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“We are a small school but we’ve had such a massive turnout,” Santos said of her peers at the rally. “It’s important that we, on the coast, pay attention because Eckerd College won’t even exist eventually, if we do nothing.”
Van Jones, former advisor to Obama on green jobs and current president of Rebuild the Dream, rallied the crowd.
“This is the last minute of the last quarter in the biggest game ever,” Jones said. “If you don’t fight for what you want, you get what you deserve.”
Eckerd students chanted in response, “Keep your word! Keep your promise!”
And then they marched. Currier hoisted her cardboard “Eckerd College, F.L.” sign above the crowd.
“This issue bridges all other issues,” said Connecticut protester Hollie Miller, 62. “Nothing else matters if the planet goes.”
The cold had emptied most of the surrounding streets, as the line of protesters snaked around and around the White House in a seemingly endless loop.
One of the people responsible for getting the word out in Florida on climate change was Kara Kaufman, formerly of Food and Water Watch. Creative Loafing wrote about Kaufman’s campaign to label GMOs in Florida last fall. She’s now a fellow with Green Corps, a Sierra Club-sponsored yearlong program for environmental activists. I ran into Kaufman in front of the White House as the rally marched on.
“I’ve been running national phone banks Thursday-Sunday for the last seven weeks,” Kaufman said. “We were literally calling people from all over. This rally is such a palpable part of the movement.”
Kaufman is headed to Texas next to work on water conservation.
By 4 p.m., protesters were piling into the warmth of Potbellies, a soup and sandwich shop around the corner from the White House.
“We just ran out of wheat bread and vegetarian soup!” the cashier told each customer. Everyone recapped the day over hot food, away from the cold.
The rally drew bigger numbers than projected; organizers had originally expected 25,000, then reduced their estimates when the weather turned bitter. But halting the pipeline, a job creator and energy security provider, will be harder.
“The assumption of the activists is that by choking off the supply of new oil sources like the tar sands, the U.S. — and maybe the world — will be forced to transition more quickly to green energy,” New York Times columnist Joe Nocera wrote Monday in an op-ed spurred by the rally. But Nocera contends that the pipeline should be a no-brainer for Obama; if this plan doesn’t move forward, China in is the wings waiting to take the oil off Canada’s hands.
“If you really want to eliminate expensive new fossil fuel sources, the best way is to lower the price of oil, which would render them uneconomical,” Nocera said. “But, of course, that wouldn’t exactly lower demand either.”
Even organized labor can’t come to a consensus on the issue. The AFL-CIO hasn’t taken an official position because the unions can’t agree.
“While environmental groups decry oil sands development, it is clear that this valuable resource will be developed, regardless of whether Keystone XL is built,” Terry O’Sullivan, general president of the Laborers’ International Union of North America, said in a statement to Creative Loafing Tuesday. “The only question is whether Americans will benefit from pipeline construction and refining of the oil. To reject these good jobs in construction, manufacturing and energy production doesn’t make sense.”
For the Sierra Club, and the over 170 organizations aligned with them, the Keystone pipeline is a line in the sand. The organization had been opposed to civil disobedience since its inception over 120 years ago, until Wed., Feb 13. That’s when executive director Michael Brune, 350.org’s McKibben, and 40 others were arrested in front of the White House.
“This is President Obama’s last term and it’s his opportunity to submit his legacy,” said Rachele Huennekens, grassroots media coordinator for the Sierra Club. “We believe that legacy rests squarely on his response to the climate crisis. I’m hopeful he will.”
Until then, the Sierra Club and its sister organizations are spearheading 100 days of action to fight climate disruption now through Earth Day.
“We’re setting up our careers and our lives,” Huennekens said. “We want a good and clean country to start out families and become families.”
Eckerd College political science student David Trujillo, 23, headed home from Washington D.C., with a mission to organize an on-campus collective of activists: students helping students organize, from the bottom up. He’s a senior looking toward a career in journalism, or maybe politics.
“Because of this rally, we are all connected,” Trujillo said. “But looking forward, this won’t be enough. We need to do this again, and again, and again.”
The irony that Obama was on vacation in West Palm Beach, reportedly golfing with Tiger Woods, wasn’t lost on the shivering Florida kids gunning to save the world outside his front door. While national debates continue on gun control, health care, and jobs, the pulse of the protest sent a clear message that many in the nation (including students in the Sunshine State) want to see a real solution when it comes to the crisis of climate change.
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