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Why I joined the sit-in to stop the Keystone XL pipeline

Posted Sep. 2, 2011 / Posted by: Kelly Trout

(I work at Friends of the Earth, but I participated in the tar sands action as an individual and these words are my own.)

With joy and resolve, I was arrested for the first time on August 29. I joined more than 1,200 people who stubbornly planted their bodies on President Obama’s doorstep across two weeks of rolling sit-ins because I am fed up, but I have not given up.

President Obama -- a leader to whom I dedicated then-scarce dollars and at least 100 hours of my time getting elected in 2008 -- has been an utter disappointment to me. I never expected him to work miracles. But I did expect him to stand for some basic principles: that people matter more than corporate profits, that justice for all should be more than an empty phrase, and that change is worth fighting for.

I stood with my mom Linda and 141 other people at the White House on a sunny Monday morning to urge President Obama to come down on the right side of one decision that is his alone to make: whether to let TransCanada build a pipeline called the Keystone XL down the heart of America, connecting one of the biggest, most destructive industrial projects on Earth -- Canada’s tar sands oil mining industry -- to refineries along the Texas Gulf Coast.

As my mom wrote in reflecting on her motivation for sitting in, “President Obama cannot stand for the pipeline and for a healthier climate. He needs to hear that his supporters hold him accountable for his words.” Congress is no obstacle to the president making the right decision this time. He simply needs to keep his promise and say “no” for once to powerful and obscenely profitable oil companies.

Getting arrested was a meaningful act of escalation and solidarity for my mom and I. Neither of us are your typical trouble-makers. My mom religiously dogs her elected officials through most of the legal channels available -- writing letters, making calls, showing up at town hall meetings, going in person to lobby days in Washington, D.C. and voting on Election Day. I’ve made influencing federal policy my job since graduating college three years ago, working for the past two of those at the environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth. In fact, I’ve spent many hours pitching reporters and engaging activists on the very issue of the Keystone XL pipeline.

Why risk arrest now? For one, I was hungry to feel part of a forceful, visible movement for action to address climate change and confront corporate power. The surge in extreme weather disasters and debilitating droughts over the past few years has made it ever more evident that, in continuing to bloat the atmosphere with climate-warming pollution, human society is edging toward catastrophe. It's just as evident that it will take a sustained, mass, persistent movement to achieve meaningful solutions out of the American political system. It's shocking to see powerful industries lose any fights in Washington, D.C. these days. I don't have a lot of confidence that President Obama will heed our call on the pipeline, but I do have a lot of hope that the tar sands sit-ins can be the beginning of a bolder, more aggressive, more unified community of people fed up with playing nice and committed to taking the fight for a livable future directly to the politicians and corporations standing in the way.

I also believe that we are increasing the odds that President Obama will make the right choice. Across several draft environmental analyses, the State Department has demonstrated no serious interest in digging into the concerns communities have about the consequences of the Keystone XL pipeline and its role in fueling the tar sands industry -- an industry that imperils the climate and violates human rights. The only way to better the odds is to show the president and his campaign managers that the political cost of approving this project just might be bigger than the dividends of satisfying Big Oil. The largest civil disobedience action in the environmental movement in my lifetime of 25 years -- and the steady media coverage it's generated to peg this decision as his alone and the most important he'll make on the environment before the 2012 elections -- should at least give the president pause.

All in all, submitting to the aggressive pat-downs, bumpy police wagon ride, $100 fine and few hours of hand-cuffed vulnerability seemed a small price to pay for these potential gains.

It was especially small compared to the price indigenous First Nation communities living downstream from the tar sands industry face daily. Massive pools of waste water are leaching toxins. Vast tracts of forest that have sustained a way of life for generations are disappearing. Young people are dying at alarming rates from rare cancers and other diseases.

In America, the Keystone XL pipeline would threaten the drinking water of people along its path and the health of people already inhaling an unjust burden of toxins belched by Texas oil refineries. Again, my price was small in comparison.

The less-resourced, less-recognized organizing led by indigenous communities and others on the frontlines of the tar sands industry's impacts over the past two years (or longer) made the sit-in mobilization possible. My thoughts did not stray far from their struggles as I stood before the White House gate singing in solidarity, “Keep your promise, stop the pipeline, hear our voices.”

In the end, I was motivated to sit in because, no matter how jaded or defeated I often sound, in my heart I do believe that change is worth fighting for and I refuse to give up on achieving it. To me, environmentalism at its core means fighting for the resilience, justice and survival of all communities. It's about struggling for the right of everyone to breathe clean air, drink clean water and eat healthy food. It's about challenging the systems that allow the wealthy to consume ever more resources while the poor bear ever more of the consequences. It's about forging a society that honors our interdependence and values long-term health and happiness above cheap rewards and quick profits.

Those are big ideals that will not be easy to advance in the least, and I'm not sure what I'll “do next” to grow the movement for them. But after this one “easy” arrest, I am prepared to put my body on the line again. As I mused to myself on the train ride to work a few mornings ago, I doubt that twenty or fifty years down the line I will regret not writing one more letter to a politician to urge action for a just and livable future. But I might very well regret not building deeper connections with people who share my values and using my body in more direct ways to force the types of actions necessary to reach it.

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