It’s hard to get away from corporations’ influence in Washington, D.C. Even at the new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial this weekend, I noted that the sponsors list, etched on a stone wall, was a litany of the most recognizable corporate heavy-hitters—including Walmart, ExxonMobil, Fannie Mae, Lehman Brothers, PepsiCo, and BP. An ironic tribute to a man who openly questioned capitalism and the deep gap between rich and poor.
Over the past two days, I watched more than 200 people get arrested in protests that are attempting to push back against the oil industry’s influence on a key decision that President Obama is about to make. In total, there have been more than 700 arrests since the demonstrations began. In their signs and speeches, the protesters draw self-consciously on King’s legacy of civil disobedience, but many are not seasoned activists. Most of the people I met at the White House gates were core supporters of Obama in 2008. They put their weight and energy into Obama’s campaign, knocking on doors to deliver him a landslide. Three years later, they are angry and frustrated with the president.
The protests focus on stopping the 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline, which would run from Canada to Texas and allow major oil companies to ramp up Alberta tar sands production, refinement, and export. NASA scientist James Hansen, who was arrested at Monday’s protest, says that exploiting Canada’s vast tar sands reserves for fuel would ultimately be “game over” for climate change—no chance of reducing emissions in time to avert disaster. A cable unearthed by WikiLeaks suggests the administration is predisposed to sign off on Keystone XL. Many of the protesters would see such a decision as a betrayal.
“I worked harder for his election than I have for any other president, and I feel as though he has let us down,” said Barbara Schlachter, an Episcopal priest from Iowa, who joined the protest a few days after her grandson’s birth. She had never been arrested before. She expressed a mix of hope and cynicism about Obama. “I think that big oil and big coal have essentially bought Congress and the president.”
I met a 56-year-old from rural North Carolina who had never registered to vote until three years ago, when she cast her first ballot for Obama. She said she still “loved the man” but felt the president was under tremendous pressure. And I spoke with a retired medical journalist from Haines, Alaska, who had three years ago made a return visit to Philadelphia, his hometown, to join Obama’s presidential campaign. “I’m totally pissed off,” he said. “All these volunteers that I was working with—we had a vision for how it was going to be. So I’m sure there are thousands and thousands of people like me who want Obama to do a 180-degree change on where he’s going.”
Each morning a group of protesters walks in two solemn lines toward the White House gates and allows themselves to be rounded up by police. The activists hail from every region of the country. Celebrities and environmental leaders have joined the demonstrations. On Monday, a gathering of preachers, rabbis, and other faith leaders participated. They sang spirituals from the civil rights era as they were handcuffed.
On Tuesday, actor Daryl Hannah joined those arrested. I found her crouched below a tree, coloring in a “No Keystone XL” poster minutes before the protest. “We have the option of having American-made, community-based, renewable clean energy like solar, wind, and geothermal—this is part of Obama’s campaign promise,” she said. “This is his chance to step up to the plate. This is a true test of whether he’s going to be the president he promised to be.”
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Bill McKibben, the lead organizer of this demonstration, has kept the tone civil. The demonstrators pledge to remain “dignified in dress and demeanor.” No one resists or heckles the police. Most of the activists I met were breaking the law for the first time. They resist caricature. No one shouted, “Get a job!” at the 32-year-old consultant in heels and a tailored skirt or the Jesuit priest in religious regalia. Some activists broke into tears as the police carted them away.
Granted, it’s unlikely that most of these activists would support a Republican candidate—such as climate-denier Rick Perry—for office. But it’s not merely their votes that helped Obama win: His first campaign ignited thousands of people to organize “get out the vote” activities, bringing millions to polls. It’s not yet possible to make grandiose claims about whether Obama's environmental record could seriously affect his candidacy. But it looks like these protests are channeling angst and frustration not from the fringe but from a group of people at the center of Obama’s base. The protests are beginning to win major national and international press coverage, and Obama would do well to take the demonstrators seriously.
The demonstrators emerge every day from the police station in the neighborhood of Anacostia. They applaud one another as they arrive in a gravel parking lot where organizers meet them with water and granola bars. It feels like the finish line of a sporting event.
On Monday, I traveled to meet the protesters there. Jennifer Bielawski, a 46-year-old from Columbus, Ohio, trembled as she spoke after her arrest. “There are a lot of pissed-off voters here,” she said. “I don’t consider myself particularly political. Like a lot of people I don’t like to inconvenience myself, so to pay for airfare and a hotel room, I really had to be committed to it.” But she was inspired by the number of ordinary people who were willing to participate. “I thought, ‘Get off your lazy butt and go do something. If they can do it, I can.’”
Climate scientist James Hansen was one of the last to be released that day. Wearing a brown fedora hat tipped sideways and a gray suit that had developed several wrinkles, he looked a bit like Indiana Jones. Earlier, during a speech before the protest, Hansen had issued a warning to Obama: “Have no doubt that if the tar sands pipeline is approved, we will be back and our numbers will grow … We must find [a president] who is worthy of our dreams.”
After his arrest, Hansen seemed invigorated. He said he had driven all night on Friday to be sure that Hurricane Irene wouldn’t stop him from participating in the demonstrations. “What we need is the next time to come back with so many people that they can’t arrest us,” he said.