One of the hardest things in the world is, if I may borrow a biblical phrase, to read the signs of the times.
A new call to action has been issued by leaders of 350.org, Rainforest Action Network, the Hip Hop Caucus and others, to stop President Barack Obama’s possible approval of the Keystone XL pipeline. Signers promise, if necessary, “to engage in serious, dignified, peaceful civil disobedience that could get you arrested.” The call has already attracted over 50,000 signers to a pledge to engage in arrestable actions if the president says yes. I’m a signer. But I wonder whether we could be called to a higher level of action than the current pledge promises and therefore have a greater deterrent effect.
This kind of tactic has been used before. A previous pledge of resistance in the 1980s attracted tens of thousands of signers and probably prevented then-President Ronald Reagan from sending U.S. troops into Nicaragua to overthrow the democratically-elected government there. Preparations were underway in neighboring Honduras to launch a U.S. invasion. The CIA was already implicated in the killing and torturing of Nicaraguans through the Contras, and the U.S. had already broken international law by laying mines in the harbor of Managua. President Reagan wanted all Latin American countries to understand that only governments approved by the U.S. empire would be allowed to stand.
A mass outcry arose in the United States around the pledge organized by my fellowWNV columnist Ken Butigan, Sojourners editor Jim Wallis, American Friends Service Committee staffer David Hartsough and others. It promised major civil disobedience in Senate offices and elsewhere around the country should the commander-in-chief give the invasion order. The 1 percent was aware that their dream of 1,000 nuclear power plants in the U.S. had been foiled by mass direct action at plant sites in the 1970s, only a decade before. Reagan found it prudent not to give the order. (These campaigns can be found in the Global Nonviolent Action Database and provide inspiring reading: search in the title line for “pledge” and “nuclear.”)
The failure of timidity
How do we know in the moment of decision, that such boldness will attract enough support to be effective? I was personally involved not only in that pledge campaign in the 1980s but also in the failed 1993 campaign for health care reform. The second-rate quality of the U.S. health care system was apparent then (as now); Harris Wofford came from behind in 1991 to win a U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania based on that issue. The new president, Bill Clinton, knew it was hot and assigned his partner Hillary to the task of creating a plan for reform — in that way raising the stakes even more.
The coalition that for years had been pushing for health care reform believed, correctly, that its moment had arrived. Dominated by inside-the-Beltway groups with an affinity to the Democratic Party, the coalition played footsie with Hillary Clinton. As they continued their insider game (“We have the ear of the White House”), they watched themselves get squeezed by the power of the 1 percent.
Finally, the coalition called me, asking for a strategy session on civil disobedience, acknowledging it was their last gasp before defeat. I took the train to Washington and found them in a large room — top leaders of national groups — ready to consider direct action. I asked a diagnostic question: “Who in this room represents groups with considerable rebellious energy?”
People looked at the ceiling, and at the floor. No one met my eyes. Finally they started to recall how over time they had lost ACT UP and other groups with a grassroots base and rebellious energy.
“Well,” I said, “we can save ourselves some time. No nonviolent direct action campaign ever succeeded without being fueled by rebellious energy.”
I looked at my watch, realizing I could still catch a movie before my train back to Philly. The leaders were shocked, somehow imagining that a strategic direct action campaign can be summoned out of thin air by the blowing of a trumpet.
Their coalition failed utterly. In 2007 their previous disaster did not prevent some of the same actors to repeat the same failed strategy, again ignoring and even fighting against their most passionate nonviolent health care warriors. By the beginning of President Obama’s administration, when the historic window opened once again for health care reform, the coalition’s so-called realism led to an economically unviable compromise that has left tens of millions of people without adequate care. The coalition created a vacuum that the Tea Party gladly filled, manifesting rebellious energy, stealing the drama and spotlight away from left.
Is the pipeline the threshold to a bolder movement?
Everything Bill McKibben has taught us emphasizes the urgency of the climate crisis. At the same time, leaders of front-line communities teach us the urgency of stopping the extreme extraction that is harming their children’s health and threatening their future. Often bolder actions and mass movements are seen to be in tension: If we call on people to take more risk, fewer people will respond. But how many of the more than 50,000 people who have signed, I wonder, would have also signed to a bolder call, one that promised resistance that wasn’t so “dignified,” that didn’t marginalize the rebellious energy that is manifestly rising for climate justice?
An inside-the-Beltway perspective on movements is notoriously unreliable; in my lifetime that perspective was flatly wrong about civil rights, anti-nuclear power and health care reform. Lobbyists know their stuff when it comes to tweaking the system, but they simply lack expertise when it comes to social movements. That’s because their job is to look for the common ground; a social movement’s job is to pay attention to opportunities offered by polarization.
The evidence is clear: Political polarization in the United States closely follows the curve of economic inequality. The country is now experiencing the greatest inequality since the 1920s (and most of Europe is starting to follow thanks to the 1 percent’s strategy of austerity). The opportunity for a movement that economic forces provide is to galvanize the increasing number of radical voices and join with them, rather than marginalize them. Some New York City unions wisely saw that need, for instance, during the heyday of Occupy Wall Street.
This opportunity will become even more real if the president says yes to the pipeline, since that is likely to unleash a nonviolent guerrilla war on the model of the Tar Sands Blockade in Texas, which has employed tree-sits and construction-site lockdowns to slow the Keystone XL’s progress. National environmental organizations will all the more need to support that fight, and they need to start getting ready to do so.
Perhaps it would be smart to have a second draft of the pledge ready — one that provides common ground with the rebellious energy that every movement needs to challenge the status quo. This doesn’t need to negate the 49,000 initial signers of the pledge as written, but it might to speak to a higher level of indignation in the population. Or maybe someone should initiate a “plan b” pledge that acknowledges the fact that many people want to step up their resistance beyond what Washington will deem to be dignified.
An earlier version of this article first appeared on WagingNonviolence.org.