This past President’s Day, local photographer Dan Haefner joined a crowd of nearly 50,000 for the Forward on Climate Rally in Washington, D.C.
Marching from the Washington Monument to the White House on Sunday, Feb. 17, those who participated formed what has been billed as the largest rally on climate change in U.S. history.
Publicized largely through social media, organizers 350.org, the Sierra Club, and the Hip-Hop Caucus co-sponsored the rally with the primary goal of demonstrating to President Obama the growing opposition to construction of the Keystone XL (KXL) Pipeline, the permit for which the U.S. Department of State is currently reviewing.
During his three-day stay in the nation’s capitol, Haefner took over 1,700 photos.
Though he has photographed local protests related to the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and the Save Blackwater River State Forest campaign, the Forward on Climate rally was the first large national protest Haefner has documented.
Haefner was first introduced to cameras while working on a photography merit badge in the Boy Scouts, and has maintained the hobby ever since.
Concerned with environmental issues since his high school years, it was during Deepwater Horizon protests that Haefner realized he could use his photography to document environmental realities and the protests attempting to increase awareness of such issues.
“I was looking for the one thing I could do to elevate my level of activism. I don’t feel comfortable chaining myself to bulldozers, but I want to be there, and I want to support the people doing it,” said Haefner, who aims to help bring attention to “the lesser known battles being fought.”
Like many people, Haefner learned of this year’s Forward on Climate rally through social media. Not long after Facebook posts piqued his interest, Elaine Sargent, the director of Pensacola’s 350.org chapter, mentioned the rally in D.C. during one of the group’s monthly meetings.
Sargent founded Pensacola 350 in June 2010, also in response to the BP Oil Spill. Having attended protests that summer, Sargent and others were “wanting to be constructive and use our time smartly” to raise awareness of issues related to climate change.
Establishing a local chapter of 350.org, a now global movement focused on reducing carbon emissions and promoting alternatives to fossil fuels, was the answer.
Haefner and Sargent were two in a group representing the Gulf Coast at the rally.
Though they footed their own bills for the D.C. trip, Haefner did receive support from Gulf Breeze-based Crude Life, which provided items for his trip including T-shirts and stickers. In return, Haefner donated photos to them.
Cooperative exchange plays a large role in Haefner’s work as a photographer, and he donated many of his photos of the rally to 350.org and the Sierra Club.
“A lot of times the local and national media don’t focus on environmental issues,” said Haefner. “To help get that word out is the 100 percent whole reason why I do it. That’s why I donate my photography: it’s about my service to the community.”
Becoming a fully crowd-funded protest photographer is Haefner’s ultimate goal. At the Forward on Climate rally, Haefner met Jenna Pope, a protest photographer based in New York City who is one of his artistic and logistical inspirations, as she uses social media as a platform to share and gather financial support for her work.
In addition to meeting Pope, Haefner met and photographed Dr. Jill Stein, the 2012 Green Party presidential nominee, and many of the primary speakers at the rally, including Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, and Reverend Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus, who called the pipeline protest “our lunch counter moment for the 21st Century.”
“Bill McKibben was actually one of the most down to earth people I met while I was there,” recalled Haefner, who literally bumped into McKibben, at a post rally forum titled “Women of the Land Speak: Dispatches from the Frontlines of the Tar Sands to Renewables,” at Busboys and Poets in D.C.
According to Haefner, McKibben marveled at the size of the rally crowd, which had more than doubled since 350.org’s November 2012 D.C. protest.
Sargent, who has attended previous national 350.org events, also spoke with McKibben, who was a fellow audience member at the forum.
“I was able to shake his hand and thank him. I told him that I had fulfilled the promise I made to him in Atlanta, at his Do the Math Tour. This is where I first heard that there would be a large environmental rally in the early part of 2013,” Sargent recalls, and McKibben then “asked the crowd in Atlanta to make a commitment to travel to D.C. for the climate rally.”
Several members of Native American groups representing the Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) and Idle No More movement were among speakers at the rally, and also the “Women of the Land Speak” meeting. Hearing representatives of Canada’s Beaver Lake Cree Nation, Haefner said he was “overwhelmed that they were willing to stand up to the largest oil companies in the world and say ‘not on our land.’”
Sargent too found the “Women of the Land” speakers among the most poignant, as theirs were stories about how Tar Sands in Alberta directly affects all people, not just Albertans. “We are all connected,” he said.
The pipeline as proposed would move oil extracted from Tar Sands in Alberta, Canada through the American Midwest to refineries along the Gulf of Mexico. Introduced in 2008, the project has faced fierce opposition from Canadians and Americans alike. In addition to the February Forward on Climate event in D.C., over 20 solidarity rallies took place throughout the U.S.
The Forward on Climate rally succeeded in bringing together individuals and groups from across North America, who may communicate through social media, but rarely get to meet in person.
Cherri Foytlin, a Gulf Coast activist involved with the Indigenous Peoples’ movement, walked from her home state of Louisiana to D.C., and was in a group arrested while protesting at the White House on the Wednesday before the rally—along with Robert Kennedy, Jr., climate scientist James Hansen, and actress Daryl Hannah, among others. Haefner and Sargent were able to connect with Foytlin in D.C., further strengthening the network of activists growing along the Gulf Coast.
Haefner was struck by the cross section of America he saw in the crowd, photographing an 86-year-old woman who brought her children and grandchildren to the rally as his oldest subject, to the opposite end of the age spectrum, where he met 10 and 12-year-old activists with signs encouraging President Obama to say no to the pipeline.
The most encouraging part of the rally for Sargent was “seeing the diverse group of people from across the nation, all ages… I felt uplifted to go ahead with the initiative, build something larger, and grow the Gulf Coast movement.”
The range of ages and walks of life was an encouragement to Haefner as well, who believes, “People are waking up to the fact that there are things we can do that we aren’t doing yet. The technology is there, the information is there, and we know it works. We just have to take that step and move forward on it. That’s what the entire movement is about.”
If you missed the rally, but would like to take a step in support of the Forward on Climate movement, 350 Pensacola encourages citizens to make a public comment on the Keystone XL pipeline during the 45-day comment period, which ends on April 15, 2013. Comments can be addressed to: firstname.lastname@example.org.