A group of 62 Swarthmore students aboard two charter buses made their way down to Washington D.C. this past Sunday, joining more than 40,000 protesters in a rally decrying the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Organized by 350.org and the Sierra Club, the Forward on Climate Rally drew demonstrators from across the country and Canada to the nation’s capital.
The event, which was the largest climate rally in United States history, saw protesters gather in front of the Washington Monument and march to the White House.
Students left campus at 8 on Sunday morning and traveled for over two hours to participate in the rally and the subsequent march. Transportation was free, courtesy of President Rebecca Chopp and Vice President for Community and College Relations Maurice Eldridge ’61. Chopp, through the President’s Office, offered funding to send all those who wanted to attend the rally to Washington D.C. for the protest.
As interns to the sustainability committee at the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility, Laura Rigell ’16 and Patrick Ammerman ’14 helped organize student participation in the rally. Rigell greatly appreciated the support from President Chopp and the President’s Office. “It was really kind of her. She agreed, of her own accord – this was her idea, we didn’t ask [her] to fund buses to take students down to this protest,” Rigell said. Rigell and Ammerman began advertising work for the rally two weeks before the event, using social media and word of mouth to spread awareness. After tabling in Sharples and putting out advertisements in the Reserved Student Digest, the two signed up dozens of interested participants.
Temperatures hovered just above 30° Fahrenheit when the rally began at noon, but the crowd remained enthusiastic as leaders of environmental activism groups gave impassioned speeches on the dangers of the proposed pipeline. Participants also heard from leaders of frontline communities, groups whose standards of living are being damaged by the work of large fossil fuel companies.
The Keystone XL pipeline would provide a link between the tar sands oil of Alberta, Canada and the coastline of Texas in the Gulf of Mexico. It puts dozens of communities at risk for health and safety concerns arising from fossil fuel extraction.
Though he understands the importance of the cause, Ammerman expressed astonishment at the sheer number of protestors present at the rally. “I thought it was just incredible seeing that many people in one place. It was hard even to get a sense of what 50,000 people looked like.”
Demonstrators were not limited to fresh-faced college students — the crowds included activists of all ages and all walks of life, with a surprising diversity of interests, ranging from species conservation to the dangers of fracking.
One participant from Maine, Beverly Mann, said of the rally, “[I’m] loving it. Everyone’s a friend, everyone’s friendly, we’re all supporting one another, couldn’t be better.”
Ammerman agreed that the unity was key to the effectiveness of the rally. “Everyone was there for all different reasons but could get behind a single cause. It was telling of the range of interests people had and the range of activism that people are engaging in around the country, not just at Swat,” he said.
Swarthmore students clearly feel strongly about the issue of climate change, as evidenced by the dozens who rose at seven in the morning to stand and march with unflagging energy in freezing temperatures.
A first-time rally attendee, Elaine Zhou ’16 took a sort of pride in the perseverance of the demonstrators in the face of the weather. “Everyone expected it to be small because of the cold and it was like, wow, 40,000 people stood out in the cold, freezing. It’s actually a monument to our persistence,” she said.
Dakota Pekerti ’16 viewed the cause of the protest as being wholly necessary and found the proposed pipeline to be disturbing. “It’s just too much land, it’s too much nature to be destroyed — it’s not worth it,” Pekerti said.
Another participant, Rachel Berger ’16, who also works as a compost assistant for the college, asserted that the participation of Swarthmore students in the rally was essential. “I think that it’s important for the college to make a very strong statement about environmental issues. This has kind of become a symbol of the larger environmental movement so I think it’s important that we pressure Obama,” she said.
The end of the rally does not mark the end of Swarthmore students’ involvement in issues of climate change. Swarthmore Mountain Justice is hosting a convergence, called “Power Up!” at the college on the weekend of Feb. 22. Over 180 students from colleges across the nation are expected to attend. The gathering will discuss the issue of divestment, explore ways in which to promote the cause on college campuses and exchange tactics on how to further divestment campaigns countrywide.
“I think it says there’s a ton of student energy on climate change right now and I think divestment is just another manifestation of that energy. I believe that if we have channels to focus that energy, we’ll be able to potentially lead a real transition,” said Rigell of the convergence.
Ammerman viewed the rally as a positive opportunity for Swarthmore students who are interested in issues of environmental justice. “I think rallies are just a great experience, especially because Swarthmore students can sometimes get trapped in the bubble here. Having conversations with people who might be living on the front lines or might be organizing in a completely different community and seeing the diversity of groups represented really helps you bring something back to Swarthmore.”