In some ways, it seems just like yesterday. In others, well…
Twenty years ago today, I was arrested for “stealing” the gold painted ground breaking shovels at the Union Carbide PCB facility in Henderson, KY. In many ways, that cold morning defined my life since.
First, committing an act of civil disobedience in a conservative community removed any obscurity I had enjoyed up to that time. Even though I had won a Pulitzer Prize for News Photography seven years earlier, the headlines in the local paper the next day, “Blair Steals PCB Limelight” made me known for direct action more than I would ever be known as a photographer, at least locally.
That celebrity had a negative impact on my business as the “growth at any cost” business community reacted to what I had done with pure disdain. But, it also had some positive results in that it took more than a decade before people finally quit stopping me to say how much they appreciated my efforts.
The worse part of that action was the fact that it failed to stop the plant from being built. Although it did succeed in getting a permit and was built in opposition of most people in the region, Union Carbide’s dismal reputation in the aftermath of the Bhopal disaster in late 1984 made it difficult for Carbide to gain the market share they felt necessary to keep the plant open for more than just a few years.
Our, in their face, fight had some success since it laid the groundwork for future battles dealing with other hazardous waste facilities that tried to locate in this region. One of those was the German giant, BASF who, three years later tried to locate a hazardous waste incinerator in the area which turned out to be a statewide fight when we kicked them out of Evansville and they decided to move to Terre Haute, instead. After a multiyear battle there with Valley Watch and others, BASF simply gave up and moved on.
My point in all this is that my civil disobedience played a part in ultimately winning two fights.
In fact, it has probably been used in nearly every successful political battle for centuries. The American Revolution, Gandhi’s fights in Africa and India, the American Civil Rights movement and even the antiabortion effort in the US would never have gotten the traction they did without the sacrifice of those who were willing to stand up or sit down for what they believed.
Civil disobedience is truly the most effective means of protest but it needs to be used in creative ways following the three following rules from my perspective:
1. It must always be NONVIOLENT. No one should ever be physically harmed in any way;
2. It is best when it is ACTIVE versus passive. Stealing shovels was likely more effective in making my point than it would have been if I had simply trespassed and sat down, waiting to be carried off by some cop who is paid to uphold the laws of the corporations. Action was what captivated the TV cameras and made the act a success.
3. It must be SYMBOLIC and easily understood, both in the reasons why it is being done and what larger goal is being pursued by the action.
Of course civil disobedience can sometimes get a little dirty. Greenpeace activists were charged with an obscure 19th Century law for boarding a ship that was illegally carrying exotic timber of the Carolina coast. And, yes, I got arrested again for simply carrying a sign and standing outside a political rally for Dick Cheney.
But the stakes are now high enough that we must all stand together to stop the seemingly endless assault on our civil liberties that is currently being conducted by the Bush Administration. Their actions of late include numerous illegal acts. Spying on American citizens by the US government is illegal, yet is endorsed by Bush. And even my latter arrest was judged in clear conflict with the bill of rights’ First and Fourth Amendments.
Civil Disobedience is one tool in an arsenal of efforts to win political battles when money seems all that matters.
Twenty years ago today, I am proud to say that I stood up and grew up at the same time.
JOHN BLAIR is president of the environment health advocacy group, Valley Watch and earned a Pulitzer Prize for news Photography in 1978. He can be reached at: Ecoserve1@aol.com