This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com
What might have happened if John McCain had won the presidency in 2008? One thing is certain: there would have been a lot more protest from Democrats, progressives, and the left. Take it as an irony of his election, but Barack Obama has proved remarkably effective in disarming the antiwar movement, even as the use of war in American policy in the Greater Middle East has only grown. That Obama, the supposed anti-warrior of the 2008 campaign, has paid less than no attention to his antiwar critics is no news at all. It's now practically a cliché as well that he seems to feel no need to feed his political "base" and that, generally speaking (and explain it as you will), his base has not yet pushed back.
This has been particularly true of Obama's wars, especially the disastrous, never-ending one in Afghanistan. Had Afghanistan been "McCain's war," you would surely have seen growing waves of protest, despite the way 9/11 ensured that the Afghan War, unlike the Iraq one, would long be the unassailable "good war." Still, as American treasure surged into the ill-starred enterprise in Afghanistan, while funds for so much that mattered disappeared at home, I think the streets of Washington would have been filling. What protest there has been, as John Hanrahan of the Nieman Watchdog website reported recently, tends to be remarkably ill-covered in the mainstream media.
Obama, only two points ahead of Ron Paul in the latest Gallup Poll in the race for 2012, is a beyond-vulnerable candidate. (Somewhere there must be some Democratic pol doing the obvious math and considering a challenge, mustn't there?) Fortunately, in another area at least as crucial as our wars, demonstrators against a Big Oil tar-sands pipeline from Canada that will help despoil the planet are now out in front of the White House -- you can follow them here -- and they haven't been shy about aiming their nonviolent protests directly at Obama. Will he or won't he act like the climate-change president that, on coming into office, he swore he would be? Time will tell. Meanwhile, let Bill McKibben, TomDispatch regular, an organizer of the protests, and just out of a jail cell, fill you in. Tom
Arrested at the White House
Acting as a Living Tribute to Martin Luther King
By Bill McKibben
I didn't think it was possible, but my admiration for Martin Luther King, Jr., grew even stronger these past days.
As I headed to jail as part of the first wave of what is turning into the biggest civil disobedience action in the environmental movement for many years, I had the vague idea that I would write something. Not an epic like King's "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," but at least, you know, a blog post. Or a tweet.
But frankly, I wasn't up to it. The police, surprised by how many people turned out on the first day of two weeks of protests at the White House, decided to teach us a lesson. As they told our legal team, they wanted to deter anyone else from coming -- and so with our first crew they were... kind of harsh.
We spent three days in D.C.'s Central Cell Block, which is exactly as much fun as it sounds like it might be. You lie on a metal rack with no mattress or bedding and sweat in the high heat; the din is incessant; there's one baloney sandwich with a cup of water every 12 hours.
I didn't have a pencil -- they wouldn't even let me keep my wedding ring -- but more important, I didn't have the peace of mind to write something. It's only now, out 12 hours and with a good night's sleep under my belt, that I'm able to think straight. And so, as I said, I'll go to this weekend's big celebrations for the opening of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial on the Washington Mall with even more respect for his calm power.
Preacher, speaker, writer under fire, but also tactician. He really understood the power of nonviolence, a power we've experienced in the last few days. When the police cracked down on us, the publicity it produced cemented two of the main purposes of our protest:
First, it made Keystone XL -- the new, 1,700-mile-long pipeline we're trying to block that will vastly increase the flow of "dirty" tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico -- into a national issue. A few months ago, it was mainly people along the route of the prospective pipeline who were organizing against it. (And with good reason: tar sands mining has already wrecked huge swaths of native land in Alberta, and endangers farms, wild areas, and aquifers all along its prospective route.)
Now, however, people are coming to understand -- as we hoped our demonstrations would highlight -- that it poses a danger to the whole planet as well. After all, it's the Earth's second largest pool of carbon, and hence the second-largest potential source of global warming gases after the oil fields of Saudi Arabia. We've already plumbed those Saudi deserts. Now the question is: Will we do the same to the boreal forests of Canada. As NASA climatologist James Hansen has made all too clear, if we do so it's "essentially game over for the climate." That message is getting through. Witness the incredibly strong New York Times editorial opposing the building of the pipeline that I was handed on our release from jail.
Second, being arrested in front of the White House helped make it clearer that President Obama should be the focus of anti-pipeline activism. For once Congress isn't in the picture. The situation couldn't be simpler: the president, and the president alone, has the power either to sign the permit that would take the pipeline through the Midwest and down to Texas (with the usual set of disastrous oil spills to come) or block it.
Barack Obama has the power to stop it and no one in Congress or elsewhere can prevent him from doing so. That means -- and again, it couldn't be simpler -- that the Keystone XL decision is the biggest environmental test for him between now and the next election. If he decides to stand up to the power of big oil, it will send a jolt through his political base, reminding the presently discouraged exactly why they were so enthused in 2008.
That's why many of us were wearing our old campaign buttons when we went into the paddy wagon. We'd like to remember -- and like the White House to remember, too -- just why we knocked on all those doors.
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