These days it seems you can’t be a real environmentalist without a rap sheet. At least, not if you’re part of climate activist Bill McKibben’s gang. His anti-Keystone XL Pipeline group, Tar Sands Action, spent the last two weeks staging daily sit-ins on the sidewalk directly in front of the White House in protest of the proposed pipeline that will run from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast. But sitting on the White House sidewalk is illegal, as McKibben and his crew well knew. An estimated 1,252 demonstrators were arrested during the sit-ins, including McKibben, actress Daryl Hannah, and NASA climate scientist James Hansen.
Many environmentalist groups, like McKibben and his followers, argue that the pipeline will do little to lessen our dependence on foreign oil. Moreover, getting to the tar sands often requires open pit mining, and extracting the bitumen can be an energy-intensive process. But with the current unemployment rate holding at 9.1 percent, the Keystone Pipeline project has the potential to be an attractive economic stimulus. The TransCanada website references a study by the Perryman Group that suggests the pipeline could stimulate “more than $585 million in state and local taxes in the states along the pipeline route.” The Perryman Group also estimates that “the permanent increase in stable oil supplies the Keystone Gulf Coast Expansion pipeline creates will add more than 250,000 permanent jobs for U.S. workers.”
The Tar Sands Action demonstrations culminated in a rally on Saturday afternoon. 243 people were arrested in the sit-in earlier that morning, and I arrived before the last batch was carted off in paddy wagons.
The police had set up barricades in front of Lafayette Square Park to keep protesters from crossing the street to the White House sidewalk. A handful of young people had brought drums and saxophones and trumpets and were playing Paul Simon’s “Cecilia,” having altered the lyrics to be about the pipeline. Some slogans were decent (“Frack is Wack”); others just couldn’t catch on (“Let us be the generation that finally frees America from the tyranny of oil.”—A good use of an Obama quote, but bad rhythmically).
Despite the requisite shouting and chanting, this was not a hostile bunch. At one point, an older man approached the barricade and asked a policeman on the other side what he could do to get arrested.
The more unnecessarily dramatic a protester became, the more it seemed they had missed the point entirely.
“You’re too late,” the cop replied. “That part’s over now.”
“What if I broke down the barricade? Would you arrest me then?”
Another protester immediately scolded him. “Don’t do that,” she said. “This isn’t that kind of rally.”
Eventually, a couple demonstrators with megaphones began initiating a call-and-response with the protesters sitting across the street (“When I say ‘climate,’ you say ‘justice’!”).
I approached a woman at the front of the crowd and asked her if she knew any of the arrested demonstrators.
“Yes,” she responded, “my 20 year-old daughter.”
Of course, I thought. Getting arrested at a sit-in is the kind of thing a bleeding-heart college kid would love. It’s sensational, exciting. But only on the surface. Certainly many demonstrators believed getting arrested for their cause was a noble effort. But it also seems a terrible waste of energy. Can’t we imagine a different kind of civil disobedience that doesn’t involve people sitting idly behind bars and misusing law enforcement manpower? These kinds of radical gestures run the risk of being more theatre than civil disobedience. Similarly, during the Wisconsin protests earlier this year, some argued that the huge mob that descended on the Madison capital building did more to disrupt democracy than promote it. Suddenly the chaos and spectacle of the situation overshadows logical argument. If garnering attention was the protestors’ only goal, then, sure, this two-week exhibition was successful. But will Obama strike down the Keystone XL Pipeline proposal when it finally lands on his desk because of Tar Sands Action?
This afternoon I received a newsletter from the group explaining their upcoming “battle plan.” I quote at length:
“We’re still planning something big for October 7th or 8th… First, we need to tell the story of what just happened in Washington by meeting with folks in our communities to talk about our experiences. This could be as simple as a small gathering in your home, or as elaborate as you’d like… Second, all around the country, people will be going to Obama campaign offices in polite but firm fashion to remind him that we took him seriously—that he shouldn’t have said it if he didn’t mean it.”
There’s still not much to go on here; it looks disorganized, half-assed. A “small gathering in your home” is like the environmentalist version of a prayer circle. It’s little more than talk. Without a concrete plan beyond vague suggestions of get-togethers and “something big,” beyond people literally asking to be arrested, what can this movement do other than make a show of itself?
Much of the rally’s attendees seemed driven by this kind of sensationalism. They cheered “Thank you! Thank you!” as the police loaded the last of the sit-in protestors into trucks. One man had even painted his arms and legs black and wore a body suit covered in white feathers (a tarred-and-feathered symbol of America?). In fact, the more unnecessarily dramatic a protester became, the more it seemed they had missed the point entirely. Before I left I heard a woman turn to her husband and stage whisper, “This is just like watching videos of Jews being rounded up and hauled off.”
Hmm. Not quite.