The White House Correspondents Dinner has been an annual tradition since 1921. The gathering for media and political elites has the reputation for being the toughest ticket to get in Washington, D.C. This past weekend, the newly formed Climate Defiance group made it a bit harder to get in.
Climate Defiance is a self-described youth-run collective that has been using direct action to disrupt events that lawmakers and newsmakers attend in order to draw attention to insufficient action on the climate crisis. Just last week, the collective interrupted a speech by Biden advisor John Podesta, chanting phrases such as “Keep your promise. No new drilling.”
On Saturday night, after marching from DuPont Circle, Climate Defiance led protesters in forming a blockade to the entrance of the Washington Hilton, where guests were starting to arrive at the White House Correspondents Dinner. Security was on high alert, and guests festooned in tuxedos and ball gowns scurried around the protesters taking their positions blocking the main driveway to the hotel. Some attendees tried to break through the protesters, only to be sent by police inside the barricades to an entrance up the driveway where Secret Service and event staff were checking tickets.
D.C. Is “Not a Playground” for the Powerful
Dylan Basescu, law student at George Washington University, explained to DeSmog that the group was targeting this event because it’s where the powerful would be gathering. The powerful who “all too often treat Washington, D.C., like their playground,” Basescu said. “It’s not a playground. This is a place where real people live, where real people are affected by climate change every single day.”
The Washington, D.C. area, which sits between two rivers whose levels are rising, is already experiencing more frequent flooding and record-breaking heat waves and snowstorms tied to a destabilizing climate.
Another motivating factor for the correspondents dinner protest, according to Basescu, is frustration with the disconnect between politicians’ climate rhetoric and their climate record. “We might not be able to control federal policy, but we can make it clear to Joe Biden that he made a promise during his campaign to everyone in America that he was going to shut down drilling and fossil fuel extraction on federal lands. And he hasn’t done that yet,” Basescu told DeSmog. “Not only has he not done that, but he’s allowed more fossil fuel construction at a faster rate than Donald Trump has during his own administration so far into the term.”
Around 20 protesters assembled themselves into a human wall for three hours outside the correspondents dinner, carrying banners with messages for President Biden, “End Fossil Fuels” and “Don’t Roast Us.” Their voices rang out with calls for “climate justice now!”
For the most part, the dinner guests avoided making eye contact with the protesters as guests attempted to get inside, though there were the occasional cell phone photos. The activists called out some political and celebrity guests deemed friendly to their cause, asking them to bring their message inside.
Celebrities including John Legend and Chrissy Teigen drew some attention from the protesters, but it was Tennessee State Representatives Justin Pearson and Justin Jones — the young Black Democratic lawmakers recently reinstated after their expulsion for engaging in a gun control protest — who were handed the megaphone. The pair, nicknamed “The Justins,” gave short speeches thanking the activists for being there and urging them to fight on.
State Rep. Jones connected Climate Defiance’s action to his own in Tennessee, saying, “I come from a state where we are facing attacks on democracy. But we know that our fight around the crisis of democracy, around the crisis of our environment, around the crisis of mass shootings in our country requires an emergency response that requires us to do something outside of the ordinary. And so we’re going to continue to push and fight and stand with the people, because we know our generation is dealing with the long-term implications of these decisions.”
Law enforcement at the Washington Hilton appeared uninterested in engaging with protesters, making no arrests and abandoning that entrance in favor of redirecting the remaining motorcades to another. Once the dinner ended, however, the protesters returned to the streets, ending up at an after-party at the home of the French Ambassador. The security there was less tolerant of the Climate Defiance protesters.
The activists attempted unsuccessfully to join arriving guests inside the after-party. Additional law enforcement eventually arrived to reinforce the understaffed security. The activists sang songs and then marched back towards DuPont Circle.
Shifting Media Narratives
While attended by many icons of politics and pop culture, the White House Correspondents Dinner does, of course, host many journalists as well. Rylee Haught, recruitment lead for Climate Defiance and a West Virginia native, takes issue with what she sees as dismissive media portrayals of both her home state and those protesting continued fossil fuel extraction and use — something that scientists have warned threatens to push climate heating to catastrophic levels. Last year, Haught was one of the protesters who blockaded the Grant Town Power Plant in West Virginia, which burns expensive waste coal purchased from Sen. Joe Manchin’s company.
Rylee was concerned about the way that the media would reference people like her and her friends at this rally. For instance, when it came to Biden’s approval of the $8 billion Willow oil project in Alaska, she said the news coverage would say things like, “‘Biden has ticked off the environmentalists’ when they really should be saying, ‘Biden is threatening the future of humanity’. You know, we’re not just environmentalists. We are human beings who live on an earth that we rely on for sustenance. And that’s what brought us here.”