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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

"Digging Us a Hole": Student climate activists descend again on TransCanada in Westborough, protesting Keystone XL

by Wen Stephenson, The Phlog, The Phoenix, March 12, 2013

I knew the kids weren't messing around the first time I heard them sing -- a low, slow, foot-stomping dirge, part spiritual and part worksong:
They are digging us a hole.
They are digging us a hole.
Six feet underground,
Where our future will go.
We will lay down our bodies.
We will lay down our souls.
No we won't stand by and watch
While they dig us a hole.

Phoenix readers will remember the "Westborough 8," the student climate activists who "locked down" inside the TransCanada Corporation's northeast U.S. office in Westborough on January 7, 2013, protesting the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline and demanding that President Obama and all of our elected leaders get serious about the climate crisis bearing down on their generation. 
Well, on Monday morning, their friends and allies went back to Westborough -- more than 100 of them, with more than 85 of them students and recent grads, and 25 (including a handful of older activists) choosing to be arrested for peaceful, principled civil disobedience. I was there for the Phoenix, and, make no mistake, because I support the protesters.
It was a serious, mournful kind of work the kids had come to do on Monday, dressed in black, marching and singing their dirge in a mock funeral procession -- what they called a "Funeral For Our Future," complete with fake, life-sized coffin -- straight up to the locked glass doors of the TransCanada office on the third floor of a nondescript building in the Westboro Executive Park on Rt. 9.
TransCanada is the company building the Keystone XL -- the pipeline that will transport highly toxic, carbon-intensive tar-sands oil from Alberta to Gulf Coast refineries for export, leaving a smattering of permanent jobs (perhaps as few as 20) in the wake of its construction, while further locking us into fossil-fuel infrastructure at the very moment we need to be leaving carbon in the ground and urgently scaling up clean energy. And yes, it's the same pipeline President Obama delayed last year after mass civil disobedience at the White House in 2011, spearheaded by and the Tar Sands Action campaign.
And TransCanada is a company, along with the whole fossil-fuel industry and its political enablers, that those kids (and many others) accuse of deep-sixing their future with a reckless business model leading straight to catastrophic climate change within this century -- which is to say, within their own lifetimes (if you believe the woolly enviros at the International Energy Agency).
In other words, these kids aren't just fighting to stop a particular pipeline or to protect "the planet" -- they're fighting for themselves, and for everyone else on the front lines of the climate crisis, especially the poorest and most vulnerable. They're fighting for climate justice.
I say "kids." I mean leaders. I mean the young people (as I wrote recently forGrist) who are out in front of the climate movement, showing the way, with their bodies. They're the vanguard of a generation putting itself on the line, helping the rest of us get our moral bearings.  There were 70 college students in this Westborough action -- from Tufts, Brandeis, UMass Amherst, MIT, Middlebury, Hampshire, Green Mountain College -- and at least another 18 recent grads and twentysomethings, many of them involved with 350 MassachusettsStudents for a Just and Stable Future, and the fossil-fuel divestment campaigns on their campuses. They were joined by about a dozen fellow activists over 30, including a group of five older mothers representing their children.
Of the 25 who stayed to be arrested after the police ordered everyone out, 18 were students and all but three were under 30. (But two were pushing 70 -- Boomers back for another round!) They sang as they were led away, first as a group, then one by one. And as they came out of the building in handcuffs, and were loaded into police vehicles, their young friends and fellow mourners swelled the chorus. "We will lay down our bodies/ We will lay down our souls/ No we won't stand by and watch/ While they dig us a hole."
What are we to make of this? What should all the smart, serious people in Boston think about a scene like this?
Here's one thing: the grassroots climate movement, led by young people like theseall around the country, is getting serious -- fast -- and escalating the use of nonviolent direct action to make itself heard. And here's another: the battle over Keystone, and the larger battle over the Alberta tar sands, is shaping up as a defining moment. With the State Dept.'s draft environmental impact assessementunder heavy fire, and a final decision from Obama still months away, it's only going to get hotter as we head into spring and summer.
The action today in Westborough is part of a national and regional upsurge of grassroots activism on climate and Keystone. More than 50,000 people have signed a CREDOAction pledge to resist the Keystone XL with acts of peaceful civil disobedience, and several thousand of those have said they are willing to travel to engage in civil disobedience along the pipeline route. In East Texas, the Tar Sands Blockade has already brought together climate activists, land owners, indigenous people, and members of frontline communities suffering environmental impacts of fossil fuels, to put their bodies in the way of TransCanada's construction of the pipeline's southern leg. They've called for a national week of action March 16-23.
In Washington on Feb. 17, some  40,000 to 50,000 rallied and marched for climate action and against Keystone. At least 1000 traveled to the DC rally from the Boston area alone, organized by 350 Massachusetts and Cambridge-based Better Future Project (I serve on its board as a volunteer). On January 26 in Portland, ME, some1,500 rallied and marched to stop the planned tar-sands pipeline from Montreal to Portland and demand serious climate action from Washington. Thanks largely to the efforts of volunteers with 350Mass, six members of the Massachusetts congressional delegation, including Senator Elizabeth Warren, have signed on with a letter by Maine Congresswoman Chellie Pingree asking the Obama administration to require a full review of any new pipeline use.
Massachusetts politicos would do well to pay attention to this very real grassroots passion on climate and the Keystone pipeline -- not least Ed Markey and Stephen Lynch, as they battle for the Democratic nomination to replace climate champion John Kerry in the Senate. 
Come to think of it, maybe somebody should ask Steve Lynch about that vote of his in favor of Keystone XL. Maybe he should go so far as to clearly state his position on climate change, so that voters of a state with perhaps the strongest record of climate advocacy in Congress will know where he stands on the most urgent issue facing the nation and the world. I mean, he wouldn't want a "Funeral For Our Future" showing up on his doorstep, now would he?

Wen Stephenson is a contributor to the Phoenix and Grist magazine and a founding member of the grassroots network 350 Massachusetts. Twitter: @wenstephenson

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