Twenty-one people were arrested for trespassing Saturday afternoon when they sat in the middle of a railroad crossing near the Vancouver Amtrak station and refused to move.
Vancouver police pulled the anti-fossil-fuel demonstrators away one by one from the circle they were sitting in while the engineer of a locomotive parked at the other end of the crossing intermittently blared its horn. A crowd of about 80 other demonstrators looked on from behind the activated crossing gates and strained to make their voices heard above the warning bell as they sang and thanked the arrested by name.
Those arrested were cited with second-degree criminal trespass, a misdemeanor, and taken to the Clark County Jail.
The rest of the demonstrators left peacefully shortly after the arrests were completed, but a small squad of police watched and waited for a while near a large truck on the west end of West 11th Street.
The rail lines were closed from about 9:30 a.m. until 1 p.m. BNSF spokesman Gus Melonas said there was no damage to the railroad’s property or equipment, but the protest delayed five trains carrying grain and other merchandise.
“These are not toy trains. They contain millions of dollars in merchandise, and there are numerous ramifications to blocking them … and it can’t be tolerated — and action will be taken,” Melonas said.
The protest was planned in response to the June 3 oil train derailment and fire in Mosier, Ore., by a regional group called the Fossil Fuel Resistance Network. On its Facebook page announcing the protest, members were organizing carpools from the Seattle area to Vancouver, though many people also came from Portland.
The group says it is “dedicated to ending fossil fuel extraction and transportation, defending the Pacific Northwest from extractive industries, and promoting a just transition to sustainable energy sources.”
Protestors blocked the BNSF main line near the entrance into the east side of the rail yard at the of the Port of Vancouver, where Vancouver Energy plans to build the nation’s largest oil terminal. About 35 trains per day use the main line.
Police from BNSF, the Vancouver Police Department and Clark County Sheriff’s Office responded.
Leading up to the arrests, demonstrators took turns at a megaphone to decry oil trains and fossil fuel industry and also express their fears of a changing climate.
The fiery derailment of the Union Pacific oil train in Mosier and the 2013 Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, explosion, which killed 47 people, was on the minds and lips of many.
Portland resident Christopher Kuttruff cited the two disasters and the federal government’s lack of action as his reasons for participating in the demonstration. He was not one of the people arrested.
“As a young person, it’s demoralizing to see regulatory failures, so this is what needs to happen,” he said, referencing the protest.
Although oil has been a big issue in Vancouver for several years, Dan Pence of Portland said he only recently decided to start speaking out against it.
The protest “is a tiny little piece of a big transition we’re trying to drag society through,” said Pence, who also opted not to be arrested. “This isn’t about the trains, it’s about trying to get off carbon. The trains are just a symbol.”
Before the arrests, roughly 100 protestors stood on the tracks, chanting rhythmically against oil trains, waving signs and holding umbrellas painted with sunflowers.
A mix of about a dozen BNSF and Vancouver police observed from a distance and occasionally came over to personally warn individuals in the crowd to get off the tracks before switching to a megaphone and ordering everyone to disperse. Some people in the crowd said they were urging others to not get arrested.
“Our ethos was leaning toward not getting arrested, but these people are feeling passionate,” said Dalton Arteaga in the moments leading up to the arrests.
The demonstrations started at about 9 a.m. when the protestors marched from West Eighth Street near Esther Short Park to the intersection of the BNSF main line and West 11th Street. Police parked along the route and observed from their patrol cars.
Civil disobedience along railroad tracks is rare in Vancouver, but Saturday’s events were reminiscent of the demonstrations against the “white trains,” which carried nuclear weapons materials though the city until 1985.
Last month, 52 climate activists were arrested for blocking BNSF lines near Anacortes. About 150 people spent the night in tents and sleeping bags on the tracks.
Melonas said demonstrators are entitled to their opinions, but should voice them legally.
“(Trespassing) is illegal,” he said. “We ask if they voice their opinion they do it off our property.”