On Nov. 15, 2016, environmentalists and water protectors occupied the parking lot of the Shell Gas Station, located at the intersection of Northwest 43rd street and Northwest 23rd Avenue. Their protest was multi-purposed: To voice their dissent at the Dakota Access Pipeline and to alert the public to what was at the time an overlooked threat: the Sabal Trail pipeline.
Weaving between protesters and wielding a megaphone was Karrie Ford, 29, who had organized the demonstration through a Facebook event. She exuded the grounded and self-assured manner of an experienced activist and was dressed in all black — the only color in her outfit was the red bandana around her neck, which she began to wear to while camping next to the dusty drill site by the Suwannee River.
Three months later, Ford quit her job to protest the pipeline full time. She said she felt called drop mundane things, like work, so that she could more effectively act against the pipeline’s swift construction. Drilling under the Santa Fe and Suwannee Rivers is now complete; gas is expected to flow through the pipeline as early as August this year.
Drawing on their shared experiences of camping or spending the night together in jail, a loose-knit network of activists began to form. At the Sacred Water Camp, Ford met Niko Segal-Wright, 25, who had found out about the pipeline from Earth First! activists in Lake Worth. While many of the water protectors dispersed after drilling under the Santa Fe and Suwannee Rivers was finished, Ford and Segal-Wright carried onward. On February 22, five days before Marion County deputies would shoot James Marker, Ford and Segal-Wright climbed 250 feet deep inside a portion of the 36-inch pipeline.
Using a skateboard to push a 16-gallon block of concrete into the pipeline, Ford and Segal-Wright immobilized themselves inside the pipeline. Marion County deputies attempted various tactics to force them out: They pounded on the outside of the pipeline, producing a sharp ringing noise, and threatened to send their canine squad in after them, Segal-Wright said. But none of those tactics worked. It was seven hours before the Marion County Fire Rescue was able to perform a confined space rescue and pull them out, Marion County Fire Rescue spokesman James Lucas told the Ocala-Star Banner.
Ford and Segal-Wright were charged with trespassing on a posted construction site, criminal mischief and grand theft, the fine for which ranges from $20,000 to $100,000. Ford was additionally charged with resisting arrest without violence for refusing to a take a device off her arm that briefly stopped deputies from arresting her, said a spokesperson for the Marion County Sheriff’s Office.
Below we talked with Ford and Segal-Wright about how to get involved with environmental activism, memes, occupying space as a form of direct action and moving past sign-waving to different forms of protest.
TFP: How valuable is social media to your work? Could you organize without it?
Segal-Wright: I think it’s one of the most important aspects — media in general, whether it’s social media or not. Getting the message out to other people, having them see videos and memes. It’s really important and you can reach so many people that way. I think that’s something that any movement can benefit from — better social media.
TFP: Did you say memes? Do you have a favorite anti-pipeline meme?
Segal-Wright: I don’t think I could say a singular meme — using memes in general is useful because it’s something that has a compelling photo and compelling text. Something that’s very short and can be digested quickly is great because it gets information across to a wide audience.
Ford: I think social media is really important because we are in control of social media, rather than it being manipulated into something that’s not actually happening, we get to say and present something that’s actually happening right now in the way that we want it to be shown. I think that’s really important, and I think there are a mass amount of people on social media. They’re able to be reached in a short amount of time, and that’s really important.
TFP: The idea that protest doesn’t work has been on my mind a lot lately. Do protests need a hierarchical structure in order to be effective?
Ford: Oftentimes a protest is organized by one or two people and they’ll want the protest to go in a particular way. But, when you’re organizing with people, they’re individuals, so if you have a certain agenda for a protest, it’s not gonna go exactly your way. I’ve organized protests where people started taking to the streets, and people started yelling at me to tell them to get out of the streets, but I’m like, “They’re their own people. They’re gonna do what they’re gonna do.”
But I definitely think protest is effective because, through protest — even if you’re standing on the corner holding a sign — a lot of people might not see that as effective, but it certainly gets attention. It certainly gets media attention. The media as well is just protest itself. But also, during the protest, it becomes an automatic hub spot where people start talking about and sharing information on that particular subject and upcoming workshops, et cetera. So it starts generating information about that subject and people get deeper and deeper into that subject.
Segal-Wright: In the age of Trump, my personal view is that we really need to move past protesting. I don’t think that protesting is bad, per se. I think it really can be useful, but my personal opinion is that — with all of the horrible things that are happening these days — it’d be really useful to try and look at tactics other than sign holding and figure out what can we do to really resist. I don’t think sign holding is bad, but there are too many horrible things going on, and we have to try and figure out a way to stop them.
TFP: What are some of those other tactics?
Ford: Jump inside a pipeline!
Segal-Wright: Or, you know, with deportations there are people who are organizing their community to surround houses or keep ICE agents from getting in the door. People doing things like that are being really effective — they’re thinking outside the box about how they can protect their community from the horrors of Trump and the modern day.
Ford: I also think it’s really important that we get past our fear-based mentality of authority figures and begin really asserting ourselves. Holding a sign is one thing, but actually putting your body in front of— what I consider direct action— putting your body in front of the thing you’re actually physically resisting, not just verbally resisting, [is another].
TFP: The pipeline is change public lands into private. How are you reclaiming that space?
Segal-Wright: I think it’s important to remember that the space we occupy is ultimately indigenous land. It’s not ours, and it’s certainly not Spectra Energy’s. It was unjustly taken, and I think we’re trying to align our interests with indigenous interests as far as not wanting to see this land to be poisoned — but it’s not ours to claim either.
TFP: What prompted you to get involved in protesting the Sabal Trail pipeline?
Segal-Wright: For the past couple years there’s been a looming threat of all these different pipelines. There’s such a vast network of those pipeline routes across Turtle Island and the United States, and so I’ve been trying to keep abreast of all of that even though it’s a little overwhelming. I would bring up Sabal Trail every once in awhile, and it’s finally here, unfortunately.
Ford: Seeing the construction of the Sabal Trail pipeline, it felt like there were so many species’ homes that were being destroyed, such as the gopher tortoise and the indigo snake. Live oaks are just being ripped down, and pine trees. I felt like I needed to do something more, and I needed to be move involved and directly near the sites where this was happening so I could organize more effectively and not be distracted by work.
TFP: Who’s idea was it to get in the pipeline?
Segal-Wright: No comment.
Ford: Yeah, we probably shouldn’t talk about that.
TFP: What exactly can you tell me about what happened? Can you give me a chronology?
Ford: The pipeline is close to the ground and you just get in. There’s no real strategy on getting in.
Segal-Wright: The whole thing, by the way, was really simple. It’s not very hard to do. There’s a plethora of information in the Earth First! Direct Action Manual about how to make a lock box and so you just make one of those and stick it on a skateboard and push it in.
Ford: So, we were locked together through an arm lock box. We heard people outside the pipeline talking and the workers talking and they were like, “Yup! They’re in there for sure!” Then they began pounding on the metal of the pipeline with their metal hammers, so we heard a very loud ring and within the pipeline it echoes so it kept ringing. It was a little painful on the ears for sure. That was their first tactic on how to get us out of the pipeline.
TFP: After the psychological tactics, what did they move on to?
Ford: One of the police officers told another police officer, “Aren’t you going to go in there and get them out?” and the other police officer said, “Oh hell no! I just shined my boots, I’m not getting them dirty!”
Segal-Wright: They got a squad that carried out a ‘confined space rescue operation.’ That’s like a fancy term for dragging us out, basically.
TFP: What was that physical experience like?
Ford: I definitely felt a lack of control over my own body. I felt pretty manipulated, like my body was really manipulated by the control of other men. It definitely didn’t feel good — not to mention the fear that my arm could break. There were scary moments, but I definitely think it was totally worth it. Everything that I was standing for and resisting in that pipeline, I feel like it was definitely worth it, and I’m really grateful that I had the courage and the strength to stand up and do that action.
TFP: A lot of people really care about what’s happening in the world right now, but not everyone has the courage to physically go inside a pipeline. How can people work up the courage to do something like that?
Ford: I would suggest going to a protest, naturally, and joining in on the chants. Oftentimes, we have suppressed voices, and I feel like we need to reassert our voices. Expressing yourself in that way, as well like as grabbing a megaphone. Megaphones are super empowering.
We oftentimes don’t realize that there are places that are ours, such as courthouses or commissioner meetings or inside a Wells Fargo bank. You can go inside and exclaim the unjust ways in which they are behaving. Those are some good prepping tools, but also a way to gain courage is in community, in networking, in feeling like you have a strong support group.
Segal-Wright: There are also pipeline fights going on all over the United States. I would highly suggest finding a local group that’s fighting against a pipeline and plugging in as best you can. There’s a million things to do that aren’t sign-holding, but also aren’t crawling inside a pipeline, and those kind of things can be super empowering.
Ford: For example, one of the things that Niko and myself did was we went inside the Wells Fargo in downtown Gainesville. We set up a table with a sign, and we had some oil water and some clean water. We began selling the bottles of oil water to the workers inside, telling them, “Oh, it’s a dollar for this oil water! Or you can get fresh, clean water for 100 dollars!” But, really it’s just taking back your power and not being so afraid of these suppressive forces.