Local Occupy Protesters Join D.C. Rally

By TIM FAULKNER/ecoRI News staff

PROVIDENCE — The local Occupy movement traveled to Washington this weekend to join an estimated 10,000 protesters against the proposed transcontinental tar sands oil pipeline.

Two buses left the city early Saturday with about 40 protesters from the Occupy Providence and Occupy College Hill protest groups for the Sunday afternoon rally at the White House. The event was organized by activist and college professor Bill McKibben of 350.org and Tarsandsaction.org. Both groups urge President Obama to deny the permit for the pipeline.

The international Occupy movement against corporate greed and its influence on politics has developed a strong environmental advocacy element since its beginnings on Wall Street on Sept. 17.

Big oil companies' power over government policy, particularly in blocking environmental regulation and climate change legislation, has been a call to action for many protesters.

"I think the Occupy movement is about creating a government that is for and by the people, and it's also about a more sustainable world," said Nick Cardin, an organizer of the Occupy Providence contingent that traveled to Washington, D.C.

Armed with banners, pillows and sleeping bags, some 30 students from Brown University and Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) boarded a hired D.C.-bound bus at 9 a.m. Saturday. "I've been looking to do this for a while," said Matthew Parks, a Brown graduate student studying applied mathematics. He was inspired to participate in the protest by an Aug. 23 rally against the Keystone XL pipeline at the White House. Nearly 300 activists were arrested at the peaceful protest, urging President Obama to block the oil pipeline from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico.

Many of the local student protesters, including several studying environmental science, oppose the pipeline because of the massive carbon dioxide emissions released by the drilling, processing and burning of tar sands oil.

"I connected with the issue primarily from a climate change perspective, but since then I've learned that the implications of the pipeline stretch far beyond its environmental impacts," said Jacqueline Ho, a Brown University sophomore and organizer of the campus travelers. The Occupy movement has been discussed extensively in her classes and sparked a recent Occupy College Hill protest. Students identify with the cause over several issues, such as public health and the exploitation of Native-American property.

"It has different ramifications for different people," said David Granberg, who is also studying environmental sciences at Brown. 

But he noted that the protest, or action as its referred to by members of the Occupy movement, won't likely halt the pipeline or stop climate change. "It's part of a larger trend, not something we can stop with one action," Granberg said. "It's a bright light in the middle of a broader campaign."

The protesters gathered for a rally in Lafayette Square before encircling the White House with a makeshift oil pipeline and other props.

Oil company TransCanada has proposed the 1,700-mile Keystone XL extension to the existing Keystone pipeline to bring tar sands to the Midwest from Alberta. The extension would pass through the Ogallala aquifer, triggering strong opposition from activist groups concerned about climate change, indigenous rights and the health of the Ogallala.

Obama is expected to make a decision on the permit by December.

Brett Anders, a sophomore at Brown, expressed his disappointment in the way President Obama has framed his decision as "a choice between the economy and the environment."

Brown student Elizabeth MacDougal said the protest was more positive than expected. "The creativity and energy from those concerned about the various issues involved as well as the president’s campaign promises were enough to remind us of the hope we still have.”