Photograph courtesy of the I-69 Media Office
Anti-I-69 activists have set up a tree-sit along the planned path of the highway's construction just north of Evansville. The Indiana Department of Transportation has destroyed some homes and is expected to start construction on the first 1.77 miles of road before the end of the year.
On May 19, a group opposed to I-69 set up a tree sit along the path of planned construction, just north of Evansville. Located at the north end of the first 1.77 miles of the proposed route, the aerial occupation sits between space cleared for the highway and an off-ramp to State Road 68.
While the small stand of trees is not slated for clearing, demonstrators have anchored their lines to felled trees and debris in the route's path. The sit is composed of two platforms suspended 35 feet in the air. While two activists occupy the platforms at all times, several protesters have taken their turns in the trees. Others have rotated duties as ground support, acting as police and media liaisons, as well as supplying the sitters with food, water and other equipment.
As the aerial occupation enters its third week, it is the longest running Indiana tree sit in seven years. For an inside look at this most recent act of I-69 resistance, The Bloomington Alternative interviewed Bloomington residents Jill and Steven, who have been involved in the tree sit and just recently returned from Evansville.
BA: To start with, are most people involved with the tree sit using pseudonyms? Why?
Steven: By and large people who have occupied the sit have used pseudonyms. We discussed it a lot, and are doing it mainly to prevent celebrity. It can be easy for the media to focus on the person in the tree, but really there are so many people involved in every step of the process -- construction, maintenance, and ground support -- I think that's really important to emphasize.
Jill: There have been hundreds of people involved in the campaign against I-69. The creation of media stars, putting one person in the spotlight, eclipses the diverse opinions and contributions of others involved.
BA: Why are you resisting I-69?
Steven: I think that there are too many reasons to even begin. The environment, community, the economy. All of them make sense to me and all of them are inspiring enough by themselves to want to be involved. So when you consider all of them, it just seems like it's impossible not to resist this highway.
Jill: I want to live in a lush and sensuous world, surrounded by friends and beautiful communities, and to me I-69 represents the deepening of the destruction of all of that.
BA: Since the tree sit has begun, what kind of response have you gotten from people around Evansville, farmers, landowners or Bloomington residents?
Steven: It's been really positive. Community members have come by with their children to talk about it, to educate them about it. Landowners have talked about bringing food out and supporting us. A few days ago, we went to a bar outside Evansville, and when they found out that we were going to the tree sit they gave us all of this food to take out there. So it's been good.
Jill: Since the tree sit has been set up, supporters have been going to everyone who lives in Gibson County to communicate what's going on and to undermine any myths that have been perpetuated about the tree sit. I think it's really important to communicate to landowners that we see this as an extension of their struggle and that our reasons can't be narrowly reduced to ecological reasons.
BA: You mentioned myths about this tree sit. Are there any myths you want to speak to or dispel?
Jill: I think that tree sitting in general often gets reduced to having a purely spiritual or ecological perspective. I think that environmental struggle and defense of the earth is really important, but there's no such thing as effectively defending the earth without engaging in the social structures that perpetuate its destruction. This requires organizing with everyone affected and recognizing we're not doing this as angels coming in from the outside, but because we have a lot to lose ourselves, and we're just acting with other people who have a lot at stake.
Steven: The press has also made it clear that the tree sit is not directly in the route of I-69, but they've missed part of the story. The sit's support lines cross over onto felled trees in such a way that if any one of the trees is disturbed then the support lines for the sit could be disturbed, so they can't clear the area of all the trees and debris until the sit is gone.
BA: What is the goal of the tree sit?
Steven: To get in the way. I think being a physical presence there is really important: to be this sort of smudge of resistance on INDOT's pretty map.
BA: What is the national or international significance of this highway and resistance to it?
Jill: I think I-69 represents just how insane of a world we live in because it's a world in which the economy can only survive by pushing itself in crazier and crazier directions. Even at a time when petroleum is running out, the economy's only hope still lies in globalization, outsourcing jobs and destroying communities so that labor can be performed ever more cheaply.
BA: And the significance of resistance in this context?
Jill: I think it's an affirmation of humanity, of the ability of people to determine their own lives, and because this road is marked by conflict, to determine the course of their own conflicts and struggles.
Steven: One thing I reflect a lot about when I think about I-69 as a national project is the inhumane aspect of this highway, especially its connection to NAFTA. Walls are being built along the border with Mexico to stop the free movement of people at the same time that I-69 is being built to promote the free transport of goods. But resistance is growing in Mexico, in Texas, in Tennessee and in Indiana, to focus on the primary ones. While those in power are trying to unify the country with this road, they're ending up unifying many countries with resistance.
BA: You've talked about other organizing that has been going on and needs to happen. Can you explain more, and discuss what else is going on to stop the highway?
Jill: When we talk about stopping I-69 we can only talk about serious and strong organizing with community members who stand to lose everything. We need to intensify defense along the route itself, to contribute to supporting what already exists and to think creatively about doing more to defend the land on site.
But it's also really important to continue to develop the struggle outwards. Recently people have been doing home demonstrations, to bring the struggle back to the people responsible for imposing this road on us in the first place. But also in every other way to develop the struggle outwards to deepen support for landowners and farmers, to mobilize communities all along the route, to do demonstrations and protests where people live, in their own communities, in Bloomington. The sit is only the contribution of a very few people beginning a process of what it will take to stop I-69 in conjunction with many other efforts.
BA: What are home demonstrations?
Jill: We say, "The earth isn't dying, it's been killed, and those killing it have names and addresses." And so home demonstrations are one way to hold those people accountable, simply by picketing and making sure their neighbors understand that there are people out there making huge salaries from destroying entire communities and people's lives.
Steven: And there are also tons of workshops going on to help people develop skills and ideas of their own so that there can be multiple groups of resistance, so this doesn't become just one tree sit. There's a pledge camp on June 6-8 in Southern Indiana that will help provide some training and a chance to get to know other people working on this. People who want to learn more can go to the I-69 website at stopi69.wordpress.com.
There are also lots of ways to get involved without doing direct action. The I-69 Listening Project is interviewing landowners and recording their stories. People who are interested in that can e-mail the I-69 Listening Project at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Others are working on newsletters, legal support, nature walks along the route, etc., etc. And of course you can make up your own ways to resist I-69.
Lauren Taylor can be reached at email@example.com.