Inspired by Egypt, New Generation of US Activists Attempt Power Shift in DC

by Melanie Feliciano

In 2003, people in every major city around the world protested George W. Bush’s declaration of war against Iraq.

Then we turned on the TV and saw those fuzzy images of bombs bursting in air. Clearly, marching down streets would not stop a democratically elected president from a pre-emptive attack in the name of keeping America free.

Despite all our Baby Boomer parents told us, there would be no major power shift in our lifetime, we all thought, as we tucked our tails between our legs and proceeded to buy real estate we couldn’t afford (in the name of pursuing The American Dream).

Fast forward to 2011. An Egyptian president is overthrown. Libyan rebels are challenging the 40-year rule of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi. And, a Washington, DC, BP station is shut down by a “flashmob” of young protesters in response to the 2010 Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill.

“It will take a lot for change to happen,” said Jessica Miskena, a Wayne State University student who attended Power Shift 2011, a four-year old grassroots training event for the next generation of activists. “Even one strong-willed person or a small group can make a huge impact – and we need all the press we can get to get everybody else focused on some real issues.”

Thanks to social media, young people have tools to shift the power that didn’t exist 10 years ago.

“What happens when you stop using these devices as toys and use them for good?” asked keynote speaker Van Jones, co-founder of Green for All, a national organization working to build an inclusive green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty. “Shouldn’t we have the RIGHT as Americans to create our own power?”

Good questions to ask the estimated 10,000 attendees, who drove or flew hundreds of miles to the gigantic, power-sucking Walter E. Washington Convention Center, all the while texting, tweeting and shooting photos with their mobile phones throughout the April 15-18 event.

But, as the old saying goes – it takes energy to shift the energy.

Tabitha Skervin, 20, drove through the night from Michigan to personally deliver their message to the House of Representatives on Friday, April 15. From the gallery, she and eight other students each stood up to sing the “Alternative Star Spangled Banner,” (lyrics to the right). As a result, they ended up in jail.

“Congress is not focusing on my future, our right to clean water and air,” said Skervin, an international relations major, in a phone interview with EthicalMarkets.com. “I’ve always been interested in the way governments work and how decisions on an international level get made. I want to know how the system works before I work against it. Once letters and complaints to congressmen don’t work, you need to step up.”

Conflicting emotions flooded through Skervin’s mind during the six hours she spent in jail.

C-span clip of students’ action

“At first I thought, ‘OK, this is exciting,’ but when they separated us and I was in the holding cell, I wondered what my mom was going to think!” Like many at Power Shift, Skervin is herself a microcosm of the US: born in Jamaica; has lived in Puerto Rico, Ohio, New Jersey; studying in Michigan; and parents from the land of “Virtue, Liberty and Independence” – Pennsylvania.

“Closer to the end, I called our jail support. She said we made a lot of impact, and then I was glad I was able to take a stand and get media attention.”

And then what? Is it just another headline to be forgotten by tomorrow’s earthquake, hurricane, or stock market plunge? Do the students just go back to school, get their degrees and eco-friendly jobs, and remember that one time when they were young and full of hope that they could change the world?

Skervin said she wondered the same thing.

“Tim DeChristopher said our movement must be willing to sacrifice – that’s the thing we’ve lost – we won’t put our education on the backburner or our perfect record…about 10,000 people heard this message and decided, ‘Yeah, you’re right. I should be able to sacrifice.’ Some were just there because the environment is cool. That separation was necessary. That’s why 21 people who were arrested on Monday said this is worth it. It was a direct action.”

Moreover, Skervin’s work continues at home as campus coordinator for Michigan State Greenpeace, which is trying to shut down MSU’s TB Simon Power Plant, the largest on-campus coal plant.

“It uses 250,000 tons of coal per year,” said Skervin. “We had a clean energy forum to discuss the logistics like getting a commitment and aggressive timeline by today, Friday 22 – Earth Day. If we can do it at MSU, then no plants have an excuse to stay open.”
Addressing the issue of coal directly, Tim DeChristopher , founder of Peaceful Uprising, riled against the cowardice of the environmental movement. He called for sacrifice – like Skervin’s jail time. He avowed that if enough people show up to coal mining sites, day after day, mountain top removal would stop. “Obama would be forced into a choice between ending the war on Appalachia or bringing in federal troops to continue it.”

Like the Egyptians, DeChristopher and the people at Power Shift 2011 believe they can affect government, radically, for the good, through the power of their action. Another lesson from Egypt, though, when the protest succeeds, then the real work begins.