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.
“We are a small school but we’ve had such a massive turnout,” Santos said of her peers at the rally. “It’s important that we, on the coast, pay attention because Eckerd College won’t even exist eventually, if we do nothing.”
Van Jones, former advisor to Obama on green jobs and current president of Rebuild the Dream, rallied the crowd.
“This is the last minute of the last quarter in the biggest game ever,” Jones said. “If you don’t fight for what you want, you get what you deserve.”
Eckerd students chanted in response, “Keep your word! Keep your promise!”
And then they marched. Currier hoisted her cardboard “Eckerd College, F.L.” sign above the crowd.
“This issue bridges all other issues,” said Connecticut protester Hollie Miller, 62. “Nothing else matters if the planet goes.”
The cold had emptied most of the surrounding streets, as the line of protesters snaked around and around the White House in a seemingly endless loop.
One of the people responsible for getting the word out in Florida on climate change was Kara Kaufman, formerly of Food and Water Watch. Creative Loafing wrote about Kaufman’s campaign to label GMOs in Florida last fall. She’s now a fellow with Green Corps, a Sierra Club-sponsored yearlong program for environmental activists. I ran into Kaufman in front of the White House as the rally marched on.
“I’ve been running national phone banks Thursday-Sunday for the last seven weeks,” Kaufman said. “We were literally calling people from all over. This rally is such a palpable part of the movement.”
Kaufman is headed to Texas next to work on water conservation.
By 4 p.m., protesters were piling into the warmth of Potbellies, a soup and sandwich shop around the corner from the White House.
“We just ran out of wheat bread and vegetarian soup!” the cashier told each customer. Everyone recapped the day over hot food, away from the cold.
The rally drew bigger numbers than projected; organizers had originally expected 25,000, then reduced their estimates when the weather turned bitter. But halting the pipeline, a job creator and energy security provider, will be harder.
“The assumption of the activists is that by choking off the supply of new oil sources like the tar sands, the U.S. — and maybe the world — will be forced to transition more quickly to green energy,” New York Times columnist Joe Nocera wrote Monday in an op-ed spurred by the rally. But Nocera contends that the pipeline should be a no-brainer for Obama; if this plan doesn’t move forward, China in is the wings waiting to take the oil off Canada’s hands.
“If you really want to eliminate expensive new fossil fuel sources, the best way is to lower the price of oil, which would render them uneconomical,” Nocera said. “But, of course, that wouldn’t exactly lower demand either.”
Even organized labor can’t come to a consensus on the issue. The AFL-CIO hasn’t taken an official position because the unions can’t agree.
“While environmental groups decry oil sands development, it is clear that this valuable resource will be developed, regardless of whether Keystone XL is built,” Terry O’Sullivan, general president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, said in a statement to Creative Loafing Tuesday. “The only question is whether Americans will benefit from pipeline construction and refining of the oil. To reject these good jobs in construction, manufacturing and energy production doesn’t make sense.”
For the Sierra Club, and the over 170 organizations aligned with them, the Keystone pipeline is a line in the sand. The organization had been opposed to civil disobedience since its inception over 120 years ago, until Wed., Feb 13. That’s when executive director Michael Brune, 350.org’s McKibben, and 40 others were arrested in front of the White House.
“This is President Obama’s last term and it’s his opportunity to submit his legacy,” said Rachele Huennekens, grassroots media coordinator for the Sierra Club. “We believe that legacy rests squarely on his response to the climate crisis. I’m hopeful he will.”
Until then, the Sierra Club and its sister organizations are spearheading 100 days of action to fight climate disruption now through Earth Day.
“We’re setting up our careers and our lives,” Huennekens said. “We want a good and clean country to start out families and become families.”
Eckerd College political science student David Trujillo, 23, headed home from Washington D.C., with a mission to organize an on-campus collective of activists: students helping students organize, from the bottom up. He’s a senior looking toward a career in journalism, or maybe politics.
“Because of this rally, we are all connected,” Trujillo said. “But looking forward, this won’t be enough. We need to do this again, and again, and again.”
The irony that Obama was on vacation in West Palm Beach, reportedly golfing with Tiger Woods, wasn’t lost on the shivering Florida kids gunning to save the world outside his front door. While national debates continue on gun control, health care, and jobs, the pulse of the protest sent a clear message that many in the nation (including students in the Sunshine State) want to see a real solution when it comes to the crisis of climate change.