By Scott Mitchell
The biggest climate rally in U.S. history included an estimated 40,000 people from all around the country marching on the White House. Three individuals from Brookhaven College were among the horde of protesters who swarmed Washington, D.C.
The Sierra Club and 350.org orchestrated the Feb. 17 rally in protest of the Keystone XL Pipeline. The organizations, both dedicated to the protection and preservation of Earth’s climate, sent a call to action to their members in order to achieve the numbers the rally boasted.
The Keystone XL Pipeline is a proposed oil transport pipeline which would run from Alberta, Canada, down to eastern Texas. It would transport tar sand, which is a concoction of sand and petroleum.
This conduit of petroleum is more contested than most because the tar sand needs to be heated and have chemicals added in order for it to move fluidly through pipelines. This mixture erodes the pipelines more drastically because of the nature of the chemicals and the sand.
Adjunct Brookhaven government and criminal justice professor David Griggs, who is also an attorney, shared a unique opportunity to join the protest with his students. Griggs, who is a member of the Sierra Club, has been involved in protests before.
Griggs, who heard about the opportunity from the Sierra Club and Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization, gave his students an outline of how they could attend the event without having to spend the money expected for such a trip. The students had to submit an essay describing why they wanted to be a part of the rally and, once accepted, pay $200. The rest of the cost was covered by the trip sponsors: the Blue Dolphin Club, the Sierra Club and Public Citizen.
Two Brookhaven students took Griggs up on his offer. Mary Shoals and Josh Juhl submitted essays and paid to attend the rally.
“I wanted to be a part of history, as this would be the biggest environmental rally on record,” Juhl said. “I wanted to learn more about the pipeline and what damage it will cause in the near future.”
Griggs said Shoals jumped at the opportunity to join the rally immediately.
Shoals had taken a personal interest in the pipeline a semester earlier. She interviewed an East Texas resident whose land the Keystone Pipeline would run through as a research project.
A bus picked up Griggs, Juhl and Shoals on Feb. 14. The bus made stops in Dallas, Austin and Tyler before it began to make a 36-hour trek to D.C. The bus was loaded with 49 people.
There were college students, members of Public Citizen, lawyers and guitar players. A film crew documented the whole trip.
“Not only did we have to be on a bus for 36 hours with no shower or anything, but we had a film crew shoving cameras in our face,” Shoals said. By the time the group arrived in D.C., members were excited about the chance to simply cleanse themselves of the dirt and oils of travel.
Once in D.C., the would-be protesters had plenty of spare time. Saturday was a free day, so Griggs took the group on a tour of the capital, from the Lincoln Monument to the Library of Congress.
The real action started at 8 a.m. Feb. 17. Public Citizen provided the group with a pizza breakfast before the group departed to join the protesters around the White House.
Shoals described the scene as completely unexpected. There were people ranging from political right to political left. There were grandmas, mothers, musicians, actors and politicians.
Before the rally officially began, a handful of key- note speakers addressed the crowd, including Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and actor Nolan Gould from ABC’s “Modern Family.”
Music buzzed through the air and dancing and singing were commonplace.
A group of people played on a giant communal drum while other groups gathered behind banners advocating various causes.
The protest itself was a two hour walk around the White House. The crowd of 40,000 displayed various signs, from mass-printed signs to unique handmade poster boards.
Following the march, there was an impromptu dance party. After showcasing some moves, the Texas group filed onto the bus and made the 36-hour drive back.
Griggs saw the whole experience as something much larger than one rally. “This was not just a one-time trip for fun,” Griggs said. “This was potentially a life-changing opportunity for them to become activists for the causes they believe in.”
Both Juhl and Shoals kept their activism going, creating a Facebook group for other people who were a part of the rally in D.C.
Shoals was optimistic about their activism. “It gets so hard sometimes because it is a huge monster to take on and, in the end, you feel like you don’t stand a chance,” she said. “That is why the rally was awesome. Because you had so many people in the same spot, gathered for the same reason, and it felt like we did stand a chance.”