One Time Some of My Friends Got Arrested at the White House

I’ve had a lot of people ask me about the protest pictures I posted a couple weeks ago from the #XLDissent protest in Washington D.C.

Why did they get arrested? What were they Protesting? What is The Keystone XL Pipeline?

The funny thing about KXL is that if you know about it, you probably already have a very strong opinion about it. It’s very polarizing, and yet if you haven’t heard of it, it sounds like an oddly specific thing for so many people to be so worked up about.

Protesters await arrest in front of the White House. March 2, 2014. Sean Davis
Protesters await arrest in front of the White House. March 2, 2014. Sean Davis

On March 1, 2014 I joined members of the ODU EcoReps organization, as well as the ODU chapter of the Virginia Student Environmental Coalition, as they traveled to the nation’s capital. It was one of my favorite VSEC road trips because we didn’t leave until noon.

I was still late.

They were making the trip up to join with just under 2000 other student activists to rally and march against the pipeline. The event was called #XLDissent (hashtag included, it’s 2014 duh).

While it wasn’t the biggest protest against KXL, many have claimed that it was the biggest act of student civil disobedience since the Vietnam war.

Instead of explaining why so many young people are angry about seemingly this one little thing, I’ll let them explain…

Jugal Patel is a junior at ODU, majoring in Political Science and Philosophy. He works with CCAN and contributes to The Borgen Project.
Jugal Patel is a junior at ODU, majoring in Political Science and Philosophy. He works with CCAN and contributes to The Borgen Project.


Erin Fagan is a Senior at ODU, majoring in Marine Biology. She's the VSEC founder as well as a campus rep and committee member, the EcoReps event coordinator, a Greenpeace community coach, and she's associated with a ton of other campus and environmental organizations I don't have room to list.
Erin Fagan is a Senior at ODU, majoring in Marine Biology. She’s the VSEC founder as well as a campus rep and committee member, the EcoReps event coordinator, a Greenpeace community coach, and she’s in charge of or part of a ton of other campus and environmental organizations I don’t have room to list.

What was XL Dissent?

Erin: “XL Dissent was the first event in the long line of anti-kxl protests/marches/rallies (after Tar sands Action, NOKXL, and Forward on Climate, as well as some smaller ones) that was organized by, and facilitated nearly completely by students. It was an opportunity for students to demonstrate that we aren’t taking this sitting down, and that we are willing to put our bodies on the line in opposition of KXL, and to prove that we aren’t just fighting for, but fighting with people from frontline communities.”

So whats wrong with the pipeline?

Erin: If the pipeline is approved, it would carry over 800,00 barrels of tar sands oil through Montanan, right by North Dakota, through South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas, down to Houston and Port Arthur, every single day. Although we’re told this is for the U.S., it would definitely be China-bound.

This would spell absolute disaster for not only ecosystems, but all of the communities along the way. These communities are largely those of indigenous people, communities of color, and low-income communities who are being taken advantage of.

A part of the Keystone Pipeline already exists… All of the terrible things people hear are not just rumors or speculation. They are based on whats already been happening.

During the six-month study conducted by the State Department, there were 1,692 pipeline “incidents…” this rate has not slowed down. We know that we can expect regular leaks and spills everywhere that pipeline exists.

The safety regulations are sub-standard at best, and not at all worth the 38-42 permanent jobs that we would get, in an economy of 322 million people.

We could be creating more and more permanent clean energy, technology and engineering jobs.

“I have been involved in this particular cause since 2011, and it is a fight that I will be involved in until the end.”

Jugal: As a scientific consensus, fossil fuels such as the tar sands oil contribute significantly to the problem of climate change. Unless the burning of fossil fuels is phased out to make way for clean and renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar problems that we’re already seeing with the with the climate will continue to worsen.

Therefore, it is necessary for our generation to do all it can to stop the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline- or else we are risking the future of the planet.

Why did you zip-tie yourself to the White House gate?

Jugal: Those who face the worst effects of climate change are those who have done the least to produce it. The lives of people within developing nations and future generations are at stake if action is not taken. It is for this reason that I hope to make the strongest political statement possible: that my generation is very serious about environmental problems and that we intend to address them. Acts of civil disobedience have been integral to correcting injustices throughout history and I fully intend to be a part of the movement that makes the world a better place to live.

How was the experience?

Jugal: Because of weeks of communication between organizers and DC police departments, the experience was very smooth. The police are fully aware of the role that civil disobedience plays into politics and understood that our nonviolent political action was justified.

The most favorable aspect of the experience, from my perspective, was getting to know the other activists risking arrests. Many of us were stuck at the white house fence for up to 5 hours, so it was plenty of time to get to know each other! 

Explain your protest sign.

Erin: Martin Luther King Jr’s quote “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I chose this because I can never stress enough how important it is to understand how everything is connected.

It may seem like this is happening so far away, but the destruction of vital ecosystems and resources (water?!), the suffering of fellow human beings, and the human-caused extinction of animals along the way all relate directly back to us.

KXL is Pandora’s Box. Once we begin to become reliant on this dirty form of oil, it will be infinitely harder to stop using it.

This social/environmental injustice that may seem completely disconnected from us is really threatening the entire planet in every way.

How did this thing come about, and how did you get involved?

Erin: I started organizing for Virginia about a month in advance, recruiting not just at ODU and Norfolk, but across the state as well. The idea for XL Dissent came from the historic 2011 sit-ins and rallies which played a huge role in drawing attention to the issue and breaking the, then, consensus among politicians.

After the State Department’s January report that the tar sands and pipeline would not negatively impact climate change, it was time to be more innovative and begin escalation and radicalization.

There was a lot of planning and organizing that went into this event to keep it under control and nonviolent, why is that?

Erin: With a march of this size, it is still very important to be respectful. DC sees plenty of non-peaceful protests too, so letting them know what’s going on and working with the police instead of against them (they’re doing their jobs, after all), ensures not only that residents who know what’s happening will not be scared, but it protects the safety of the protesters.

A huge group is intimidating, and more so when they are unexpected, so we try to avoid a scenario where we could be physically harmed for no reason.

The arrests were planned because it was important to make history. There are lots of small arrestable events that happen here and there, but unless something about them is different and innovative, no one ever hears about them. Planning ahead increases the chances of reaching goals like this.

Had it not been permitted, we never would have made it to the White House– we would’ve been kicked off the streets at the beginning, and anyone who didn’t obey would’ve been in jail under entirely different circumstances.

It is important that these events remain non-violent because we do not want to be made into the “bad guys”. If we use scare/intimidation tactics, harm people and their property, or make people feel unsafe in any way, we’re becoming a part of the problem, being hypocritical, and only gaining negative attention, which would be very well-deserved.

Why do you believe protesting and nonviolent direct action are an effective means for change?

Jugal: In a democratic political system, it is more than necessary for direct action to be a fundamental aspect of popular involvement within the political process. History has proven time and again that significant change for the better can occur with protest.

In a society where the institution of business has monumental political influence, the perspectives of people from lower socio-economic classes are often neglected—resulting in widespread injustice. Therefore, popular protest and direct action is necessary to allow for democracy to fulfill its intentions.

Erin: NVDA is absolutely effective, but not by itself. We still need to meet professionally with politicians and “make nice”. We need to find common ground with shareholders and decision-makers. We need to focus on educating people, and most of all, involving those in frontline communities–anything that we could say to convince someone would be dwarfed by what they have to live with every day.

NVDA is a means of campaign escalation, an issue is not getting the attention that it needs, or when it is not being taken seriously. We need people to take on these different roles so that we cover all of our bases. An arrestable action of this type is usually the first step in radicalization and escalation, which draws attention to the issue to reach more people. Historically, these events are often able to sway politicians’ opinions.

What similar actions have you been a part of?

Erin: I’ve been involved in at least a dozen large rallies/protests (“large” meaning over 1000 people), with the largest being Forward on Climate last February (50k people! Largest environmental rally in history).

While this was not the largest, the energy of the mass arrest was very unique. It felt much more drastic, because nothing like this had been done for the last few years (and even then, it was over a couple of weeks). Each time, I find myself re-energized and re-inspired to work on bigger campaigns and causes, both here in Norfolk and on a larger scale.

The most important thing about events like this is that we ride this new energy and take advantage of our enhanced motivation to make waves.

Finally, what’s happening at ODU, and what would you like to see happen?

Erin: ODU’s environmental group EcoReps has been growing rapidly since the introduction of VSEC. With this change, EcoReps is making the move from passive action to direct action, and demanding real change from ODU.

Other groups, such as the Marine Bio Student Association, Social Entrepreneurs Council, and the Environmental Health Club, are all taking a new, special interest in environmental aspects that relate to their core values.

I will be working on plans to increase our STARS rating 🙂 (currently bronze, booo). Ultimately, my larger goals for ODU are for them to form a permanent, full-time sustainability board, to get a divestment campaign off the ground, and for ODU to join the other universities who have demanded that Aramark take on more sustainable policies.

More important than this, however, is how we get there.

The reason this hasn’t happened already is because there’s a huge lack of student accountability and and a surplus of apathy.

If more students at ODU demand action from President Broderick, the Board of Trustees, shareholders, and high-donating alumni, then they would take us seriously. They do want to make their students happy, but not nearly enough students are demanding change. It’ll take more voices and more action for them to be be convinced.

Jugal: With discoveries in regard to just how vulnerable the city of Norfolk is to sea level rise from climate change, the ODU community is beginning to become much more active politically.

I hope to see this continue and expand because Virginia’s political system is currently very environmentally negligent. Students also have much more political power than they may feel at times, so it is very important that we continue to organize and get involved in the political process.

If we fail to do so, the problems that we face both in the present and the future risk being unaccounted for.

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