Pipeline Protesters Still Have Faith in Obama—for Now

They may be drawing energy and support from the Occupy movement, but these activists aren't ready to give up on the President quite yet

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A Keystone pipeline protester outside the White House on Sunday / Lois Parshley

Bill McKibben wiped his face and turned toward the sun. "I'm stunned," he said. "Three or four months ago, no one in this country had heard about the Keystone pipeline except a few people along its route. Now it's become in some ways the biggest political flashpoint of the Obama administration."


An environmental activist and organizer, Bill McKibben has helped lead the Tar Sands Action, which since August has encouraged citizens to protest the proposed pipeline. On Sunday, Tar Sands' latest action drew 10,000 people to Pennsylvania Avenue, forming a ring several people deep around the White House. People held hands, chanted, and sang. Actor Mark Ruffalo came and brought his kids. "This is the beginning of the most exciting times of the last two generations," he said. "We're seeing a massive wake up of people and their ability to have a direct part in what their future looks like."
 
Unlike the protests in August, which attracted many aging Baby Boomers, the crowd on Sunday was young, sprawled in the grass, toting bikes and playing harmonicas. Members of Occupy Wall Street had made it down from Zuccotti Park, and the newly discovered tools of that movement were employed in Layfayette Park--when the speakers weren't sufficiently loud, a "human mic" was employed to orchestrate crowd control. Terms coined by OWS -- "leaderless movement," and "the people's voice" - were bandied around. When the crowd liked something, spirit fingers waggled over people's heads, a sign of approval stolen from facilitation processes of the Wall Street General Assembly.
 
350.org, one of the primary environmental groups behind Tar Sands Action, has thrown its support behind Occupy Wall Street, so it is perhaps not surprising that the support goes both ways. In the Vietnam era, war protesters, civil rights protesters, and early feminist movements often fed off each other's energy. In a country that hasn't seen widespread protests since that period, the environmental activists and the 99 percenters share a common disillusionment with administrative doctrine and lack of perceived political attention. For now, Tar Sands organizers are still attempting to couch their criticism of the Obama administration in phrases like, "We are showing him he has the support he needs to make the right decision." But the veiled implication is that the pipeline will, as McKibben said, "show us who Barack Obama really is." If the result isn't what protesters want, it's not hard to imagine this crowd migrating to join those in Zucotti Park, even though some of these veteran grassroots organizers might not take to OWS' current anarchic structure. 
 
But as of Sunday, Layfayette Park still held an aura of hope. Before everyone lined up, Courtney Hight, Obama's former Florida youth director, stood next to the stage where two older men tuned their guitars. Nearby, clusters of organizers with red armbands hunched over laptops.  "I haven't seen this much energy and excitement since the 2008 election," she said.  "A lot of people here came out to support Obama, and then you also have people here who weren't old enough to vote. They are still part of the generation that believes in the vision that Obama laid out, and wants to vote for him." She continued, "If Obama were to block the pipeline, he would have an army of people that were willing to do whatever needed to happen."
Presented by

Lois Farrow Parshley

Lois Parshley is an assistant editor at Foreign Policy magazine.

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