Seeking thick-headed activists…

Solidarity Illustration

By Tim DeChristopher, cross-posted from Peaceful Uprising

This post came from an email conversation with Post Carbon Institute‘s Strategist-Extraordinaire Tod Brilliant, who argued that we should recruit farmers and grandmothers since college-age protesters would get written off as “spoiled elites.” Tod has a totally reasonable view and might be right. In fact, it’s a very similar warning that Martin Luther King, Jr. gave to the Freedom Riders. They ignored his advice and went anyway, demonstrating that there is something strangely powerful about watching another person put themself in harms way.

I think college kids who protest and get a citation will definitely not get sympathy. Those who spend a night in jail probably won’t get much either. Those who get released from a night in jail to go straight back and repeat their action might start arousing some curiosity. Those who defy a judge’s strong warning that returning a third time will guarantee a year in prison will begin to actually move people. When college kids become former college kids who have been kicked out because of their activism, we’ll start making some progress. The “uppity brats” critique only sticks if anyone who wields it has ever sacrificed as much as the college kid is currently doing. I think where the direct action wing of the current movement has fallen short is that they have substituted perceived risk for actual risk, and it is not the same thing.

More than age, income, profession, or anything else, the one thing that matters about who we put out front is stubbornness.  I’ll trade all the strategy in the world for stubbornness…

I’d bet Peaceful Uprising has a longer list of committed grandmothers than any similar group in the country. They’re on board and ready to get arrested in part because they watched a college kid who reminds them of their sons and grandsons face 10 years in prison for defending his future. The advantage of sustained resistance is that it gives us the opportunity to bring more people on board, and it becomes less important who took the first step.

I think Climate Ground Zero is a decent example of what sustained resistance does to public opinion. When they arrived, they were attacked as outsiders and had a steady barrage of beer bottles flying at their house. After this year’s week long tree sit, 6 local security guards quit after being asked to harass the activists. Two showed up at the CGZ house and interviewed on film about how shitty Massey is.  After living there for almost two years, the beer bottles have stopped, a level of relative decency has been established, and a few locals are joining them.  While CGZ might be a negative example of the problems of alcoholism and poor self-care, they are a great positive example of the power of just not going away.

Violence did not deter the Freedom Riders. They signed their wills and pressed on. Shortly thereafter, Congress passed the Civil Rights Act.

I’m not too worried about public opinion if we can mobilize a serious resistance movement. My bigger concern is whether or not we have a few hundred people in this country willing to make real sacrifices to turn things around. We just haven’t even scratched the surface of the level of commitment needed for a successful social movement. It’s late enough in the game that if we don’t find that kind of commitment, it doesn’t matter how effective our lobbyists are. When things get ugly, I will be less concerned about emission levels than apathy levels. I will be less concerned about the number of electric cars than the number of people willing to resist injustice. Now that it might be too late for a carbon tax to solve the problem, it really matters how we get that carbon tax.

If there’s one thing I hope liberals learn from the tea party, it’s that criticisms are only effective if the criticized care. We threw buckets of criticism, most of it legitimate, and they didn’t care and kept moving forward (well actually backward, but where they were headed anyway.)  They showed that resisting criticism is a lot more important than avoiding criticism.  What is it about liberals that they always back down in the face of criticism and name calling? Oh no, they called us treehugging communists, let’s back off and recruit some small business owners…

We’re trying to take power and profit away from some of the biggest and most ruthless corporations in the world. Whoever is carrying our message will be attacked. Every time a great strategist on our side comes up with a good framing, 50 professional spinsters paid 100 times as much as us will find a way to critique it. The movements that win are the ones that refuse to go away or back down.  More than age, income, profession, or anything else, the one thing that matters about who we put out front is stubbornness.  I’ll trade all the strategy in the world for stubbornness.

(I’ll be posting more details soon about what that sustained resistance movement might look like and how it can lead to substantive policy reforms like a carbon tax.)

5 Responses to “Seeking thick-headed activists…”

  1. 1 Redstone Jan 2nd, 2011 at 7:10 pm

    Excellent article Tim. It is true that certain interests are doing their best to deter participants in the climate movement from taking definitive, and powerful action. Your case is a great example of public officials being pushed by private interests to pursue an unreasonable and overly severe punishment for an act of civil disobedience.

    We know what is at stake but have our actions yet matched the threat that looms over us all. We must work to grow the movement through communicating the facts, expressing urgency and emotionally appealing to people across all age groups.

    In a sense we all must become a bidder 70.

  2. 2 Lawrence MacDonald Jan 2nd, 2011 at 11:22 pm

    Thanks for this thoughtful post. Tim has inspired me and many others, first with his actions, and now with his writing. Writing as somebody who is himself past 50, I agree that the movement would be well served by recruiting older people to engage in direct action. Not only for tactical reasons–the middle aged and old may be taken more seriously–but because we who have enjoyed the benefits of the fossil fuel economy over the past decades have a special responsibility to act. I’m ashamed that there aren’t more of us in the streets. I hope that will change.

  3. 3 Asher Miller Jan 3rd, 2011 at 1:58 pm

    I’m not going to speak for Tod here, but he and I have discussed this quite a bit so I wanted to share my response, for what it’s worth.

    First, I completely agree that if protesters are seen to be making significant sacrifices or taking significant risks (Tim himself is a perfect example of that, and someone who personally inspired me), it makes a big difference. But that would entail seriously ramping up the kinds of protest efforts we’ve seen thus far, at least here in the US. No offense, but a token gesture of getting arrested in front of the coal plant that provides electricity for Capitol Hill (which didn’t even work) doesn’t cut it.

    Students were absolutely critical in the civil rights movement. But it took repeated incidents of horrific violence in response to peaceful marches and sit-ins, broadcast daily on national television and in newspaper photos), to sway public will. We can’t underestimate how large a role the media played. (In this I disagree with Tim… the Tea Party absolutely cares about its image and had the largest cable media outlet and backing from the likes of the Koch brothers cheerleading their efforts.)

    Climate protest efforts face another major hurdle: what the average American is being asked to “give up” is much steeper than what was being asked by civil rights protesters. Sharing a bathroom, water fountain, bus seat, or school with a person of color is not nearly the same level of “sacrifice” as having to reduce consumption and/or pay more for energy. Obviously, I’m over-simplifying the pervasiveness and seriousness of racial discrimination in our country’s long history, but the point remains.

    Lastly, I believe Tod’s point was not that students shouldn’t protest. It’s that students (unfortunately) are too easy to dismiss or vilify. Grandmothers and farmers are much, much harder.

    Bottom line, it will take all of the above and then some.

  4. 4 d.o. Jan 3rd, 2011 at 7:21 pm

    All of the above indeed! And what better place to start than in the belly of the beast. What happened to that talk about a climate camp in DC this spring?

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