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Taking Action: Do Our Tactics Unite or Divide Us?

Matt Leonard

[On Tuesday] morning, I was reading an excellent article on ClimateWire (sorry, subscription only!) titled " The anti-coal campaigner broadens his reach". It was largely about Bruce Nilles, director of the Sierra Club's National Coal Campaign and the excellent work they have done stopping proposed coal plants across the county. capcoal_blog1.gif

But the second half of the article focused an on another part of the anti-coal movement - the grassroots efforts fighting coal and the complimentary tactics of direct action. Says Kimberly Kirkbride (actually of Blue Ridge Earth First!)

"What we do is completely complementary with them," said Kirkbride, an activist with Rising Tide North America, whose members have been arrested at coal protests. "If you look at history, the most successful campaigns had the paper jammers working the legal side [like the Sierra Club] and the people on the ground pushing the limit."

As we are gearing up for the Capitol Climate Action March 2nd (the largest civil disobedience for the climate is US history!), I've been contemplating the role of non-violent direct action and civil disobedience in our movement. Not that I doubt it - any honest analysis of virtually every social movement has clearly demonstrated that such tactics are effective, and necessary. While such tactics weren't always popular at the time and made some moderates uncomfortable - few people look back thinking people like Ghandi or Rosa Parks were "too extreme" in their actions. 

The Capitol Climate Action is mobilizing the largest and most diverse coalition to date of groups opposing coal and demanding climate justice.  There are nearly 50 endorsing organizations, including national environmental organizations, social justice groups, anti-war networks, community anti-coal organizations, church and faith-based groups and many more. The vast majority of these groups are not the typical supporters of civil disobedience - and this action is likely going to be the first such action for overwhelming majority of participants.trans.gif

But there are also some groups noticeably absent from the endorsement list, to the point where participants and supporters in the action are publicly asking "why aren't these groups endorsing the action?" I can't say for sure (and don't want to put words in anyone's mouth) but some groups have policies against supporting civil disobedience, some groups are simply scared off by the tactic (or misconceptions over the role it can play in social movements), and some groups might simply have strategic objections to the action or are pursuing more "politically pragmatic" approaches in working with the new administration.

But as Kimberly's great quote above reflects - the tactics of civil disobedience and direct action should be seen as complimentary to other efforts, and never be viewed as isolated acts. They are tools in a toolbox. Sometimes the appropriate tool for a job is a vote, or a petition, or a teach-in. Indeed, groups endorsing this action are movement leaders in all of those tactics.  Successful social movements need to be open to any of these tools, rather than categorically exclude them. But sadly, much of the climate movement in the US has excluded tactics of non-violent direct action and civil disobedience until recently- and it's telling that the state of our economy, our energy priorities, and our political and popular understanding of the climate crisis is so far behind many other parts of the world.

As Obama said [Monday] "We will not be put off from action because action is hard." When we face a crisis; and the public knows the issues but doesn't recognize the situation  as a crisis - how best do we respond? If a building is burning - we don't calmly ask for better fire alarms or wait for firemen to save us. We grab our neighbors, and take action to deal with the crisis. By responding to a situation that is in fact a crisis, and an escalating one at that - we feel it's vital to escalate our response to the crisis. Al Gore recognizes that civil disobedience is the appropriate response to this crisis. James Hansen is supporting it. A court of law in the UK has justified it.  Bill McKibben and Wendell Berry are calling for it. In fact, Hansen, McKibben, Berry, and many others are all joining the Capitol Climate Action (we are still working on Gore!).

So On March 2nd, (the day following Power Shift) we'll be answering that call. In the tradition of the same movements that enabled Obama to become President and the same movements that demanded the 8-hour workday most of us  take for granted - we will use peaceful civil disobedience to reflect the seriousness and urgency of the climate crisis.  We will shift the discourse and understanding of the climate crisis a step forward. We will create the political space to redefine what "pragmatic politics"  entail. We will get coal out of Congress. And we will empower each other and our communities to know that together - we can organize, take action, and meet the challenge of the climate crisis.

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Matt Leonard lives in San Francisco.  He works with Rising Tide North America and Bay Rising Affinity Group.

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