Tuesday, February 26, 2013


Forward on Climate Rally in DC

I returned to Washington for the big climate rally on February 17. Our focus was to get President Obama to deny the Keystone XL pipeline, vital to Canadian oil interests and their US investors as a means to reach the Gulf refineries . Other foci included anti-fracking, and getting a stronger commitment to investing in renewable sources of electricity by instituting a carbon tax.

I traveled by bus from Asheville, where I was happy to join several people I had worked or demonstrated with before. Most of us were students. Also traveling from our area were a stretch van and two Warren Wilson college buses. It was a cold day, the high around 35 degrees, and 20 mile-an-hour winds. I was afraid many would stay away because of the weather. I was wrong. 350.org organizers had aimed for 20-25,000, but we had 35,000-40,000. The sun battled the clouds all morning, but by early afternoon, broke through for good, cheering the marchers despite our cold feet.

My friend Tom and I met with the faith community at the far end of the Mall by the Hirshhorn Sculpture Garden. We planned to meet several others at this same location, but only a family from Celo appeared. We marched in a rather desultory manner to the area under the Washington monument where a stage was set up. It was really cold, making it hard for faith community animators to build energy through song. Each time the wind gusted, the songs fell flat. Fortuitously, about a block from the Washington Monument we ran into five others from Celo, students and staff of Arthur Morgan School and their family. Having our little village together was comforting.

Reverend Lennox Yearwood of the hip hip caucus, one of the animators at the January pray-in, was an effective emcee. Many of the speeches were good. Bill McKibben put as much passion as I have ever felt from him into his convincing argument to stop the tarsands pipeline. But McKibben is more effective as a writer than a speaker. It felt like he was reaching for toughness and strength, but he didn't quite muster the commanding presence that those who call him prophet might hope. Michael Brune of the Sierra Club exuded optimism and hope, pointing out how far we have already come in phasing out coal. But he felt like an adolescent who desperately wanted to make a difference, and it didn't help that he kept hyping the count of our numbers, which he placed at 50,000 by the end of the day (more sober counters were in the 35-40,000 range.)

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island was a very strong speaker, a welcome interlocuter from the Hill. He had the message and the timing down. But we needed Republicans as well, especially from a House of Representatives besieged by the Tea Party. Native women chiefs and elders from Canada were a powerful reminder of the indigenous rights that continue to be trampled by modern nations for the expansion of industrial civilization's interests. They represented the six sovereign nations who stand between the Alberta tarsands and a proposed Pacific port-refinery complex which would be an alternate way to get the landlocked goo to a hungry world market (mostly China). But after sweeping revisions to Canada's environmental laws last year, weakening them while lying to the native leaders about their content, the Harper government has now introduced a bill to compromise their sovereignty and Ottowa's constitutional “duty to consult” with First Nations on use of their lands. The Enbridge pipeline and the associated refinery development in British Columbia would be more expensive than going south to Houston, but the tarsands industry is a determined bunch.

The poignancy of these women protecting Mother Earth, not a metaphor for them, and fighting for the very existence of their people, was heart-rending. One chief said that she was not only representing her tribe, but “more importantly, I am a member of the frog clan.” She was there to protect the water, the beautiful, bounteous water of Canada that is being wasted and fouled by bituminous oil. It took awhile for talk of a frog-clan to sink in, but when it did, I realized the rebuke of my human-centered interests, even as I protested those interests running amok. All of us sensed that we were fighting for survival, but these women, especially the beautiful young Athabasca woman from tarsands ground zero, were on the front lines.

The most effective speaker was Van Jones, who had charisma, energy, and focus. His most memorable statement was to tell Obama that all of the good things he might accomplish would be undone by climate chaos if he did not act to stop the tarsands carbon bomb; that in 20 years the world would remember his decision on the Keystone pipeline. He ended his talk by repeating to a crowd who had overwhelmingly voted for the president, “Dont' be chumped.” Indeed, we were all there to press the silver-tongued orator for a deed worthy of his words.

During the speeches, as I surveyed those around me, I returned repeatedly to Isaac's face, the elder teen-aged son of the Arthur Morgan School co-clerk. He was totallly absorbed, and a couple of times he looked like he was about to cry. I remembered going to an Obama rally with my son Jacob in the first campaign. He cried as he heard the passionate words of the “first presidential candidate in my lifetime that I really wanted to vote for.” Now we were all out in the cold trying to push a reluctant President to live up to the promise of that first campaign.

When we started to march, the energy really began to build, with drummers pounding out a beat as we stomped our feet to shake off frostbite. Our little group was marching in front of the Ecosocialist Contingent, their banner reading “System Change Not Climate Change.” These young men were full of enthusiasm and led some fine chants. It was a diverse crowd, all the ends of the spectrum in the climate war represented by faces of hope, courage, and toughness. There were children, too, who looked cold and tired more than anything else.

After rounding the corner past the White House, which was cold and forbidding, black-clad snipers prowling the roof, I spotted my friend Roy holding one end of the Quaker Earthcare Witness banner. Holding the other pole was a fellow Quaker, but not a member of QEW. He passed it on to me, and Roy and I carried the banner from then on. Though several QEW members had planned to join forces with the faith contingent at the beginning of the march, Roy had ended up alone. When the marshalls halted the march for a videographer to take some pictures from the front, we walked ahead, turning to faced the crowd as they returned to our starting point on the north side of the Mall. Our reception was truly gratifying, with many folks stopping to honor us in namaste, many introducing themselves as Quakers.

On the busride back, some of us discussed what we thought the President would decide about the pipeline. Most of us were skeptical. We had just learned that Obama was golfing in Florida with Tiger Woods and some oil company executives  while we chanted in front of the White House. Was this a deliberate message, or just high irony? Are we being “chumped,” as Van Jones warned? It looks more and more like we are. If the President doesn't do everything in his power to turn back the tide of climate catastrophe, then being chumped, offensive as it may be, is the least of our problems. Bill McKibben looked out at us with fierce satisfaction, saying we had become a movement. I pray he is right, but one big rally does not define a movement. A determined, disciplined movement with massive broadspread support exerting continuing pressure is what we need now to convince politicians to change course on climate policy. We must build it quickly.

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