DeSmog

Protesters Blockade White House Correspondents Dinner Over Biden’s Broken Climate Promises

Two of the “Tennessee Three” state lawmakers encouraged the climate protesters.
Black and white image of a man with bear and glasses, the left half of his face illuminated and the right half in shadow
Black and white image of a man with bear and glasses, the left half of his face illuminated and the right half in shadow
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A driver of a black SUV with police lights attempted to push their way through the Climate Defiance blockade line of activists holding flags and signs.
A driver of a black SUV with police lights attempted to push their way through the Climate Defiance blockade line, distressing activists. The car stood for several moments waiting for the activists to move but law enforcement eventually had the driver reverse. Credit: Zach D. Roberts

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.

A woman with red shoulder length hair and a sparkly formal dress pulls something from her purse after walking through a crowd of protesters and security
Former White House Press Secretary and current MSNBC host Jen Psaki managed to slip into the White House Correspondents Dinner without notice during the Climate Defiance protest. Credit: Zach D. Roberts

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. 

Dylan Basescu, a law student at George Washington University, at the Climate Defiance protest.

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.”

Climate activists march through Washington DC holding a long banner and placards saying 'Biden, End fossil fuels.'
Climate activists take to the streets on their way to the White House Correspondents Dinner on April 29, 2023. Credit: Zach D. Roberts

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. 

John Legend and Chrissy Teigen rushed in wearing formal attire, followed by assistants, from the street.
John Legend and Chrissy Teigen rushed in followed by assistants. They were greeted with cheers by many of the protesters. Credit: Zach D. Roberts

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.”

Tennessee State Rep. Justin Jones
Tennessee State Rep. Justin Pearson

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.

At night, protesters holding a long banner and placards reading 'Biden, end fossil fuels.' A man in black with a red ball cap and sunglasses, center left, has the post of a red, black, and green flag slung over his left shoulder.
Protesters leaving the Washington Hilton after the White House Correspondents Dinner on April 29, 2023. Credit: Zach D. Roberts

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.

Four Secret Service members in black stare to the right, in a line outside a black iron gate, at swarms of climate protesters at night.
Secret Service stand guard at the French Ambassador’s home as Climate Defiance protesters swarmed outside the night of April 29, 2023. Credit: Zach D. Roberts
Two climate activists, holding a 'climate emergency' sign stand in front of a police line with bicycles guarding the French Ambassador’s house at night.
Two climate activists stand in front of a police line guarding the French Ambassador’s house in Washington, D.C. on April 29, 2023. Credit: Zach D. Roberts

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 Haught, recruitment lead for Climate Defiance, marched for climate justice on her birthday.

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.” 

Black and white image of a man with bear and glasses, the left half of his face illuminated and the right half in shadow
Zach D. Roberts is a photojournalist covering the far right in America and is a Puffin Foundation artist.

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