WASHINGTON — Last Sunday, eight Swarthmore students were arrested in front of the White House for engaging in civil disobedience. They joined an estimated 1,500 college students in a march to protest the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline (including a total of twelve students from Swarthmore).
The students that were arrested were Patrick Ammerman ’14, Kate Aronoff ’14, Ben Bernard-Herman ’14, Dominic Castro-Wehr ’16, Nathan Graf ’16, Hazlett Henderson ’17, Laura Rigell ’15 and Pat Walsh ’14. The protesters risked arrest in the hope that it would attract the attention of President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry before they reach their decision on the construction of the pipeline.
The Keystone XL pipeline would connect tar sands oil extraction sites in Canada to refineries in Louisiana and Texas. Without the construction of the pipeline, the tar sands would continue to be transported to refineries by rail. There has been significant debate over the environmental impact the pipeline would have. Those in favor of the pipeline point towards increased revenue and safer transportation, given the recent accidents in transporting oil by rail. A report by the State Department on the environmental impact concluded that there would be no significant impact if the pipeline were constructed, but those who oppose the construction claim that there is a conflict of interest due to the report writer’s previous affiliation with TransCanada, the company behind the pipeline. Kerry is to give Obama his recommendation in favor or against the construction of the pipeline after reading the report.
Opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline disagree with the report, believing that the assumption in the report is that tar sands would be extracted regardless of the presence of the pipeline.
“The rationale is fatalistic,” Rigell said, “It basically says the oil would be extracted anyway and that means it’s okay.”
There also remains a feeling that the pro-TransCanada report is just another result of big business winning. Some question the veracity of the report, believing that it can be hard to remain unbiased on environmental issues for those on either side of the protest.
“There’s no reason the report should be done by industry insiders,” said political science Professor George Lakey, who has been arrested in other protests and is currently planning a protest of the environmental policies of the state department to take next week.
Tri-Co students got to DC on Saturday to participate in XL Dissent, funded by the President’s Office. The event was student-led, with some assistance from other activist organizations such as 350.org. Saturday consisted of introductions, breakout sessions, direct action training and a legal briefing at the Thurgood Marshall Center in Washington. Some Swarthmore students were heavily involved in the organization, with some working on the open letter with other college students for the XL Dissent movement. Rigell spoke about the importance of climate justice during the introductory speeches and led a breakout session on continuing activism through the summer. The direct action training involved explaining the plans of the protest to those present and simulating false arrests so everyone would know what to expect at the White House. The student protesters slept in the St. Stephen Episcopal Church, which volunteered to assist the students. On Sunday morning, Swarthmore students headed over to the office of Marshfield Associates, one of the investing agencies that handles Swarthmore’s finances, for a photo to bring the issue of divestment to their doorsteps.
The first step of the protest, a march to the White House, began at Georgetown University’s Red Square, where President Obama gave a speech promising to combat climate change. On the way to the White House, students stopped by Kerry’s residence in Georgetown to lay down a tarp symbolizing an oil spill. The march lasted an hour, and the group was escorted by the police. As the march started, it was as if an occult hand had inspired the protesters. Chants of “Keep the tar sands in the oil, we don’t want your dirty soil!” and “We are unstoppable, another world is possible,” echoed through the crowd.
Upon arrival at the White House, the protesters gathered in front of the Andrew Jackson statue to hear speeches from those affected by tar sands extraction. The students who risked arrest then walked to the White House fence. Of those there, some zip-tied themselves to the fence, while others “died” on a black tarp set up in front of the fence by lying down and acting dead to mirror the effect of oil spills on wildlife. After several minutes, the police started to warn the protestors that they would be arrested if they remained within the perimeter officers were constructing. The arrests started at 1:30 p.m. and went on for six hours. The Swarthmore students were detained at 5:00 p.m. after standing in the rain with other protesters for two hours.
The students who risked arrest said they were exhausted after the protest, but remained positive. “I’m feeling pretty good,” Walsh said. “Really cold from being out in the rain, but more tired than that. I feel like it went well, so I feel really good about everything that happened.”
The reaction to the event by the protestors and organizers was largely positive.
“I think this is the best energy I’ve ever seen at a protest against the pipeline and that’s because it was entirely student-led. I’m looking forward to seeing more like it,” said Duncan Meisel, an organizer with 350.org.
“It’s terrific. The media coverage is so clear,” Lakey said. “Every article I’ve read refers to the substance of the issue, which is rare in mass media. They often talk about the novelty of the protest and not the substance.”
Lakey first risked arrest during the civil rights movement, and is currently organizing a protest at the State Department in Philadelphia on March 10 in conjunction with Earth Quaker Action Team, 350.org, Rising Tide and Shalom Center, where he and other protestors will risk arrest to “sweep out” the corruption in the State Department with brooms.
The protesters and TransCanada are anxiously awaiting the president’s report on the pipeline. The decision on whether to grant approval should be released soon, depending on the government’s response.