An eyewitness account of events at the largest civil gathering to fight climate change in U.S. history
By Francisca Santana
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 weather Web sites were predicting a huge snowstorm — one that would blanket the District and surrounding areas with four to six inches of snow. When I woke in the morning and peeked outside to see snow on the ground, I was worried about the turnout for the Capitol Climate Action and Powershift rally. Yet a small part of me felt hope as I bundled in my jackets and hat — climate activists are a hardy bunch, and if any crowd would brave the storm, it would be those who know that global warming must spur us to fight for our survival. I checked my email and twitter feed and confirmed that both events were, in fact, still happening on schedule. While riding the Metro down to Union Station, I prepared myself for what would be a monumental, historic day. This was sure to be the largest act of civil disobedience on climate change in U.S. history.
I arrived at the Powershift rally just as a group of students were gathering on the Capitol’s West Lawn. Groups of volunteers were handing out green hard hats — the signature symbol of the Green Jobs campaign — and signs that said “NO MORE COAL” and “CLEAN ENERGY, GREEN JOBS.” The excitement and energy was palatable, despite the freezing temperatures and slushy, snowy landscape. The crowd bounced and swayed with the chants of the speakers, often breaking into the call-and-response refrain, “Show me what democracy looks like. This is what democracy looks like!”
Congressman Ed Markey, chairman of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming, made an appearance, as did several youth activists. One speaker, Ethan Nuss from the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, decried the burden that has been placed on future generations to address the hurdles of global warming. “President Barack Obama stood here and said, ‘Our world has changed, and we must change with it.’…We did not choose to stare down the double barrel of an economic crisis and a climate crisis, yet here we stand.” (video)
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.
After the Powershift rally, I made my way over to the Spirit of Justice Park, just south of the Capitol building. There, a crowd of almost 3,000 people had gathered to prepare for the march on the Capitol Power Plant. The group of protesters was comprised of people from every walk of life: residents of coal extraction areas in West Virginia and Kentucky, mothers and daughters, celebrities, scientists, and a large contingent of students who had attended Powershift.
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.
The protest began to chants of “No coal, no oil! We don’t want our world to boil!” and suddenly we were off. The plan was this: The whole crowd would march around the Capitol Power Plant, blocking traffic along the way. At each gate, one of the affinity groups would break from the mass and block, by standing and sitting, the traffic trying to go in and out of the gate. I could see, just over the tops of the buildings ahead, the two smoke stacks from the Capitol Power Plant. The sun shone overhead behind a filmy haze.
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.
When the march rounded the first corner of the Capitol Power Plant and reached the first gate, the red group peeled off from the crowd and planted themselves in defiance in front of the entrance. No fear or hesitation tainted their cries of “Green jobs now! Green jobs now!” Official legal observers, trained by the Capitol Climate Action coalition and wearing bright green hats, stood nearby recording the scene. The police watched as the rest of the crowd marched further down South Capitol Street and away from the red group. No arrests yet.
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.
The crowd was dense, and I struggled to find solid, dry ground on which to plant my feet while waiting for the speeches. As I looked around me, I realized that I was standing nearly five feet in front of two of my biggest climate heroes — Bill McKibben, an author and environmentalist from my home state of Vermont, and James Hansen, the NASA climate scientist who first warned us about global warming decades ago. They stood side by side in front of the gates to the Capitol’s dirty coal-fired power plant. I felt so proud that they were willing to come out on this dreary, snowy day to show the world that they, along with thousands of supporters, refused to wait any longer for action on global warming.
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.
This is a critical year for leadership by both Congress and the White House on energy and climate change. The Center for Biological Diversity is working to foster the political momentum to help the president and lawmakers get the job done. We must be in the courts enforcing the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Air Act; we must march down the streets and cry out for renewable energy and green jobs; and we must band together, support each other, and educate each other about the urgency of global warming. We truly hope that this action will serve as a catalyst for members of Congress and the White House to act in the coming months on bold, science-based climate legislation. And as I witnessed on March 2, the citizens of the United States, the residents of West Virginia, the academics, and the youth of this country demand it.