When nearly 400 millennials committed civil disobedience on Sunday in front of the White House to protest the Keystone XL pipeline, they sent a clear message to President Obama: “Stop this pipeline or the people will.”
Hailing from 80 universities and representing 43 states, over 1,000 youth climate activists converged on Washington, D.C., for a day of action called XL Dissent. They began by marching from Georgetown University, where President Obama gave his landmark speech on climate change last June, and then continued past Secretary of State John Kerry’s home, where marchers staged a mock oil spill, and finally reached the gates of the White House. Once there, hundreds of young people zip-tied themselves to the fence, imploring President Obama not to “lock” them into a dirty energy future by approving the Keystone XL. According to police, 372 people were arrested, but 350.org put the number at 398 — noting also that the current concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is 398 parts per million.
The historic XL Dissent action was notable for being both the largest single day of climate-related civil disobedience in U.S. history and the culmination of an unprecedented youth-led, organized and executed climate justice campaign. Far more than just a controversial tar sands pipeline, the battle over the Keystone XL is proving to be a flashpoint for political action among a generation whose future is imperiled by the continued combustion of fossil fuels.
“This isn’t merely Obama’s legacy,” said 21-year-old Tufts junior Evan Bell. “This is our lives.”
Like so many millennials, Bell sees climate change not as an abstraction, but as a reality that is already impacting millions and shows no signs of abating. In an XL Dissent press release published by The Nation, organizers were similarly earnest, writing, “We are young, awaiting a future fraught with uncertainty. This will not deter us from participating in an act of civil disobedience. Indeed, it has compelled us to organize one.”
Despite its historic outcome, XL Dissent evolved from humble beginnings. Last September, after a summer of organizing as a Fossil Free Fellow with the growing Fossil Fuel Divestment movement, 20-year-old Michael Greenberg of Columbia University formed a core team with Bell, 20-year-old Aly Johnson-Kurts of Smith College, 23-year old Nick Stracco of Tulane University, and others from across the country. Broadening their focus beyond campus divestment — a cause that funneled hundreds of participants into XL Dissent — they aimed to both radicalize the youth climate movement and expand what they called “the tar sands narrative.”
Organizers spoke frequently with several members of Tar Sands Blockade and citizens of frontline communities who fight the environmental injustices of carbon extraction on a daily basis. They also aimed to emphasize that the XL Dissent campaign is just one prong in the broader movement to stop the expansion of all fossil fuel infrastructure. As students chanted Sunday, “No more coal. No more oil. Keep your carbon in the soil!”
In order to transform their vision into reality, the organizers of XL Dissent combined social media savvy with operational flexibility. Despite receiving no institutional help in the beginning, the core team established a “loose organization,” according to Bell, that allowed people to take ownership of logistical priorities. This structure also allowed students the ability to offer whatever amount of time they could spare. More experienced activists stepped back as newcomers stepped forward.
When the State Department issued its recent Environmental Impact Statement for the Keystone XL — derided by NASA’s recently retired chief climatologist James Hansen as “pure scientific garbage” — interest in XL Dissent skyrocketed. The historic youth-planned action soon attracted institutional support from 350.org, DC Action Lab and the Energy Action Coalition among others.
Despite targeting President Obama, many of the organizers credit him with galvanizing their activism. Bell suggested that the millennials’ strong “generational connection” to President Obama and the hope he cultivated mobilized hundreds to take action against the pipeline and, ironically, the president himself.
“We asked him to live up to his ideals,” Bell explained. “But he hasn’t. So we are.”
Obama’s waffling on the Keystone XL not only promises to motivate millennials, but also to alienate a core demographic. According to Stracco, “If the Democratic Party wants to keep our vote, they better make sure President Obama rejects that pipeline. We voted for a climate champion, not a pipeline president.”
A recent poll conducted by the League of Conservation Voters echoes Stracco’s sentiments, confirming that 73 percent of young voters would vote against a president who did not take action on climate change. Meanwhile, 80 percent want Obama to take action now.
As Jamie Henn, co-founder of 350.org recently argued, “If Democrats were smart, they’d be more focused on keeping these students out of jail and getting them into voting booths. That’s going to take a presidential decision to reject the Keystone XL.”
Prominent climate activist Bill McKibben lauded XL Dissent as possibly “the biggest single day of civil disobedience in the whole Keystone saga.”
No matter the fate of the Keystone XL, it is clear that millennials are just beginning to assert their agency. As Hampshire College student Noga Heyman declared after the XL Dissent action, “The fight’s not over and neither is our escalation.”
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…“the biggest single day of civil disobedience in the whole Keystone saga”…hmmm….
To make such a claim wrapped in liberal democratic discourses simply silences those who have been fighting on the front-lines to protect the environment from the ever encroaching iron fist of Western modernity for centuries. These communities–specifically indigenous nations–of course are often the most affected by 21st Century “developmental progress.” The “worthless” lands they were forced marched to live on (through which over half of the REMAINING population did not survive mind you), now house the resources those in power want?? How convenient for the state. Especially being that they have plenty of genocidal experience–as history has shown– with the power to justify the destruction of anybody in its path.
As such, I am inclined to make the argument that these “millennials” are being denied a very important radical imagination by thinking that they have and can prompt some change with their “biggest” act of civil disobedience yet…at the White House, really? I doubt the Pres. all mighty is there or even cares and these millennials deserve the right to be schooled in such a historically grounded understanding of (neo)liberal politics. Might I suggest we learn our history and not bound the young to liberalist politics, which, quite frankly, has gotten us where we are today. Maybe helping on the front-lines at resistance camps and working alongside and with traditional ecologists rather than parading around with are technological devices that are made by the hands of exploited laborers, voting in booths where votes don’t count and attempting to sway bought congresses, which arguably is probably the least effective way to have these millennials spend their precious energies that are much needed in the 21st Century.
See also: http://earthfirstjournal.org/newswire/2014/03/03/an-open-letter-to-the-no-kxl-movement/
I don’t think frontline communities are being silenced here at all. If anything this action speaks to the radicalizing and awakening of a generation (and a certain subset of it — those privileged enough to seek higher education). Most people partaking in KXL protests are well aware they are joining a struggle fought longer and harder by frontline and indigenous communities. For others, I imagine, an action like XL Dissent is an entry point to that education you speak of.
As Jamie Henn noted in his article about the XL Dissent action for HuffPo: “After arriving in Lafayette Park across from the White House, young people heard from speakers representing communities on the frontline of climate impacts and the fight against the fossil fuel industry.” Furthermore, Bill McKibben said, “An entire movement has thrown itself into in this Keystone fight, from local frontline groups to big national green organizations.”