By Lorenzo Backhaus, junior at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

This past Halloween weekend, I joined over a hundred other young people from across several states at the Midwest Youth Climate Convergence, a climate movement meetup in Minneapolis, Minnesota. After the three-day convergence, I took part in an escalated action against the expansion of Enbridge pipelines carrying tar sands and fracked oil. The whole weekend was a life-changing experience.

I’m a junior at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater studying Environmental Science. My student organization S.A.G.E. (Students Allied for a Green Earth) sent me to gain knowledge and ideas to bring back and share. Gatherings like this are valuable not only for the knowledge gained, but also for the opportunities they present to meet new people and form new relationships.

For much of the convergence, participants split into three tracks: green economy, divestment and reinvestment, and tar sands. I chose tar sands. We did different activities to get to know one another and how we felt about the issue. We had a chance to hear Audrey Thayer, an organizer and educator from the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, enlighten the group about indigenous treaty rights and inform us on how important it is to know which treaties are established in our area. Our breakout group was small, but the discussion and connections made a very strong impact on us all.

On the final day of the convergence, we spent most of our time in our track talking about next steps — what each individual would take from the experience and how they would implement it into taking action. Discussions were shared within the tracks providing future ideas and goals that people wanted and would carry out. We committed to carry on this organizing and reconnect as a group via phone to continue campaign planning. To end the weekend at the convergence, everyone got together one last time for some closing activities and goodbyes. An incredible weekend had came to a close for many, but my experience would continue for a couple more days.

We were given the opportunity to take part in a protest the following day in Duluth, Minnesota, about two and a half hours north of Minneapolis by car. Some people who helped organize the convergence had also taken part in organizing this protest along with many other groups and indigenous leaders from northern Minnesota, including Honor The Earth, MN350, Native Lives Matter / NLM, Idle No More, Northwoods 350, MPIRG, and #FloodTheSystem – Rising Tide. The protest was to target Enbridge Energy, a Canadian company that is currently building oil pipelines across the Midwest. Organizers intended to deliver a set of demands to Enbridge in an escalated way asking for full consultation with native peoples throughout the pipeline planning process as well as full environmental impact statements for each project which would take climate and other considerations into account..

I heard of the opportunity and could not turn it down. The pipelines we would be protesting are planned to go through native land, and the native people do not approve. One of the pipelines comes very near my college in Whitewater. A bunch of us left straight from the convergence and carpooled north in a caravan to Duluth that Sunday night.

It was mid-evening by the time we got to Duluth, but our night wasn’t over yet. We all met up in an organizer’s home for a couple hours of non-violent direct action training and action planning. After a bunch of thought over the past few days, I had decided to be part of the group that would risk arrest if our demands to Enbridge were not answered, and the seven of us broke off for part of the evening to plan specifically what we would do and consult regarding potential legal ramifications.

The protest began the following day around noon at a community center a few blocks away from an Enbridge office and public plaza. We arrived early, and as noon grew closer we witnessed so many people arriving from various communities across the region — about 200 people in total. We listened to native elders speak as well as native drummers play music. Everyone got to enjoy an amazing lunch (fry bread and wild rice!) and then the march began. We marched down the streets, as one powerful movement, chanting and showing our signs.

The group roared down the streets and turned heads as we made our way to the Enbridge office. Once we arrived, we stormed in and made our presence known. The drummers came in after minutes of the crowd chanting and played soulful music to show Enbridge the people would not go out without a stand. Myself, along with six others, volunteered to risk arrest. This meant to stay longer after we were asked by police to leave. We refused to go until the Enbridge office agreed to read our letter addressing demands regarding treaty rights and environmental regulations. The protest went on after the police arrested the seven of us, which showed bystanders and Enbridge that the people were not going to give up.

Us seven arrestees received trespassing citations and were released later that night. We knew the protest had successfully captured public attention when we saw it (and ourselves) come up many times on the evening news that was playing on the TV inside the jail where we were being processed, which was a somewhat surreal experience. News of the protest went viral and even made international headlines. The protest was a success!

These experiences were life changing. I gained a plethora of knowledge and met a ton of new people. It was the most powerful event I’ve ever been a part of, and the feeling of success afterward cannot be explained in words. The weekend influenced me to strive to make a bigger difference and to let nothing get in my way. The protest proved that the people can be bigger than the system, it just takes effort and passion. We can make a difference, and be the change!

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