The first buses of students are beginning to arrive in DC for this weekend’s XL Dissent protest at the White House. I’m in a cafe just around the corner from the Thurgood Marshall Center, where students will be gathering this afternoon for a meetup on fossil fuel divestment. Later tonight, they’ll take part in a mass training in civil disobedience in preparation for the sit-in this Sunday.

There’s a palpable beat of excitement as tomorrow gets closer. Walking around U St. here in DC, you can see students with backpacks and sleeping bags finding their way to the convergence center. Hundreds of them will be sleeping just up the road from here tonight in a local church. One of our support team just grabbed my credit card to order another 50 pizzas (with vegan and gluten free options, of course) since our numbers continue to expand.

In a blog post I recently wrote up for Common Dreams, I pasted in a quote from Howard Zinn that goes, “Protest beyond the law is not a departure from democracy; it is absolutely essential to it.” I’ve been thinking a lot about those words this weekend as I’ve been helping pitch out the story of XL Dissent.

These days, protest is one of the least understood parts of our democracy. We obsess ourselves with the minutia of elections, the cyclical back-and-forth of Congress, and the utterings and mis-utterings of White House officials, while often ignoring the messier work of social movements.

The students taking part here in XL Dissent see their democratic responsibilities as extending beyond the voting booth. Through President Bush, and now Obama, they’ve learned that the promises politicians make to woo the youth vote are often little more than pandering. If anything, the Obama administration seems to have solidified the impression that even the most youth-friendly candidates need to be pushed, protested, and forced into living up to their rhetoric.

We all remember the heady days of 2008, when President Obama spoke in front of tens of thousands of people in Grant Park and promised that “this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”

Those words proved misleading, at best. Over the last six years, the seas have continued to rise and the fossil fuel industry has continued to pillage the planet, often aided and abetted by the Obama administration. Just this week, the US moved a step closer towards opening up the Atlantic seaboard for offshore drilling, something President Obama personally advocated for back in 2010 before BP dumped 5 million barrels of crude into the Gulf of Mexico and such brazen handouts to Big Oil became politically unpalatable.

If the historic election of a President isn’t the moment when we begin to turn the tide on climate change, what could be? We’ll only know in retrospect, of course, but I think that moment will feel something like the pulse here at XL Dissent. The moment won’t come in the halls of Congress, but in the streets outside the Capitol. It will be a moment of protest, of civil disobedience, of organizing. A moment when we begin to reclaim a more expansive understanding of what democracy really means. This Sunday could be the beginning.


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