Reportback: Capitol Climate Action
Doyle Canning, SmartMeme
Two weeks ago I was in the streets with thousands of friends, old and new, for the historic Capitol Climate Action (Check out my pics on FLICKR!) SmartMeme endorsed this action, and I was excited to support the effort by helping to create messages for the action’s banners, training participants in nonviolent direct action , and being a “contingent coordinator” with the awesome Blue Team.
Honestly, I had a ball! The action was well organized, colorful, and upbeat despite the cold temperatures. My nonviolence training session was packed – with a dozen participants showing up 30 minutes early to ensure they got a spot, and a line going out the door when the room was full. 95% of that group were first timers to nonviolent protest, and they were fired up and ready to stop coal and solve global warming.
The action was endorsed by a large and diverse community of organizations, and attention was made to amplifying the voices of directly-impacted people. Leading the march were residents of Appalachian communities being blown-up by the Coal Industry; Indigenous delegations from Black Mesa and Michigan (where five new coal fired power plants are proposed), and leaders from Chicago’s Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, who are fighting for clean air against coal fired power plants. They were joined by celebrities and prominent environmental leaders like Bill McKibben and Wendell Berry, and the executive directors of the convening groups. The majority of participants were students (mostly white), many of them taking action in the streets for the first time.
The Capitol Coal Plant was a smart venue for this event. It comes with built in symbolism and implicit story-based strategy. The plant is powered by coal to warm and cool our nation’s Capitol building. The concept of the action was to draw attention to the fact that coal-fired power is fueling climate destabilization, and highlight the utterly destructive life cycle of coal, from mining to slurry to smog. It was also a way to point to the heavyweight influence that the coal industry has over all of Capitol Hill. Symbolically this was a perfect stage for our play.
But two unexpected things happened that took the story off the script.
1. Days before the protest, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Leader Harry Reid released a letter asking the Capitol Architect to switch the Capitol Power Plant from coal to 100 percent natural gas by the end of 2009.
Organizers responded saying that this was a victory, showing the power of grassroots mobilization to get the attention of power holders. This hardly took the wind out of our sails, but did complicate the frame. The discussion emerged in my nonviolence training about whether this shift even was a victory: “Natural gas is also a fossil fuel.” “The problem is the whole coal/oil/fossil fuel paradigm.” “One symbolic concession is a dangerous victory to claim, given the stakes.”
So the question is, what would a real victory look like? What if we’d pressed Pelosi further, and said “If you want to make a statement, put solar panels on the Mall and windmills along the Potomac, and kick Coal Inc. out of Congress.” As the climate fight intensifies, we cannot settle for half-hearted victories or afford to celebrate false solutions. We’ve got to shift our thinking and get ahead of the curve with visionary, foreshadowing stories and strategies. Bolder demands can be made of the new political establishment, and now is the time to make them.
2. The police declined to arrest anyone.
Which, at the end of a long cold day was kind of a nice thing. But the Action Logic suffered from a framing around arrest as the “meta-verb” and the expectation. (A discussion of action logic (How the action tells a story and makes sense to an outside observer) and meta-verbs (the way the logic translates into the actions we’ll take: “rally, protest, shut-down, surround”) can be found in the article Story-based Strategies for Direct Action Design )
The calls to action were framed around a civil disobedience at the plant, which was bold, and wonderful. But it meant that the conversation of the day was about “getting arrested” and there was a sort of anti-climactic feel to the lack of arrest. The protests surrounded the plant and we held the space at every gate, so there was no traffic in or out. But there was no actual trespass on to the property, and therefore no good reason to arrest 2,000 peaceful people. Not arresting people actually served to diffuse the media-spectacle, and potentially, the impact of the action.
The lesson here is that it is essential to tactically prepare for mass-arrest (with trainings, legal teams, etc.) while strategically and rhetorically preparing for all outcomes, including no arrest.
Despite these twists in the plot, the organizers declared the action a success, saying:
“We look to our goals: 1) change the national conversation on climate, 2) push the new administration and congress for bolder policy, and 3) build the movement — all as successes – the impacts of which we will see unfold more and more.”
I would have to whole-heartedly agree with this assessment. The hopeful tenacity that I felt in the streets was truly moving. Memories of my flight over West Virginia last summer flashed through my mind as I marched side by side with urban students and residents from rural Appalachia. The images came back to me in their full horror: the bombed out landscape and unbelievable scale of destruction by so-called “mountaintop removal mining.” Tears came to my eyes as we chanted together in the shadow of the smokestack and the Capitol dome: “These dirty lies have got to stop / We’re here to save our mountain tops.”
Our friend Josh Kahn Russell did a great post on “getting real about what this action is, and what its’ not” discussing the context of movement building and community-based organizing, and it seems that this has sparked some thoughtful discussion about where to take this protest energy as the movement for climate justice moves forward.
Working with friends at the Rainforest Action Network (and other communications team peeps) we helped to develop banner slogans:
and I had a blast riffing’ with RAN’s Levana Saxon and the “chants posse,” coming up with some fun songs like:
Whose gonna do it? We’re the ones! / Gonna get our energy from the sun
Coal Fired Power – Shut it Down! We want Climate Justice and We Want it Now
More great chants are posted HERE! Thanks Levana!
The tone of the action was optimistic and joyful, but make no mistake – the stakes are high. In every conversation people said to me some version of “2009 is the critical year for the Climate, and the fight is about coal. If we don’t move now, there’s no turning back.”
They were referring of course to the threshold of carbon in the atmosphere that we must not cross, and of Obama’s plans to pass some sort of legislation on carbon emissions before the COP-10 Summit of the United Nations in Copenhagen. Having just spent a good deal of time researching and writing the Afterward to smartMeme’s new RE:imagining Change strategy manual regarding innovation in the face of the ecological crisis, I am particularly attuned to the urgency of wide-scale action. The Capital Climate Action renewed my faith, and strengthened my resolve to change the story for a just climate future.
For a rundown on upcoming events and opportunities, check out “Beyond the Capitol Climate Action” by Scott Parkin of RAN and Rising Tide North America,
and Act for Climate Justice, a site for US mobilizations around the COP-10 climate talks.
The Capitol Climate Action was called the “first national mobilization for climate justice.” This is an exciting frame for the kind of comprehensive, holistic politics that are needed to create a space for the many stories, histories, and perspectives on the root causes of climate change, and ways to solve it. Let’s hope this is the first of many, and that we can keep social justice at the center as we struggle to save our warming planet.