Were Black Workers Bamboozled About Keystone XL Pipeline?

Obama rightfully delayed building the pipeline, but the concerns of people of color still need addressed.  By Kari Fulton, Loop21.com

It was a warm August afternoon when I walked down to the White House. Some of my comrades with the Indigenous Environmental Network were heading down to stand in line and get arrested in protest of the Keystone XL pipeline. The pipeline was proposed to run from Alberta, Canada all the way down to Port Arthur, Texas, making stops in several different states along the way. Proponents of the pipeline touted that it would create over 20,000 new jobs (though this number is widely disputed) and help America lower its dependency on oil from “unfriendly countries.”

The Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) and many of its colleagues have been fighting this pipeline and the original keystone pipeline for years now, calling out the dangers of extracting crude oil and its impact on public drinking water, health and sacred Indigenous land. However, like most touching made-for-TV moments in American History, it took one “Brave White Man” to stop it all. Bill McKibben enters stage left.

Photo: Flickr / ElvertBarnes via Campus Progress

Bill McKibben, for those not in the know, is a climate scientist and founder of 350.org, an international organization that hosts various “days of action” and encourages non-violent civil disobedience to address the politics of climate change. Over the years he's gained a strong global following and even made an appearance on Comedy Central's “The Colbert Report.” In a few months he and the organizers with Tar Sands Action gathered together for what one lady stated as, “the most important day of my life.” During the month of August, 1,253 people were arrested in front of the White house. Each spent roughly twenty minutes in a holding cell and paid $100 in fines (yes that's $125,300).

In September, the US Department of State hosted several public comment hearings across the country. While I was not up for getting arrested (nah, son.) I did make a point to attend the hearing held in my town of Washington, D.C. What I saw was the real conversation on this pipeline. Walking in the room was like walking the borders of gang territory. The air was a bit tense but still cool. On one side of the room was an intergenerational mix of friendly white folk.  They camped out all night to hold their place in line and several held spots to ensure Indigenous leaders who traveled from Canada and other areas directly impacted by the pipeline could testify.

On the other side of the room were black, brown and white working class folk dressed in bright orange shirts promoting their union affiliation. In the back of the room, more white folks were dressed in suits with crisp polish on their shoes and grins that screamed “Hello, I'm here to protect my money.”

As one of very few African Americans in attendance that did not support the pipeline, I went over and started chatting with my folk. What I found out was even more disturbing. Many of the people wearing the union shirts were actually paid to be there and had no idea what they were supporting. One man even thought he was coming down to partake in Occupy D.C. The groups were given misleading information on how many jobs the pipeline would actually create and none of them were told of the adverse health effects of the pipeline. 

However, what they did know is what it feels like to not have a job. One gentleman I spoke with broke it down, “This union is one of the only ones that will hire a convicted felon. So I got love and respect for them. Without it I wouldn't have any job.”

As we were speaking, a greasy dude in a suit and crisp shoe polish walked up to him patted him on the back and said, “Thanks for coming out today.” The whole situation left me queasy and undone. On one end of the spectrum you have folks who have the luxury of getting arrested, and on the other end folks who did real time and strive for the luxury of having a steady paycheck. The white college student who testified that the corporations were lying about how many jobs the pipeline was going to create probably had no idea he was being just as offensive; because honestly, how many black convicted felons are environmental groups hiring?

Two months later, the fight against the pipeline reached a halt. Allegations of mishandling of public comments and cronyism plagued the proponents' arguments for the pipeline. Plus, it probably did not hurt that Bill McKibben and roughly 12,000 members of President Obama's funding and constituency base circled the White House offering the most intense of Care Bear Stares towards the Obama Administration.

Yesterday, Obama agreed to delay the decision to build the pipeline until after the 2012 elections. McKibben e-mail blasted the world and rang out shouts of victory. However in reality there is still more work to be done. People still need healthy, clean and green jobs and Indigenous communities and communities of color are still disproportionately burdened by toxic facilities, including the original Keystone pipeline. America is still dependent on foreign energy sources and, oh yeah, the homie I met is still fighting for the luxury of that steady paycheck. 

However, since I'm not one for talking that yang and not bringing any solutions I will say this: We need more folks of color actively engaging in this fight for our future. We cannot allow one cultural group to dominate the discussion on how we will revitalize and green our economy.

A few nights ago I was happy to walk into the Hillcrest Community Center in Prince George's County, Maryland and see a room packed mainly with African Americans to discuss investments in wind energy. I was even happier to see the local council member tell the crowd they were working to ensure that offshore wind brought jobs directly to Maryland and truly supported the local economy.

For the first time in American History, African Americans, Indigenous Americans and young people are in the best position to play a role in defining our next industrial revolution. Over at the Environmental Justice and Climate Change Initiative we have been working to engage communities of color around the country with regards to changing the world around us. The Keystone XL pipeline is just one fight. There are many more coming up and coming soon. We are working with a dynamic coalition to make sure people of color are informed, engaged and leading the way towards justice for our futures.

For more information and to learn how you can lift your voice for Environmental Justice please visit EJCC.org.