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Can Nonviolent Resistance Stop the Keystone Pipeline?


I have so far chosen to follow the Keystone campaign from a safe distance. After staring into a two-and-a-half-year prison sentence in West Virginia and barely escaping, I was pretty sure I wasn’t ready for jail again.

I had had the choice, as it were, but standing in a nearly empty courtroom facing a jury of hostile Beckley citizens all of whom had revealed close connections to Massey Energy (now known as Alpha Natural Resources), I asked for and received a delay of the trial on a technical matter, arguing that the production of evidence by the prosecutor was not made available to the defense in a timely manner. In truth, we had only asked for the evidence on Friday, and this was Tuesday morning. The Judge got angry at this obvious ploy, but it was the law, and the prosecutor eventually agreed after my attorney Roger Foreman questioned his manhood. “Are you your own man?” he asked. “Or are you Don Blankenship’s man?”

Eventually, and with great difficulty, we got everyone to agree to a settlement that at least got us out of the SLLAP suit (Strategic Lawsuit Against Citizen’s Participation) that had been filed earlier by Massey’s lawyers. The settlement was basically a truce, and we would have never agreed to it, except for the fact that our defendants were spread out all over the country, we had no money, and almost everyone else had forgotten about mountain top removal by now. The big environmental groups had already left Appalachia after their photo ops, and they were not coming back. They had promises to make elsewhere.

Now these large green organizations have set up the big fight over the Alberta tars sands pipeline, taking on the President, and making its symbolism more important than the pipeline’s actual environmental impact. The issue of course is not the pipeline, but what’s in the pipeline, and the XL is just one pathway for transport tar sands oil. Nevertheless, the big green groups (we no longer find them worthy of capitals!) have pledged a showdown, vowed to get themselves arrested, to mobilize a real opposition, and even take to the streets.

For this they have my support, and I generally attend these events if I possibly can. Yet so far I have not seen the type of determination required for this sort of hard-nosed campaign. For the anti-war and anti-nuke movements, nonviolent resistance was a deeply engrained part of the culture. Groups such as Earth First! and Greenpeace fed off of this kind of direct action protest. We understood it because we had been a part of it.

The Sierra Club has faced this question before, and they actually still have in place a policy forbidding their employees and officers (read: “unpaid volunteers”) from getting arrested at any protests. I am told they may change this policy, as their new Executive Director has requested, at their next meeting. But this is no way to start a new culture.

There are many people along the pipeline route who are committed to winning (that means to them stopping the construction in it’s tracks) and have developed a strong culture of non-violence. Indeed they have taken the torch of this venerable tactic. They have answered the call. It was not an e-mail that got them motivated, but the very thought of the pipeline running through their prairie. They are fighting this the old fashioned way, making alliances within their communities, welcoming outsiders, (most of them anyway) and most of all by being tenacious. The key to winning this campaign will be in making sure that those people have the support they need, and this will be the test of big green as well. Can these groups work together, and how can these local organizations avoid the exploitation, manipulation, co option and marginalizing by the big groups that we saw in Appalachia? Can they be trusted?

I have friends who say the fix is in on for the XL, and there is some evidence to support this. Remember these are the same big green groups who had their hats handed to them on the Cap-and-Trade Climate Bill, and who were reminded by Congress once again of how little power they actually possess. In their guts, they don’t really believe they can win this fight,  but they want some new clout, and are hoping to gain traction, if a large-scale disturbance somehow emerges. But this big groups don’t want to accept any of the costs and associated risks. I sure hope that they are not just e-mailing everyone and putting up yet another website, but actually getting their members out going to churches, temples and mosques, to the Rotary Club, anywhere and everywhere to sign up new recruits in person. I don’t think this kind of organizing can be done on the chapter level by people who have little or no experience with non-violent resistance. I also have doubts about our current generation of circuit riders who are now doing the training, who themselves lack this sort of experience.

Threatening a large-scale nonviolent resistance is a bold response to climate change, and we have been saying so long before Bill McKibben wrote his first book on the subject (since then I’ve been  arrested over 50 times). A campaign like this is more of a logistical problem than a strategic one. Logistics cannot be done on-line. They require experienced people on the ground, with the resources they need to do the job.

Who is really running this show and why don’t we know anything more about this than what Bill McKibben puts in an online letter? The process is top down, secretive, and highly suspect in my mind. They have tried mobilizing on this level before with disappointing results (in spite of all their constant crowing about it).

So why are they so confident? What are they not telling us? What am I missing?

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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