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Asking for What Obama Promised

Madeline Ostrander
YES! Magazine / News Analysis
Published: Friday 2 September 2011
Protesters push Obama to resist the influence of the oil industry and stop the Keystone XL pipeline.
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It’s hard to get away from corporations’ influence in Washington, D.C. Even at the new Martin Luther King Jr. memorial this weekend, I noted that the sponsors list, etched on a stone wall, was a litany of the most recognizable corporate heavy-hitters—including Walmart, ExxonMobil, Fannie Mae, Lehman Brothers, PepsiCo, and BP. An ironic tribute to a man who openly questioned capitalism and the deep gap between rich and poor.

Over the past two days, I watched more than 200 people get arrested in protests that are attempting to push back against the oil industry’s influence on a key decision that President Obama is about to make. In total, there have been more than 700 arrests since the demonstrations began. In their signs and speeches, the protesters draw self-consciously on King’s legacy of civil disobedience, but many are not seasoned activists. Most of the people I met at the White House gates were core supporters of Obama in 2008. They put their weight and energy into Obama’s campaign, knocking on doors to deliver him a landslide. Three years later, they are angry and frustrated with the president.

The protests focus on stopping the 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline, which would run from Canada to Texas and allow major oil companies to ramp up Alberta tar sands production, refinement, and export. NASA scientist James Hansen, who was arrested at Monday’s protest, says that exploiting Canada’s vast tar sands reserves for fuel would ultimately be “game over” for climate change—no chance of reducing emissions in time to avert disaster. A cable unearthed by WikiLeaks suggests the administration is predisposed to sign off on Keystone XL. Many of the protesters would see such a decision as a betrayal.

“I worked harder for his election than I have for any other president, and I feel as though he has let us down,” said Barbara Schlachter, an Episcopal priest from Iowa, who joined the protest a few days after her grandson’s birth. She had never been arrested before. She expressed a mix of hope and cynicism about Obama. “I think that big oil and big coal have essentially bought Congress and the president.”

I met a 56-year-old from rural North Carolina who had never registered to vote until three years ago, when she cast her first ballot for Obama. She said she still “loved the man” but felt the president was under tremendous pressure. And I spoke with a retired medical journalist from Haines, Alaska, who had three years ago made a return visit to Philadelphia, his hometown, to join Obama’s presidential campaign. “I’m totally pissed off,” he said. “All these volunteers that I was working with—we had a vision for how it was going to be. So I’m sure there are thousands and thousands of people like me who want Obama to do a 180-degree change on where he’s going.”

allow themselves to be rounded up by police. The activists hail from every region of the country. Celebrities and environmental leaders have joined the demonstrations. On Monday, a gathering of preachers, rabbis, and other faith leaders participated. They sang spirituals from the civil rights era as they were handcuffed.

On Tuesday, actor Daryl Hannah joined those arrested. I found her crouched below a tree, coloring in a “No Keystone XL” poster minutes before the protest. “We have the option of having American-made, community-based, renewable clean energy like solar, wind, and geothermal—this is part of Obama’s campaign promise,” she said. “This is his chance to step up to the plate. This is a true test of whether he’s going to be the president he promised to be.”

Bill McKibben, the lead organizer of this demonstration, has kept the tone civil. The demonstrators pledge to remain “dignified in dress and demeanor.” No one resists or heckles the police. Most of the activists I met were breaking the law for the first time. They resist caricature. No one shouted, “Get a job!” at the 32-year-old consultant in heels and a tailored skirt or the Jesuit priest in religious regalia. Some activists broke into tears as the police carted them away.

Granted, it’s unlikely that most of these activists would support a Republican candidate—such as climate-denier Rick Perry—for office. But it’s not merely their votes that helped Obama win: His first campaign ignited thousands of people to organize “get out the vote” activities, bringing millions to polls. It’s not yet possible to make grandiose claims about whether Obama's environmental record could seriously affect his candidacy. But it looks like these protests are channeling angst and frustration not from the fringe but from a group of people at the center of Obama’s base. The protests are beginning to win major national and international press coverage, and Obama would do well to take the demonstrators seriously.

The demonstrators emerge every day from the police station in the neighborhood of Anacostia. They applaud one another as they arrive in a gravel parking lot where organizers meet them with water and granola bars. It feels like the finish line of a sporting event.

On Monday, I traveled to meet the protesters there. Jennifer Bielawski, a 46-year-old from Columbus, Ohio, trembled as she spoke after her arrest. “There are a lot of pissed-off voters here,” she said. “I don’t consider myself particularly political. Like a lot of people I don’t like to inconvenience myself, so to pay for airfare and a hotel room, I really had to be committed to it.” But she was inspired by the number of ordinary people who were willing to participate. “I thought, ‘Get off your lazy butt and go do something. If they can do it, I can.’”

Climate scientist James Hansen was one of the last to be released that day. Wearing a brown fedora hat tipped sideways and a gray suit that had developed several wrinkles, he looked a bit like Indiana Jones. Earlier, during a speech before the protest, Hansen had issued a warning to Obama: “Have no doubt that if the tar sands pipeline is approved, we will be back and our numbers will grow … We must find [a president] who is worthy of our dreams.”

After his arrest, Hansen seemed invigorated. He said he had driven all night on Friday to be sure that Hurricane Irene wouldn’t stop him from participating in the demonstrations. “What we need is the next time to come back with so many people that they can’t arrest us,” he said.

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ABOUT Madeline Ostrander

Madeline is a writer and journalist, who brings the sensibilities of an environmental activist and ecologist to bear on the stories she tells about people, landscape, and the possibility for change.

She is the senior editor for YES! Magazine, a national, independent magazine offering solutions to critical challenges our world faces. She holds a Master's degree in environmental science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

"Madeline Ostrander deftly weaves land and people into her narrative, giving us whole worlds, rendering their wounded beauty palpable, and in the very act of putting such stories to paper, offering hope for healing."

Americans Elect's objective

Americans Elect's objective is to present voters with a presidential and vice presidential candidate unbeholden to either the Democrat or Republican party. It's very simple. When voters are presented with the choice of voting for the Republican or Democrat candidates or the Americans Elect candidates (and presumably others), they make their choice. Where's the fraud or scam? If a voter doesn't care for the Americans Elect candidates, don't vote for them.I hope that Americans Elect will nominate candidates who will overwhelmingly appeal to moderate, independent and liberal voters and knock the socks off the two-party system.

I think it is time true

I think it is time true americans take back our country from the greedy takers and remember how this country was founded. Does the Constitution of the United Stares mean nothing nowadays when it comes to making more money?

I think it is time true

I think it is time true americans take back our country from the greedy takers and remember how this country was founded. Does the Constitution of the United Stares mean nothing nowadays when it comes to making more money?

There actually might be a

There actually might be a third choice next election, check out AmericansElect.orgBut as someone recently pointed out, it's Congress you've got to control - the presidency is sort of trophy without that much power, in reality...

Why are people getting

Why are people getting arrested? Don't citizens have the right to assemble?

Listen to "These Are Your

Listen to "These Are Your Rights" by The Clash.

It appears that neither Obama

It appears that neither Obama nor the other Democrats are listening to those who have been at the core of their support. They're dooming themselves to being voted out of office, by taking for granted the notion that working people will continue to cast ballots for them as the "only alternative" to the Grand Old Party of Big Business. In truth, a vote for Democrats IS a vote for Republicans, because Democrats exist only to fill their own pockets by cooperating with the same big-money interests that support Republicans.
Obama has betrayed the very people who got him elected. The Democratic Party has betrayed its basic vision.
We need to add a third choice to all ballots: "NONE OF THE ABOVE."

There actually might be a

There actually might be a third choice next election, check out

But as someone recently pointed out, it's Congress you've got to control - the presidency is sort of trophy without that much power, in reality...

" . . . they are angry and

" . . . they are angry and frustrated with the president.” Sooo like spoiled children they will withhold their vote resulting in the election of someone totally against their objective, instead of supporting Obama who is striving for the possible. It's like lesser animals eating their own young. Then they will no longer protest since they'll realize it futile.



John Browne's picture

President Obama has the odd

President Obama has the odd fortune to be a Statesman in a country whose culture doesn't value that particular way of interacting with others. "We" have become convinced, by virtue of sports metaphors, "us against them" epithets & the residue of 10 years of War (on 'terrorism', Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Libya, etc) to think only in combative terms, when faced with differences of opinion about pretty much Anything. Asking someone who is determined to see our culture return (to some degree) to civil discourse to be our "in your face" warrior is a kind of tragedy. The Pres calls 'em as he sees' em... but doesn't gloat or rail on & on... pretty much an opposite approach to the T-Parti minions and those seeking their 'approval'. It will be interesting to watch this coming decision, and the seasons that follow, into the Spring 2012. I'm not hopeful... but I AM curious; and I applaud this man, despite any disagreements in the direction of policies. ^..^

That's all well and good,

That's all well and good, John, but apparently Mr. Obama doesn't understand the nature of the game he has been thrust into. He has been thrown into the middle of an Xtreme Sport kickboxing ring, but he apparently thinks he is engaged in a chess match. That's why he keeps getting mauled and will continue to keep getting mauled by the Republicans. And the majority of the American people are getting mauled along with him. Delusionality (if that's a word) does not a good leader make.

Obama Go BOld Nothing to

Obama Go BOld Nothing to lose GOP Baggers will demonize anything you propose So GO BOLD go to
folks speak up now or stop griping

"Congress shall make no law

"Congress shall make no law respecting... the right of the people to peaceably assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." First Amendment, U.S. Constitution, 9/25/1789.

What's with all the arrests? It's Washington, D.C. for God's sake, not Dallas, Texas. One more step toward the totalitarian state we're all expecting.

oBomba started to back peddle

oBomba started to back peddle as soon as he had the nomination. So it has nothing to do with spinelessness or loss of testicles. The conservatives have been infiltrating the Democrat party since at least Bill Clinton, remember he signed NAFTA and underminded FCC regs. that allowed one voice talk radio. With oBomba they claimed the prize. Oh how MLK must be turning. I never believed in oBomba so I am not pissed off like some. But I don't understand why there are more pissed off!!!! These people but their trust in him and he broke it!! Are they just broke for good then that is why they are not in the streets? Was the plan? To break the left once and for all? Well if so oBomba is doing a fine job.

Just don't hold your breath

Just don't hold your breath waiting for this POTUS to get some backbone and do what he promised. The second a Republican/Tea Bagger says "Boo!" he'll wimp out instead of taking the bully pulpit and fighting back. Too bad the first Black President thinks the "kum-by-ya"approach works with those who hate his very existence. And it seems he won't ever find his "cajones" either.

GOP Bagger Hogwash Obama

GOP Bagger Hogwash Obama has plenty of Backbone Got Bin laden - ordered the killing of the Pirates passed health & Wall ST reform good 1st step- more stem cells available for research- saved 1 mil US manufacturing jobs @ GM /Chrysler - START less nukes-

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