This is what democracy looks like


On Thursday, April 3, a big spring snowstorm arrived just as a pipeline protest began in St. Paul. I was there, one of the 300 people who gathered near the Mississippi River under heavy skies that spit sleet and snow. We were a tenacious, high-spirited group. MN350 and other groups organized the rally.

The issue in question: Should Enbridge Inc. be allowed to nearly double the amount of tar sands oil they send across northern Minnesota in a pipeline they call the Alberta Clipper? At the rally, we said a loud, resounding “No!” Speakers told us that protecting the earth is spiritual work. That we should reach for our higher selves. That we should attempt to reach across the gap that separates us from those who favor shipping more tar sands oil.

Native Americans drummed and chanted with us about getting oil pipelines off their land. “When I say, ‘Indian,’ you say ‘land,’” the man said. And we did.

— “Indian.”

— “Land.”

— “Indian.”

— “Land.”

We marched a few blocks to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission office to press our point at a hearing. In our group there were people of all ages and from many different backgrounds. As we marched, we chanted, “This is what democracy looks like.”

We helped fill the hearing room and an overflow room. The sides took turns: first a person spoke in favor of Enbridge’s proposal to increase the flow of tar sands oil across Minnesota, and then one spoke against it. Those against the increase were alarmed about climate change. Three young people from Northfield were especially eloquent on this topic. They spoke with urgency, even desperation, about our need to turn away from fossil fuels, and toward renewables.

Others focused on Enbridge’s poor spill record and the drastic damage a tar sands oil spill could do to our state’s iconic river, the Mississippi, upon which many rely for drinking water.

I noticed that quite a few of those in favor of Enbridge’s increase were contract workers employed by Enbridge. All those I heard speak were men, many of them fifty or older. They said that Enbridge had a great safety record, that we need the jobs and the oil, and that they trusted Enbridge to do the right thing.

The gap between those in favor and those against, the very gap we had been encouraged to bridge, was huge. It seemed that the proponents and opponents lived in different worlds.

One of the most moving speakers on their side was a young man from up north who drives large rigs on construction sites. He said he was an environmentalist, too, and that he needed clean air and water, but that he couldn’t sit in a nice house in Minneapolis and dream about a better world. He had to take a job where he lived, one that would support his family. Point well taken.

While the protestors wanted the tar sands oil left in the ground, those on Enbridge’s side assumed it would be extracted and shipped somewhere. They raised an issue that has been much in the news: shipping oil by pipeline vs. by train. Though media reports say that trains are more dangerous than pipelines, I don’t believe this has been established. For one thing, both carry fossil fuels, which will be burned, and will send carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, so in that sense they are equally dangerous.

Oil train accidents do kill more people outright. But pipeline breaks spill more oil, and that gets into the water. One of our greatest human follies is our inability to see that whatever we do to the planet, we do to ourselves. We are water. If we hurt it, we hurt us.

According to an expert I contacted, now that railroad loading docks and other infrastructure are in place, this method of shipping oil is here to stay. It won’t be either/or, pipelines or oil trains. It will be both/and.

What moved me most at the rally on that snowy day was a simple moment of connection with a stranger. A few people stood around drumming on plastic buckets. I asked a young man forty years my junior if I could pick up an old kitchen pan sitting there and join in. He said, “Sure.” I took a stick and doinked the pan in a way that seemed to work with the others’ beats.

After a bit the young man smiled and said, “Most people just bang away. You actually have rhythm.”

“Thank you, I’ve been longing to do this, to try drumming, and you have satisfied something deep in me,” I said, holding my hand over my heart.

He laughed. “My name’s Justin,” he said. “What’s yours?”

Mary Jean Port writes at home, near Minnehaha Creek and Lake Harriet, and teaches at the Loft Literary Center.