Observations from Yesterday’s Tar Sands Action Event at the White House

When I arrived at Lafayette Park yesterday around 1:30, the place was already filled with people and sparkling with energy and sunshine. Small impromptu parades started up within the park – one from the Ohio contingent snaked toward the stage where the speakers started around 2. I found myself standing next to Margot Kidder who was holding her big “Montana Women” sign and on her phone trying to find her companions. The sign attracted some young smiling Montana folks who exchanged hometowns as people do when they meet those from the same state.

Two veteran Tar Sands Action organizers, Joshua Kahn Russell and @lightthematch came up to talk with Margot and confessed they didn’t know whether the whole “encircling the White House” idea would work when they first proposed it weeks ago. But after the 8000th sign up the day before and the obviously huge (and orange) crowd now jostling around them, they were animated with confidence.

Photo by Josh Lopez

The audience responded to those on the stage with a mixture of cheers, applause and the now-familiar “fluttering fingers” of Occupy Wall Street. When NRDC founder John Adams’ mic ran into some technical trouble, the speech moved seamlessly and boisterously to the human mic. Lakota Nation Vice President Tom Poor Bear spoke movingly about the simple need to care for “our mother” as intermittent autumn leaves drifted down on the rapt crowd. My favorite speech (that I caught, anyway) was from Naomi Klein who addressed my own irritation about the media’s incessant and lazy “jobs vs. the environment” mantra and talked about the bi-national nature of the movement.

“I’m so sick of this nonsense about how we are the jobs killers, and the whole old outdated paradigm pitting the environmental movement against the labor movement,” Klein said during the rally. “We need to join with our allies in the labor movement to re-invent the economy from the ground up because this economic system is failing everyone on multiple levels.”

(It’s funny she mentioned this because it also occurred to me on the bus ride there that it might be time for the environmental movement to do more strident outreach to unions. One idea that came to mind would be to have leaders of the AFL-CIO, the BlueGreen Alliance, unions both in support of and against the pipeline–in this case–have a meeting to vent concerns, solutions, etc. Surely we could come up with something, some common ground, by hashing things out? Anyway…)

Bill McKibben organized everyone into three groups from the stage and we shuffled away to begin circling the White House (my group heading toward the Treasury Department). Students in front of me were dancing what I’ll call “light-stick-rave-style” while the middle aged folks laughed. One young woman threw little packages of Oreos to whoever wanted them. Millennials seem to attend demonstrations like this with such good-spirited, bright-eyed matter-of-factness. I get little sense of a “counterculture” with this generation – within their cohort, it’s actually widely self-evident to care about this stuff.

Photo by Amy Dewan
Photo by Kzyin

We didn’t get far before receiving word that 12,000 of us made it all the way around. We formed two relatively straight lines and I linked arms on my left with a man from Texas who’d been imprisoned in California during the Vietnam War as a conscientious objector. A woman who used to lobby for various environmental causes told us she’d never seen a demonstration with such positive, strong energy before and she attributed it to the young people.

We slowly wandered back to the park for the final rally. I stood under a Gingko tree listening to the last few speakers and spotting many familiar faces walking among the clumps of people relaxing on the lawn. The ever-vigilant cornfingers were back at their posts, dancing above the crowd. Walking back to the Metro, all the pedestrians seemed to be wearing orange vests. This movement had clearly gained momentum since August.

Photo by Shadia Fayne Wood

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