Surrounding the White House with a human pipeline Sunday, an estimated 40,000 protested against the Keystone Pipeline in the largest rally on climate change in U.S. history. The Forward on Climate Rally drew protesters from over 30 states, the majority of them college students, including a contingent from Eckerd College who rallied alongside the rest of the country despite icy gusts, snow flurries and temperatures in the 20s.
As the sun set on the Eckerd campus the Friday before, 112 students loaded their satchels, blankets, and mason jars of tea onto eight vans bound for Washington D.C. Some had never been to a protest. Some had never been to the Capitol. Some found out they were joining the trip (and abandoning exams and classwork) only hours previous.
“We are going to go to Washington D.C. and stop this fucking pipeline!” organizer Laurie Horning declared to the group before leaving.
The students drove more than 15 hours through the night and into the bitter cold. One packed enough for a two-week European getaway; another neglected to pack any winterwear. Once in D.C., students slept on floors of friends of friends of friends, or on the floor of the historically activist-friendly church, St. Stephen’s. They didn’t care about their spartan accommodations; they were there to protest the Keystone XL Pipeline.
The trip began as just a small initiative two weeks ago. Through careful on-campus organizing by students and donations from the local Sierra Club, family members and student clubs, Eckerd (along with USF St. Petersburg, FAMU, Florida International, Florida State, and Florida Gulf Coast) brought a strong local presence to a nationwide protest.
The pipeline would bring oil from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. President Obama temporarily blocked it during his re-election campaign last year due to the potential negative impact on Nebraska’s Sand Hills region, home to stabilized sand dunes covering the Ogallala Aquifer. Nebraska dropped its opposition after TransCanada, the company building the pipeline, proposed plans to reroute the pipeline, avoiding the dunes and aquifer.
But those protesting Sunday believe the pipeline would be one giant (and perhaps final) step in the wrong direction. For one thing, the project represents a huge investment in fossil fuel, money that they feel would be better spent on green energy. Plus, oil production from the pipeline would also increase the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere, contributing to global warming instead of reducing the number of carbon emissions to 350 parts per million, the number scientists say is a safe upper level.
On the Metro from Vienna/Fairfax Sunday morning, Nova University environmental engineering student Rebekah Ortiz, 19, rallied those en route to the protest.
“The next step is to pressure Obama and people in power to make environmentally conscious decisions,” Ortiz said. “We need a closed-loop system, and our choices should benefit everyone, not just some.”
Ortiz led protest-goers with chants like “Hey! Obama! We don’t want no pipeline drama!” Dozens poured out of the Smithsonian metro station onto the National Mall.
“I cannot promise we will win,” 350.org founder and leading climate activist Bill McKibben shouted over the loudspeakers. “But this is the most fateful battle. And we will fight.”
In the thick of the crowds across from the Washington Monument, between the Earth Day and American flags, Celine Currier, 20, held a big cardboard sign reading “Eckerd College, F.L.”
“We shouldn’t be spending money on continuing oil,” said Currier. “We need long-term renewable fuels. Oh, and fuck those assholes!”
Asked if she was happy with the turnout, Currier responded, “No, there should be more. But if anything is going to change something, it’ll be this rally.”
Standing next to Currier was fellow Eckerd student Eden Shlomi, 21, wearing a foot-tall fuzzy hat. She and Currier jumped up and down to stay warm.
“Our goal on this is earth is to survive, and the earth is our life force,” Shlomi said. “We are raping the earth, we are raping our mother.”
She wants to get into documentary filmmaking.
“So you’re here to ask us why we are here, why we care and stuff?”
Yes, I answered. That was the general idea.
“Because I give a shit about human beings’ existence,” Shlomi said. “That is more important than school.”
A pack of Eckerd students, including organizer Larissa Santos, 20, managed to find the rest of the group in a crowd of thousands. Everyone jumped, hugged and smiled.
“This is my first protest,” Santos said. “It’s like a dream, but I’m living it.”
Santos wanted to come to similar demonstrations in the past but she hadn’t yet become a U.S. citizen (she’s from Brazil). In May she got her citizenship, an email came from 350.org about the rally, and two weeks ago she started organizing students on campus.