Pacific Swell | Southern California environment news and trends

Tar sands protests making waves, nodding to Martin Luther King

Southern California might be looking to The Wedge for surf over Labor Day, but protesters in D.C. have been making waves for a couple of weeks already. Nearly 850 people have been arrested in front of the White House in an action aimed at preventing President Barack Obama or the State Department from granting approval to the Keystone XL pipeline, the line that would connect tar sands in Canada with the Gulf Coast. They'll wrap up this weekend.

We did check in on this before when a group of people left Sacramento in an eastbound caravan. Notes about what's happened lately:

The arrests keep coming, and so do the Californians.

Sure, there's celebrity watch news; most of the actors who said they planned to get arrested did (except Mark Ruffalo. Hulk smash!)

I also talked to a 28-year-old guy named Carlos Naranjo Jr. who just graduated from UCLA. Naranjo is living in Corona as he applies to graduate school for chemistry. He was part of the caravan from California. Naranjo said he was an organizer for Obama during the last election, and he wasn't quite ready to stake his vote for Obama in 2012 on tar sands. But he said the decision is important to him because California's values for the environment are worth having in other parts of the country. I asked him what getting arrested is like. "Beautiful," he said. "Religious groups we were with sang songs. But it was really hot in the van."

Martin Luther King Jr. is a touchstone for tar sands protesters.

Activists have strengthened the rhetorical link between climate change and civil rights. As King said at the National Mall, in a speech environmentalists have cited several times, "We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism." The tar sands action is pretty explicitly invoking the memory of Martin Luther King, in part, perhaps, because the MLK memorial is drawing attention in D.C

Protesters aren't the first people I've reported on who see MLK as a spiritual leader for the environment movement. Christen Lien, a violist I interviewed last year, made that same connection. But I've started hearing it more often. And from higher-profile people. Former vice president Al Gore endorsed the tar sands action, and in doing so, compared climate skepticism to racism.

Gore said, “There came a time when people said, 'Hey man, why do you talk that way? That's wrong, I don't go for that, so don't talk that way around me. I just don't believe that.'”

That happened in millions of conversations, and slowly the conversation was won,” he said. “And we still have racism, God knows, but it's so different now and so much better. And we have to win the conversation on climate.”

Yesterday, NPR's Richard Harris reported on the protests from Washington. He called the tar sands "one of the largest but dirtiest" sources of oil in the lands of our friendly neighbor to the north. But I think he also implied that these protesters will be disappointed by a president one source in his story called pragmatic. What do you think?