Intersectionality, Keystone XL activism, and climate change: essay by Randle Aubrey

On Wednesday, April 3rd, I attended the #noKXL protest in the Pacific Heights district of San Francisco to stand against the proposed construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline is designed to transport Canadian tar sands crude oil across America to the Gulf of New Mexico for international distribution, and even a little research into the project shows it to be an ecological disaster of nightmarish proportions, catapulting humanity even closer to an environmental abyss. More than one thousand people were in attendance at the event, flooding the streets of the ultra-rich San Francisco neighborhood with music, endless chants, and of course, large numbers of police. Thankfully, the latter were not required to be deployed to their full crowd-controlling effectiveness, as the protesters stayed relatively peaceful and cordial throughout the day, despite the extreme chill and high winds that blasted across the neighborhood. Whether or not Obama received the message during his day of closed-door fundraising that Californians are not in favor of the pipeline is unclear, but it’s hard to imagine that the efforts of the protesters could have been missed as his cavalcade snaked its way through the crowds to the Getty Mansion. This protest was the work of professionals, working together in concert to make maximum impact with minimal equipment, and they did it well.

It’s difficult to sort out the feelings and impressions that you experience when attending your first protest. The way these things are presented by the media doesn’t often reflect the reality on the ground, and this event was certainly no exception. I really wasn’t sure what kind of experience I was going to have, and I’m uncertain on how to speak about what happened that day without thinking of it in terms of the greater climate change reform movement in general. That being said, I want to start by offering a caveat about what follows: I’ll not be speaking much on the specific events of that day nor of my role in them, as I feel that to do so would fail to offer any real insight. Both EcoWatch and The Huffington Post offer great coverage on that end, as well as plenty of great photos of the event. Rather, I’d prefer to speak on my overall impressions of the protest and the movement against Keystone XL as a whole, which I, based upon what I saw that day, believe to be in dire jeopardy.

Yes, you read that right. As of right now, if he were required to make a decision today, I do not believe President Obama would block construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, even if you were to factor in the recent Pegasus Pipeline spill in Arkansas, the largest tar sands spill to date since TransCanada began transporting the stuff within U.S. borders. Frankly, the spill could not have come at a better time (if there is such as thing), as it lends great credence to the argument that constructing another, considerably larger pipeline (Keystone XL would be the largest to date) would be an incredibly risky undertaking, fraught with very real danger for the future of our environment, as well as for hundreds of communities across the country. The resistance effort is and has been truly noble one – one I believe necessary and will continue to firmly support – but I fear it is and will continue to be insufficient to sway the mind of the Commander In Chief.

Here’s the thing about this movement that strikes me as its weakest point: it is a revolution of the bourgeoisie. It is a movement comprised primarily of white, middle-class Americans, too many of whom have something to lose. It’s plainly evident when you look at the photos from this particular protest, as well as the dozens of others that have taken place over the last year or so. There are exceptions, of course: I saw many Native Americans, Latinos, Asians, and Arabic peoples participating in the protest, giving me hope that, at some point, climate change reform can become the ‘issue public’ it needs to be in order to be successful. The problem with recruiting large numbers of people of color into the climate change reform movement is that, in their respective communities, an abstract issue like climate change is not as immediately pressing as dealing with things like discrimination, poverty, joblessness, and immigration reform. Without demonstrable intersectionality between these problems and that of climate change, the movement will continue to be spearheaded by those who are not affected by social inequality. In the meantime, while those same people may be concerned about the future of our civilization, and they may all be quite irate about the current state of affairs, I do not feel that their outrage – however well-justified it may be – will outweigh their desire to preserve their privilege or their status when push comes to shove.

“More than 1,000 Obama volunteers, voters and donors turned out in San Francisco to remind our president that his legacy will be judged harshly if he approves Keystone XL. And we have more than 50,000 more Americans from every state of the union willing to risk arrest in peaceful civil disobedience to stop him [from] making the most catastrophic decision of his presidency,” stated Becky Bond, political director of CREDO Action Network, the activist organization responsible for staging the protest. CREDO launched a pledge drive to recruit activists for their cause, urging them to “risk arrest in peaceful dignified civil disobedience in their local communities,” according to the EcoWatch article. But if Obama’s legacy is the only thing at risk in this movement, and there is no real and immediate political price to be paid for supporting the pipeline project and the fossil fuel industry, it seems doubtful that he will capitulate to reformers. Given his staunch support for marriage equality and the likely repeal of DOMA, his active pursuit of responsible gun control legislation here at home, and the passing of the Affordable Care Act (better known to all as Obamacare), his legacy will likely be one that is generally favorable to the majority of ordinary citizens, especially in light of him having accomplished these things despite considerable opposition from the Republican Party. Even widely publicized skepticism on our foreign policy and the future of our civil liberties seem to have had little effect on the man’s reputation overall. Most liberals and even many conservatives seem to trust his use of drones, so-called ‘enhanced interrogation’ and ‘extraordinary rendition’ techniques (read: torture and kidnapping), and not-so-covert warrantless surveillance where they would have never trusted someone like, say, former president George W. Bush, all the while ignoring the issue of what effect these aspects of his legacy will create for those who inherit the office behind him. Many of those who aren’t ignoring the future of foreign policy tend to castigate Obama as somehow more immoral than Bush when it comes to these matters, and as such remain on the fringes of popular opinion. The truth of this matter lies somewhere in between (as it often does with things like this), but I digress.

And what of these 53,000 people that pledged to resist? What percentage of them are actually willing to get themselves arrested for climate change reform, if or when the time comes? I don’t doubt that a great number of people will put their freedom on the line should it become necessary, but will it be enough? Most importantly, is this what needs to happen? Do people need to start getting arrested en masse for the President to take a truly progressive stance on climate change? And if so, when? Does it need to happen before the decision is made to build the pipeline, or after? I can’t help but wonder if groups like CREDO and Friends Of The Earth are asking themselves questions like these at the moment. The questions of risk and morale are self-evident, as seem to be the strategies to support them; the latter questions of timing, escalation, and ultimately, responsibility, require careful consideration, and should not be taken lightly. But do they weigh as heavily on the minds of the protesters as they do the organizers? While the actual numbers of arrested during last Wednesday’s protest have not been publicly released, I only saw one person escorted away by the police, and while his arrest was widely cheered by those present, I did not see anyone follow him.

Even this late in the game, it’s still hard to imagine that climate change reform is something worth gambling your freedom and good name away for. But if what we all fear comes to pass and the President does authorize construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, it seems inevitable that the climate change reform movement will begin to increasingly radicalize. It will have to, in order to survive. So as the country inches ever closer to the deadline, it remains to be seen if tomorrow’s actions will speak louder than today’s words, and whether jumping the gun will prove to be more effective than running at the mouth.


Randle Aubrey is a regular contributor to Synchronized Chaos, and he can be reached at 


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