An estimated 10,000 to 12,000 protesters converged on the nation’s capitol Sunday to press President Obama to block construction of the 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport tar-sands oil from Canada to refineries on the Gulf of Mexico.
The rally, which culminated in a human ring encircling the White House, was a sequel to August’s civil disobedience campaign, during which 1,252 protesters were arrested.
By 1 p.m., throngs of ralliers — wearing bright orange vests emblazoned with the words “STOP the Pipeline” — were already congregating at Lafayette Square Park across from the White House. Protesters from across the country and Canada waved signs opposing Keystone XL and chanted: “Hey Obama, we don’t want no climate drama!”
“Our dependence on fossil fuel is like a cultural addiction to harmful substances,” said Jim Wallis, president and CEO of Sojourners, a Washington, D.C.-based Christian social justice organization. “This campaign is an intervention in the soul of the economy.”
Within earshot of the White House, the peaceful protest aimed to send a message to the president, who said last week he will make the final call on the pipeline himself.
Maryland General Assembly delegate Heather Mizeur, a member of the Democratic National Committee’s executive committee, stood before a cheering crowd to throw her support behind the cause and ask the president “to support us in our endeavors.”
“Inspired by the Tar Sands Action here at the White House in August, where more than 1,200 courageous activists were arrested because of our belief in fighting this pipeline, I decided it was time to put pressure on the president from within the Democratic Party to do the right thing,” said Mizeur, who has sponsored a resolution highlighting the dangers of the pipeline.
The rally unfolded with a bevy of environmental leaders, social activists, politicians, and citizen advocates: actress Gloria Reuben and actor Mark Ruffalo, Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune, Nobel Peace Prize recipient Jody Williams, civil rights activist Dick Gregory, and others. Together, they voiced opposition to a pipeline that activists argued would have dire consequences: jeopardizing sources of fresh drinking water, damaging the ecosystem, and imperiling the climate.
“Worst of all about the pipeline is it will deepen our dependency on oil, contributing to ever-worsening climate chaos,” said Peter Wilk, executive director of Physicians for Social Responsibility. “When we pull carbon out of the ground, it has to go somewhere. When we burn it in the form of fuel oil and gasoline, it winds up going into the atmosphere. The extreme weather events of the past year are not mere coincidence.”
The rally drew supporters of all ages, ethnicities, and beliefs — and for some, proved to be a family affair. Luis Ramos Iukivuel of New York brought his 9-year-old daughter, Ananí Ramos, to the protest. “I raised her in the indigenous way to respect Mother Earth, her family, and her community,” says the father, who is Taino.
An activist-in-training, Ananí smiled while carrying her own sign: a picture of Obama with his daughter, Sasha, under the words “Stop Keystone XL.”
At 3 p.m. protesters dispersed to form the symbolic circle around Obama’s residence. Under the eyes of city police and the Secret Service, the crowd flooded the streets surrounding the White House while clapping and chanting. A caravan hauled a gigantic replica of a pipeline with the words “STOP the XL Pipeline” painted in bold white lettering on the side.
Protest organizers said they didn’t know ahead of time whether they’d have enough bodies to complete the ring around the White House, but by 3:30 or so the protesters finished linking arms and the circle was unbroken.
“It was a grand slam home run,” Bill McKibben, a key organizer of the event (and a member of Grist’s board of directors), said as dusk approached and the rally ended. “This was an amazing day to be up there with every part of the progressive coalition. These are the people who put Barack Obama in office. If he can’t hear this, then he can’t hear anything.”
Obama reportedly missed most of the protest because of a golf outing. Shortly after 5 p.m., McKibben announced from the podium that the presidential motorcade was passing Lafayette Square Park. The crowd responded with a cry of “Yes we can — stop the pipeline!”
Watch video of the protest: