The student-led protest was a dramatic demonstration of the youth climate movement’s growing resolve—and its sense of solidarity.
A middle-aged white guy named Al Smith walked past me down the hallway of the crowded Thurgood Marshall Center in Washington last Saturday. He stood out with his long blond hair under a gray knit-wool hat, grizzled and graying beard and tattoos covering his forearms. The back of his dark hooded sweatshirt bore the face of a wildcat in black and white, the logo of the Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands, also known as MICATS.
Smith was talking to one of his comrades on a cell phone as he passed. “What does he look like?” He was referring to me, another middle-aged white guy with graying stubble but short cropped hair, a Red Sox cap and a navy J Crew sweater.
In fact Smith and I both stood out in the crowd. The place was teeming with hundreds of energized and determined college students and recent grads from more than forty states and 100 schools, assembled for a training in nonviolent direct action. The next morning, Sunday, March 2, more than 1,200 young people would march from Georgetown University down Pennsylvania Avenue to Lafayette Park and the gates of the White House, where nearly 400 of them would be arrested for peaceful civil disobedience protesting the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline and Barack Obama’s lack of seriousness on climate change. The student-led protest, dubbed XL Dissent, would be the largest one-day civil disobedience action at the White House in a generation. In a show of solidarity, the student organizers had invited Smith and his MICATS comrades Chris Wahmhoff and Jarret Schlaff, along with others from frontline communities fighting tar sands extraction and pipelines, to join the march and speak at the rally in Lafayette Park.
Smith’s presence that weekend had a special significance. His wife, Vicci Hamlin, was one of three women, known as the MICATS 3, facing two to three years in prison on felony charges after locking themselves to construction equipment last July in a peaceful protest against the expansion of the Enbridge Line 6B tar sands pipeline—the same one that ruptured in 2010, spilling catastrophically into the Kalamazoo River. On March 5, Hamlin, a 60-year-old great-grandmother, and her MICATS sisters Lisa Leggio, 35, and Barb Carter, 22, woud be sentenced—having already spent over a month in jail since their conviction on January 31. A petition with 60,000 signatures was delivered to the judge pleading for leniency. Perhaps it had some effect: on Wednesday, to great relief, the three were sentenced to time served and thirteen months probation and were released.
But on Saturday in Washington, Al didn’t know what to expect, and was bracing for the worst. “There’s no human being I respect more,” Al told me, speaking of Vicci, a lifelong activist who most recently worked at a shelter for abused women. “The one human being I believe should never be in jail. She has done nothing but love and care for people.”
I asked him why he and Vicci were protesting tar sands pipelines, whether TransCanada’s Keystone XL or the Enbridge Line 6B. “We had a strong emotional response to the Alberta tar sands,” he said. “We both believe that our survival, and the survival of life on the planet, really is at risk. And when we found out the way the indigenous people [in Alberta] are being treated, we were mad. We were angry.”
Al, who is 50, grew up near Boston, in Revere, Massachusetts, and has the accent to prove it. “I was never an activist, never thought I’d be an activist,” he said. “I was an IV drug addict for many years, and in recovery I kind of woke up that everything isn’t about me, and I started praying in a Native American way.” He and Vicci got involved with Occupy Chicago, which he says was “a very healing experience.” Now the MICATS community is like another family to them. “They’ve taught me about unity,” he said. “About what it means to really love your friends.”
I asked him what he thought about the XL Dissent action the next day. “An action like this,” he said, “the fact that these students come here, fired up and passionate, and full of love and excitement and energy—it fills me with hope. It’s gonna take all of us. We have to put our differences aside and stand together. We really do. It means the world to me that they’re doing this. I love ‘em.” He said Vicci had called him from jail, and she was excited about it. “It means the world to her.”
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The fact that Al Smith and his fellow MICATS members were there at XL Dissent, with a prominent role at the Lafayette Park rally, speaks volumes about how the student organizers viewed their action at the White House. Along with indigenous activists from Canada and the US whose communities are threatened by tar sands and other extreme fossil-fuel extraction, the MICATS were there to send the message that the Keystone fight has always been about more than one pipeline. It’s about everything Keystone XL represents—from the poisoning of land, water, and air in frontline communities from Alberta to Texas, where the southern leg of Keystone XL is already built and operating, to the unbridled expansion of fossil fuels driving this generation of young people toward an unstable, possibly unlivable, climate future.
Varshini Prakash, a junior at UMass-Amherst and one of the student organizers, gave an impassioned speech at the pre-march rally at Georgetown. The urgency of the climate crisis, she said, “means we’re not compromising. We don’t want half-baked solutions. We can’t gamble with false promises. We won’t settle for an ‘all-of-the-above’ energy policy when what this looming crisis demands is a ‘none-of-the-above’ approach to fossil fuels.” She challenged her generation of young people to “stand with each other, march in the streets, put your bodies on the line, resist!…Right here, right now, it starts with stopping the Keystone XL pipeline.”
The week before the action, I sat down with Tufts University junior Evan Bell in Davis Square near the Tufts campus. Evan is one of XL Dissent’s core organizers, along with Columbia student Michael Greenberg, Smith student Aly Johnson-Kurts and Tulane student Nick Stracco. For the past year, Evan has been immersed in climate organizing with the New England campus network Students for a Just and Stable Future, which sent busloads of students to DC for XL Dissent. For many of them, including Evan and the other organizers, it would be their first civil disobedience. And while the legal risk was small—they were arrested for blocking passage in front of the White House, fined and released that same evening—it was nevertheless a significant step for him and hundreds of other young people, an on-ramp to more and higher-stakes resistance to come.
“As a movement,” he said, “we’ve been high on rhetoric and low on action.” XL Dissent had already taken flack from some quarters, he said, “for being just another White House protest.”
One of the main goals of XL Dissent, Evan said, was “radicalizing the student movement to be able to take real and more meaningful action than a White House protest.” The goal was “to bring as many young people together as possible and force them to think about things, to see what it means to be a climate activist and what it means to address climate change—taking this on and making it real. And that involves every bit of the frontline activism that’s been going on.”
Of course XL Dissent was never just another White House protest. It was something new: a dramatic demonstration of the youth climate movement’s growing power and resolve. You had to be there. The sheer size, intensity, and noise of the march from Georgetown and the action at the White House fence represented a new and escalated tone and energy. Several older and experienced climate organizers agreed it was unlike anything they’d seen. These “kids” meant business. And Democrats, who need young voters this year and in 2016, would be fools to ignore them.
“We’re saying to Obama, ‘young people voted you in, but you failed us. If you approve Keystone, we’re taking back our vote,’” Evan said. “Climate change isn’t the change we voted for. He said in a speech that he’s proud of building enough pipeline to encircle the earth and then some. We didn’t vote for that. We didn’t vote for Keystone. I mean, Keystone South is already built. It’s ludicrous!”
“So it’s not just, ‘Obama, do the right thing,’” Evan went on. “It’s like, ‘Obama, you failed us up to this point. So you do this, or get out of the way and we’ll do it ourselves.’ The inaction on the part of Obama and the system in general is what’s making civil disobedience necessary…. It’s shameful that we would have to do civil disobedience to stop the climate crisis. It is absolutely horrifying.”
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That anger and intensity, while steadfastly nonviolent—hundreds of students chanted “I love you!” to the police preparing to arrest them at the White House—represents a generational truth that may be finally starting to dawn on the political world. For these young people, the climate crisis is their future, their lives. This is where the intensity comes from, and it’s why so many of these young people see themselves in solidarity with frontline communities from Alberta to Texas to Michigan, and all around the world. Their predicament represents another kind of front line: the generational one.
“Many of us who are organizing XL Dissent, we have so much to learn about climate justice,” Aly Johnson-Kurts told me the week before the action. “Those of us who are core organizers are all, you know, white and privileged college students. We have a lot to learn.”
Climate justice usually means addressing the disproportionate impacts of climate change on the poorest and most vulnerable, most often communities of color, and the structural inequalities at their roots. And yet, I wondered if perhaps her entire generation and those younger have the right to some kind of climate justice of their own—a kind of intergenerational justice—given that those who’ve done the most to create the crisis won’t live to see the major impacts expected later this century, while many people her age and younger will.
“That’s a huge part of this action,” Aly said. “Young people are realizing that we have a huge stake in protecting the climate for our future.”
Does that mean she feels solidarity with those on the front lines? I asked. Is this a solidarity action?
“I want to say yes,” she said. “Yes, we’re in solidarity with folks fighting tar sands and doing environmental justice work. But then, what does that mean? In solidarity, yes, we want to elevate those struggles and help bring our privilege to those struggles—and engage with them and recognize that our future is tied to their future, as young people especially.”
At the training on Saturday night, I put the same question to Al Smith, who the next day marched up front with the students, holding aloft a painted portrait of Vicci, Lisa, and Barb with the words “Free the MICATS 3.”
“This is one example of what love looks like,” Al told me. “When people show up, people put their time and their resources and their heart into something, that’s solidarity. When there’s a level of respect and appreciation and honor for what both groups do, that’s solidarity. Yeah, it’s an easy word to say. I don’t know what it means to most people. To me, it means love.”