Today was… quite a day. The bell that people struck last August when they sat in at the White House to block the Keystone Pipeline was still resonating. Not loudly — the oil money in Congress muffled the sound. But loudly enough that we squeaked through by a 4-Senator margin, defeating a Republican amendment mandating the pipeline’s construction.
A year ago almost no one had heard of the pipeline. Even four months ago, a poll of 300 “energy insiders” still found 97 percent predicting it would get its permit. But it didn’t — TransCanada can of course re-apply, but that will be another battle, down the road. For now, people power (the largest civil disobedience action in 30 years, 800,000 messages to the Senate in a single day, bodies encircling the White House shoulder to shoulder five deep) overturned the odds.
And though most Americans don’t know it, today is also International Women’s Day, appropriate in this case because many of the very strongest fighters against this project right from the beginning were women of unusual distinction.
I was reminded of that earlier this week, when Debra White Plume was arrested on the Lakota reservation for blocking trucks carrying giant equipment up to the tar sands. She’s an eloquent fighter, part of the large crew of indigenous leaders who were the first to sound the alarm about the tarsands and have been at the center of the battle ever since. But this time she wasn’t outside the White House or at a Congressional hearing — she was on a lonely reservation road with a small crowd of other people facing down giant semis and tribal police. You need to read her full account of what happened, both because it’s powerful and because she’s a great writer. My favorite passage:
On the ride home from jail, I shared with my children my jail time, they were curious what the cell looked like and what I did in there for 3 hours. I told them it was empty, nothing in there but a toilet, not even drinking water. I told them I just paced back and forth, and read the grafitti scratched into the walls that said “this cell is 11 by 6,” “Tristan loves Luke,” “Angel and Wildflower have outlaw love,” and “I used to work here, now I am IN here.” My teens were sad, but understood why this happened, and they were glad me and their Poppa were coming home.
I thought of Women’s Day again in the afternoon, when the votes in the Senate were being tallied and we were all doing the digital equivalents of biting our nails (refreshing Twitter, mostly). After the drama of the arrests and of encircling the White House had died down some, the hard work of maintaining this victory in the oil-soaked Congress fell to a small corps of Capitol Hill environmentalists. A few were men — Jeremy Symons from National Wildife Federation, Jason Kowalski from 350.org — but at the center were several indefatigable women, like Tiernan Sittenfeld of the League of Conservation Voters, Susan Casey-Lefkowitz from the National Resources Defense Council, and Lena Moffitt from the Sierra Club.
The work they did was not glamorous — it was absolutely necessary, however.Day after day they tracked how each Senator was leaning, figured out which arguments would persuade which staffer, carted around briefing books, gave powerpoints, convinced donors to call the pols they’d funded. I don’t think I could do it — the constant match of their conviction against the cynicism that rules so much of Washington seems tougher for me to endure than my three days in Central Cell Block. But they did it with quiet grace, and they won
And in the end, the two events — on the Lakota Reservation, and on the Hill — were the perfect summation of the whole Keystone campaign. The most grassroots of activists meshed easily and powerfully with the most entrenched of Washington enviros; there was no bickering or infighting — people seemed naturally to take the parts they were good at and trust others to do likewise, from Jane Kleeb running the Nebraska fight to Kenny Bruno coordinating the funders. Everyone worked toward a common goal with the resources they had at hand, and together we made them enough.
Just enough, mind you, and our victory may not last forever. But today big oil actually lost something big. If you want to understand how, all those women are the place to start.