An eyewitness account of events at the largest civil gathering to fight climate change in U.S. history
The convergence of Powershift 2009, a youth conference on climate change, and the Capitol Climate Action, a protest and march on the Capitol’s coal-fired power plant, brought thousands of people to Washington, D.C. to protest coal and advocate for climate change legislation. The Center for Biological Diversity believes we must battle climate change through every avenue possible. In order to save the polar bear, protect all endangered species, and safeguard the future of the planet from the dangerous effects of climate change, we not only need to use and enforce our existing environmental laws, we also need to gather together as a grassroots movement. We must demand atmospheric carbon dioxide levels be reduced to below 350 ppm, because the survival of the planet as we know it and the survival of future generations depend on it.
Monday, March 2
The Powershift 2009 conference, which had preceded the Capitol Climate Action with a weekend of panels and speakers, had clearly been effective in educating these young people. Powershift had also organized a morning and afternoon of lobbying on Capitol Hill. The students and youth at this rally on the West Lawn and those who walked the halls of the Capitol were energized and empowered. And while the rally was without its headline speaker, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi — who had apparently been forced to cancel her flight back to D.C. because of the snow — the crowd was hardly discouraged.
I was impressed by the organization and visual continuity that the Capitol Climate Action had achieved. The participants were separated into four affinity groups with color-coded flags to allow for easy identification. I was told by a Greenpeace organizer that the red affinity group would most risk arrest, as they would be at the front lines of the action. Yellow was for those who wanted to participate legally as supporters and observers.
Police were everywhere. But it was clear at the beginning that although the police presence would be obvious, it wouldn’t be aggressive. Few carried body-blocking shields and even fewer wore helmets. Police appeared on bicycles, motorcycles, and on foot; many were bundled for the cold and wearing bright yellow vests. The tone of the protest from the first steps away from the Spirit of Justice Park was that of peaceful, organized, and directed action. It was at that moment that I questioned, silently, the likelihood that any arrests would be made. I would have to wait and see.
The route followed South Capitol Street down to I street and took a sharp left. It continued down, depositing another color group at the south gate. Blue was now in place. Finally the rest of the crowd, green and yellow groups — along with media and random observers — continued on and took a left at New Jersey Avenue. At the intersection of New Jersey Avenue and E Street, the crowd stopped in front of a soap-box platform that stood across the street from the main gate of the power plant.
Several speakers were on tap, and I had a great view as McKibben, Hansen (video), Washington D.C. Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, environmentalist Robert F. Kennedy Jr. (video), activist Judy Bonds from Coal River Mountain Watch in West Virginia (video), author-academic Gus Speth (video), and farmer-author Wendell Berry took to the podium.
Judy Bonds passionately declared: “We adults told our children to clean up their rooms, but look at the toxic mess we’re leaving our children to clean up. Shame on us! Shame on us! Clean coal is a dirty lie, coal is killing us all, and it is killing the yet to be born!” And James Hansen explained the scientific facts: “It has become clear that we’re going to have to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to less than 350 parts per million, perhaps significantly less than that. That’s possible, but the critical action required is phase out of coal emissions…” Finally, Gus Speth outlined the actions that this newly born climate movement must take in order to succeed in saving the planet: “We’ve gotta get Congress to pass a declining cap on greenhouse gas emissions — this year! We’ve gotta put a moratorium — no new coal plants! We’ve gotta ban mountaintop removal! We’ve gotta start the phase-out of coal! And at the end of this year, we’ve gotta get a treaty out of Copenhagen!”
Although no arrests were made, the effort put forth and symbol created by the Capitol Climate Action showed that we, as climate activists, are serious, and we will not allow our voices to go unheard. When addressing the crowd, author Wendell Berry said: “Someone asked me if I wanted to get arrested. The answer, briefly, is no. But I am willing to get arrested. We’ve tried everything else.”
It was then that I realized what we had achieved. Just a few days prior to the march, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sent an official request to the architect of the Capitol to make plans to convert the Capitol Power Plant to 100-percent natural gas. Clearly, just the specter of the protest had spurred Congress into action. Climate activists from across the country had braved a snowstorm and freezing temperatures to successfully block the Capitol Power Plant in Washington, D.C.
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