Vermont Law School Professor and Middlebury Scholar Arrested at White House Protest | News | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Vermont Law School Professor and Middlebury Scholar Arrested at White House Protest


Published August 21, 2011 at 3:35 p.m.

A Vermont Law School professor and a Middlebury College scholar were arrested in front of the White House on Saturday at the start of the environmental movement's biggest series of civil-disobedience protests in decades.

Some 65 demonstrators were handcuffed and taken away in police vans as they sought to dramatize opposition to a pipeline that would carry huge quantities of oil — and thus climate-changing carbon — from Canadian sands to Texas refineries. The well-dressed lawbreakers had targeted the White House because President Obama has sole power to approve or kill the $7 billion project.

“If Barack Obama mans up and says no to this thing, it will send a surge of electricity through all the people who voted for him three years ago,” Middlebury's Bill McKibben (pictured above) said in an interview prior to his arrest.

With an Obama '08 button pinned to the lapel of his gray suit jacket, McKibben told a crowd in Lafayette Park on Pennsylvania Avenue, “I'm a law-abiding citizen. This isn't something that comes naturally to me.”

Gus Speth, 69, is likewise the sort of figure more accustomed to cufflinks than handcuffs. The VLS faculty member is well acquainted with the White House, however — generally from inside its gates. Speth served from 1977 to 1981 as chairman of President Jimmy Carter's Council on Environmental Quality. His establishmentarian credentials also include the leadership of the United Nations Development Program and the World Resources Institute.

Getting arrested will have proven worthwhile, Speth said prior to defying police orders to move along, “if that's what it takes to get people to understand what's at stake.”

Noting that he's been in the state only a couple of years, Speth said “it's impressive how many of the right kinds of steps are being taken in Vermont. I do feel at home there.”

McKibben pointed out that on a per capita basis, Vermont accounts for the largest share of the 1500 climate-change campaigners who have pledged to get arrested at the White House during the next two weeks. “That makes me very proud,” McKibben said. “And there's still plenty of time for more to sign up.”

A busload of disobedient Vermonters will travel from Burlington to Washington next Sunday (August 28). Information on the action is available at

Saturday's arrests were carried out in a ritualistic fashion resembling the children's game of “duck, duck goose.” U.S. Park Police officers tapped the shoulders of seated or standing demonstrators one by one over the course of about 90 sweltering minutes. The protestors then extended their hands behind their backs to facilitate handcuffing as those still on the sidewalk applauded and chanted their appreciation. In an odd bit of chivalry, the cops first led away all the women.

Will the sit-ins succeed?

McKibben is not confident they will. Lobbyists pushing for the pipeline represent interests that “usually win,” he noted.

And rejecting the pipeline will not be an easy choice for Obama, McKibben added. “You have to feel some sympathy for the guy,” he told his fellow activists. “There's enormous pressure on the White House from the fossil-fuel industry,” specifically from Exxon-Mobil — “a company that has the most money in the history of money.”