On Monday, twenty-two people peacefully obstructed the entrance to the building that houses the State Department’s offices in downtown Chicago. They were then arrested without incident.
Last week in London, several protesters were arrested inside the Parliament building after attempting to disrupt a speech by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Hundreds were arrested in 2011 for trespassing on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.
In February, former NASA climate scientists James Hansen and dozens of leaders of the environmental movement like Michael Brune of the Sierra Club were arrested in front of the White House. Some 1,252 people were arrested in front of the White House in 2011 over 15 days.
All of these people have one thing in common — they are willing to risk arrest in an attempt to stop the U.S. and Canada from building the northern leg of the tar sands-pumping Keystone XL pipeline.
Monday’s protest was particularly significant since most of the activists who walked to the State Department’s Chicago office and got arrested were former Obama campaign staff, donors, and volunteers.
Organized by CREDO Action, Rainforest Action Network, and The Other 98%, the protesters went to State Department offices because that is where the decision process currently rests as the department drafts a Final Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. The protest took place in Chicago because that is President Obama’s hometown and where he chose to locate the organization built upon his successful presidential campaign: Organizing for Action (OFA). Many of the 22 that walked to the State Department’s Chicago office and got arrested were former Obama campaign staff, donors, and volunteers.
Elijah Zarlin worked as a Senior National Email Writer on the 2008 Obama campaign for almost a year (it his t-shirt featured above, worn by many protesters on Monday, displaying President Obama’s words on his commitment to climate action) . Following the 2008 Democratic primary campaign, Zarlin told Climate Progress he remembered then-Senator Obama telling campaign staff that if they wanted to do something about climate change, they had to win the general election. “I took that to heart,” he said.
“I never thought I’d be back in Chicago to risk arrest in order to get President Obama to do the right thing on climate change,” said Zarlin, who now works for CREDO. He said he participated in the sit-in because “we haven’t seen leadership and policies to truly make an impact,” despite the president’s “commitment he made to his staff and supporters to fight climate change.” In 2011 he was part of the 1,252 people who were arrested at the White House protesting Keystone.
Becky Bond, CREDO Action’s political director, said that the protest that happened Monday was “a preview of what’s to come if [President Obama's] State Department recommends approval of the pipeline.” More than 62,000 people signed the Pledge of Resistance, which is a commitment to risking arrest “to send a message to the president that he must reject Keystone XL.”
This pledge was announced following the State Department’s release of the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, and prepares for the final statement. After that is released, the Obama Administration has 90 days to decide if the project is in the national interest. If they do, that decision triggers the pledge, which Bond said would be “the biggest burst of civil disobedience in modern American history.” Activists will prepare with trainings on how to approach local disobedience.
The protesters have a sense that the usual avenues of activism are inadequate and more people have shown a willingness to do anything within their means to get the administration to understand the serious climate consequences of allowing a pipeline like this to be constructed.
A recent OFA fact sheet suggests that activists wait until President Obama makes a decision on Keystone:
“If people believe that Keystone XL is the primary fight to be engaged in, there are many groups who have taken a position, and we are happy to make suggestions about who volunteers might work with on that or other issues.
OFA sees climate as a broader issue than just Keystone. Ivan Frishberg, who runs the organization’s climate change campaign said: “Keystone is one decision, and it’s a big one. But it’s not the only one.” But if President Obama decides that the Keystone pipeline is in the national interest, the activists at OFA dedicated to organizing around the President’s agenda and the activists who have put their bodies on the line over Keystone will find themselves in conflict.