When the news of the petroleum coke piles dumped along the Detroit River broke last month, I’m sad to say that my immediate reaction was not surprise. The petcoke piles are just another notch on the continuum of pollution and environmental injustice in Southwest Detroit. Ever since my mom chose to move back to the city of Detroit two years ago, I’ve become used to the mysterious soot that seems to coat every outdoor surface and to the pungent smells that radiate down the block of my family’s home in Southwest Detroit.
As a brief reminder, the piles of petroleum coke (“petcoke”) have been deposited along the Detroit River, just east of the Ambassador Bridge to Canada, since the fall of 2012. Petcoke is a byproduct of burning crude tar sands, and it is estimated that every barrel of crude imported from Alberta results in an output of 60-130 pounds of petcoke. The petcoke being deposited along the Detroit River is only the beginning. The Marathon Oil Refinery in the 48217 zip code that produces this substance recently went through a $2 billion expansion in order to be able to process more of the tar sands, and thereby produce more of the petcoke.
It pains me to know that my family is suffering the side-effects of such environmental injustice while I live, work, and go to school in Ann Arbor, enjoying the privilege of clean air that is so often taken for granted. So when I learned that the Detroit Coalition Against Tar Sands (DCATS)-a division of the Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands (MI CATS)– had been formed and was working on action around the petcoke piles, I was thrilled that people were taking action to combat the injustices my home community have been facing. On Sunday, June 23, DCATS organized a march, rally, and action called “People Against Petcoke.” At 3pm, we all met in Clark Park–a hub for community events in Southwest Detroit–where we heard several amazing speakers, from DCATS organizer Jarret Schlaff to the inspiring Charity Hicks. From Clark Park, we marched the 1.8 miles to the site of the largest of the petcoke piles at the intersection of Rosa Parks and Jefferson Avenue. Once there, we heard from more speakers, were fed exorbitant amounts of pie and pizza, and got direct action training, in which we practiced making consensus decisions and dealing with police, workers, and our fellow activists. After the training, we walked down to the riverfront to join in a candlelit vigil at dusk with fellow activists across the river in Windsor, Canada. It was windy and the candles flickered in and out, but the sense of solidarity was emanated from one side of the river to the other nonetheless.
A group of people kept a presence at the site of the action overnight, and at around 8:30 the next morning (July 24), they began a blockade to stop a truck carrying petcoke into the site. I arrived around 9:15 and linked arms with the brave people who had stood in front of the truck to stop it. There was a large cardboard padlock tied with string across the drive into the dumping site, behind which stood several police officers and border patrol, the numbers of which increased throughout the day. In front of the padlock stood about 25-30 activists, about 7 of whom had arms linked directly in front of the truck, and the rest of whom stood in successive rows behind those who were willing to risk arrest for the action. We held a press conference in which we read a “People’s Eviction Notice,” which ordered Marathon, the Koch Brothers, and Matty Maroun (the property owner) to shut down the docks and the discontinue the illegal dumping of petcoke. We had incredible press coverage, and our police liaison did a spectacular job of communicating to the police that this blockade wasn’t about just “making a point.” It was about turning the trucks around and not letting anyone dump petcoke in this space anymore. Therefore, when the police asked us several times to pack up and go, our response was that we wouldn’t leave until the petcoke was moved.
The morning continued on, and the amount of trucks waiting to enter the facility/dumping ground increased. Several of them turned around, but when the action came to a head, there were 5 trucks piled up waiting to get in. One of them–the one we stood directly in front of–held petcoke. We held signs with the Marathon logo that read “Murder” and signs that informed that Koch brothers that Detroit is NOT their dump. Once in awhile the wind would pick up and we would all be coated in a layer of petcoke. When I returned home I discovered the cap of my water bottle was filled with the substance and the sign I was carrying had a thin layer the black, oily grime on it. The police were incredibly cooperative, and kept underlining that they didn’t wish to make any arrests that day. However, as the hours came and went, they began to give us warnings that if we didn’t move, they would be bringing a paddy wagon to arrest us all.
The 7 people standing directly in front of the truck were prepared to be arrested; they had come to a consensus that they were willing to do so, and we had written the phone number of the legal aid on all of their arms and were beginning to prepare for the process of getting them out of jail. Just before the paddy wagon had appeared, however, a worker from the facility we were blockading the entrance to appeared to negotiate with us. He explained that it was really important to get the trucks that weren’t carrying petcoke into the facility, and that if we backed up the blockade, he would make the truck carrying petcoke turn around and wouldn’t let any other petcoke trucks return for the day. When we asked how we could trust him on this promise, he pulled out his wallet and handed it to one of the protesters. We confirmed that his I.D. and other important information were in the wallet. The decision was made to back up the blockade to allow the petcoke truck to turn around and let the other trucks through. As we backed up, the police line backed up, and several people were in tears as the petcoke truck turned around. It was truly one of the most beautiful and cooperative outcomes I’ve seen at a direct action. DCATS–theorganization responsible for coordinating the action–has vowed to continue its resistance until the petcoke piles are gone.
The illegal dumping of petcoke in the city of Detroit is just a small piece of the destruction created in every step of fossil fuel production and consumption. I stand with DCATS, MI CATS, the Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance, and everyone else across the country and the world standing up against the fossil fuel industry. Together, we will be victorious. All power to the people!