upper lip accoutrement, “Whoa, you shaved.”

“Yup,” I said. “Gotta look normal.”

“You already looked normal.”

“Face, I’m red.”

To be continued…

Peter Nichols is a poet, rock climber, and vagabond originally from Toledo, Ohio.