By Janette Rosenbaum
It's 6am, and 50 Madisonians are ready to roll. They're on their way to the Tar Sands Resistance March in St. Paul, Minnesota. There, they'll join a few other Madison locals, as well as thousands of people from across the Midwest, some of whom have already been travelling for hours by the time the Madison contingent takes a group photo and boards their bus.
It's my first major protest and I don't really know what to expect. Will my fellow protesters, mostly members of 350Madison or the Four Lakes Sierra Club, spend the fivehour bus ride sleeping or making small talk about their families? Not at all, it turns out. The bus quickly transforms into a rolling conference room. I hear conversations about tar sands, but also about emerald ash borer and race relations and the minimum wage. I'm travelling with an informed, engaged group of people.
As we cross the Mississippi River, our bus captain, Judy Skog, tells us to be ready to disembark quickly. When we pull up at Lambert Landing in St. Paul, it's not hard to see why. March organizers snap another group photo of us, then hurry us along so the next bus can come in. One coach after another arrives to unload passengers, flags, banners, and a whole lot of enthusiasm.
The riverside path fills up quickly. I see demonstrators of all ages, from those too young to walk to just about the oldest capable of managing the 1.5mile route. Groups have come from as far away as North Dakota, Oklahoma, and Indiana.
Organized, But Free
There's a rough organization to the lineup, with First Nations representatives at the front and war veterans at the back, but nobody seems to be staying in their assigned spot. Protesters break off from their groups to visit other delegations, exchanging energy, stories, and even the signs they'll be carrying during the march.
350Madison's giant octopus balloon attracts a lot of attention. Flags and banners are blowing in the wind coming off the river, but the octopus is one of the few props that needs half a dozen people to hold it down. Balloon creator Carl Whiting directs his crew of handlers masterfully, preventing the Enbridge Octopus from causing any more damage.
The march steps off some time after noon, and a seemingly endless stream of people crosses the first road while police hold back traffic. Cars back up along the river. Drivers honk. Whether they're honking at us or with us is hard to tell.
The march is peaceful and orderly as it proceeds through the streets towards the Minnesota Capitol building, though the marchers don't stay in order. Every time I look around I see different people carrying different signs, with slogans ranging from the starkly unambiguous "No Tar Sands" to the whimsical "Save the Water Pokémon". This freeform approach to marching confuses me until I learn that the march is not for the small crowd of onlookers.
"We energize ourselves," Kathlean Wolf tells me on the bus ride home. She explains that the purpose of mass demonstrations is to bring activists together, giving them an opportunity to network, share information, strategize, and draw energy from one another.
The march organizers energize us as we walk, leading us in songs and chants. Partway along the route, the organizers inform us that we are 5,000 strong, making this march officially the largest demonstration against tar sands in the Midwest to date.
The afternoon is getting warm as the protesters arrive at and disperse across the Capitol lawn. Some sit on the grass while others continue standing with their flags and banners. From the speakers' podium, Native women offer a prayer over water, raising their voices above the construction noise emanating from the Capitol building.
Rev. Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus serves as master of ceremonies for a lineup of prominent climate activists. Sarah WellsHeadbird of the Ojibwe nation reminds us that the fight is not just about economics: plants and animals have social and cultural value as well. Gianna Strong of the Horse nation agrees, encouraging us to "walk in peace and harmony with all living things, as well as walk in peace and harmony with Mother Earth herself."
"The Midwest is absolute ground zero of the climate fight," Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, tells the assembled crowd of activists from a dozen Midwestern states. "Every pipeline in America, and every pipeline around the world, is going to be fought from now on, and fought bitterly. We are starting to win in a big way."
Representative Keith Ellison of Minnesota's Fifth Congressional District also believes the march will make a difference. "When the people are marching and the people are demanding, the people are going to get what they want," he says, to a round of applause.
The crowd thins and the cheering dies down a bit as Sierra Club President Aaron Mair speaks and musical group The Raging Grannies sings, but Honor the Earth founder Winona LaDuke brings back some energy to the rally. "You got a choice between water and oil," she says, after giving the discouraging news that Minnesota's Public Utilities Commission has just approved another Enbridge project. "Time to make the right choice."
The rally is still going on as the Madison delegation regroups and returns to their bus for the long ride home. As sandwiches and snacks are shared around, I ask my fellow protesters what they think the impact of the march will be.
"From all walks of life, we walked together, we fought together," reflects Art Shegone, a member of the Menominee Nation. Corporations are making everyone angry, he says, and should remember that the public can do a lot of damage to them through boycotts and other organized actions.
"We'll probably do another march," says Harry Bennett, in a tone of resigned determination. "It's a long struggle."
350Madison's meetings are held the first Monday of each month, 7pm, at 1704 Roberts Court. The group can be found online at 350madison.wordpress.com, and members will be at the next Dane County Zoning Board meeting (July 16, 7:30pm, City County Building Room 201) to continue opposing expansion of Enbridge pipelines.