I’ll admit that I avoided becoming too personally invested in the campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline. I didn’t want to see it constructed, but at the same time, I knew that even if it could be prevented, it would be only a temporary victory; that the tar sands companies wouldn’t stop drilling just because they couldn’t pipe their oil down to Texas (in fact TransCanada is already proposing an even longer Plan B pipeline), so Keystone didn’t seem like the right fight to pick, given all the other environmental battles raging around the world.
Indeed, during the time that the Keystone XL proposal wound its way through Congress, and Nebraska state courts, the US State Department gave its blessing for the construction of another cross-border pipeline that flouted established legal process, and that will be built by Enbridge, the company responsible for the worst inland oil spill in US History, only 4 years ago. Why, I wondered, weren’t as many people protesting this pipeline?
On the other hand, if you were to make a list of all the police killings of unarmed black people in 2014, the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson might not have seemed like the most likely to spark protests. Why wasn’t there more outrage when Yvette Smith, a 47-year old African-American woman was shot and killed on her own doorstep by police who then changed their story several times? Why weren’t there nationwide protests over the brutal killing of Tamir Rice a 12-year old –twelve, for Chrissake! — who police officers shot on sight because he had a pellet gun?
Perhaps part of the answer is the heavier symbolic weight that some incidents carry. The protests against Keystone XL, for example, are about much more than the environmental impact. The plan to build the pipeline through an Indian Reservation that has not given its approval has saddled the pipeline with the historical baggage of disregard and deceit by the US government. The increasing amount of money that TransCanada has spent on lobbying the US government means Keystone XL has become part of the debate over the overwhelming influence of corporate money in US politics. And the ability of oil industry lobbyists to use their connections within the Obama administration and the State Department has made Keystone XL a battle about corruption and crony capitalism.
Similarly, Michael Brown’s death wasn’t disturbing just because he was yet another unarmed, African-American teenager killed by a white police officer. That his lifeless body was left to rot in the street for over 4 hours uncomfortably recalled lynchings, where black corpses were left to hang in public as an example to other African-Americans who might get too ‘uppity.’ That this particular killing happened in Ferguson, a town where the majority of the population is black but almost all the police officers are white threw into stark relief the racial disparities in policing in the US.
And this gets to the bigger point: to some, these protests are about the trees. But to many of the protestors themselves, they are about the forest. That is to say, many who protest the Keystone XL pipeline are protesting all the others, and the crowds protesting Michael Brown’s death are in fact protesting all the others (as witnessed by the fact that the death of Eric Garner, and the subsequent failure to indict his killer now feature prominently in protests around the country).
And I would hazard a guess that protests generally are never just about one thing. By now, we can all surely appreciate that the Freedom Riders were protesting much more than just the segregation of inter-state buses?