What happens when people from the nation’s largest and oldest environmental organization — the kind that sends cute nature calendars to its well-meaning supporters every year — get arrested in front of the White House? Don’t worry; it wasn’t for anything lewd, like a drunk and disorderly (although ecological collapse should be enough to send anyone on a bender). They were engaging in civil disobedience to protest the fossil fuel industry, and they had more than a century to get ready for it.
After the Sierra Club announced last month plans to commit civil disobedience for the first time in its 120-year history, Executive Director Michael Brune and Board of Directors President Allison Chin were arrested this morning at the White House in an attempt to pressure the president, the day after his State of the Union speech, to obstruct the construction of the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. They did so with a group of nearly 50 others, including big names from other environmental groups — such as Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., of Natural Resources Defense Council, Phil Radford of Greenpeace and Erich Pica of Friends of the Earth. They were joined by landowners and other representatives of pipeline-affected communities, as well as climate protest mainstays like NASA scientist James Hansen, Reverend Lennox Yearwood of the Hip Hop Caucus, actress Daryl Hannah and, of course, Bill McKibben, whose 350.org has long pushed for this moment.
“I’m very glad to see leaders and celebrities standing up to Keystone, but I don’t forget for a moment that it was 1,253 ordinary Americans going to jail who built this momentum in the first place,” McKibben said before the action, referring to the two weeks of sit-ins outside the White House in August and September of 2011. At the time, the most that the Sierra Club could offer was its vocal support, which in itself was a stretch for the large and cautious organization. But McKibben’s choice of the Keystone XL as a focal point for climate organizing has proved an effective one.
“On an issue as complicated as climate, there will often be disagreements over tactics and goals,” he was quoted as saying in a 2011 Tar Sands Action press release. “But there are some projects so obviously dangerous that they unify everyone, and the Keystone XL pipeline is the best example yet.”
Today’s action marks a new unity between the “Big Green” environmental organizations and more grassroots efforts like McKibben’s 350.org — in action, not just in word. For years, many of the Big Greens have relied on their large but disengaged member-base — whose role is mainly to fund experts, lawyers and lobbyists. Yet, as a 2012 report by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy noted, “we have not experienced significant policy changes [on environmental issues] at the federal level in the United States since the 1980s.” The author of the study attributes this to a lack of support for grassroots infrastructure.
350.org, in contrast, has devoted its resources to helping ordinary people take action on climate issues, usually by supporting organizers and trainings. As such, it has served as a bridge between the grassroots and the mainstream, picking up the pieces where the latter has failed — particularly in terms of getting climate legislation passed through traditional channels. Now, a consensus is emerging that the best hope for preventing the worst of climate change is no longer a matter for a few specialists, but rather a broad-based movement. This new image of environmental action will be in force on Sunday, when tens of thousands of people are expected to gather on the National Mall for the #ForwardOnClimate Rally.
In some ways, this synergy between on-the-ground activists and Beltway advocates mirrors a crucial moment in the civil rights movement. As Waging Nonviolence columnist George Lakey has explained, in 1955, the NAACP — then the largest civil rights organization in the country — was cold to the idea of direct action as advocated by labor leader A. Philip Randolph and radical pacifistBayard Rustin. It took the right kind of person to bridge the gap and convince the organization’s huge member-base to participate in the major actions and marches that came to define the movement. That person was of course Martin Luther King, Jr.
While such comparisons may be a bit premature for the climate movement, the fact that civil rights veteran and former NAACP executive director Julian Bond was among today’s arrestees certainly added an element of historical drama. Nevertheless, only so much can be expected of a single action — especially one as routine as briefly blocking the East Gate of the White House. Longtime activist Mike Roselle, writing for Counterpunch, reminds us that “a well-orchestrated photo-op under the controlled conditions of DC Metro Police is not Selma.” Despite the rather dull scene, though, Roselle still thinks “the symbolism is large.” He goes on: “Brune is now standing toe-to-toe with the President of the United States of America, a man who has entertained him in the White House, on one of the most important issues we face. No Sierra Club Executive since David Brower [over a half-century ago] has been so bold. But if this tactic does not work, if the President doesn’t back down, then the next move is up to Mr. Brune.”
It’s hard to imagine what that move will be. The Sierra Club still has a policy in place that precludes civil disobedience, and today’s one-off action required an unprecedented bureaucratic ruling to temporarily lift it. That undoubtedly means the burden to keep pushing hard against the pipeline remains on grassroots groups that are less risk-averse.
Where they lead, the Big Greens are finally beginning to follow.
This article originally appeared on WagingNonviolence.org.