Updated 12:31 p.m.: A previous version of this article did not include the interview with Hugh Ratcliffe ’15.
Seven Bowdoin students stood by or zip-tied their arms to a White House fence and were consequentially arrested for “blockading passage” last Sunday. In the 1200-person, student-led protest opposing the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, 398 students were arrested and 80 colleges represented.
The bill approving the $5.4 billion TransCanada pipeline is currently awaiting President Obama’s signature. It would transport crude oil from the Alberta Tar Sands to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Thirteen Bowdoin students—five first years, two sophomores, and six juniors—traveled to Washington D.C. for the protest. Most were members of the Bowdoin Democrats or Bowdoin Climate Action. Many wished to remain anonymous to the Orient.
According to Matt Goodrich ’15, one of the student organizers of the national XL Dissent protest, the students each posted a $50 fee to be released after a few minutes in jail. They face no court date and were not technically charged or convicted.
“If I was asked if I’d ever been convicted of a crime, the answer would be no,” said Hugh Ratcliffe ’15, another protest participant. “It’s an infraction, so legally speaking, it’d be the same thing as me getting arrested for failing to walk my dog with a leash. But the political statement transcends the charge.”
“I think we sent the message to President Obama that the youth of this nation are going to hold him accountable and we voted for a climate change champion and not for a pipeline president,” said Goodrich.
The protest began with a morning rally at Georgetown University and then moved past John Kerry’s house, where students unfurled a huge mock oil spill tarp urging for the pipeline’s rejection.
Once in front of the White House, students planning to face arrest either tied themselves to the fence or lay on the tarp in biohazard suits splattered with black paint to stage a “die-in” on Pennsylvania Avenue.
“The police gave us a few warnings, saying ‘You’re going to get arrested if you don’t move’ which we knew. There was a lot of chanting, a lot of goodwill,” said Goodrich. “People were clearly dedicated.”
Ratcliffe said that the scope of the protest was inspiring.
“I was surprised by the passion that a lot of people seemed to share on this issue, because until now it’s been mostly a personal feeling that I’ve had, so to gather with over a thousand kids who feel the same way about something that I feel is very important," he said.
Goodrich said the arrests of hundreds of students took a few hours, as the police methodically moved first female participants and then male participants from the scene in police vans.
The protesters were given six warnings to vacate the premises, and after no one moved, the police began arresting about five people every 15 minutes, according to Ratcliffe.
“The police were respectful, it took a long time—you don’t really think about how long you’re going to be on the fence when it’s raining," Goodrich said. "On the whole it was simple.”
Bowdoin students each paid $10 for a chartered bus, traveling with over 50 student protestors from Colby, Bates, U-Maine Orono and the College of the Atlantic. The remainder of the $7,000 bus cost was paid for with a $2,000 donation from 350Maine and a $5,000 donation from a source that Goodrich would not identify. They also raised $2,050 in a crowd-sourced fundraising campaign that ended last night, which they will use to pay back some donations.
After the all-night bus ride from Maine, students arrived the morning of Saturday, March 1 and spent the day in breakout training sessions with activists from other colleges.
“We learned the details of the action the next day and agreed to compose ourselves and act with dignity and respect to everyone involved and to not do anything crazy,” said Goodrich.
The chartered bus was committed to a 7 p.m. departure on Sunday evening due to weather forecasts, but arrest proceedings took longer than expected. As a result, Goodrich said that he thinks fewer students sought arrest than might have otherwise. Though 13 Maine students were arrested, he speculated that the number might have been 20 in better conditions.
XL Dissent organizers reached out to Goodrich in January to help play a planning role. He joined their media team, participating in weekly phone conferences about the scope of the protest and relying on the recently formed Maine Students for Climate Justice network to recruit student-activists across the state.
Goodrich said that President Barry Mills was supportive of the students’ plan to travel to D.C., a sentiment echoed by many members of the student body.
“I totally support what they did and I wish that I had known more about it, because I would have been interested,” said Sara Hamilton ’16.
Other students questioned the protest’s effectiveness.
“I’ve heard the counter-argument that people seem upset that they go and do that, spend five minutes in jail, and think they can tweet about it as if they’ve been through some hardship, but I don’t think that’s what their goal was,” said Eduardo Jaramillo ’17. “It was to raise awareness.”
Hamilton agreed that the power of the protest was not necessarily in its potential for immediate change, but rather in in its empowerment for oft-disillusioned American youth.
“I don’t feel like I can do anything, but I know you’re not supposed to have that feeling,” she said. “At least [the protestors] are standing up for what they care about."
After an environmental review by the State Department that estimated the XL Pipeline will not have a “significant” effect on greenhouse gas emissions because the oil would likely reach the market in other ways, the pipeline has undergone a 30-day public comment period, which ends this Friday.
John F. and Dorothy H. Magee Associate Professor of Government Laura Henry said that at a time when both international and domestic attempts at climate change legislation have floundered, the impetus for change via civil disobedience is large.
“Do I think Obama would walk out of the White House and meet with these people? No, but there’s the chance that he would call someone like the Environmental Defense Fund, some more moderate group, and say, ‘Hey, what can we do here? Do some research for me, brainstorm, give me some policy options,’” she said, citing what political scientists call the “radical flank effect.”
Whether or not this surge of student-focused pressure on Obama will sway him to reject the XL Pipeline will remain unknown for a few months.
“His standing in the environmental community has already been affected by the inability to move ahead with significant climate change policy initiatives,” said Professor of Government Allen Springer.
Though Henry said she is “not entirely optimistic” about Obama rejecting the XL Pipeline, she said that the move would dovetail with his restated commitments to fighting climate change.
“The students are right in thinking about how Obama wants to think about his legacy," she said. "He is the youth president.”
- John Branch and Matthew Gutschenritter contributed to this report.