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I am much more comfortable sitting in my room writing about issues than I am screaming pithy rhymes in front of John Kerry’s house. And yet this past March 2nd, I found myself doing exactly that. I had finally been stirred to get off Microsoft Word and head to DC because so far as I know—and to his great loss—John Kerry doesn’t read the Nassau Weekly.

My passion for the biosphere has its roots in a childhood love of animals and nature documentaries, which has since blossomed into a young adult love of animals and nature documentaries. This happy environmentalism comes along with a healthy dose of fear, as I also have a morbid fascination with climate science. Daily news round-ups in my email inbox regale me with prophecies of future doom, reports of present doom, and other (fossil) fuel for my existential panic about what could be the worst mass extinction event since a meteor hit the dinosaurs. There is hope mixed with the terror in these email updates—there are many more minor developments in energy technology than I would have expected—but still, it is impossible for me not to be deeply concerned, and more than a little fiery.

So when I heard about XL Dissent, a mass student protest against climate change with an immediate focus on the Keystone XL oil pipeline, I knew at once that I would go. The action would involve one mock oil spill in front of the White House and another in front of John Kerry’s abode, as well as optional civil disobedience. I brushed up on my pithy rhymes and departed for a strange and wonderful experience in the capital.

 

“Whose streets? Our streets!”

Over a thousand students marched through Washington DC. Many carried signs and banners, at least one a ukulele, and a small handful had the incredible foresight to bring homemade percussion: drums are a must for any protest. The streets were certainly ours, but I did question how we earned them. Police cars were stationed at each intersection to keep it safe for us to cross, and we had obtained a permit beforehand.

After hours of marching and hours zip-tied to the White House fence, the police, as expected, became less accommodating. One by tedious one, they took us aside, patted us down, handcuffed us, took our picture and our belongings, and bussed us off to jail. As the arrests began, the protesters began a chant of “We love you! We love you!” It was an effort to unite with our captors and remind them of our shared humanity, but their professional veneer was unbroken. Once in the jail we would wait in line, fill out some paperwork, spend a few minutes in a cell, pay fifty dollars, and walk free. Even this ostensibly punitive process was streamlined and relatively cooperative. This made things easier, but I am concerned at how much “dissent” can take place in an event orchestrated by the police. Our march against the paid pipers was dancing to a pre-picked tune.

These doubts aside, the crowd truly crackled with energy, and you could feel everyone’s zeal. The protest may have been scripted, but the fervor and dedication behind it weren’t; it seemed the people, like sea levels, were finally rising. We were flooding DC and, what’s more, we hoped to flood our campuses upon our return. Arguably the most important result of XL Dissent was laying the groundwork for a nationwide student environmental movement. Whether or not Obama approves the pipeline, these connections will be invaluable as the broader climate struggle progresses. Of course, first the police would have to let us go.

 

“Whose jail?”

Twenty dissenters were in my shipment away from the White House, and we were lined up in front of the jail. A policeman waited at the entrance to decuff us, and I would be last to reach him. It was raining, but my arresting officer had had the audacity to take the hood of my jacket down. As a rule I don’t mind a little rain, but, determined to pull off at least one small act of defiance, I decided to try and put my hood back on. I was hoping it would be easy; I leaned back and then suddenly jerked forward a couple times, expecting my obedient hood to come soaring up over my head. Alas!—no such luck. A friend saw what I was doing; we made eye contact and smiled, I assume, at how silly I looked. Now that I had an audience, it became imperative to succeed.

For my third attempt, I resolved to really put my whole body into it. I bent my knees, leaned my torso back, then sprung upward and thump!—the next thing I knew I was lying chest-down on the concrete sidewalk. I dimly heard the concerned calls of my fellow students and an officer belatedly direct me to “Stand still!” Everyone, including myself, took a while to figure out what had happened. Apparently, when your wrists are tied behind your back and you try to pitch your shoulders forward, your whole body goes with them. I had broken the skin of my right knee and my left hip, both of which would be bruised and tender for a week.

I managed to raise myself to my feet (my hood—blast it!—still dangling uselessly behind me) and dumbly tried to play off my unceremonious tumble as no big deal. A couple of minutes later, as a policeman finally undid my cuffs, he jibed, “First time using your feet?” I was being taunted by an officer of the law, and the worst part was that I felt I deserved it. I suppose I could spin this into some sobering reminder of the dehumanization inherent in captivity—but in this case I might just be a klutz.

 

“The privilege of getting arrested.”

I was arrest number 239 out of an eventual 398, and I have a wristband to prove it. Number 238 was named Michael; he was born in 1988, was shorter than I, and appeared vaguely Middle Eastern with a thick, untidy black beard. I had not encountered him until we were placed in line together upon our arrest. The first thing I noticed was that he was being uncooperative, refusing to hold his ID in his cuffed hands. At first I thought he was just especially bold and defiant, but there was more to it than that: I was shocked and dismayed to hear he only had twenty or thirty dollars cash on him.

The night before, as we were being briefed, the XL Dissent organizers stressed what they called “the privilege of getting arrested.” The assembled were able to give up a whole weekend for a cause, risk putting an arrest on their record, assume decent treatment by the police, and pay a fifty dollar “post-and-forfeit” to get the charges dropped. To be fair, many there weren’t paying the $50 out of pocket; some wealthy environmentalists had stepped in to make things easier. Still, looking around at our disproportionately white protest, and experiencing the gentle indifference of the police, it was impossible to ignore that this, what I was going through, was not what arrest would normally look like.

But Michael didn’t have fifty dollars. This meant that he would not immediately be released, and would have to follow up with four separate court dates. Luckily he lived in the capital, so the endless bureaucracy would be slightly less of a hassle, but even so we were faced with an uncomfortable reality: if you can’t pay your way out, the US justice system will make your life harder.

We were driven to the jail, and after that nonsense with my hood, joined a queue to be processed. A different lawman, taking pity on Michael, started asking other protesters if they had extra cash. Michael explained his situation and asked for enough money to cover his forfeit and a Metro Card. As he spoke, we realized that there was something off about Michael. He was difficult to understand: it wasn’t his pronunciation of any individual word, but rather the way he strung them together, his pacing and syntax. When people asked him questions, his answers were delayed and often simply repetitions of whatever he’d said before. I obviously was in no position to diagnose, but it seemed he had some sort of mental handicap. The officer asked me to stay with him, to make sure the authorities throughout the process understood his situation.

He was able to collect his $50, and to leave jail with the rest of us. A group of six Princeton students and one alumnus, class of 1965, walked the mile or so from the jail to the Metro Station, and Michael came with us. He didn’t say much, but what he did say came in short, impassioned bursts. He gestured with frustration at the smog spewing from a nearby factory; I couldn’t tell you the words he said but they were filled with anger and hurt and determination. When we eventually parted, as he prepared to exit the train and the Princeton group stayed on, he gave all of us hugs.

 

“We will defend our future. We will resist.”

Four days later, I was dressed in all black with roughly thirty other Princeton students, feigning death on the stairs of Frist Campus Center. One of us sat at the base of the staircase holding a sign that read, “We will defend our future. We will resist,” and contained a link to an online pledge. We had also printed out multiple copies of the pledge to disperse around Frist. The pledge elucidated the effect of the tar sands oil on climate change as well as the pipeline-specific issues (habitat and ecosystem disruption, the threat to human communities and water supplies posed by potential spills, the trampling of indigenous land rights), calling for a commitment to civil disobedience if the final leg of Keystone XL is approved.

In short, we were asking Princeton students, the purported future leaders of America, to (potentially) break the law. We spend most of our time here being told to become the power, and not nearly enough time being told to challenge it. I don’t know if our little die-in changed many minds, but I’m glad we did it.

Less gladdening, however, was the coverage in the next morning’s Daily Princetonian. A brief caption under a front-page picture described us as a “mock oil spill” that lasted for “two minutes.” While our intent wasn’t necessarily to replicate an oil spill, that was an understandable interpretation of the act. It had been optimistic to assume people would make the connection from an oil pipeline to human death via crop failures, ferocious extreme weather events, the expanded range of malaria and other diseases, and whatever else climate change is bringing (and has already brought). It was the “two minutes” that bugged me: we were there for twenty.

This scares me not because of its short-term effects, but because I am haunted by future historians. In the year 2093, some history major doing her thesis on “Princeton’s failure to confront climate change in time” will come across a 79-year-old Prince and write, “Campus activism was limited to a two-minute mock oil spill,” and that piece of misinformation will become fact; we’ll all be too old to dispute it. Of course, this hypothetical historian looking at March 7, 2014’s issue will also come across a full page of lorem ipsum—a string of nonsense Latin used as placeholder in layout—instead of an opinion page, so hopefully they’ll take it with a grain of salt.

 

“How the authors were admitted to Princeton boggles the mind.”

To nobody’s surprise but my own, Princeton’s student body is not unilaterally opposed to Keystone XL. In a March 12 issue of the Prince, sophomore Duncan Hosie wrote “The Case for Keystone,” an editorial in which those who went to DC were called “extreme.” In response, nine of us (eight of whom went to DC and six of whom were arrested) collaborated on an 850-word editorial explaining ourselves. While it turns out that nine is far too many people to efficiently collaborate on a short column, I think it turned out okay.

Unfortunately, an op-ed can only say so much. While we the writers, if confronted individually, could back up our claims with further detail and broader research, what we had written did not persuade the online commenters. Many dismissed us as “mindless sheep,” dithering idealists who don’t understand how the real world works. In spite of myself, the jabs stung. I desperately wish I could sit together over dinner with our critics and have an open conversation on the issue, but I don’t know how to make that happen. Even if no one swapped views, at least face-to-face contact might limit the name-calling, and commenter “dumb dumb dumb” might understand how we got into Princeton.

 

“I had no idea that Princeton—where I visited once—had such an intensive and complete course of study in energy.”

I recently received a bizarre, derisive letter from a random man from Apple Valley, CA. He had read an article on the University Press Club’s blog (The Ink) in which I was quoted about the protest. I am not sure why some dude in California was reading a Princeton student news blog, other than the fact that he had apparently “visited once,” but regardless, his general critique was that we were more interested in “Drama 101” than in “the complexities of the petroleum industry.“

In some sense, speaking only for myself, this is true. I am told that to be realistic and pragmatic, I should endorse a protracted game of Russian roulette with the planet as we know it, blithely risking the exceptionally dramatic effects of climate change.

A recent release from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggests that, if we want a fighting chance of keeping warming below the internationally agreed upon limit of two degrees Celsius, 75% of the existing reserves of fossil fuel companies must be kept in the ground. I understand that a handful of numbers in a UN report aren’t going to mean a whole lot to someone whose company profits immensely from these fuels, and, I’ll grudgingly admit, provides a useful service to society at large. This is especially true (and especially troubling) when the worst of the effects are seen in the developing world, not in the industrialized nations where the fossil fuel companies are based.

Which is why it’s so important to make some noise. The law that I broke—a weirdly circular DC statute forbidding “demonstration in an area where it is otherwise unlawful to demonstrate”—may not have been directly linked to my cause, and I wouldn’t think of ascribing my action the same rhetorical force and moral courage as those of Gandhi, Mandela and Rosa Parks. But nor do I think that the law breaking of XL Dissent can be reduced to a mere publicity stunt.

Allow me to make my own small contribution to civil disobedience theory: I will proudly claim the mantle of dramatist, if that is what it makes me to reject any energy scheme encouraging long-term reliance on fossil fuels. As I told The Ink, “If they’re going to do something absurd like pursue an all-of-the-above energy policy, I’m going to do something absurd like chain myself to a fence.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the Opinion piece in the Daily Princetonian was called “The Case for the Pipeline.” This has been replaced with the correct title, “The Case for Keystone.”