The Keystone Pipeline Revolt: Why Mass Arrests are Just the Beginning

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And the opponents? Native peoples opened up the fight years ago, and still lead it – they were the first to experience the damage, and they found support from some of the big green groups as the pipeline plan began to unfold. Landowners from the high plains organized along the pipeline route; they did so well in swaying public opinion that both the Republican governor and senator from Nebraska have called on Obama to block the pipe. The dramatic civil disobedience over the summer transformed the fight from a regional into a national and emotional one – 1,253 people got arrested and 612,000 signed petitions. The head of the NAACP, Ben Jealous, showed up to address the demonstrators, and the Hip Hop Caucus helped headline its closing rally. A few days later, nine Nobel Peace Prize laureates – from the Dalai Lama to Archbishop Desmond Tutu – sent a powerful appeal to the president. The New York Times and Robert Redford have also sided with the growing opposition.

Only one guy has not tipped his hand – Barack Obama. His people say he'll decide by year's end. The question is: What will sway him most?

If it's money, it's clear who wins. Because the guys supporting this thing have most of the money on earth – the oil industry is the most profitable thing human beings have ever done, by far. ExxonMobil made more money last year than any company in the history of . . . money. If it comes down to money, and it usually does, we'll lose. That was made perfectly clear in early September, when the president, acting at the behest of the Chamber of Commerce, announced he was blocking new clean-air regulations. These are the kind of laws every president approves – even George W. Bush wanted a stricter standard than we have now. But after the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United, which allows companies to spend whatever they want on political campaigns, the president's men are so scared of the oil industry's big campaign war chest that they've gotten into the habit of obedience.

So far, the oil companies have spent their money well. They've run a huge PR campaign arguing that because, as everyone knows, Muslims are terrorists, then Canadian oil is "ethical oil." (When I debated an industry spokesman on the BBC, he explained that Canadian oil is the equivalent of fair-trade coffee and free-range chicken.) Their willingness to exaggerate seems to know no bounds: Thomas Donohue, the head of the Chamber of Commerce, recently lofted the absurd claim that the pipeline would create work for 250,000 people.

To defeat the big money behind the pipeline, we needed to rely on a different currency, one that we possess and they don't. For two weeks, that currency was our bodies, and we spent them well enough to focus national attention on the pipeline. Even international attention – protesters turned out at embassies on every continent; in New Zealand, a band of 35 opponents managed to shut the Canadian Consulate for the afternoon simply by appearing with an oil-soaked Canadian flag. We made reasonable waves in the American press, reaching the top of Google News by our final day; in Canada, we were a certified Big Story, sparking a conversation that will continue with another wave of civil disobedience planned for Ottawa, where the ruling conservative party is firmly behind the pipeline. By protest's end, the political world was well aware that this had become Obama's central environmental test between now and next year's election. The odds are still against us, but they're better than they were.

And so the next phase of this campaign unfolds. Groups like Rising Tide are blockading trucks hauling heavy equipment to the tar sands; others geared up for the State Department hearings that were held across the country in late September. But mostly we're targeting Barack Obama, because he's the sole decision-maker. Union workers and environmental activists have already begun visiting his campaign offices in cities across the country, telling his staff, politely but firmly, that the pipeline is a vital issue. As the president travels beyond Washington – to an American Legion convention in Minneapolis, to a university in Virginia – he's been finding banners and crowds reminding him of the issue. It's not quite a threat – more like a promise. When Obama's campaign manager, Jim Messina, showed up at Harvard to give a speech, he took one look at the 40 protesters out front chanting, "Obama can stop the tar sands – Yes He Can!" and ducked through a side door.

We're going to target Obama – but we're not going to do him the favor of attacking him. We're not going to say, "We'll never vote for you, you're a corrupt sellout." That's what his aides would like us to do, to marginalize ourselves as the kind of fringe it's politically profitable to defy. Instead, we're going to pay the president the very dangerous compliment of taking his words from the last campaign seriously, and asking him to live up to them.

What words? How about: "At the dawn of the 21st century, the country that faced down the tyranny of fascism and communism is now called to challenge the tyranny of oil."

Or maybe: "Let's be the generation that finally frees America from the tyranny of oil."

Or maybe: "Because if we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children . . . this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal."

I remember when he uttered those last words, on the night he clinched the Democratic nomination in June 2008. I remember the chill that ran down my spine. I remember the days I spent standing on New Hampshire snowbanks with Obama signs and driving back roads of the state, searching out rural addresses to urge people to vote. (After I was arrested at the White House, the guy in the jail cell next to me said, "The last time I was this uncomfortable, I was sleeping in a church basement to canvass for Obama.") This is why he won – because he inspired the hell out of us.

Everyone knows that Congress has made his life hard; I'd get tired of dealing with a pack of crazies who have substituted ideology for physics and chemistry. We all cut him slack because of it. But when Congress isn't in the way? When it's just Obama making the call? This is a 20-foot jump shot, top of the key. Take it, for God's sake.

To help nerve Obama up, we'll keep turning people out, by the thousands. On November 6th, exactly one year before the next election, we plan to encircle the White House with protesters, something I'm not sure has ever been done. We won't be getting arrested; instead, it will be like a human Rorschach blot. It's either a giant "O" of hope that he'll do the right thing, or a symbolic house arrest. Many of us will be there in the suits and ties or dresses we wore to get arrested. It's our way of saying: We're not the radicals here. The real radicals run Exxon – they're the people who are willing to alter the chemical composition of the atmosphere. (Abbie Hoffman freaked out an entire nation by threatening to dump LSD in a single reservoir – what a small-time thinker he was!) In any reasonable sense of the word, we're conservatives, hoping to preserve something of the world we were born into.

Many of us will also be wearing our Obama '08 pins. But we'll be taking them off, and leaving them in self-addressed, stamped envelopes at the front of the White House, with a note saying: Send this back once you've kept your word. Choose the side you said you were on when you campaigned so beautifully. We see the hideous drought in Texas, the horrible flooding in Vermont, the steadily acidifying ocean – we see the stakes. We understand what kind of world is coming at us unless you decide to lead. And we still want you to do the right thing. Our message will be: Until you absolutely make us, we refuse to be cynics. But we're not patsies, either.

Because it really is time. Last year was the warmest on record. This year, before August was over, Americans had endured more billion-dollar weather disasters than we've ever experienced in an entire year. The Texas Forest Service, confronting the blazes that destroyed more than 1 million acres over the summer, observes that "no one on the face of this earth has ever fought fires in these extreme conditions." If we ever plan to do something more than talk about the biggest crisis the planet has ever faced, now is the moment to say, "We're going no further down this path." Shutting down Keystone has become the unlikely Lexington and Concord of the climate movement. Revolutions have to start someplace.

This story is from the October 13, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.

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