by Whit Jones, Campaign Director, Energy Action Coalition
Late Thursday night close to 50 people descended on the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, DC. We were there for one reason: #OccupyStateDept.
It was the eve of the final State Department public hearing on the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline, and news was breaking about the corrosive influence that big oil and TransCanada were having on the State Department's deliberative process. We had heard reports from other hearings across the country that big corporations and their front groups were bussing in people, paying line-sitters, and skirting the rules to try to dominate the hearing process.
It was clear that Big Oil was once again going to try to flood the political process, using their financial muscle to drown out the voices of people across the country who oppose this disastrous pipeline. So we decided if Big Oil was going to try to flood this process, we would occupy it.
As we've seen with Occupy demonstrations across the country, the act of simply claiming space can be very powerful and draw to light critical issues with our political process. So we would #OccupyStateDept starting the night before the hearing and hold spots in line to ensure indigenous, faith and environmental leaders from across the country could testify.
On Thursday night we set-up. Around 50 of us. George Mason's Environmental Action Group came out in force and with food for 40, so we prepared to settle in and get ready for the long night ahead. But it wasn't as easy as we hoped. First security came and told us that though this was a public building we weren't allowed to be there. We explained that we had checked with the building in advance and had been told the building was open and that we could line up. So then they sent in the Department of Homeland Security... over a dozen officers stormed into the area where we were sitting, and demanded we leave. Again we asserted our right to be there. We were determined, and after lots of negotiation with the police our right to be in the building was upheld and we were told that we were allowed to stay for the night!
So once again we settled in, telling stories of our organizing efforts, and hashing plans for the future. We unrolled our sleeping bags, and caught glimpses of sleep.
And in the morning, it all became worth it. As hundreds of people started lining up, many of them lobbyists for oil companies and other big corporations, we held the first 45 of 50 speaking slots, and had many more down the line.
The result: incredible testimony from courageous people across the country standing up: indigenous leaders, faith leaders, ranchers, former generals, olympic athletes, youth leaders and more. For the first 3 hours of the hearing we heard incredibly moving testimony on the multitudes of reasons to reject this pipeline.
And we were heard. Not just in the hearing room, but around the world. Bloomberg News reported that "TransCandada Pipeline Foes to Camp Out Before U.S. Hearing. And Huffington Post, Reuters, The Guardian, AP, LA Times and more covered our efforts.
Our actions are having a major impact. Last Friday the frontpage story on CNN.com was called Environmental 'gut check time' for Obama? and chronicled Energy Action Coalition Co-Director Courtney Hight's journey from the Obama campaign to White House staffer to joining over 1200 getting arrested in front of the White House. The top story on Google News for a number of hours was a story on Environmentalists Joining The 'Occupy Wall Street' Fray, and the Washington Post reported on all these actions (including the great youth-led rally in St. Louis" to say the Keystone XL pipeline becomes a political headache for White House. We're forcing the issue with the administration and bringing it to light for the American public. As our movement grows, and works more with Occupy Wall Street, I can't wait to see what happens.
The next big day for the Tar Sands Action: November 6th. We're trying something never done before: encircling the White House to call on President Obama to reject the pipeline. RSVP and invite your friends!
Ethan Nuss: "I stood in line 14 hours to testify today, and a month ago I sacrificed my civil liberties to participate in a peaceful sit-in at the White House, and was arrested for those actions. I did this because my future is at stake. The future of my generation rests with today's State Department." (Photo Credit: Josh Lopez)
Quentin James, National Director of the Sierra Student Coalition, fires up the crowd at the #OccupyStateDept rally (Video by: ishcfolkfan)