Posted by Katherine Cavanaugh
As I stood with over 60 other Skidmore students at the bus stop in front of Case Center on Saturday morning, I got the feeling that none of us were making the typical trip down North Broadway. Some waited with sleeping bag and pillow in hand. Others passed bags of bagels from Uncommon Grounds — I took two. It was going to be a long ride, but the energy level was palpably high.
By noon, we had all boarded a coach bus bound for Washington, D.C. We were off to participate in a protest against the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline on Sunday, Nov. 6, exactly one year before the next presidential election. This controversial pipeline would stretch for 1,700 miles and carry crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada through the US. to oil refineries in Texas. The concerns surrounding the proposed pipeline are many, but the various environmental threats that it poses are the driving force behind much of the opposition to its construction.
The intention of the rally in D.C. was to place President Barack Obama under "house arrest" by fully encircling the White House grounds in order to hold him to his campaign commitment to tackle the issue of climate change.
Obama can grant or deny the permit for this pipeline, but he has been inundated with pressure from TransCanada, an eneregy corportation that would be running the pipeline, along with other supporters of the project. Skidmore students were inspired to travel to the White House on Sunday in order to push back against Keystone XL supporters with just as much force.
After nearly eight hours on the bus, we were dropped off outside of St. Stephen's Episcopal Church, which opened its doors to people traveling to D.C. for the rally.
All tourist activities were suspended by 1 p.m. on Sunday: it was time to congregate for what we had come to do. We donned orange "stop-the-pipeline" vests and acquired pre-made posters with quotes from Obama's 2008 campaign. His own phrases, such as "Let's be the generation that finally frees America from the tyranny of oil" and "This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal," appeared on thousands of posters held high, creating a sea of unfulfilled and unforgotten promises for the president to view from his window.
Protesters met in Lafayette Park across from the White House at 2 p.m. to hear both the American and Canadian national anthems and to listen to speakers articulate their concerns about the Keystone XL Pipeline. Speakers included Nobel Laureate Jodi Williams, writer and activist Naomi Klein, President and CEO of the National Wildlife Federation Larry Schweiger, Maryland State Delegate Heather Mizeur, renowned climatologist and NASA scientist James Hansen, Tom Poor Bear of the Lakota Tribe, Freedom Medal recipient John Adams, actor Mark Ruffalo, Hip Hop Caucus President Lennox Yearwood and others.
The audience constantly erupted in applause and cheers as speech after speech reiterated the need to terminate the progress of the proposed pipeline.
Courtney Hyde, the coordinator of Obama's 2008 youth campaign in Florida, said of the president: "I want to remind him of the hope that he gave me, and he gave us."
Other speeches were more sobering. Williams declared bluntly that if the pipeline is built, "we're screwed." Hansen described the tar sands as "the turning point in our fossil fuel addiction." Transit Workers Union member Roger Touissant spoke to the Executive Branch directly when he said: "President Obama, we want jobs, but not jobs as gravediggers for the planet."
Bill McKibben, master of ceremonies of the rally and founder of both 350.org and Tar Sands Action addressed the protestors from the stage of Lafayette park. He, brought an unmatched ardor to the podium. He said, "No more with this stunt double in the Oval Office," which reiterated Obama's critical role in determining whether or not this pipeline cuts through US soil.
Gabby Stern ‘13 felt that the most powerful part of the day for her was when speakers began to use the "mic check" technique of saying one sentence, and having the audience repeat it back. That way, the message rippled through the crowd and reached even the people farthest from the stage. Amidst the throngs of civilians, there were many college students and young people concerned with the future of the planet.
The demographic was not entirely limited to the 20-something crowd. There were families pushing strollers, businesspeople in suits on their lunch break and people with graying hair who brandished homemade signs that read: "Old Fart Against Big Oil" and "You Promised My Granddaughter a Cleaner Future." There were farmers from Nebraska, people dressed in polar bear suits and constituents from all over the country who together carried an enormous mock pipeline through the streets.
When McKibben gave the word, the crowd members broke up into three teams based on where they were standing in relation to the speakers' stage: the brown team, the orange team and the red team. Each team walked in a different direction, and between 10 and 12,000 protesters began to line up and link arms. We sang and chanted as we organized. "Hey, Obama, we don't want no climate drama" and "Yes we can… stop the pipeline" echoed all around me. The audible determination in those words was invigorating.
Finally, we got the mass text message that the White House had been fully surrounded. The lines were anywhere from three to 10 people deep. The crowd buzzed enthusiastically, particularly the Skidmore contingent, empowered by the realization that our message could not be easily ignored. Ian Van Nest '14 felt most inspired when he found himself chanting "I believe that we will win" over and over again with other demonstrators around him. "I got to see how passionate people were about it," he said.
Our bus left from Pennsylvania Avenue at 6 p.m. on Sunday. Saratoga bound, students slept soundly, studied feverishly or alternated between the two. Margot Reisner ‘14, EAC president, both congratulated and reminded us that our work was not yet finished. The completion of a successful rally and a persistent sense of looming responsibility left me feeling somehow simultaneously satisfied and restless.
That same combination of calmness and conviction pervaded the entire bus. "I felt tired," Tim Robinson '14 said of the trip home. He added, though, "I felt like I was a part of something. We made five rings around the White House." Though exhausted and perhaps unprepared for the week ahead, we had shown up to participate in something larger than ourselves. The full effect of our collective effort has yet to be seen, but we will continue to believe that we can win.