The Peaks in Context - Direct Action Halts SnowBowl Construction on the San Francisco Peaks
It was an especially beautiful morning on June 16, when at least 15 people participated in a direct action on the San Francisco Peaks that temporarily halted construction of a pipeline on the mountain. Six mostly indigenous youth were arrested during the coordinated action and another was cited for third degree trespassing and released.
On December 1, 2010, Federal Judge Mary Murguia ruled in favor of Arizona Snowbowl Limited Partnership, approving the construction of a 14.8-mile reclaimed wastewater pipeline from Flagstaff to the ski resort, among other developments. The water is to be used at Snowbowl to make artificial snow. While many ski resorts around the world use a percentage of reclaimed wastewater to make snow, many who oppose the plan regard it as an “experiment,” as the resort would be the only one in the world that would use a 100% mixture of wastewater in this way. Prompted by concerns from the scientific community and others who assert the likelihood of health risks associated with the use of reclaimed wastewater, the Environmental Protection Agency is currently conducting a national multi-year study of the water to be completed in 2013.
The case itself, brought on by the Save the Peaks Coalition and nine concerned citizens, is currently under appeal in the Ninth Circuit. Those who engaged in the demonstration are not members of the coalition, nor are they involved in the ongoing lawsuit. The Hopi Tribe has filed their own separate lawsuit citing a first amendment violation of their religious freedoms in association with further development.
The San Francisco Peaks are held sacred to at least 13 regional Native American tribes and the impact of construction has been emotional. A prayer gathering was held at the base of the San Francisco Peaks a few days after construction began. Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly addressed the crowd, “We’ve got to stop the construction.” Kelvin Long, director of ECHOES stated, “We’re going to protect our mountain, we’re not going to allow snowmaking to happen.” Steve Darden of the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission and former Flagstaff City Council member added a specific message to youth. “In our Hogans and sweat lodges we are offering our prayers, we’re relying on you young ones to step up.”
And so they did.
On the morning of the action, as the full moon faded and the sun rose, two demonstrators chained themselves to the wheel well of a large excavator while two pairs of women sat back-to-back deep inside the six-foot-trench, bound to each other by the neck with U-locks. The action occurred a few miles up Snowbowl Road where construction had been in progress since May 25.
The first to respond to the scene was Snowbowl. The security vehicle, a blue Mercedes, screamed up and down Snowbowl Road apparently trying to locate those involved in the action. By 6 AM more than 15 armed agents arrived on the scene, as well as the Coconino County Sheriff’s Department, City of Flagstaff Police, and the FBI.
At the same time a group of at least eight demonstrators gathered at the bottom of Snowbowl road, blocking access. Five demonstrators wore white hazmat suites in a symbolic “quarantine” of the resort, stretching banners across the road that read, “Protect Sacred Sites” and “Danger! Health Hazard – Snowbowl.” Caution tape was stretched across the width of the road along with other objects, forming a makeshift blockade.
The demonstrators engaged in a multi-varied approach to what is very much considered a multi-layered issue. The complexity of the controversy was illustrated in the diversity of demonstrator’s chants, echoing from the base of the mountain, from those locked to construction equipment, and from voices deep from within the trenches. “Protect Sacred Sites, Defend Human Rights!” “No desecration for recreation!” “Stop the cultural genocide! Protect the Peaks!” “Human health over corporate wealth!” “Dook’o’osliid, we’ve got your back!”
One of the women in the trench, bound to another by the neck described some of the conversation that took place as the police concentrated their efforts on the men chained to the excavator. One said to the other, “Don’t you feel kinda small in this deep trench?” To which one of the women paused, then responded, “Not when I’m doing big things.”
By 7:30, assisted by county Sheriffs, the Flagstaff Fire Department began aggressively cutting demonstrators from their various lockdown devices. “The police’s use of excessive force was in complete disregard for my safety. They pulled at my arms and forced my body and head further into the machine, all the while using heavy duty power saws within inches of my hand,” said Evan Hawbaker, one of the demonstrators chained to the excavator.
Rather than negotiate, as the demonstrators were cut, it was clear that the police and fireman preferred to use scare tactics. “We don’t want to cut your arm off,” repeated one of the fireman several times to which Hawbaker finally responded, “I don’t want you to cut my arm off either.” Hawbaker said the fireman looked dead serious when he said, “well, we will if we have to.”
Hawbaker and Kristopher Barney were chained to the same excavator. The device that bound them to the machine is referred to as a “lock box.” Both arms go through a PVC pipe and from the outside, that’s all anybody can see. Inside, however, their hands gripped a metal rod; a chain around their wrists was also connected to the rod with a strong karabiner. There are many variations of this lockbox, which is commonly seen in nonviolent direct actions around the world.
Hawbaker said after holding on to the rod for a while that his hand became numb. The firefighters used a Sawzall to cut the PVC pipe lengthwise. When the blade hit the metal rod, it rattled the chain violently and Hawbaker described the warm feeling that trickled down his arm. “I thought it was blood; I thought they cut my fingers, “ he said. Those who cut us out endangered our well being ignoring the screams to stop. They treated our bodies the way they’re treating this holy mountain.”
“I’ve done this quite a bit and never have I feared for my safety like this before,” said Nadia Del Callejo, one of the women locked down in the trench. “The whole thing was disorganized and dangerous. There was no communication.”
One of the underage women in the trench described an action taken in which one police officer would attempt to stand them up while another officer moved the other demonstrator another way. Because U-locks bound the women by the neck, they were choked. “Nobody even bothered to ask what it would take to get us out voluntarily. Finally they just started hurting us,” said Ms. Del Callejo. “I’m here to protect the mountain, I said, and you’re hurting me. You’re choking me.” The police responded in a way that did not sugar coat their lack of experience in dealing with nonviolent demonstrators. “That’s your own fault.”
“Our safety was prioritized second to Snowbowl’s demands. I was not aggressive. My lock was sawed through, inches away from both of our heads, secured solely and recklessly by the hands of a deputy. During the process, we were repeatedly asked to chant to reaffirm our consciousness. The police’s response was hasty, taking about ten minutes in total—it was dehumanizing,” said Hailey Sherwood, one of the last demonstrators to be cut out.
One at a time, as demonstrators were removed from their locking devices, they were treated by paramedics, and arrested for trespassing. Those two demonstrators that were bound to minors were also charged with “contributing to the delinquency of a minor,” and another charged for “endangerment.”
On the Monday after the lockdown, the Arizona Daily Sun published an editorial reaction entitled, “Monkey-wrenchers Marginalize Cause of Native America.” Besides the fact that the term, “monkeywrenching,” is entirely misrepresented in the editorial, as it is well documented that demonstrators took great care not to damage any machinery, the editorial itself reads more like an attempt by the paper to, in fact, marginalize the history of social and environmental movements.
The editorial explained that demonstrators’ comparison of their actions to Rosa Parks is a false analogy on the grounds that when Ms. Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, segregation was already illegal. Said the editorial, “civil rights activists were seeking to uphold the law.” Here it sounds like the writers of the editorial would not have found the actions of Ms. Park to be meaningful, courageous, or ethically sound if she had acted before segregation laws existed. It would be a curious task for the writers to name one social movement in the history of the world that did not result in illegal actions and arrests. “Throughout history, acts of resistance and civil disobedience have been taken by young and old against injustices such as this. This action is not isolated but part of a continued resistance to human rights violations, to colonialism, to corporate greed, and destruction of Mother Earth,” added Del Callejo.
The editorial goes on, “The Snowbowl protesters are focusing on a religious dispute and don’t have the law on their side.” If the last 40 years of lawsuits have revealed anything, it should be clear that confronting a Eurocentric court system that is structurally incapable of making connections between environmental and human rights concerns has been a challenge for native people since the controversy started. If the Daily Sun thinks the only issue here is “a religious dispute” that has nothing to do with the environmental integrity of the mountain and is not connected to the cultural survival of our native neighbors, they have truly exposed how out of touch they are on this issue. “The Holy San Francisco Peaks is home, tradition, culture, and a sanctuary to me, and all this is being desecrated by the Arizona Snowbowl Ski Resort,” said one of the underage demonstrators.
And this ill informed paragraph in the Daily Sun concludes. “It’s no wonder the public in general has failed to rally to their cause.” As much as it is clear that the authors of the editorial would prefer that those against further development and desecration on the San Francisco Peaks are part of some lunatic minority fringe group, it is simply not true. Even in the city council meetings related to choosing a water source for Snowbowl last summer, at least ¾ of those hundreds of people in attendance submitted pubic comments in opposition to development, most of which urged the council to cancel the water contract with Snowbowl all together. On the day of the demonstrations, furthermore, if the community did not support the actions of those arrested on June 16, they would still be in jail.
One of the demonstrators who temporarily blocked access to Snowbowl Road that morning reflected on the severity of a jail bond neither he nor anyone he knew could afford. “Oh man, I thought, Ned’s going to jail and I don’t have any money and I don’t know any body that has any money.” Within an hour of sending out a few simple text messages, they raised over $3,000, which was more than enough to pay for all six to be released. And the donations poured in the rest of the day. The extra money was given back, and the money used was paid back.
Also, a Facebook page, originally set up to let people know what was going on with the arrests, became a forum for support. It got over 300 members in less than 24 hours.
Furthermore, early in the morning of the demonstrations, as soon as word got out on KNAU about what was happening, folks from all over Flagstaff came by and offered their support. One demonstrator remarked, “One woman came by with her daughter. She gave us all a bunch of Gatorade and offered to cook us all meals if it went on throughout the day. Many other folks grabbed signs and joined in the rally at the bottom of the mountain.” Furthermore, activists began to call from all over the country, as far away as Hawaii. Specifically, a group from New Mexico said they were on their way to Flagstaff. Inspired by the demonstrations; they wanted to help.
“How can we be trespassers on our Holy Site?” questioned Barney. “I do not agree with these and the other charges; we will continue our resistance.”