Keystone XL activism necessary for change: Debate should be more inclusive of underrepresented communities

By ROSALIE SHARP ’16 

Contributing Writer

Last weekend, I was arrested for protesting the Keystone XL pipeline in front of the White House at an action called “XL Dissent.” I was one of four Wellesley students and 398 other youths who participated in the act of civil disobedience, because, simply stated, we believe political action on climate is essential and urgent. We spent over four hours in the rain, some of us zip-tied to the White House fence, because we want to do everything we can to push President Obama to reject the Keystone XL pipeline and challenge the political, social and economic power of the fossil fuel industry. Its power is used to exploit communities and resources while blocking effective climate legislation, creating a cycle of political inaction on environmental issues that needs to be broken.

But the story of my arrest at XL Dissent is far more complicated than that. Throughout the experience, I couldn’t help but think about my unique position as a highly educated, white, cisgender woman protesting in the United States. This act of civil disobedience did not threaten my life or my future. Unfortunately, not everyone has this privilege. The criminal justice system disproportionately harms the same groups of people that are disproportionately harmed by fossil fuel extraction and the effects of climate change. Globally, people of color, people in poverty, immigrants and other marginalized groups are fighting the same fight I am to stop climate change and the injustices committed by the fossil fuel industry, but their activism is rarely featured in mainstream news sources like mine was. I’m proud that I got arrested for something I care about this weekend, but I’m saddened and frustrated that many of my peers couldn’t be there with me.

This frustration is precisely what drove me to be arrested in the first place. President Obama has the power to reject Keystone XL, a pipeline that would bring tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to the southern United States to be refined and exported. In Canada, tar sands oil extraction destroys the land and threatens the health of First Nations communities. Tar sands transported across the United States threaten to contaminate the Ogallala aquifer, the principal source of groundwater for agricultural irrigation in the United States and the source of clean drinking water for nearly two million people. The effects of an oil spill would be devastating for these communities and the U.S. agricultural industry. If President Obama approves Keystone XL, he commits the United States to a future reliant on fossil fuels and continues the cycle of political inaction on climate issues. This decision prioritizes oil profits over the well-being of front-line communities who must live with the implications of Keystone XL every day.These same communities were vastly underrepresented at XL Dissent.

Historically, civil disobedience has made powerful statements and instigated change on small and large scales. In the week since XL Dissent, the four Wellesley student arrests have sparked conversations about Keystone XL, climate change, human rights, systems of oppression and privilege. Wellesley needs to be having these conversations, and I’m glad to be a part of them, but they are not enough. Getting arrested to stop Keystone XL is an empowering way to challenge systemic oppression and advocate action on climate, but it is not the only way. I hope that others who share my frustration over injustice and inequality also share my desire to work together to form a creative, inclusive movement in which everyone can be part of public advocacy for environmental justice and social change.

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