Asking the Right Questions: from the Keystone XL Hearings to an Occupied Wall Street

keystone-xl-occupy-wall-streetWord on the progressive street was, the Koch brothers and Big Oil were paying for busloads of people to come to the State Department hearings and speak in favor of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. The fat-cat-funded union and industry folks would be there early, with signs, stacking the lines, making it difficult for those opposed to the pipeline to speak and be heard. One more example of big corporate money silencing grassroots voices.

That was the story. Whether it’s completely true or not doesn’t really matter; it got the environmental community geared up for a fight. At the hearing scheduled in Austin for Wednesday, September 28th, we wouldn’t be silenced, or bullied. The hearing would start at noon, but we’d be prepared. 

The first environmentalists arrived at 7:30 a.m. Already, though, there were about 30 people in line, supporters of the pipeline, wearing matching fluorescent orange and green t-shirts with the word “JOBS” in capital letters. By 9:30 a.m., there were at least a hundred people in line, and many environmental advocates were now wearing matching t-shirts, too—light blue ones that read, “NO tar sands.”

The opposing sides could now be clearly identified by the color of their t-shirts.

I was there representing Texas Interfaith Power and Light, bringing religious voices to the table. That morning, we held a public interfaith service of prayer and purpose, and offered words at a coalition press conference. Later, a number of religious leaders would testify in opposition to the pipeline.

When the hearing started, the LBJ Auditorium was packed full of hundreds of people. As speaker after speaker from the first 30 or so in line—industry representatives in business suits and union workers in bright orange or green t-shirts—spoke in favor of the pipeline, some environmentalists in the audience became clearly agitated. Some booed during supporters’ testimony. Some yelled out, “They’re lying!” or, “When do we get to speak!?” Tensions were high.

I sat and listened. Underneath the noise, all I heard was fear, pain and loss. From union workers, I heard a steady litany of suffering: we need jobs; we need homes; we need to feed our kids. From those opposed to the pipeline, I heard a litany of fear: they’ll take our land; they’ll poison our water; they’ll kill the planet. The colors of the t-shirts may have been different, but the pain was very much the same.

I hastily re-wrote my testimony on a yellow notepad in order to address the fear and anxiety in the room. Here’s some of what I said, when it was my turn to speak:

We are told that building this pipeline will create new jobs. But it will also create new problems—harming Native peoples in Canada, increasing air pollution in Houston, creating the risk of oil spills in fragile aquifers, and making global warming—which is already happening—even more severe. Creating new jobs on the backs of other people who are suffering—creating new jobs that create new suffering—is not OK. Let us find other ways, together, to create new jobs.

At the Keystone XL hearing, an auditorium full of union workers, landowners, religious leaders and environmentalists—different groupings of decent, hard-working Americans who love our families and are concerned about the health and vitality of our communities—were fighting. But why exactly were we fighting? Who is promoting and sustaining this false narrative of jobs vs. livable planet? Who is pitting us against each other?

I went from the hearing last Wednesday directly into Rosh Hashana, and then it was Shabbat. When I plugged back in after those sacred days, the Occupy Wall Street movement caught my attention. The “Declaration of the Occupation of New York City,” the protesters’ first official statement, is a remarkable read and has me reflecting more deeply on what I saw at the Keystone XL hearing.

Thomas Pynchon wrote, “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don’t have to worry about the answers.” It is convenient to get disenfranchised groups fighting amongst themselves. When we’re targeting each other, we’re kept from seeing the bigger picture and asking the right questions.

The mainstream media seems confused by the protesters in New York City. There’s no clear demand, no single issue, no cohesive, unified message. Well, maybe that’s appropriate. Maybe that’s what happens when members of all these disaffected groups in our society stand together and say, “You know what? The way things are just isn’t right.

We don’t have enough jobs. We don’t have adequate health insurance. Our schools are underfunded. The food we have time for and can afford makes us fat and sick. Our land, air and water is polluted. Global warming is real and happening now. Our government isn’t representing us—it’s representing big money, big oil, big banks, and big corporations. This isn’t right, and we won’t be pitted against each other anymore.

Maybe, as the Occupy Wall Street protesters highlight, we should be asking why the top 1% of Americans now possesses a greater collective net worth than the bottom 90%. Maybe, instead of arguing about whether we have to sacrifice jobs to protect people’s health and our shared environment, we should be asking why this is the only choice we’re given—as though there are no other options. We live in a land of plenty; there’s no reason we can’t shift gears, invest in clean energy, create jobs and protect the environment.

After my experience at Austin’s Keystone XL hearing, I wonder if the Occupy Wall Street movement, in all its amorphous lack of clarity, is really onto something. Maybe, finally, we’ll start asking the right questions. In that spirit, here’s my first question: What would it look like if advocates for better health care, workers’ rights, criminal justice, better housing, education, gender equality, racial justice, religious freedom, LGBT rights, the environment and others stood together in common cause? What could we accomplish, together?

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This post originally appeared on State of Formation. Photo courtesy of tarsandsaction via Flickr Creative Commons.

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