350.org, The Sierra Club and The Hip Hop Caucus organized the largest environmental protest in US history, on February 17th, 2013, with attendance estimated at 40,000 plus. The event was held on a frigid (sub-freezing) day, limiting attendance from climbing still higher. The immediate goal was to encourage President Obama to refuse permission on construction of the XL Pipeline, and more generally to increase awareness of environmental concerns. I attended this event along with several local activists from the Saint Louis metro area, and would like to share some personal observations.
Several of us signed up to be volunteer marshals at the event, attending a training the day prior to the event at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, arriving early and leaving late. We were instructed on proper methods of handling hecklers, to pass on instructions and encouragement to the participants and provide what organization is possible on such a large and diverse group of people. Our reward for playing this role was a yellow stocking cap marking us as a marshal. I found this role rewarding if occasionally trying.
The rally consisted of moving speeches by Bill McKibben, US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, Van Jones, and Native American activist Chief Jacqueline Thomas, who expressed a willingness to fight the XL pipeline with absolutely every possible means, even giving their lives if called to. Each speaker met a resounding response from those attending with popular support from all those present. The messages focused particularly on holding President Obama accountable for the decision he will be making on granting permission for the Keystone Pipeline to begin construction across areas of the US with vital aquifers that are highly vulnerable to damage from oil spills.
After the speeches, we began the actual march around the blocks, which the White House sits on, providing a chance to interact and observe the crowd. Though the weather was cold and windy, the chill became much more noticeable once the crowd began to spread out and fill the streets. Despite our training on how to deal with hecklers, there was no one to practice these great anti-heckling skills on – probably too cold for them. People I talked to were from all over the nation with particular emphasis on the East Coast, though some came from California, Washington and other western states.
There was a plethora of homemade signs, even though the organizers provided signs for participants. A personal favorite was a sign, which read, “I’m so mad I made a sign”. You can always count on participants to come up with better sign material than the organizers! The costumed participants included a bald eagle and a polar bear, who both garnered much attention.
The mix of people struck me as healthy with a fair showing by those with a lot of experience (also known as the gray hairs) in this type of protests and young people from colleges and even children with their parents. I noticed that the mix of ethnicities also looked pretty healthy – it would be difficult to pinpoint any dominant group.
The eye catchers in the crowd included the bucket drummers, who kept up a steady tempo for the marchers who happened to be near them. There was also a contingent of dancers who appeared to have way too much energy on a cold and blustery day, even after walking a good mile. One group was burning sage to purify the air and spirits of the area. I seem to remember a time when this type of protest would have called for the burning of other herbs, though the numerous park police and DC’s finest may have inhibited those types of celebration.
The most enjoyable portion of the march when we rounded the final bend and headed back to the Washington Monument. This portion of the march is downhill and gave us a magnificent view of the numbers of marchers. We were an impressive sight, with the street completely filled for almost as far as you could see. It was at this point we encountered several tourists who were non-participants. As we attempted to apologize for any inconvenience we might have caused, they responded quite favorably to the nature of our cause and general acknowledgement that protests are expected in the nation’s capitol.
The march ended the Washington Monument, with a short musical concert from Eve. The crowd had thinned by this point. with mainly younger members holding on to see the guest artist. Others stuck it out to participate in the cleanup, and they did an admirable job. We picked up almost all of the trash, leaving minimum damage to the grounds.
There is always a little let-down after such a big event, but we found ourselves still energized and eager for more. We agreed that the effort was well worth it. Before hitting the road, we ate at the Capital City Brewery. where our yellow marshal hats earned us a number of compliments for participation. Everyone we encountered was positive and felt that the rally was a big success and a great jumping off point for further actions on the environment.
To those who support the environmental cause, or any cause that is holding a protest or rally in DC, I would encourage you to take part. Writing letters and emails, etc., only goes so far.Turning out in numbers takes commitment and demonstrates a willingness to sacrifice that gets the attention of our congressmen, senators and President. You will have the opportunity to meet like-minded people from around the nation and will be rewarded with a feeling of satisfaction and encouragement that you are not alone.
On the practical side, find a hotel near the event. and do not count on finding parking. The Metro system is a great alternative to driving. DC is a navigational nightmare with one resident claiming this was on purpose to make defending the city, in its early days, easier. I believe it.