About 140 protesters opposing the proposed Keystone XL pipeline gathered outside the State Department's headquarters Monday morning for a relatively peaceful demonstration unmarred by any arrests.
Around 60 of the protesters were actively risking arrest by staging a sit-in on the department's sidewalk outside the visitors' entrance, but authorities standing guard resisted taking anyone into custody, instead opting for barricades to keep the demonstrators from filtering inside.
Organized by CREDO, The Other 98%, and the Rainforest Action Network, the protest brought people from as far away as New York, New Jersey, and Wisconsin to rally against the pipeline, which would carry heavy oil from Canada's tar sands to refineries on the Gulf Coast. More than 70,000 have signed CREDO's online "pledge of resistance" stating they are willing to engage in peaceful civil disobedience to oppose the pipeline. The State Department has authority over the project because it crosses an international border.
The scene was in stark contrast to a similar protest last month during which more than 50 Keystone protesters were arrested for unlawful entry at the offices of Environmental Resources Management, a consulting firm that wrote a report for the State Department in March saying the pipeline construction should not be derailed due to environmental concerns. Echoing that protest, Monday's protesters argued that the review is biased because of connections ERM has to TransCanada, the company proposing to build the pipeline.
Many in the crowd Monday carried signs identifying themselves as "papas," "mothers," "nanas," and "grandmamas." They spoke about their desire to protect the planet for the sake of their children and grandchildren. Most admitted to never risking arrest before but said the potential environmental impact of the Keystone project was something they could not ignore.
John Sellers, executive director of The Other 98%, was impressed that some unusual suspects were participating in the protest.
"There's a lot of amazing people who have never done anything like this before that have decided to risk arrest and I think that should send a really clear message to the State Department and White House," Sellers said.
Protest organizers said they were encouraged by President Obama's June speech on climate change in which he said he would only approve the pipeline if it did not "significantly exacerbate the problem of carbon pollution." But they remain concerned the president may retreat from his promise, and though Monday's protest was not at the White House, much of the messaging — including a "Hey Obama, liked your speech, now you gotta practice what you preach" slogan — was clearly intended to catch the president's attention.
Neither Obama nor Secretary of State John Kerry are in Washington this week, however.
Bill McKibben, cofounder of 350.org, which was not involved in organizing Monday's protest but has been actively campaigning against the pipeline, said that while Obama's recent rhetoric has been encouraging, environmentalists need to keep pressure on him.
"If he keeps to his standard of 'significant carbon emissions' there's no possible way he can approve the pipeline," McKibben said in an e-mail. "If he figures out some lawyerly, tricky way to approve the pipeline his credibility on climate change will be gone forever. That said, it seems important to keep reminding him, so we will."
Faith Meckley, 18, was one of the youngest and most enthusiastic protesters who turned out. She stood closer to police lines than her counterparts, and while the protest was her first time risking arrest she said it is unlikely to be the last.
"It was more scary telling my parents about this than actually risking arrest," said Meckley, who came to Washington from Macedon, N.Y., for the protest and will begin studying journalism at Ithaca College in the fall.
"It was important to me that I would get arrested, although that wasn't the reason for coming here," she said. "We might not have gotten the dessert, but we got the main course."