Young Climate Activists Lead Blockade at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner

Demonstrators call on President Biden to keep his campaign promise to end fossil fuel leasing on federal lands

By Deja Curtis

May 1, 2023

Photo by Deja Curtis

Protesters forming a blockade in front of the Washington Hilton driveway as attendees of the White Correspondents' Dinner begin to arrive.| Photo by Deja Curtis

Media A-listers and some of the nation’s most powerful elected officials who were headed to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on Saturday evening in Washington DC were met by 100 climate protestors determined to interrupt the event. Attendees in black tie and formal gowns had to dodge a line of demonstrators hoping to seal off all three entrances to the Washington Hilton and to meet President Biden on his arrival to demand an end to fossil fuel leasing on public lands. Climate Defiance, the organization leading the blockade, were joined by fellow climate-action advocates from Third Act, Sunshine Movement, Scientist Rebellion and other groups that traveled from as far as Chicago,

“[This] action is specifically focused on demanding that Biden end fossil fuel leasing on federal lands, because that's something he promised to do and has failed to deliver on,” said Rylee Haught, Climate Defiance’s Appalachian recruitment lead. “He explicitly said he would ‘end new drilling on federal lands, period, period, period’ when he was running.”

The activists, joined by brass band Too Much Talent, marched up Connecticut Avenue from Dupont Circle carrying signs that read “Biden: End Fossil Fuels” and “Climate Action Now!”. Passersby stopped to share their support of the marchers’ climate change message with shouts of solidarity and celebratory dancing.

Once the marchers arrived at the Washington Hilton, a fraction of elder activists from Third Act splintered off and headed to the back entrance of the hotel to set up a line of colorful rocking chairs and wait for Biden’s anticipated arrival. The majority of activists formed a blockade in front of the driveway to the hotel’s main entrance. Shortly afterward, an unmarked police car with flashing dash lights pulled up to the protesters and briefly stepped on the gas in an attempt to break through. The activists held the line, leaving the black Suburban to retreat and park a short distance north of the action.

President Biden and many other attendees ended up entering through an unattended entrance. Guests that entered through the front of the hotel slowly felt their way around the blockade until they eventually reached a narrow opening guarded by DC Police. Some guests expressed frustration about the inconvenience, especially as protesters momentarily sealed a side pathway that provided relatively easy entry that avoided having to wade through the crowd. 

Other attendees expressed support for the demonstrators. Tennessee Representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson—who have been in the national spotlight after being ejected from the Tennessee Statehouse for supporting gun-control rallies there—momentarily joined the protest in solidarity. “We know that our fight around the crisis of democracy, our environment, [and] mass shootings in our country requires an emergency response. We're going to continue to push and fight and stand with the people,” said Representative Jones after taking the bullhorn. 

Activists chanted “No new drilling. Keep your promise!” and took turns sharing personal stories that led them to joining the action. 

Justin Blake from Chicago’s South Side spoke of the need for a green economy that will provide jobs to communities nationwide, including communities in his neighborhood that have been neglected. “[Climate change] will affect the United States, but moreover, it'll affect the globe and our future and our children's future,” Blake said. “If he can’t do what we need to do for the people, then we need to find somebody that will.”

Some local prison abolition activists expressed disapproval of the blockade after it was initially announced on Climate Defiance’s social media accounts. “They never engaged in the [local] Black or Brown community around the action that they were planning,” says Nee Nee Taylor, executive director and co-founder of Harriet’s Wildest Dreams. “[National organizations forget] that people actually live here in DC, and that what they do impacts the Black community after they leave.”

Photo by Deja Curtis

Justin Blake of Chicago's Black Underground Recycling speaks to protesters about the need for a new green economy and for President Biden to uphold his promise to end new oil drilling on federal lands. | Photo by Deja Curtis

The Origin of Climate Defiance

Climate Defiance, founded earlier this year, is a part of a growing cohort of youth-led climate-action groups using nonviolent direct action to resist fossil fuel extraction. 

Climate Defiance co-founder Michael Greenberg has felt a sense of urgency related to the climate crisis. In 2021, he got his organizing start during the protests against the expansion of Enbridge’s Line 3 oil pipeline in Minnesota. A year later, Greenberg and Haught met while organizing a blockade of the Grant Town Power Plant, a West Virginia waste-coal facility connected to Senator Joe Manchin’s family coal business.

“Those actions got a lot of attention in the moment,” Greenberg told The Lion’s Tale, Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School’s student newspaper. “But they didn’t build long-term sustainable power.”

Greenberg said the Biden administration’s recent string of approvals for new oil infrastructure was the catalyst for founding Climate Defiance.

In the past month, Climate Defiance protestors interrupted speeches by White House National Climate Advisor Ali Zaidi and John Podesta, senior advisor to the president.

The organization’s first protest took place six days after the White House’s approval of the Willow Project in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve—the largest oil drilling project on public land in US history. In its 30-year lifespan, it is anticipated to emit more than 270 million tons of carbon pollution.

Opponents of the decision object to what they say is the Biden administration’s prioritizing of profits over protection of the climate, environment, and human life. The Biden administration’s approval of oil and gas drilling permits on public lands continues to outpace those of the Trump Administration in its first two years. 

Climate Defiance is largely funded by Climate Emergency Fund, a California-based non-profit organization that channels money from affluent donors (including oil heiress Aileen Getty and director of Don’t Look Up Adam McKay) to groups engaged in disruptive climate activism. Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion, and Just Stop Oil—the activist group behind the tomato soup thrown at Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” at London’s National Gallery—are among the more than 100 organizations that have received grants from the Fund since its founding in 2019.

Climate Emergency Fund also financially backed the Grant Town Power Plant blockade where Greenberg and Haught met. That blockade was a part of a series of protests intended to push Senator Manchin to support the Inflation Reduction Act.

Members of Climate Defiance also attempted to enter the annual White House Correspondents’ Garden Brunch on SaturdayFollowing the blockade of the Correspondents’ Dinner, Climate Defiance hopes to continue to expand its core team of organizers and recruitment of activists across the nation. “We hope that this is the first of many actions,” Haught said. “We need people to take to the streets to protect our climate.”