Despite cold temperatures, more than 35,000 people gathered in Washington, D.C. to participate in the Forward on Climate Change rally on Sunday, Feb. 17.
Protesters came together to reject the Obama administration’s controversial proposal for the Keystone XL Pipeline, that would run from Alberta, Canada to the Gulf Coast of Texas. SUNY New Paltz students made their voices heard, as members from the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG), Students for Sustainable Agriculture (SFSA) and the SUNY New Paltz Oxfam group attended.
After a 5:30 a.m. bus departure, New Paltz students arrived in Washington, D.C. at 11 a.m. The bus, organized by Oxfam Co-Vice President Anna Butinger, was filled with 44 people. Butinger planned the trip as part of Oxfam’s “Extracting Oil” campaign.
Speeches from politicians, celebrities and Native American leaders kicked off the rally, which started at noon.
“The highlight for me was when three chiefs of indigenous tribes spoke,” Butinger said.
A quote from one of the Native American women who spoke helped reinforce Butinger’s reason for hours of trip preparation.
“The woman said we need to ‘take out of need and not greed,’ and I really think that is where we go wrong,” Butinger said. “We take what we want.”
For Oxfam President Jaklin Levine-Pritzker, the most influential speech came from a policymaker.
“Hearing Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse speak to us about the impact we have on politics was so empowering,” Pritzker said. “I plan on going to law school and getting into politics, and hearing someone with so much power using it for the good made me feel so much more confident about being able to accomplish my goals through policy making and law.”
After the speeches, crowds of supporters marched around the White House, chanting and waving signs. After singer Eve performed, a dance circle emerged in front of the monument. The circle was composed of a couple hundred people and was approximately 150 feet across, Butinger estimated.
“It turned into this really amazing time, this great dance party,” NYPIRG member Kenny Satterlee said. “There was this 80-year-old woman dancing to dubstep, I had to respect that.”
Though he enjoyed the speeches, Satterlee’s favorite part of the rally was the universal sense of community and understanding among strangers during the march.
“I really loved the marching part. I sounded like a pubescent boy at the end of the day,” Satterlee said. “Everybody could start a conversation with everyone there. A woman I didn’t even know and I had a moment where we shamed a natural gas ad on a bus together – I appreciate that sense of community.”
The most memorable group chant for Satterlee was a rendition of the Carly Rae Jepsen hit, “Call Me Maybe,” which went “Hey, I just met you/And fracking’s crazy/So call Governor Cuomo/He’ll stop fracking, maybe.”
Another chant, a favorite of Levine-Pritzker’s, was “Hey Obama! We don’t want no climate drama!”
Some who attended the rally used more than their voices to make themselves heard. Levine-Pritzker said she witnessed the “powerful” sight of a pregnant woman with her shirt folded up to expose her stomach, holding a sign that said, “Help me protect my baby.”
Hobie Ramin, a third-year journalism major, not associated with any club, said a similar sight was just as jarring.
In front of the White House gates, Ramin heard “the wail of protests erupting from an expecting literally-any-minute pregnant woman,” carrying a picket sign in one arm and a toddler in the other.
“I kept thinking ‘what if this thing decides to pop out right here in the middle of this rally with 40,000 people around?’” Ramin said. “This woman used her extreme pregnant state to create a poignant soap box. She got her point across that protecting the environment is to ensure our children have a place to live.”
Along with the issue of the Keystone XL Pipeline, the detrimental effects of factory farming, genetically modified food and hydraulic fracturing were also addressed at the rally.
Though the rally was considered a success by many who attended, Butinger said she received disheartening news not too long after the crowds left at 4 p.m.
“A couple of days after the rally, we found out that while we were in Washington, D.C., Obama was playing golf with oil industry executives,” Butinger said. “That broke my heart a little bit. But in politics, sometimes you just have to play the game. I hope that doesn’t reflect any decision he’s going to make, and that he’ll listen to thousands of us.”