Students Brave Snow, Police at Protest

Students protest coal energy use in front of the Capitol Power Plant, which supplies steam and cooled water to Congress. (Photo Submitted by Megan Kile)
Students protest coal energy use in front of the Capitol Power Plant, which supplies steam and cooled water to Congress. (Photo Submitted by Megan Kile)

Over a dozen St. Mary’s students passionate about the environment protested the use of coal energy in what has been called, “The biggest act of civil disobedience against global warming in American history”.

The protest against the Capitol Power Plant, which occurred Monday, March 2, was attended by over a hundred organizing groups, and led by Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network. According to Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC) Co-President junior Elizabeth Brunner, over 3,000 people were in attendance, around 15 of whom were St. Mary’s students. Notable figures such as environmental lawyer Robert Kennedy Jr. and head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies James Hansen were also in attendance.

Brunner said that the protest of this particular coal plant was a symbolic action against the national and international use of coal energy, a practice on which many environmental groups such as SEAC wish to put a moratorium.

According to Brunner, the Capitol Power Plant was specifically chosen because it provides steam and cooled water to Congress and because of its high visibility.

The burning of coal, according to Brunner, taints water and air, destroys the natural habitats of hundreds of species, and causes acid rain. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Burning coal is a leading source of global warming pollution.” However, coal is still a major source of energy in the U.S. because of the large infrastructure built around it and the economic interests surrounding it.

“No one wants to be the politician to put a moratorium on coal,” said SEAC Co-president junior Bethany Wetherill. “It is vastly unpopular because of the amount of workers in coal mines and because of the perceived costs of the switch to clean energy.”

With this knowledge, St. Mary’s students braved the frigid cold and quickly mounting snow. Morale, however, remained high. Brunner said, “It was one of the more positive events I’ve ever been to. It was uplifting.”

Other attendees echoed a similar sentiment. “It was really amazing to see all these people of different ages, races, and economic statuses coming together to speak out about the problem of global climate change in a powerful, nonviolent way,” said first-year Megan Kile. “It was that kind of energy; the idea that we were going to be doing something amazing, maybe even world-changing.”

Even law enforcement, which many feared would be hostile to the protest and attempt to arrest protesters, seemed to be in high spirits. Brunner said, “They were smiling, they were laughing, they were sort of cheering along with the chant and slogans…No one was arrested at all.”

The Capitol Coal Plant protest was by many accounts a complete success; protesters were able to block the plant’s entrances for a large portion of the day, effectively closing down the plant. More important, however, was the visibility and message the protest sent. Brunner said, “It was high profile, gained thousands of media hits, [and] sent a very clear message throughout the world and to Congress that there are thousands of people who care very deeply about this issue.”

According to Wetherill, there had been some speculation that a resolution would soon go through Congress to switch the plant over from coal to natural gas, a change that Brunner said “has its own problems.” However, no formal action has been taken by Congress other than non-binding calls from Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Harry Reid for the plant to make the switch.

This, however, does not mean that this protest was not the first step, “one of many” according to Wetherill, towards raising awareness of coal with the eventual goal of a full moratorium, which the protesters feel will lead to a cleaner environment.

82 St. Mary’s Students Get Eco-Active at Power Shift

SEAC Co-President Shane Hall, a senior, meets House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer on lobby day. (Photo Submitted by Megan Kile)
SEAC Co-President Shane Hall, a senior, meets House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer on lobby day. (Photo Submitted by Megan Kile)

On Feb. 27, over 11,000 people, most between the ages of 18 and 24, congregated in D.C. for the largest conference on energy and climate change in the nation’s history.  Power Shift 2009, run by the Energy Action Coalition, was held at the DC Convention Center from Friday, Feb. 27 to Monday, March 2.

The College registered 82 students, the tenth largest number from any school in the country.  The majority were from the Student Environmental Action Coalition (SEAC).

The St. Mary’s students arrived in a charter bus and some school vans on Friday in time for the keynote speakers, who were followed by a concert featuring Santogold.

Over the next three days, students were able to attend a symposium, workshops, listen to more keynote speakers, attend a concert by the Roots, march to the White House, protest at a coal plant, attend a rally on the West Lawn, and lobby their Congressmen.

The conference officially opened on Friday with several speakers, including Congresswoman Donna Edwards and Congressman Ed Markey.  One of the many speakers of the weekend was Van Jones, an environmental and human rights activist.

“He was my favorite speaker by far,” said first-year Elena Gross.  “What he said made so much sense.  That was the biggest thing about the weekend — tying the environment into other issues and showing how all these issues intersect.”

While Power Shift 2009 was primarily an environmental conference, a constant theme of the weekend was the interconnectedness of the issues of the world.

“We’re all working for the same thing,” said Gross.  “What happens if we have a healthy planet but we still have so many problems within our societies?  Then we as a people die.  They’re in a very large sense the same issue.”

Many of the workshops combined environmental activism with other issues. Sophomore Aaron French attended one called “Hip-hop and eco-equity.” “It was three MC’s talking about how they’ve incorporated their music and their work, their poetry into the environmental activism they’ve been doing,” he said.

The workshops and panels covered a wide variety of topics.  From holding corporate businesses responsible for their actions to learning about organization and leadership from the grassroots level up, students had the opportunity to choose to learn about what interested them most.

“I went to a really awesome workshop on Sunday about agrobusinesses,” said sophomore Rachel Buffington.  “I’m already really into food….but it really inspired me to organize a program here.”
Many of the workshops were student led, several by students from the College.

Although students were able to attend two workshops on Sunday, the rest of the day was filled with training for the lobbying that would occur Monday, which many St. Mary’s students stayed for.

Lobby day trainers ran the students through scenarios where they prepared their presentations for their Congressmen and helped students learn how to keep the politicians on topic.

Students woke up on Monday to a city covered in several inches of snow and a message from the organizers that lobby day would still occur.  Thousands of students converged in the Capital to attend their scheduled meetings.

St. Mary’s students had a meeting with House Majority Leader and Board of Trustees member Steny Hoyer himself, and were taken in the tunnels under the Capital to a room that fit 75 people.  At least 100 were crammed inside.

“The outcome wasn’t negative, but it wasn’t as positive as I think everyone had hoped for.  I don’t think he’s against us at all.  He’s very dedicated to the environmental movement, he’s just doing it from a politician’s standpoint,” said Gross.  While Hoyer listened to the students’ points, he kept trying to steer the topic away to other issues.  Students spoke up angrily when he insisted that they were not the public and not representative of his constituents, prompting him to call one girl ‘defensive.’

“I don’t think he did understand that we are the public,” said Gross.  “There were over a hundred people in that room talking to him.  We represent what the people want.  I think there was a lot of miscommunication between the lobbyers and Steny that I think will be fixed over time especially with him being on the board here and with Danny [Ruthenberg-Marshall] as the student trustee.”

Power Shift 2009 wasn’t just filled with organized activities.  On Saturday night, after the Roots concert and a long day of panels and workshops, students gathered on the front steps of the D.C. Convention Center.

“I was standing around, and a person said we should go to the White House,” said French.  “Someone got a bullhorn and shouted….fifty people just started walking, so we ran back and yelled at everybody, and more people started coming, just hundreds and hundreds of people.  At first we started on the sidewalk,” he said, but soon, “people were dancing in the streets, photographers were running everywhere taking pictures.  We probably took up a solid two to four blocks.”

The students ended up at the back of the White House.  “There was one cop when we walked up,” said French, but soon, “There were about thirty cops there.  It was all peaceful.”  In the end, the group of about a thousand, “hung out and partied outside the white house for like forty-five minutes.”

The march was representative of the spirit of the weekend — everyone worked together and took small steps towards a larger goal while having fun.

Everyone was helpful.  “Especially if you didn’t know something, they took the time to explain it to you, to explain what you could do to help.  They were genuinely interested in what you had to say,” said Gross.

Students could just set down their bags and find them again at the end of the day.  One student lost a reusable water bottle and had it returned to her by a group who found it the day before.

“It was really cool at Power Shift to see 12,000 people of this generation who really cared about something.  And that was just 12,000 people who represented larger groups,” said Gross. “There were intercity people, there were a good amount of women and men, different races, different religions.  There was a place for everyone at Power Shift.”

College Community Celebrates Inauguration

The view of David Kung, a math professor at St. Mary’s. He attended President Obama’s inauguration ceremony on the National Mall. (Photo Submitted by David Kung)
The view of David Kung, a math professor at St. Mary’s. He attended President Obama’s inauguration ceremony on the National Mall. (Photo Submitted by David Kung)

In Washington, D.C., on January 20, 2009 Barack Hussein Obama was sworn in as the 44th President of the United States of America.

Here at the College, students and professors celebrated by partaking in several group events. Students were invited to watch the inauguration unfold on several venues on campus; Cole Cinema and the River Center were open for students to watch the event, and the televisions in the Campus Center and Upper Deck were tuned in to CNN.

Although the College never officially canceled classes, most professors did so to allow their students to participate in the inauguration. “I wanted to give the students the opportunity to celebrate or not celebrate as they wished,” said political science professor Sahar Shafqat, who canceled her classes for the day.

Shafqat added, “I feel that institutionally, there was a desire to mark this historic occasion, saying, ‘Look, this is a big deal.’”

In Cole Cinema, students were able to listen to brief talks before the swearing-in took place. Associate professor of history Charles Holden outlined previous notable inaugural addresses throughout American history, and Assistant Vice President of Academic Services Lenny Howard spoke about Obama’s impact on African-American identity, especially in the contexts of success and education. Bon Appetit provided a patriotic flag cake topped with strawberries and blueberries for the celebration, and afterwards, Michael Cain, the head of the political science department and Director of the Center for the Study of Democracy, led discussions.

The event was organized by the Center for the Study of Democracy and the Office of Student Activities. “We all worked on this together to bring faculty, staff, and students together,” said Kelly Schroeder, Assistant Dean of Students.

By 11:30 a.m., Cole Cinema was packed, and latecomers were forced to hover by the cinema doors. The room was mostly silent throughout the ceremony, with applause after each event from the inaugural prayer to the inaugural address. A ripple of laughter shot through the room with Pastor Rick Warren’s pronounced, almost fierce blessing of first daughters “Malia” and “Sasha,” and a similar wave of “Awwww” washed over the crowd whenever the two girls appeared on-screen. Many found the oath of office and its difficulties endearing, especially from such a calm person as Obama.

“It was interesting to see some of his stumbles,” said junior Brad Dodson. “It let us know he’s human, just like us…and realize that we’re in this together.”

Obama’s speech fetched a standing ovation from those not already forced to stand, and the overall mood in the room was electric. “[This is] where civic tradition kicks in,” said Holden. He said that it was amazing to see so many people come together, and not just for a tragic event like an assassination or Sept. 11. He described the feeling as “like the excitement of the campaign, …one last time, or kind of reaching the peak.”

If students thought they were cramped in Cole Cinema, the screen showed that the turnout in D.C. was enormous. “There was something like 2 million people in Washington,” said Cain.

Mathematics professor David Kung was one of the many people present for the inauguration. “ It was fantastic,” he said. “There was a crush of people everywhere.” Kung received the tickets to attend the inauguration through his parents’ congressmen back in Wisconsin.

Professor Jennifer Cognard-Black also received tickets from a senator in another state. “We immediately tried to get tickets from our Maryland representative, but we received an auto reply that thousands had asked already,” she said. She managed to get tickets from her mother in Nebraska. They turned out to be some of the best, placing her “only a football field away” from the action. “It turned out to be the glamorous section; we stood in line with Susan Sarandon and Wesley Snipes,” she said. “We felt very lucky to be there.”

According to Cain, this inauguration was particularly exciting for two reasons. The first was that the nation was seeing the end of an administration that had been on the decline, and the second that Obama was the first African-American to be elected President of the United States. “The first time for anything makes it important,” said Cain. “ Kennedy was the first Catholic and his inauguration was very important for people. [Obama] being first makes it important.”

Cognard-Black thinks that so many people turned out not only for the historical importance of the event, but also because of Obama’s humility and truth. “I think [he’s so popular] because he just projects and presents truthfulness. He actually honors the other side…I don’t think we’ve seen that level of graciousness.”

Due to the significant historical context of this inauguration, many people had their young children watch and understand that history was being made. “We took our 11-year-old son,” said Kung. “Having him see the turnout for this helps him appreciate the historical importance of the moment.”

Cognard-Black and her husband, also took their daughter to the inauguration. In fact, she said that they probably would not have gone if not for their daughter, Kate. “Because of Kate, we’re parents of an only child, and we really think of what experiences are vital for her.”

Like many of his past speeches, President Obama’s inauguration speech was heavily analyzed. Different people saw different things in it. “He definitely placed his inaugural address within the context of inaugural addresses, …hearkening to a sense of unity and purpose,” said Holden.

Holden added that although Obama “said some nice things about the [former] president,” he was “a little bit sharper in marking an Obama administration as being different from the Bush administration.”

“I think that looking at it in terms of Mr. Obama’s speeches, it wasn’t his best speech,” Cain said. “The content of it, not the delivery, was as good as the one given to the Democratic Party, but it was a sobering speech and I think it was an appropriate speech.”

Cognard-Black was touched by Obama’s speech, and like Cain, felt it was appropriate for the country’s situation. She was also very impressed by the way that she felt he addressed issues without pointing fingers, and she reaffirmed that this is why he appeals to so many people. “I don’t think it’s just because he’s a liberal and because he’s young. I think it’s because he has ethos,” she said.

However, not everyone watching the inauguration at the College was an Obama supporter. President of College Republicans Sara Metz was one of the first people to trickle into Cole Cinema. She stayed for the entire event.

“I felt uncomfortable, obviously, being a Republican,” she said. She said that despite the excitement electrifying the  room, “I was trying to be analytical.”

Regarding the speech, Metz said “There were some things I was elated about,” although sometimes she “felt like it was kind of partisan.”

Still, “it was a good experience, even though I felt out of place,” she concluded. “It was a historic event.”
oom, “I was trying to be analytical.”

Regarding the speech, Metz said “There were some things I was elated about,” although sometimes she “felt like it was kind of partisan.”

Still, “it was a good experience, even though I felt out of place,” she concluded. “It was a historic event.”