The sight of hundreds of people getting arrested in front of the White House is one of the most hopeful signals that I’ve seen yet that at least some Americans are taking the climate crisis seriously. For me, the only question was what took so long?
The XL pipeline is indeed an ecological disaster, but it’s a disaster that has been going on for some time, and just one of many disasters, like mountain top removal, saturation hydro-fracking, offshore drilling and nuclear power, to mention just a few. But better late than never, right?
With the upcoming dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr. monument at the National Mall, it is irresistible to draw comparisons to this seminal figure in American history, as his very initials are synonymous with civil disobedience, and the demonstrators have not shied away from doing so.
This is as it should be. After all, it’s not King’s dream we celebrate, it’s his tactical successes on the bloody battle fields of the civil rights movement, successes that came with many sacrifices. It might even be worth taking a moment to reflect that King was never arrested in the nation’s Capitol, but served some hard time in the jails and prisons of the Deep South for standing up to the likes of Bull Connor and J. Edgar Hoover.
So while I think the comparisons are fair, they do not go far enough, and as many an old activist knows, going to the DC central lock up is not “putting your body on the line” even though it is a noble endeavor, and one that is now receiving some serious attention.
My advice now would be for us to look beyond the tactics of the Civil Rights movement and study the anti nuclear campaigns, which also has a long and distinguished history of creative non violent resistance both here and globally. Actions at weapons factories, the Nevada Test Site, the White Train campaign and the mass actions at nuclear power stations mobilized many thousands of people across the country to engage in non violent direct action on a grassroots level, and on June 12, 1982 one million people demonstrated in support of the nuclear weapons freeze in New York City.
It’s great that climate activists are taking a new look at civil disobedience and rediscovering the history of the Civil Rights era, but it may be just as important to look more closely at more recent history.
Most of us will never face the dogs and truncheons of a Bull Connor, the burning and bombing of our houses, the long harsh sentences in the medieval prisons of the Mississippi Delta. But we do need to get out of our comfort zone and blocking the sidewalk at the White House should be just a first step towards a true non-violent movement to end the use of fossil fuels.
The next step, as Tim DeChristopher and others have said, is to get out into the regions where coal fields, the oil fields, the coal burning power stations are located and do some witnessing at the scene of the crime.
I suspect that the Obama administration will not yield to the pressure from this very successful and powerful demonstration and will either approve or delay the decision. And this means we will need to step up the pressure another notch. It would be much easier to fill the jails of Fort McMurray, Alberta and Beckley, West Virginia than it is to fill the central lock up in DC.
So while I applaud the enthusiasm that the mainstream environmental movement is now showing in civil disobedience, I also think it might be time they learned a few things from the old timers about nonviolent direct action.
I’ll be going to Washington in a few days to join the protest, and my hope is that some of these distinguished persons will make the trip to the Coal River and take a stand here.
After three years of non-violent resistance an almost two hundred arrests, the police are now releasing trespassers without bail and Alpha Natural Resources has dropped the four SLAPP lawsuits that were filed two years ago by Massey Energy, the coal company they merged with.
The jails here are already overcrowded in West Virginia. We have a large and growing presence here in West Virginia and even in Raleigh County where most residents are opposed to mountaintop removal.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has said that if we can’t end mountain top removal, then there is little hope that we can reign in the coal industry anywhere, and this too is a “game over” scenario for the planet. The same is true for the coal mines of the Powder River Basin on the Montana/Wyoming boarder.
I sincerely hope Obama comes out against the XL pipeline. If he does, this will show the climate movement and the world the power of creative non violence. But if he doesn’t, then we must show him the power of even more non-violence.