Finding Freedom in Prison: My Action Against the Tar Sands

Kristy Powell

by Kristy Powell

Last Saturday Aug 21, 2011, I got arrested (right, photo by Milan Ilnyckyj).  Having never been arrested before, it feels strange to write that. Like most Americans I associate getting arrested with committing egregiously unlawful acts that require punishment … or, you know, getting drunk in public and being picked up by the cops.

In my case, though, I was arrested for willfully breaking the law for something I believe in. Together with 60-some others, last Saturday I plopped down in front of President Obama’s front lawn in Washington D.C. Normally you’re allowed to sit down on a sidewalk on a summer morning. However, due to security laws, you can’t do it in front of the White House. Yet, when the D.C. Park Police told our group to go, we all stayed put. We were there to commit non-violent civil disobedience.

I’m generally a law-abiding citizen. I do all the things normal people do in their everyday lives to keep from breaking the rules of my city and our country. Yet last Saturday, that changed.

Starting on August 20th, me and over 2,000 others committed to risking arrest over one of the most important environmental issues of our time. TransCanada, a Canadian oil company and one of the most powerful organizations in North America, if not the world, has proposed building a pipeline from Alberta, Canada, to the oil refineries in Texas. This 1,700-mile pipeline would pump some of the dirtiest crude oil through some of America’s most pristine wildernesses and farmland. The oil extraction process in Alberta has already destroyed miles upon miles of majestic boreal forests and the ecosystems that once inhabited them.

James Hansen, a NASA scientist and the foremost climatologist in the world, recently wrote that if a pipeline is constructed to begin maximizing on all the oil under the ground in Alberta, it is essentially “game over” for our efforts to stem global warming and allow the earth to heal itself. In short, this pipeline is a huge issue. Hence, when I sat down in front of the White House last Saturday, I was standing up for an incredibly important issue.

As an example of the significance of this issue, I’ve not found a more poignant video than the one created by Josh Fox, the Oscar-nominated director of Gasland (see it at:

As many of you know, last January I made the decision to wear one dress for one year (see  Over the last 235 days, you have followed along as I’ve sorted through confronting issues such as our culture’s understanding of beauty as it relates to clothing, how fashion contributes to my identity as a woman, and the overall sustainability of the fashion industry, an industry that flourishes when we are convinced that we need more, more, more.

As I sat in jail this weekend, being held on charges of “failure to obey a lawful order,” I thought about these issues and how they’ve contributed to my development during the last eight months of my one dress protest. While sharing a holding cell with thirteen other absolutely inspiring women who joined me for protest at the White House on Saturday, I specifically thought about the prisons I had been locked up in before I donned my one dress last January. Those prisons were, of course, mental and psychological ones, but their power in my life before doing my one dress protest was no less confining than the iron bars I sat behind over the weekend.

Since January I feel like I’ve taken huge steps to liberate myself from the constrictive prison of self-abnegating ideas of beauty, such as the belief that I need to look a particular way or keep up with the latest fashions to feel as I have worth in society. I’ve confronted the prison of my identity as a woman, and how it is a blatant fallacy to believe that my womanhood can somehow be affirmed by the status symbols of the clothes I wear. And perhaps most importantly, I’ve woken up to the prison of environmental unconsciousness, where in my striving to be beautiful through the clothes I used to adorn my body I really just became comatose to the environmental impacts of my fashion consumption.

To put it plainly, my one dress protest has begun to liberate me from the oppressive prisons of mundane life as a woman in the 21st century.  It’s taken wearing one dress for eight months to realize the extent to which these prisons have confined who I am, told me lies about my worth as a person, and caused me to neglect my most important responsibilities to live in peace with the earth.

There is a great irony to my journey of self-discovery and liberation through my one dress protest, though. That is, by undergoing this transformative experience of wearing one dress for one year and engaging the prisons that have heretofore confined my life in extraordinary ways, I gained the courage and clarity to do something that landed me in prison for the right reasons.

By taking the initiative to emancipate myself from the prisons of my life, I ended up in a real prison for actively living into the freedom that my one dress protest has provided me.

In the next few weeks President Obama will make a decision on whether to sign off on the construction of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. Over 2,000 people have committed to risking arrest in front of the White House to let the president know that he has the support to make the courageous decision to say “No” to this pipeline and make good on his prophetic promise that under his administration, “the oceans will begin to slow their rise and the planet will begin to heal.” Join me in supporting President Obama, as well as those turning out to sit-in in Washington D.C., in the work to prevent this pipeline and live into a new world of freedom and possibility.