D.C. Climate Rally Energizes R.I. Protesters

Text and video by TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The last demonstration Calvin Lau attended in the nation’s capital was an anti-Vietnam War protest in 1972. Back then, the crowd was predominantly college-age. The atmosphere was tense, Lau said.

The mood at Sunday’s climate rally, by contrast, was far more optimistic. The gathering of some 40,000 activists was solidly collegiate, but included nearly as many baby boomers like Lau, 62. Toddlers, octogenarians and those in between also joined the cause. Michael Brune, head of the Sierra Club, marched with his three young children.

“This is more peaceful,” Lau said, as the parade ambled along 15th Street toward the National Mall. At times, the march was more festive than somber, with music, environmental groups of all stripes flaunting their banners and comic characters such as the Lorax.

Lau, a Warwick resident, traveled to the rally on one of four tour buses from Rhode Island. Brown University chartered two buses. The Sierra Club of Rhode Island chartered two. All were full.

Most attendees were invigorated by the spirited march around the White House and the brief speeches delivered by the upper echelon of environmental leaders: Van Jones, Bill McKibben and Brune.

Robert Chew, Rhode Island’s best-known solar energy expert, was especially proud of the rousing speech from Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I. Prior to the rally, Chew said he was frustrated by the lack of a mass acceptance of renewable energy in Rhode Island. “To be a part of this has re-energized me," he said. "I’m coming back to Rhode Island with a new sense of urgency.”

Martha Rounds joined the bus trip with five neighbors from her cohousing association in Acton, Mass. Rounds was thrilled that demanding climate-change action had catalyzed a multi-generational movement. “I’ve never seen that in my lifetime,” she said. “My kids need and want me here. And I need and want to be here. That’s part of the beauty of the movement.”

During the march, Brent Blackwelder, past president of the environmental advocacy group Friends of the Earth, said the rally was a huge boost for the environmental movement, to reduce greenhouse gases and put a stop to the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline. “This is a massive turn of events," he said. "I think we are on the way. There is no way they withstand the pressure that’s being applied.”

But some didn’t agree. Ret. Lt. Col. Dave Fisher of Nebraska had the misfortune of parking his Ford Super Duty pickup along the route of the march. He said it was hypocritical that the protesters wanted to stop an oil pipeline when they all needed fossil fuels to attend the rally. “I’m just curious if they’ll drive home,” he said.

There were few skeptics anywhere near the rally. Protesters hailed from Texas, Kentucky, Minnesota, Michigan, New Mexico and even France.

Although there was no certainty among the marchers that President Obama would halt the proposed pipeline, most, like Lau, were overwhelmed by the sense that the problem was too important to stay home. “This is for the future of the whole world,” he said.