Yesterday more than 10,000 protestors gathered under a clear November sky in Lafayette Square, north of the White House, before fanning out to create what author and environmentalist Bill McKibben called “a big O-shaped hug” around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in protest of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. A contingent of activists from Bold Nebraska arrived in force, sporting Husker red (adopted by pipeline opponents after University of Nebraska fans booed a pipeline promotional spot earlier this season) and waving CornFingers.
GALLERY: See more photos from the rally
Cody Butler, the CornFinger’s co-creator, shouldered a six-foot-tall version of the foam hand, emblazoned with the words: “Stop TransCanada Pipeline.” As the Nebraskans walked past MacPherson Square, some of the Occupy DC protestors hollered their approval. Someone even hooted, “Yay, Nebraska! Yay, Midwest!” -- then could be heard consulting a friend is a hoarse whisper, “Nebraska’s in the Midwest, right?” Jane Kleeb, Bold Nebraska’s director and driving force, howled with laughter. After so many years of being lumped into an overlooked landmass between the coasts, Nebraskans seem finally to be on the national map.
And they are emerging as something more complex than the caricature of a red-state block of farmers and ranchers who cast values votes against their own economic interests. Nationwide, Americans are starting to see that outstate Nebraska may be composed of hard-bitten loners who prefer windswept expanses to the niceties of city life, but they’re not easily fooled and together can make a hell of a noise. Conversely, the people in Nebraska’s urban east -- particularly Lincoln and Omaha -- cannot be so easily turned against their rural compatriots; no one in Nebraska, it seems, is more than a generation or two removed from the farm. Everyone knows what’s at stake, and, increasingly, the opposition has been vocal -- but also savvy.
Most notably, activists have focused less on a total halting of the project and more on delay, urging that precious natural resources, particularly the Ogallala Aquifer in the Nebraska Sandhills, not be placed at risk without a more thorough (and honest) assessment of the environmental dangers posed by the proposed $7 billion, 1,700-mile tar sands pipeline from northern Canada to the Texas Gulf Coast. This has forged a coalition between those who oppose all fossil fuel development on principle and those who have concerns specific to the design or routing of this particular project.
This practical approach has made Nebraskans sound like the voice of reason -- hard-working middle Americans standing up to the nexus of foreign corporate dollars and Beltway politics -- and their voice is starting to be heard on the Hill. Just last week, Barbara Boxer, the Democratic Senator from California who chairs the Environment and Public Works Committee, sent a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton questioning the impartiality of the project’s environmental impact statement after revelations that assessor Cardno ENTRIX had, what seemed to many, a cozy relationship with TransCanada. (Today, the State Department inspector general announced a special investigation.)
Such revelations have fueled anger in Nebraska and brought more and more people onto the streets in Washington. Those who had attended the last White House protest in August seemed shocked yesterday by their swelling numbers, and NRDC co-founder John H. Adams described the turnout as one of the largest environmental rallies he had seen in the capitol since the first Earth Day gatherings decades ago. White House officials were initially dismissive, pointing out that Obama wasn’t even inside during the protest but golfing in northern Virginia. Nevertheless, the president seems to have gotten the message. Already today the Los Angeles Times has reported that the administration is considering forcing TransCanada to “to reduce the project’s environmental risks before it can be approved,” specifically citing “the routing issue in Nebraska.”
For those who had driven and flown in from Nebraska for the protest, such a major development was more than they could have imagined even yesterday. They were just wowed by the size of the crowd -- and the degree to which their cause has been taken up nationally. “It’s pretty amazing,” Cody Butler told me as he toted his giant CornFinger into position between the White House and the Washington Monument. As he described the odd journey of getting the hulking sign to D.C. (as a checked bag on Southwest Airlines!), he smiled amiably, as if opposition to the pipeline were his calling and such travails minor when compared to the mission. “Two months ago when I finally learned about this pipeline and how it was going to affect our state, it was an easy decision for me to pivot away from just being a game-day peddler at Husker games to something way more important—and something that can give our people a little bit more voice.”
The day after the protest, as the administration considers its next move, the president’s staff must admit that that voice is growing stronger and more steadfast. President Obama certainly understands the reality that, in an election year where debate is bound to focus both on jobs creation and America’s dependency on fossil fuels, there are some difficult choices to be made. But Bill McKibben, who is also an OnEarth contributing editor, condemned those who would try to use jobs as a wedge between the labor movement and the environmental movement, emphasizing that loosening environmental safety standards gives rise to disasters like the one on the Kalamazoo River last year and countless related health issues that create a drag on the economy. He called on the crowd to stand together and not give in to divisive rhetoric.
And, as improbable as it might have seemed only a few months ago, Nebraska stands poised to become the symbol of how unions and environmentalists and ranchers and young people from the Occupy Movement may be uniting to forge a kind of new progressivism.
By the time Bold Nebraska’s Jane Kleeb took the stage at the closing rally, the sun was setting and the air was turning cold. Her goals seemed simpler and more urgent: to have Nebraska’s concerns heard and considered at the highest levels of our government, to no longer be dismissed as a uniform and unvarying voting bloc. Then she turned and pointed toward the White House. Exhorting the crowd to join her, she shouted: “I’m a pipeline fighter!” The crowd cheered and raised their CornFingers high.
Image: Mary Anne Andrei (See more photos from the rally.)