When I heard the news that the Keystone XL pipeline had finally been rejected my first thought was “It’s about damn time!” I rushed to a computer to peruse articles in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the BBC, Politico, everywhere I turned was buzzing with updates from our unlikely narrative. An update of our resounding victory and the power that every single one of you has within. But this is simply one small part of this remarkable tale. In order to fully understand what we have just accomplished we must go back to where it began...
We all had a choice. Calls for action bombard our inboxes every day asking for help protecting whales in the Pacific Ocean, for help defending the actions of the EPA, for help shutting down coal plants across the nation. The list is a scroll unfurling dispassionately. But somehow, a simple action alert about the enigmatic Tar Sands sparked a wave of solidarity that has united the environmental movement in unprecedented ways. I remember when I first heard mumblings of a mass demonstration in front of the White House. A demonstration of civil disobedience telling a story of solidarity, of urgency, of solemnity. Every day, for two weeks, in the waning days of summer we built a fire for Obama to see. It all started with that first choice that 1,252 brave arrestees made. I am proud to say that I was one of them.
From here we continued to build the fire with OFA office visits and protests scheduled outside of his speaking engagements. As summer faded into fall, we never wanted Obama to feel the cool autumn wind. At Obama’s first speech since the sit-ins, we made sure we were there for him. A good friend of mine, Caroline Hansley, had organized a protest at the University of Richmond where he embarked on his jobs bill campaign. Only one short week after I had been arrested by the gates of the White House, I was standing amongst thousands of Obama’s supporters with 10 other students spelling out ‘NO PIPELINE’ for all to see. Each person that walked out of the sporting complex that day saw our message. We stood solemnly as the crowd pointed and took pictures on their way out. Several people came up to us and thanked us; there were cheers of 'stop the pipeline' amidst a general humming of departure. I knew it was only a matter of time.
After this first showing at Obama’s speech we followed him like devoted roadies across the US. But it wasn’t just the issue that was following him, the banner we used at the University of Richmond also joined each group as over a dozen insignias, representing people and places, were added to the upper left corner. Each new mark on the banner, each OFA visit, each phone call, each letter, each petition was just one more log on the fire. Obama began to notice the fire that was warming him but was apprehensive to turn towards it. But we had something big planned for him that he couldn’t ignore.
A little over two months after the sit-ins first occurred, we came back home, back to where it all began. But this time we did not come ready to bear chains around our wrists. Instead we came to make a human chain by joining hands and encircle the White House in our hope. Over ten thousand of us who had been pouring our hope into Obama for months came together to let our President know that we were there for him. I stood with all of my closest friends, holding hands, and singing ‘we are the change’. Four days after we surrounded his home Obama had no choice but to acknowledge the fire we were building. He pushed back the decision for the pipeline in order to do a REAL environmental review.
Our first taste of progress was met with mixed reviews with some people asking for an outright rejection and others commending his strategic political decision. I welcomed his decision as a step forward, but not the win we were looking for. We organized our photo petitions, thanking him for his decision, but already backroom deals were being made. By the end of December Keystone was back on Obama’s plate but with a 60-day timetable. By this time it was the dead of an uncharacteristically warm winter, yet we had never stopped tending the fire. And even when it is a little warmer than usual who can resist a good, soothing fire?
Obama had no choice but to reject the pipeline.
People power, works. Civil disobedience, works. Hope, works. Together we have just brought down what insiders thought was a done deal. But it certainly is not over. Obama is going to need our support as he is going to face political backlash from Big Oil and their cronies. Republicans have already made it clear that they plan to undermine his decision. They don't understand the spark that started this. The struggle will never be over until the last barrel of oil is traded in for a ray of sunshine. Until then we have to continue to remind Obama why it is foolish to ignore a fire outside of his own home.