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On Civil Disobedience, XL Pipeline and the Sierra Club


The news that the new Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune was planning to get arrested in Washington DC protesting the XL Pipe Line has received wide spread media attention. It was met approval by many, skepticism by some and criticism by others, on both the left and right. What are they doing. What does this really mean? Or even, what the heck is it; a media stunt?  An act of desperation? An attempt to take over Occupy Wall Street?

To understand any of this we may need to, as Brune does, go back to our Henry David Thoreau, as have so many others since Walden and the publication of On Civil Disobedience. We might also read Muir and Carson as well. And we should, while we are at it, consider Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. We should also think of Danail Berrigan, Nelson Mandela and a host of others who have chosen the path of non-violence and why they did it.

We might also want to consider that the Sierra Club Board of Directors had to grant a one day exemption on one of their more questionable policies, that of not allowing leaders to engage in acts of civil disobedience. The new policy will expire when the door is shut on the police bus, but the discussion about this policy is just beginning. The current policy, established in 1991, forbids Sierra Club employees or officers (read volunteers) from being arrested for civil disobedience at political demonstrations, and was enacted in response to an event that did not even involve civil disobedience, but rather the unlawful arrest and detention of a Sierra Club volunteer at a demonstration in Yosimete National Park.

The Club’s rather feeble position is that it’s status as a 501 (C)3 non profit forbids it from engaging in illegal activity. That would be the same non-profit status claimed by Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network. Like all of our tax laws, these things are open to many interpretations. Still, one can hear in this excuse the distinct sound of hair-splitting and the smell of timidity. Bill McKibben and Al Gore have both called for a non-violent resistance; yet the Club still thinks this is controversial. No one else does.

Environmentalists have been getting arrested opposing the destruction of nature since there was an environmental movement. I’d bet they had to arrest a few tree huggers when the Romans logged the Cedars of Lebanon. Today, many grassroots environmental justice groups in the US have used, are using or are likely to use non-violent civil disobedience to get their voices heard. So count me in the “What took you so long” crowd, as Brune has put it in his letter explaining his decision.

Some who have been involved in traditional forms of non-violence will see this as a small step, and others will see this as a great leap. It may be both, and it may be something more. A well-orchestrated photo-op under the controlled conditions of DC Metro Police is not Selma. The photo-op will not be dramatic. But I would argue that here the symbolism is large. The pipeline decision must be a done deal. The Sierra Club knows this.

Brune is now standing toe-to-toe with the President of the United States of America, a man who has entertained him in the White House, on one of the most important issues we face. No Sierra Club Executive since David Brower has been so bold. But if this tactic does not work, if the President doesn’t back down, then the next move is up to Mr. Brune. Unchanged, the current Sierra Club policy would forbid an escalation by the Club itself. But larger groups are starting to ramp up the funding for some kind of non violent campaign to stop the construction of the pipeline and that is where things get hairy.

America has a great tradition of non violent civil disobedience, much of it drenched in blood and violence. Photo op or not, this is not a decision to be taken lightly and I believe everyone in the Sierra Club understands this. Where this will lead is a larger question.

Civil disobedience is protected under the constitution as free speech only if the law that is being broken is unconstitutional. This does not exempt you from the consequences, and from there it is a short trip to the courtroom, and to be exonerated you will need to prove it. This is what is called the Lunch Counter test. Trespassing laws are not unconstitutional, and trespassing in and of itself has usually not been understood to be protected speech, although it is often treated as if it is by authorities when done peacefully. When one takes a bolder step and intrudes on a business enterprise or economic activity then you have crossed from speech to actions which are only protected under the Defense of Necessity, when you believe that your crimes are lesser than the crimes you are trying to prevent and that you have exhausted all other available remedies. Then and only then, and only if you except full responsibility for you actions, can you claim that that breaking the law was legal. You will still have to convince a jury, and in most cases you won’t even be able to raise the issues in court that caused you to take the action. Legal or not, your action will land you in jail. If you are confused by any of this, it may because the conversation we have been having on non-violent direct action over the past few decades has often been a shallow and misinformed one. Non-violence as photo op; civil disobedience  that is not civil. Activist claiming that breaking windows is non-violent, that shouting and cursing is non-violent. Being disrespectful is non-violent. Where did all of this come from?

First of all, let’s keep in mind that the 1965 Watts Riots was civil disobedience. They were also violent and distractive. They were also justified. They may have also been wrong, and are still seen as illegal. The Black Bloc anarchists and their fellow travelers insist property damage, clashing with police, and being disrespectful are all non-violent and justified, no, even required, if you are serious about changing anything. They may be right, but this doesn’t help us understand non-violence.

So let’s dispense for a moment with both terms, civil disobedience and non violence, because they are open to a broad range of definitions and interpretations. Gandhi had the same problems with these terms, and how they could be used, and dispensed with them altogether. Non-violent direct action in his view had a history of lessons learned and could be easily understood if you just stepped back a bit from preconceived notions of history or rigid ideology, because these had nothing to do with it. It is a political strategy. As George Lakoff argues, non-violence has succeeded as often as violent protests and revolutions and with much less bloodshed. To be non-violent is to be civil. Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. were respectful to authority even as they challenged it. They were loving of the police even as they bore the blows of their truncheons. They knew that in their suffering was power, and that each blow made them stronger. They often would not except bail, or pay fines, or even eat in some cases.

A sustained campaign of direct action is not a photo op, it is a horse of an altogether different color. It is not action as a lifestyle or an action about lifestyle; it will be a life and death struggle for the future of the Earth. The fossil fuel companies and the politicians know this, fear this, and will respond robustly to our challenge. There will be injunctions, torts, even new laws to break. There has already been a lawsuit against non-violent activists for violating an injunction. They were forced into an unjust settlement because they had few legal resources. This has made it harder for others to cross the line. What will happen if more are arrested?

These are big questions, and always arise when the word “blockade” is used. This is not speech. This is breaking the law, pure and simple, as Greenpeace might do it, but probably more as Earth First! might do it. It will result in long jail sentences, fines, lawsuits and all of the things we have come to expect in a sustained campaign. So what is our plan?

It seems to me we don’t have a plan, but at this hour one is surely needed. What is being proposed is nothing more than the largest campaign in US history, and may prove as tough as the struggle against Jim Crow in the South. Are we ready? Do we have the courage and the stamina to keep our eyes on the prize? That day is here. We must have a plan, and one we agree to stick to. What we cannot do is make empty threats, as the Obama administration must surly think this one is. We must show that this is more than that. That this will be the defining moment in our history. It is either that, or it is nothing. The national green groups drew a line in the sand over mountain top removal, yet it continues unabated. Now they have drawn another line. Is there no line that cannot be crossed? This is why the decision to use non-violent direct action to stop the XL pipeline is such a serious one.

Mike Brune is no stranger to direct action, having cut his teeth in Greenpeace and going on to lead the Rainforest Action Network, two organizations known for hard-hitting non-violent campaigns. Certainly the Sierra Club knew this when he was hired. As a long time conservationist I am proud that the Club is finally taking a stand. What took you so long indeed?

The XL Pipeline is but one of many proposed game enders, and it’s importance lies in the fact that we have made it a test of our resolve. A victory here will be of great importance and failure here unimaginable. There is a growing awareness of climate change and yet people feel powerless to do anything about it. This mass action could change that dynamic and along with it the balance of political power in Washington. Congress responded to Earth Day in 1970; they heard our voices, and those that didn’t were swept from office. Can we do it again?

MIKE ROSELLE is Campaign Director of Climate Ground Zero and author of Tree Spiker!. He can be reached at:


MIKE ROSELLE is Campaign Director of Climate Ground Zero and author of Tree Spiker!. He can be reached at:

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