On Monday, Feb. 27, the St. Olaf chapter of Amnesty International, Advocates for Immigrants and Refugees (AIR) and the Environmental House hosted a political action event in Buntrock Commons. With multiple tables set up in Buntrock Commons from 2 to 7 p.m, participants had the opportunity to call or write letters to their congressional representatives and convey their opposition to President Trump’s recent executive orders.
According to president of St. Olaf’s chapter of Amnesty International Zach Rivera ’17, recent developments served as the impetus for the event.
“Amnesty, originally at the beginning of the year, focused on two issues: Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) and refugee issues,” Rivera said. “This was something our members decided on democratically through voting. And so, when it came to the recent events … regarding Trump’s ban and developments with the Dakota Access Pipeline, we decided we needed to act and we needed to act now.”
Trump’s first executive order on immigration barred entry by foreign nationals from seven Muslim-majority nations for 90 days, all refugees for 120 days, and all Syrian refugees indefinitely. While U.S. District Court Judge James Robart of Seattle temporarily blocked the order, Trump recently signed a new executive order which narrowed the scope of the targeted countries and reversed an indefinite ban on Syrian refugees. However, the new order retained several components from the first executive order.
A series of tumultuous recent events have surrounded DAPL as well, with Trump signing a Presidential Memorandum on Jan. 24 calling for expedited approval of the pipeline by the Army Corps of Engineers. As a result, the final easement for the pipeline was granted on Feb. 7, and the Corp formally terminated its extended environmental review on Feb. 17. Although Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes are still challenging the pipeline in court, oil could start flowing within the next few weeks.
The urgency that Rivera describes was manifest in the tone and mood surrounding the event. At the table by the Cage, music blared next to defiant posters reading “No Ban, No Dakota Access Pipeline.” While the tables further down in Buntrock were in a more subdued setting, organizers solicited participation from passersby with similar posters reading “No DAPL, No Ban on Refugees.” These tables were furnished with template letters, envelopes, stamps and other materials. While participants were not bound to these templates, they served as potential guides and came in two different forms: one version expressed gratitude to representatives opposing Trump’s immigration actions and/or DAPL, while the other communicated respectful opposition and concern to representatives supporting those policies. In addition, the organizations provided representatives’ contact information and policy positions with regard to DAPL and Trump’s executive order on immigration.
According to Rivera, the primary goal of the event was to “tell Congress to take a public stance against Trump’s ban and against the Dakota Access Pipeline.” Even though he conceded that ultimate power to stop Trump’s actions lay in the executive branch and the courts, Rivera still saw public engagement as essential, because “telling our congresspeople that this is not okay will hopefully put pressure on Trump to rescind his activities.” Rivera also emphasized that Amnesty International was not a partisan organization, and that opposition to Trump was based on his policy positions rather than his political identity.
Participants generally agreed with Rivera that engagement with public officials is essential. According to volunteer Thomas Weihe ’17, making one’s voice heard is essential in a democracy.
“When we stop communicating with them [our representatives], democracy ceases to function as it’s supposed to; we need to keep those lines of communication open, we need to make sure that we’re making our voices heard,” Weihe said.
After the event, Rivera expressed satisfaction with the turnout, saying that “the last count was that we had over 160 letters.” He looked upon this success with an eye toward the future.
“Going forward, this could be a model for other events, for other issue areas besides refugees and DAPL.” He also spoke about a contact sheet at the table by the Cage for those interested in carpooling to Rep. Jason Lewis’ office to protest.
“As of right now, it looks like his position is unclear to supporting the ban; it’s kind of vague right now, so we think that he might be able to be swayed,” Rivera said.
Despite the negative news headlines, Rivera was thoroughly optimistic and deeply grateful for those that contributed to the event’s success.
“We’ve had about 20, 22 … volunteers, and they’re taking time out of their busy Ole lives to do this and I’m just very grateful that they’re doing that,” Rivera said.