McKibben Tar Sands Action.jpg

Conspiracy Theorist takes a Swing at Tar Sands Action but Misses

Bryan Farrell Apr 26, 2012

An article published by CounterPunch yesterday, “Inconvenient Truths about Tar Sands Action,” argues that the grassroots campaign targeting the Keystone XL pipeline was nothing more than “a manipulated charade, funded and run with loads of money from pro-Obama Democrats through non-transparent organizations like the Tides Foundation.” It follows, then, according to the article, that the real goal of Tar Sands Action “was to manufacture Obama a ‘green victory’ during his first term in the run up to the 2012 election.”

In short, for those thousands of you who participated in the White House sit-ins or encirclement and became “True Believers in the mission,” you were duped. What you took part in “was not social change, nor was it grassroots empowerment.” You became nothing more than a name on an email list. You were “converted into clicktivists who will hopefully contribute money to the Obama ‘I’m In’ 2012 Presidential campaign, ecological landscape be damned.”

I’d ask you how it feels, but I should know. I’m one of you. The article mentions Waging Nonviolence along with the socialist group Solidarity and author Naomi Klein as being among the “principled radicals” who “drank the kool-aid.” So how do I feel? Well, for someone who has supposedly been drugged, I feel remarkably sober and unconvinced.

To believe that the Democrats mobilized thousands of people to get arrested as part of an effort to manufacture an environmental win for Obama is to ignore the fact that he rejected this gift-wrapped, hand-delivered win. He never fully acknowledged the claims of the campaign, and has recently spoken positively of the pipeline, thereby ensuring neither an environmental win nor the support of environmentalists.

Despite the joyous rhetoric  (“BIG NEWS: We won. You won.”) that emerged from the campaign after Obama’s November announcement that he would be delaying a decision on the pipeline until 2013, excitement has waned in the months since. More recent emails from organizer Bill McKibben have focused on the hard realities of the pipeline — for instance, Obama’s recent trip to Oklahoma, where he “lauded his administration’s fast-tracking of the southern leg of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.”

That doesn’t exactly sound like a campaign or a president working in cahoots. Yet, according to the author of the CounterPunch article who goes by the pseudonym The Insider, the two have been in lock-step, tricking environmentalists into doing the Democrat’s bidding. Never mind that the president hasn’t kept up his end of the bargain; the evidence of deception is clear to The Insider. For starters, there’s the fact that tar sands oil will be flowing into this country with or without the Keystone XL. So, since Tar Sands Action (TSA) is not targeting all entry points at once or trying to smash the whole industry at once, it is clearly just a sham. From The Insider’s perspective, TSA’s effort to build a mass movement from scratch through a series of concrete victories is irrelevant. What’s important is ideological purity.

This is where the Tides Foundation conspiracy comes in to play — which is where the article starts sounding like a Glenn Beck rant. While neither TSA nor its organizational affiliate received any Tides money (at least according to the document cited by The Insider), many of the groups that supported it did — for instance, the Sierra Club, NRDC and Friends of the Earth. Why does that matter? It boils down to Tides having “Democratic allied funders.” That’s the smoking gun. And apparently we can just take it on good faith that anyone who accepts money from Tides is actively working to reelect Obama. The proof is in the fact that some people showed up at the White House sit-ins and encirclement wearing Obama pins and shirts.

The Insider draws out this idea of co-optation further. “Tar Sands Action was a sophisticated, extremely well-funded model for creating the illusion of movement building, complete with mass civil disobedience,” the article contends, “but the real goal, mirroring its cousin, ‘The 99 Spring,’ was (and is) to hammer Republicans and fire up grassroots enthusiasm for Barack Obama’s re-election campaign.”

Co-optation is always a legitimate and serious concern, but as Nathan Schneider noted in regards to the 99% Spring, it’s important to ask, “Who’s co-opting whom?”

The logic of a civil resistance movement is always to co-opt the existing structures of the society around it, to radicalize them, to drive them away from the status quo and into doing something truly revolutionary. And it is precisely by co-opting these institutions that the movement is generally able to build enough capacity to make real change.

That’s how I’ve always seen Tar Sands Action: as a campaign that recognized the power of grassroots action but knew it needed the reach of the big green NGOs to be effective. As Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan, authors of the 2011 book Why Civil Resistance Works, point out, “The tactical and strategic advantages of high levels of diverse participation explain — in large part — the historical success of nonviolent campaigns.” So, to ignore the big greens and their massive base of supporters is to make your job as an organizer much harder. But to co-opt them, their email lists and their political influence is to give your campaign a huge boost.

Of course, doing so is not easy, despite what The Insider thinks about the Tides money that somehow made all the pieces fall into place. I recently spoke with Linda Capato, who handled recruitment for TSA, and she explained just how much they were on their own in the beginning, when the two weeks of civil disobedience were announced.

We’ve always been told don’t do something that’s too nuts. Mass civil disobedience in front of the White House gates for two weeks, that’s crazy. Sierra Club isn’t going to sign on because of course they can’t. They have those mandates. NRDC isn’t going to be supportive. All these big greens are not going to come to the table and it was like okay, we can do it without them. And so it was this moment of let’s try. And then, as it was happening and as we were organizing, everyone was jumping onboard because it was a smart idea, it was the time to do it, it was the right target, the right strategy, and the right tactic.

That, ultimately, is what The Insider is overlooking. The Keystone XL was a strategic target which had a major leverage point in the president, since the decision was his alone to approve or reject. It was not meant to bring down the tar sands industry. To fault it for not doing so is like faulting the lunch counter sit-ins for not ending segregation. Furthermore, to say that “Martin Luther King must be turning in his grave,” is to deny that King not only appealed to the moral rhetoric of Lyndon Johnson but also met with him.

The TSA sit-ins and encirclement of the White House were hardly Obama campaign rallies. They were strategic actions meant to draw in a diverse crowd. A few radicals on tripods or in armlocks are wonderful, but to succeed, the effort needed a much broader coalition. Make no mistake, though, most of the organizers who helped guide TSA come from radical organizing backgrounds; for them, using the Obama rhetoric was a way to underscore the gap between the president’s lackluster record and his inspiring rhetoric.

That kind of messaging has far more potential to stimulate a mass movement than the kind of angry screaming that often takes place at protest and is why McKibben at one point said, “We are not going to do President Obama the favor of attacking him. We are going to hold the Obama campaign to the standard it set in 2008. Denying this pipeline would send a jolt of electricity through the people that elected this president.” That, to me, sounds like an attempt by TSA to co-opt one of the largest political movements in recent years and galvanize it into acting for the environment. But all The Insider hears is “well-funded, political theater and public relations.”

The problem with conspiracy theories in general is that they dismiss the contributions of ordinary people. Instead of giving credit to the participants in TSA for shaping their own campaign, which involved significant sacrifices both of time and body, the conspiracy theorist disparages those who took part as “rank-and-file day-to-day worker-bees.”

That’s simply not the case for Tar Sands Action. The reality is that as much as the campaign was about bringing thousands of people to the White House, it was also about empowering local communities to take their own action against the pipeline. ”A lot of the communities along the pipeline route are working together that haven’t before,” Linda Capato told me. “Folks in Nebraska who have been dealing with imminent domain are working with folks in Texas on the same issue. If the zombie pipeline does come back, at least we’ll have a lot more power and part of that power is these communities are talking to each other.”

The Insider concludes by quoting activist John Stauber, another skeptic of TSA, who says, “I would love to see the real people who have bought the hype and taken these civil disobedience trainings, and who have gone through the arrests, rise up and seize control of their own movement.” Perhaps he just needs to open his eyes.

This article was originally published by Waging Nonviolence.

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