Hundreds of Students Arrested Outside White House at Keystone XL Pipeline Protest

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Loudly denouncing the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline, about 1,000 people — most of them students — marched from Georgetown to the White House Sunday. Once there, hundreds fastened themselves to the fence outside the White House, while hundreds more stood with them, waiting to be arrested. By the end of the day, roughly 400 had been taken into custody.

Their message for President Obama: Our demographic helped vote you into office, and we oppose the pipeline. Do you stand with your constituents, or do you stand with the fossil fuel industry and its legion of lobbyists?

“The president is the decision-maker. The ball’s in his court. We really have to make it clear to him that it’s his decision — and if he makes that decision, that’s on his shoulders,” said Brian Thompson, who traveled to DC from the University of Vermont.

Bill McKibben of 350.org on Why the White House Wants to Approve Keystone
The protest came within a month of two controversial State Department reports on the TransCanada pipeline, which would carry 830,000 barrels of crude oil from the Alberta tar sands in Canada to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast every day. The first report found that regardless of whether the US government allows the pipeline to be constructed, Canada’s tar sands oil will be extracted and burnt, and, thus, the pipeline itself will not significantly hasten climate change. The second report found no conflict of interest in the first, even though the contractor who prepared it had previously done work for TransCanada, the company behind the pipeline.

The protest — called “XL Dissent” — was organized by students at a number of colleges with support from environmental and activism groups, including Bill McKibben’s 350.org, the Energy Action Coalition and DC Action Lab. Many of the student groups that traveled to the protest originally formed to encourage their school administrations to divest from fossil fuels, another rallying issue for 350.org.

Aly Johnson-Kurts, left, a Vermont coordinator with 350.org, speaks with other protest organizers as students march toward the White House. (Photo: John Light)

Aly Johnson-Kurts, left, a Vermont coordinator with 350.org, speaks with other protest organizers as students march toward the White House. (Photo: John Light)

The turnout at the protest surprised even the event’s organizers. “This is way more than we expected at the beginning. It spiraled beyond anything we could have imagined,” said Aly Johnson-Kurts, a Vermont coordinator with 350.org who is taking time off from Smith College. Over 80 colleges from 42 states, from Louisiana to Maine, were represented. A separate, West Coast demonstration — “XL Dissent West” — took place in San Francisco on Monday: About 100 people — mostly students from Bay Area schools — attempted to occupy the State Department building in San Francisco, but guards locked the doors before most of them were able to enter. Nine students managed to get in, and were arrested after occupying the building for about an hour.

“I think the movement has done a really amazing job bringing together activists and environmentalists from all over the country,” said University of Pennsylvania student Emily Belshaw, who marched in DC holding a large, papier mâché Mother Earth designed by Spiral Q puppet theater in Philadelphia. “In the next couple months I’d like to see a continuing bond throughout the country between environmentalists at colleges, bringing youth together.”

University of Pennsylvania student Emily Belshaw, holds a papier mâché Earth, designed by Spiral Q puppet theater in Philadelphia, at the Keystone XL Pipeline protest. (Photo: John Light)

University of Pennsylvania student Emily Belshaw holds a papier mâché Earth, designed by Spiral Q puppet theater in Philadelphia, at the Keystone XL pipeline protest. (Photo: John Light)

Belshaw chose not to get arrested, because she needed to accompany the Earth puppet at all times.

The marchers gathered on Georgetown University’s campus and marched from there through a sleepy residential neighborhood, pausing outside Secretary of State John Kerry’s house and then continuing toward the White House through wide commercial avenues, blocking traffic on their way. Once there, students used plastic zip ties to strap themselves to the fence outside the president’s mansion. Others, lacking zip ties, stood with them, leaning against the fence. About 30 students spread out a large, black piece of plastic — an “oil spill” — on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the fence, and lay down in it. Reporters and photographers from an array of media organizations — Politico, Reuters, The Washington Post — jotted notes and snapped photos.

As police gave a series of warnings to clear the area or be arrested, students chanted, urging Obama to reject the pipeline, and sang songs, many of them harkening back to the civil rights movement and other social movements of the previous century — “This Little Light of Mine,” “We Shall Overcome.” After five warnings, police officers and SWAT team members began arresting students.

The mood was, for the most part, genial. “We love you,” students chanted to the officers, who in some cases checked that the students had ID cards before cuffing them. One officer brought a student a jacket, another shook hands with a protestor waiting to be arrested.

But the arrests took four hours, during which time the temperature dropped and it started to sleet — the cusp of the storm that paralyzed DC Monday — as students continued to chant their message for Obama.

Brian Thompson, from University of Vermont, and Sydney Katz, from Hampshire College, at Georgetown University, before marching to the White House. (Photo: John Light)

Brian Thompson, from University of Vermont, and Sydney Katz, from Hampshire College, at Georgetown University, before marching to the White House. (Photo: John Light)

“I hope Obama will reject the Keystone pipeline, and set a precedent for rejecting fossil fuel infrastructure projects on the basis of climate,” said Johnson-Kurts. “This is our future we’re talking about, and it’s on the line with every fossil fuel project that he approves.”

Brian Thompson, from University of Vermont, and Sydney Katz, a student at Hampshire College, wore yellow shirts at the DC action showing a blazing sun and reading, “As the heat rises, so do we!” The two knew each other from growing up in Oakland, Calif., where months of drought followed recently by days of rain and mudslides may be evidence of the planet’s increasingly extreme climate. “It’s all connected — the drought in California, the flooding in England,” said Thompson. “It’s all part of the big picture.”

John Light is a writer and journalist sometimes based in New York. He writes a lot about climate policy, both inside and outside of the US. He was a former associate digital producer for Moyers & Company. His work has been supported by grants from The Nation Institute Investigative Fund and the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia Awards, and has been included in ProPublica's #MuckReads collection. You can follow him on Twitter at @LightTweeting.
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