Yesterday morning, I took a break from press calls and preparations for this weekend’s big XL Dissent protest in Washington, D.C. to go back and watch some of the original videos we made during Tar Sands Action, the two weeks of sit-ins in August 2011 that helped turn the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline into the highest profile environmental fight in recent memory.
In a video from the first day of the protests, Gus Speth, a former White House official and co-founder of the Natural Resources Defense Council, says, “We have to draw a line in the sand somewhere and this is a perfect place to draw it. It’s a new, controversial, unconventional fossil resource with tremendous potential to harm the global climate, and for Obama to do something in his own power which doesn’t require Congress, that would be electrifying and send a powerful signal around this country and around the world that we are going to act.”
He continues, “Power responds to a demand and we have to let that demand be heard. It’s time to step outside the system and do some things we haven’t done before.”
Speth was arrested that day and spent two nights in D.C. central cell block. He sent a message out from jail that read, “The only thing we need is more company.”
“It’s time to step outside the system and do some things we haven’t done before.”
And boy, did he get it. Over the two weeks of Tar Sands Action, 1,253 people were arrested during daily sit-ins protesting the pipeline. Since then, arrests have continued across the country, from the Tar Sands Blockade in Texas, to young people in Michigan (who are still fighting charges), to more civil rights and environmental leaders back at the White House. Those that have gone to jail have been joined by tens of thousands more protesters in the streets during events like Forward on Climate, which brought more than 40,000 people to the Capitol last February.
This weekend will be the largest single act of civil disobedience yet. More than 1,000 students and young people are expected to take part in the XL Dissent protest at the White House. More than 300 of them are planning on risking arrest. If the action goes according to plan, it could turn out to be the largest youth-led act of civil disobedience at the White House in a generation.
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I’ve had the chance to talk with some of the students involved in XL Dissent and the thing that continues to strike me is how level-headed and pragmatic they are. They’re risking arrest this weekend not because they’re wild-eyed radicals, but because they agree with Speth that power responds to a demand, and that getting that demand heard often requires working outside traditional channels.
Howard Zinn wrote, “Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it.”
After years of greening campuses, pushing for recycling and carbon neutrality, and educating their classmates about the threat of climate change, students are increasingly adopting protest as a tool for social change. From the fossil fuel divestment movement to the increasing levels of direct action and civil disobedience, young people are finding powerful ways to make an impact and stand in solidarity with the frontline communities who are feeling the impacts of our dirty energy economy and the climate crisis.
President Obama should know something about the power of principled protest. As he recounts in his autobiography Dreams From My Father, his first public speech was at a college rally pushing for divestment from apartheid South Africa.
As the president looks out from the windows of the White House this Sunday at the hundreds of student activists getting taken away from his fence in handcuffs, many of them divestment organizers back on campus, perhaps it will remind him of the reasons that got him into politics in the first place.
Keystone XL is more than an environmental issue: It’s a test of character. The young people taking part in XL Dissent are demonstrating theirs. Now, it’s time for the president to show his.