Not long ago, the weekend of March 1, I got arrested. It was one of the proudest moments of my life. I went peacefully, telling the arresting officer my name and waiting while he secured my hands behind my back with plastic, zip-tie handcuffs. He led me to a line where I was told to remember my number, “three thirty-two.” I was the 332nd person arrested in front of the White House last Sunday in an act of peaceful civil disobedience to object to the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry tar sands oil from Alberta down to the Gulf Coast.
My day of protest began more than eight hours earlier in Georgetown University’s Red Square. I joined over 1,000 students from across the country and began a march to the White House in an event we called XL Dissent. We wanted to make it as clear as possible to President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry, upon whose shoulders the Keystone XL permit rests, that we do not want this pipeline. This pipeline is not in our national interest. Moreover, this pipeline is not in the interest of the people of color and the impoverished people it would disproportionately affect. We are willing to lay our future on the line to stop this pipeline.
We thronged through the streets of Georgetown, leaving a black, shining tarp on the steps of John Kerry’s house with the message, “Don’t tar your legacy, stop KXL.” From there we marched the rest of the two miles through downtown D.C. to Lafayette Square, directly across the street from the White House. Here we were addressed by a series of speakers attesting to the destructive potential of the Keystone XL pipeline. One of the speakers was Chris Wahmhoff, a Michigan resident from Kalamazoo, who held his fist high in the air, displaying a chunk of solidified tar sands oil he had pulled out of the Kalamazoo River. It was left over from a pipeline similar to KXL that ruptured and polluted the river four years ago. The damage from the spill can still be seen today, even after a multi-million-dollar clean up. He was followed by Jasmine Thomas, who spoke of the impact tar sands would have on the water resources of her Saik’uz First Nation’s land in British Columbia. Next, a university student stood up and reminded everyone of Obama’s promises to protect the environment and our future. I poured hours into volunteering for the Obama campaign and enthusiastically casted my vote for him in the last election. If he allows this pipeline he will no longer be a symbol of hope and positive change to me, but instead one of betrayal, broken trust and a bleak future. Finally, a call to action was given, and our protest escalated.
Hundreds of students, some brandishing zip ties, others clad in oil-covered hazmat suits and one in a Captain Planet costume, rushed across the street to set up camp in Obama’s front yard. A 40-foot by 60-foot black tarp was rolled out across the sidewalk and street to symbolize an oil spill, and protestors flung their bodies down on it to represent the deaths Keystone XL would bring through its impacts on public health, including increased incidence of asthma and cancer. Others, myself included, found a spot along the iron fence surrounding the White House and fastened our wrists to the metal.
While the police secured the area and read us procedural warnings, we chanted for climate justice and called for Obama to reject the pipeline. Two hours later, they declared that we were all under arrest and began to handcuff people. At this point, the cheering and singing only got louder. As I watched the police load my peers into paddy wagons, I was sure we were doing the right thing. Even as students preparing to enter the workforce, the Keystone pipeline poses a far greater threat to our future than an arrest on our permanent record.
At the end of the day, 398 of us were arrested. Our reasons were manifold. Some had at the front of their mind the impact a Keystone spill could have on the massive aquifer that provides water for cropland in the Midwest. Many were standing up for the communities like Port Arthur, Texas, where people of color would be disproportionately put at risk for cancer as a consequence of the emissions from the refineries. Some people thought of the land they were bullied into giving up across the Midwest. Others did it to stop the effect such an operation would have on the climate. I did it with the symbolic potential of Keystone XL in mind. If Obama rejects the permit it will send the message that America can still be a leader on environmental issues. That we can, and will, take the necessary steps to combat climate change, to fight pollution and to build a clean energy future, regardless of what the fossil fuel industry has to say.
I realize that my action was one taken from a place of privilege; I had the resources to risk getting arrested. I made the decision I felt was most appropriate in my circumstance, though I acknowledge it had its flaws. Our protest lacked the voices of the underprivileged, lacked the voices of the frontline communities and relied on the highly educated, who would likely feel the tar sands pipeline’s impact the least. Even so, I wanted to help in whatever capacity I could, so I joined XL Dissent.
With this in mind, I was proud when after six hours in the cold rain, I was cut down from the fence and put into custody. I was proud that I took action for a cause I believe in. I was proud that our protest would be covered by The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune. And I was proud as I was taken away from the front steps of the White House in handcuffs, knowing Obama might finally hear my concern.
Jacob Kornfeld is an LSA sophomore.