Shalefield Justice Spring Break participants take part in a direct action training. (SJSB / Tom Jefferson
Traffic stood still for a half mile up the narrow, winding road. Fracking workers got out of their trucks and asked what was going on. They soon learned that several protesters had locked themselves in the middle of the road to a tube containing over 600 pounds of cement. The protesters’ large banner, tied to trees in front of them, declared “No Fracking, No Compromise!”
The blockade, which halted Anadarko Petroleum’s fracking operation in central Pennsylvania’s Tiadhagon State Forest for seven hours, occurred alongside the first-ever Shalefield Justice Spring Break. Held in Madisonburg, Pa., last month, the training camp brought together Marcellus Shale residents and over a hundred youth, such as myself, from surrounding states for a week of education and organizing against the extraction process known as fracking, which involves the injection of toxic chemicals underground to break up shale rock containing natural gas.
Throughout the week, organizers introduced many young people to community leaders living above the Marcellus Shale rock formation, which stretches from New York to Virginia. Living on the frontline of extraction, shalefield communities experience fracking’s most extreme impacts, including water contamination, air pollution, pipeline explosions and climate-changing methane leaks.
On the first night of camp, several Pennsylvanian shalefield residents spoke about how fracking has directly impacted them. Ruth Steck recounted her shock at seeing a helicopter fly over her house one day and drop seismic testing equipment next to her garden. Steck had grown accustomed to quietness, and the loud fracking felt like an invasion.
“There are mornings where I can hardly stand to go outside,” she explained. “I can’t hear the birds.”
Teacher and business owner Barbara Jarmoska told her story using photos of the stunningly beautiful Loyalsock Forest adjacent to her home and the land that her family has owned since the 1930s. It is where she and her siblings grew up, her son got married, and many young people, including her grandchildren, used to go to hike and ride horses. Today, 40 gas wells sit within five miles of Jarmoska’s home — a health risk that has forced her children and grandchildren to move away.
“The noise, the smell, the congestion, the fact that you can’t get in and out of the driveway, all year round — It’s really impossible to describe,” Jarmoska said.
Driving around the Tiadaghton State Forest — amidst acres of land that had been clearcut to make way for compressor stations, pipelines, containment ponds, and other fracking infrastructure — a clearer picture of life on the frontline of extraction begins to emerge. For one thing, land that was once public is seemingly no longer. With security guards driving around and police helicopters flying overhead, the fracking industry operates as if it owns the place.
In order to build the kind of power that might one day reclaim the land that people like Steck and Jarmoska call home, the organizers of Shalefield Justice Spring Break looked to the decade-long history of Mountain Justice Spring Breaks and Summer Breaks — annual events that have become a powerful recruitment tool for central Appalachia’s movement to end mountaintop removal coal mining. However, one could also trace the concept’s history back to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s 1964 Freedom Summer, which brought white college students on their summer break to participate in Mississippi’s civil rights organizing. While there are enormous differences between the campaigns, they share a basic strategy of increasing people’s engagement in an issue, in such a way that it spreads virally from participants to their friends and family back home. This is a large part of how, relationship by relationship, public opinion shifts.
Despite massive industry propaganda, the anti-fracking movement has been tremendously effective in shifting opinion — something even the industry itself has been forced to admit. According to a 2013 report by the industry consulting firm Control Risks, the movement “has mounted an effective campaign” that through the “sophistication, speed and influence of anti-fracking activists” has oftentimes caught companies off–guard with local bans and moratoriums. The report pays special attention, however, to nonviolent direct action tactics such as blockades, which “can be significant in terms of lost productivity and extra operating costs.”
By joining Marcellus Shale Earth First’s blockade and a simultaneous rally outside Anardarko Petroleum’s corporate offices on March 20, attendees of Shalefield Justice Spring Break put into practice the costly direct action skills they had learned all week. Many stepped into unfamiliar action roles, acting as medics, police liaisons, sign painters, media outreach and more.
Anti-fracking activists who participated in the Shalefield Justice Spring Break blocked a fracking operation in central Pennsylvania last month. (SJSP / Tom Jefferson)
The protesters targeted Anadarko, because the company’s proposed fracking operations in the Loyalsock State Forest have been the focal point of the campaign against fracking in Pennsylvania’s remaining wild places. Groups have held rallies, packed public hearings, and even conducted a 30-day tree-sit to protect the Loyalsock. The most recent blockade and rally sent a strong message to Anadarko and the rest of the gas industry: pull out of Pennsylvania’s state forests or face more resistance than ever before.
Considering that this was the first Shalefield Justice Spring Break, organizers succeeded remarkably in plugging nearly a hundred new people into active roles in the anti-fracking movement. According to Ray Leone, one of the organizers, the camp succeeded in “engaging new people, creating wider networks and building a stronger movement. We challenged each other to divest from all systems of oppression, to listen to and learn from others with a variety of experiences, and to leave camp with a plan to take action back at home.”
Between the tree climbing, capture-the-flag, talent shows and bonfires, people somehow found time to discuss organizing plans for the future. Maryland residents discussed how to advance the campaign against Cove Point, a liquified gas export terminal proposed just south of Baltimore. Several sit-ins and a rally of over 700 people have recently turned the terminal into a flashpoint for the nation’s climate justice struggle.
Meanwhile, Northeasterners planned to join together against the proposed Algonquin pipeline expansion. Pennsylvania residents talked about building permanent spaces for activists to live collectively and organize in defense of the Loyalsock. In other words, people from Baltimore to Boston and beyond coordinated to challenge the fracking lifecycle on many fronts.
“Too often we hear from the media that young people aren’t engaged,” said Michael Badges-Canning, a retired school teacher from Pennsylvania’s Butler County. “But at Shalefield Justice Spring Break I got to hang around with young people totally committed to protecting my home and getting the job done right.”