Indigenous people from across the US are leading protests in Washington DC to begin a week of demonstrations demanding President Joe Biden halt fossil fuel development and declare a national climate emergency.
A week of action for People vs Fossil Fuels beginning on 11 October – which the president recognised as Indigenous Peoples Day in the first-ever White House proclamation for the holiday – is expected to draw thousands to the Capitol for acts of civil disobedience and calls to action to apply pressure to the Biden administration in the face of the climate crisis.
Protesters will gather at Freedom Plaza throughout the week and march to the White House. On Friday, a group will march to the steps of the US Capitol building.
On Monday, Indigenous organisers marched in front of a crowd of hundreds, highlighting what they have called the president’s “broken promises” to protect Indigenous people as the administration maintains oil and gas production, from offshore oil lease sales resuming in the Gulf of Mexico to a controversial pipeline project bringing Canadian oil into the US.
Police deployed a long range acoustic device, which delivers a high-pitched piercing sound, according to video footage shared by Indigenous protesters, after demonstrators marched towards Lafayette Park and held nonviolent protests.
Red paint spelled “Expect Us” on a pedestal for a statue of former president Andrew Jackson, who signed the Indian Removal Act into law and oversaw the forced displacement and deaths of thousands of Native Americans. The phrase references “Respect us, or expect us,” a chant used during protests against pipeline projects.
At least one person, identified by The Washington Post as Erica Jones of the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, was detained.
“President Biden has a choice to make: Will he side with the people or a handful of fossil fuel executives?” organisers said in a statement. “It’s a test with results that will determine the future of our planet and the wellbeing of future generations that will inhabit it. We are putting our bodies on the line to ensure President Biden passes this crucial test.”
The protests are organised by Build Back Fossil Free, a national coalition of dozens of climate and social justice groups, spanning Tribal organisations from Alaska to Black Louisianans living in the footprint of the state’s “Cancer Alley” and other Tribal groups and environmental advocates from across the US.
“By refusing to stop major fossil fuel projects, President Biden has broken his promises to protect Indigneous rights, prioritize environmental justice, and fully address the climate crisis,” organisers said in a statement.
Environmental justice advocates have grown frustrated with what they see as a lack of urgency and a reneging of the president’s campaign-trail commitments to freeze fossil fuel extraction, pointing to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s landmark report signalling a “code red” for humanity.
Organisers argue that Indigenous communities remain on the frontlines against fossil fuel extraction while bearing the brunt of climate-related devastation, compounded by centuries of colonisation and neglect.
Siqniq Maupin, director of Sovereign Inupiat for a Living Arctic, which is fighting against oil drilling in Alaska, said in a statement that “we’re going to make it clear that we’re here to protect our land and waters.”
“The fossil fuel industry has brought devastation to our homelands and it’s time that we bring this fight to Biden’s doorstep,” Indigenous Environmental Network organiser Joye Braun said in a statement.
“Despite President Biden’s climate rhetoric, his administration has failed to stop major projects” like the Line 3 tar sands pipeline, a tar-sands oil pipeline project expected to carry 760,000 barrels a day from Canada into Minnesota and Wisconsin.
“We showed up to vote and we will continue to show up to make him uncomfortable in his inaction until the drastic needed steps are taken to mitigate climate change and protect Mother Earth,” she said.
On 8 October, Mr Biden issued the first-ever presidential proclamation recognising Indigenous Peoples Day, which he said “celebrates the invaluable contributions and resilience of Indigenous peoples, recognizes their inherent sovereignty, and commits to honoring the Federal Government’s trust and treaty obligations to Tribal Nations.”
“Our country was conceived on a promise of equality and opportunity for all people – a promise that, despite the extraordinary progress we have made through the years, we have never fully lived up to,” his proclamation said. “That is especially true when it comes to upholding the rights and dignity of the Indigenous people who were here long before colonization of the Americas began.”
Following the proclamation, the president formally restored protections for three national monuments significantly cut back by Donald Trump, a move that will return boundaries set during Barack Obama’s administration and revive federal protections for thousands of acres.
The president’s proclamations restore the boundaries at Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments, both of which have deep historical ties and significance to Native American Tribes.
A statement from the Indigenous Environmental Network said that if the president was truly committed to “honoring the treaties and strengthening sovereignty” among Native people, he would “act swiftly to mitigate the climate chaos that has engulfed our communities by ending the anti-Indigenous US legacy of fossil fuel extractivism.”
“We have had enough of your empty words,” the group said. “Our communities need clean water, land returned, divestment from the fossil fuel industry, and healing from residential school traumas.”
This week’s demonstrations follow a letter to the president signed by 330 scientists urging him to use his executive authority to stop all new fossil fuel projects and declare a climate emergency, supporting the core demands of the People vs Fossil Fuel protests.
“US scientists are done speaking calmly in the face of inaction,” Sandra Steingraber, one of the letter’s organisers, said in a statement. “Terrified by our own data, we stand in solidarity with the People vs. Fossil Fuels mobilization and its demands. President Biden, listening to science means acting on science. It means stopping new fossil fuel projects, opposing industry delay tactics, and declaring a national climate emergency.”