These are my first thoughts, and I hope you will share your ideas. For links to post-election thoughts from my fellow Climate Disobedience Center Founders and updates on the conversation, click here.
When we launched the Climate Disobedience Center, I argued that we should define “disobedience” more broadly than “civil disobedience” because we need to build a culture of resistance to business-as-usual in our communities. Post-election, I think it’s important to return to this idea – that building principled communities founded on love and the commitment to support one another to disrupt business-as-usual is disobedience. We need to prioritize working with people to develop loving and resilient communities of resistance in order to foster the courage and support that will be required to hold on to the gains we’ve made to date and perhaps even to carve out a few wins against an emboldened fossil fuel industry along the way.
We must continue to support those who engage in principled climate-related civil disobedience actions that carry a high legal risk – providing training, organizing, moral, spiritual, and legal resources. It’s always best if such actions are planned strategically and with the goal of using them to create opportunities to shift the public narrative, engage new people, and deepen the commitment of existing constituencies. But even when a high legal risk action doesn’t live up to that ideal, we need to find a way to support people who take non-violent disruptive action on behalf of us all. Standing up for others like this is another form of disobedience in a system of violence that suppresses our movements by provoking us to focus on our differences and tactical disagreements. We won’t fall for that again.
Photo credit Peter Bowden (clipped from larger photo). June 29, 2016 on Grove Street in West Roxbury. Tim DeChristopher is wearing a suit on the left in front, and Marla Marcum is wearing a purple clergy collar shirt at the right front. The two banners on the right were created by Mary Russell (in the pink hat next to Marla)
Since July 2015, I’ve been organizing with a group called Resist the Pipeline in an attempt to build a sustained campaign of nonviolent civil disobedience. We have been fighting the West Roxbury Lateral portion of a larger Spectra Energy project to expand an existing fracked gas pipeline. I entered into that work with the goal of trying to build a culture of resistance among folks who were on the front line of the project and others who felt called to support their struggle. We didn’t stop the pipeline, but we stopped the equivalent of seven weeks of construction work with principled, direct acts of nonviolent civil disobedience across dozens of actions, resulting in 194 arrests. Now, this all-volunteer group is pivoting to prepare for the next fight and working with others to build a bigger, more diverse coalition.
We can always do a better job of supporting climate dissidents and honoring the presence of each person in the effort, but I want to reflect here on some things that we did in West Roxbury that I think are worth replicating, even if they don’t provide a complete answer for how to shift our strategy. After the election, these practices feel even more important to me.
We need to continue to create dramatic public moments that unmask the violence of fossil fuel business-as-usual. One of the ways to do that is through principled acts of nonviolent civil disobedience that illustrate the choice at hand and to invite the witnesses of these acts to ask themselves “which side am I on?” or “where do my values lead me?” or “how then shall we live?” There are plenty of ways to take disruptive action in which none of the participants risk arrest.
The transformative power disruptive action comes through voluntarily and publicly taking a personal risk in order to demand change. Those who take such action need to understand what they risk and be willing to accept the consequences. And so it makes sense to support one another to take strategic risks, rather than focus solely on actions that risk arrest.
In West Roxbury we hosted (almost weekly) nonviolent civil disobedience trainings where we made clear that the people gathered on the sidewalk are just as critical to our success as the people who entered the worksite to block construction with their bodies. And we meant it. We understood that we couldn’t build power if it was easy for passersby to take one look at a disruptive action and assume that some tiny radical fringe was pulling a pointless stunt to make themselves feel morally pure. We needed people who encountered these actions to see their neighbors gathered in support.
Many of the active Resisters have spent years building up their respectability. For this segment of Resisters, the real risk is to their respectability in the eyes of their neighbors, colleagues, and institutions. When they step (or jump) into a pipeline trench to block construction, they are making a public statement that resistance is necessary. They would be making the a similar statement if they participated in a daily picket at the National Grid offices or painted their garage doors with a mural depicting the death and destruction that our local consumption generates in other parts of the world. For the dedicated dissident, this might sound silly. But if we are going to build a movement strong enough to stand up to the fossil fuel industry (and the Trump administration), I think we all recognize that we’ll need to motivate “respectable” people to disobey the “reasonable” propriety of middle and wealthy class norms.
If we are going to create a vibrant, loving culture of resistance, we’re going to need to invite more people into it. And those people are most powerful when they are challenged to take risks while being exactly who they are and telling their stories to their communities, colleagues, families, and friends.
And so, I think risk and disobedience take many forms – particularly when we are trying to shift the cultures of our communities. “Respectable” folks are not likely to change their wardrobes or overhaul their vocabularies dramatically enough to fit in with most self-identified radical activists. I think that’s good. If we are going to shift the cultures in which we participate, we need to stay relevant to others within those cultures. We need people to bring their full selves into the work, to dress however they want, and to pursue the hobbies they love – and raise kids or raise alpacas or raise kale or raise important philosophical questions (or any combination of those). Everyone will benefit from spending time with people who come to the work from a different social location, especially if we listen deeply to one another and challenge one another to stretch outside our comfort zones toward bolder disruptive action of all kinds.
We also need to support and nurture beautiful visual art, craft, music, poetry, storytelling, and food culture emerging from creative movement spaces. These cultural expressions are ways to make meaning and find connection with one another. And seriously, we need more group singing. This topic needs its own post, and I am probably not the one to write it… but I am among those who appreciate the power and necessity of cultural workers.
Finally, our action design must consider the symbolic. When someone criticizes an action because it is symbolic, I say “thank you.” While it feels really good to pull off a spectacular technical action or occupation that disrupts business-as-usual for the fossil fuel industry, the long-term transformative power of that disruption arises from the skill with which we use the moment to shift the dominant narrative and offer a new vision of the role of responsible citizens in our culture. We learn who we are and structure our lives by the stories we tell ourselves. As we move forward together, we won’t always engage in direct action, but all of our actions MUST be symbolic.
Tim mentioned a clear example of powerful symbolic action that builds a culture of resistance: the Mass Graves action we organized with Resist the Pipeline in West Roxbury, Massachusetts in June. If you want an example of a deeply symbolic disruptive action, have a look at this video (under 8 minutes) of Tim telling the story of the action, this video of Rev. Mariama White-Hammond's mass graves eulogy (under 7 minutes), this photo set from Peter Bowden, or this blog post from Tim.
In the photo at the top of my post, you can see a slice of the folks gathered for the Mass Graves action, but the important symbolic piece that I hope you will notice is the banner. It’s Mary Russell’s recreation of a Reuters photo of the first (that we know of) anticipatory mass grave for victims of climate change. This action was about lamenting our global entry into the age of anticipatory climate mass graves and taking responsibility for the fact that the new pipeline trench we sought to block, if put into use, would create more trenches like the one on the banner.
That day, we had a documentary filmmaker, photographers, and media and social media teams working together to tell the story. We had amazing local artists making banners. The work of assembling, preparing, and coordinating such a team can be overwhelming, but a powerful symbolic action that only impacts the people on-site is a lost opportunity.
We worked with allies from the South Asian Center to make sure that our action was appropriate and respectful. We were joined by Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, and Hindu faith leaders. We were blessed by Muslim faith leaders who didn’t feel safe to join us in a protest setting. We prioritized holding a mass graves observance, and because we made this choice, the 23 people who had come to disrupt construction did NOT try to force themselves past a solid line of bicycle cops. Instead, they allowed the symbolic action to proceed so that the 250+ people gathered – including people from communities that had never joined us before – could share in this symbolic act of lament and taking responsibility together. We all agreed this was more important than blocking construction.
In the end, we were able to have it both ways. We returned a few hours later, overwhelming the two officers remaining on site. Thirteen people entered the pipeline trench and lay down (echoing the mass grave in Pakistan), and twelve others stayed by their sides at street level. The rest of us were on site in support, and we stopped construction for two hours. construction in the spirit of that morning observance deepened the message because it was framed by the morning ritual. The symbolic observance gave power to the direct action and created space for us to make meaning of this moment in time together.
In this frightening and uncertain moment, we need to prioritize taking disruptive action that rejects bigotry and keeps us grounded in love. I believe we will win some local fights in the next few years, but I know that we must forge deep relationships of trust across lines that currently divide us, and we need to offer everyone who witnesses our work a compelling case for action. That’s pretty ambitious. And it’s just one piece of what this moment requires.
Going forward, I expect that the Climate Disobedience Center team will focus on standing for justice in settings that involve fighting the abuses of the fossil fuel industry, showing up to defend climate refugees, and engaging other situations that are clearly climate related. But I will also be committing myself to opposing bigotry and repression in fights that aren’t obviously correlated with climate concerns. We’ve got to defend our shared humanity and reclaim our power to act in accordance with our deepest values.