In September 2011, an environmental group uploaded a video on YouTube titled Tar Sands Action: Phase One.1 The first image in the three-minute film shows a group of protesters sitting quietly in the rain in front of the White House holding a banner that reads “NO TAR SANDS” (figure 1). In the following scenes, police handcuff three protesters as the voice of environmentalist Bill McKibben is heard in the background. “Because of what you’ve done over the past few weeks,” he says, “an issue that really wasn’t a national issue has emerged as the … crux test between now and the election for Barack Obama and a real chance for once to make a dent in the carbon pouring into the atmosphere.” Later clips show additional arrests, more protesters with signs, and short clips of activists addressing the crowd. Yet perhaps the most striking images are the many tight close-ups of individual activists staring mute into the camera, their faces expressionless.
The video was one of many produced in the summer and fall of 2011 by Tar Sands Action, an organization closely affiliated with 350.org, a climate group created by McKibben and seven Middlebury College students in 2007.2 Tar Sands Action released the video shortly after the end of two weeks of sit-ins at the White House where police …
by Robert M. Wilson
Robert M. Wilson is an associate professor of geography at Syracuse University and author of Seeking Refuge: Birds and Landscapes of the Pacific Flyway (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010). His current research examines the coalition of groups that make up the American climate movement.