Cross posted from Beyond the Choir.
Look mom! I’m in a book! It just came out. Its called The Next Eco-Warriors and is an anthology of young activists working on environmental issues. While I have contributed chapters to “activist anthologies” before, this project excited me because it is designed for a popular audience. My mom could find it in a random bookstore. It’s being released in multiple countries. And most of the people reading it are likely not active themselves…yet.
Most chapters are personal stories of overcoming difficult odds in service of protecting Mother Earth. The challenge, as I saw it, was to write a personal story that could be accessible and digestible to the (likely older, white, middle class) audience, many of whom have an existing political frame of a “conservation movement.” The task was to then shift that story by underscoring concepts of economic and racial justice, privilege, solidarity, movement building, and collective organizing. I chose to write about my experience helping organize the Capitol Climate Action (CCA). While I have written reflections on this complicated action for other organizers before (here and then here), most of these accounts were analytical; they didn’t actually tell the story at all, they just explained outcomes. Even those accounts felt a little too celebratory – they didn’t fully get into the behind the scenes coalition drama, the challenges around community accountability, or ways the action itself could have better embodied climate justice. I was hesitant to write another “victory” account that didn’t interrogate these real concerns, even though its mostly “insider” debate amongst organizers. I was even more hesitant about writing a first-person narrative about a group effort – a common challenge for organizers writing about collective process to an audience who has a default framework of honoring individual efforts.
And yet, because the Capitol Climate Action was designed to mobilize thousands of “passive allies” – people who agree with us but aren’t yet organizing alongside us – the story of CCA itself seemed a useful narrative to communicate those ideas. No one had simply told the story – and used it as an opportunity to highlight and explain key justice-based concepts to the very audience that was the key demographic CCA tried to mobilize. Despite all the way I might organize the action differently next time, it was a beautiful story that was well positioned to teach some of these lessons.
We Shut Them Down: Ending Coal at the Capitol Power Plant
Joshua Kahn Russell
Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, betray it or fulfill it.
There were thousands of us. The snow was four and a half inches deep and it was minus seven degrees Celsius outside. We could already hear the Fox News commentators and their usual absurdities: “A global warming protest in the snow? Maybe this climate change stuff isn’t real after all. Ha ha ha!” But by the end of the day, even Fox gave positive coverage to the largest civil disobedience to solve the climate crisis in U.S. history.
On March 2, 2009, around four thousand people came to the Capitol Power Plant in Washington DC, a coal plant that powers the Capitol building. More than two thousand of them risked arrest in a sit-in. The vast majority had never been to a demonstration of any kind before, let alone engaged in a form of nonviolent direct action. People from communities most directly impacted by coal’s life cycle—from Navajo reservations in the Southwest to Appalachian towns in the Southeast—led the march. With vibrant, multicolored flags depicting windmills, people planting gardens, waves crashing, and captions like community, security, change, and power, we sat-in to blockade five entrances to the power plant that literally fuels Congress. We called the whole thing the Capitol Climate Action. I was one of the lead organizers. And I was exhausted.
We had been organizing for ten months. Watching the idea grow and take a life of its own was almost like raising a child—complete with snotty temper tantrums and sleepless nights among the awe of bringing a light into this world. And the action scenario was actually pretty simple.
The belching smokestacks just two blocks from the Capitol building made a fitting target for a national flash point. They symbolize the stranglehold that the dirty fossil fuel industry—and coal industry in particular—has on our government, economy, and future. Democrats on the Hill had spent nearly three decades “trying” to get the plant off coal, only to be blocked by coal-state legislators in their own party. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi had made feel-good statements about cleaning up Washington before, but we had yet to see any action. She enters our story later though. Here’s the point: burning coal is the single biggest contributor to global warming. We won’t be able to solve the climate crisis without breaking its hold.
The action conversation started in the summer of 2008 while walking down a dirt road. It’s brown dust arced around boundless fields and dense Virginia trees and fed into an encampment of tents interspersed with banners and slogans like “Leave it in the ground!” hand-stitched in cloth. The ridge of trees sheltered makeshift clearings intended for workshops and strategy sessions and opened like a mouth into a wooded area with even more tents hiding in the underbrush. The Southeast Convergence for Climate Action brought together activists from across the region and was coordinated by a grassroots network called Rising Tide. I went as part of a facilitation team to run trainings.
We spent our nights listening to panels of retired union coal miners, talking about their thirty-year struggle to protect their families from a reckless and parasitic industry. Their communities were impoverished. Their tap water was so contaminated with heavy metals that it ran orange. That’s what happens when you blow tops off entire mountain ranges in order to feed America’s fossil fuel addiction. And almost nobody paid attention to their struggle—they were poor.
Their families were on the frontline. I considered how when I flip on my light switch, it’s like a trigger, blowing up a mountain thousands of miles away. My stomach still hurts when I think about how my convenience comes from the pain of communities like these. I will never have to cry over my child poisoned from resource extraction. But others will. We have a word to describe the act of flipping that light switch: privilege.
At that camp, we heard grandmothers tell of their lifetimes of activism. I found myself captivated by stories told by aging antinuclear activists. Wrinkled faces were lit up around a campfire as the shared tales of the historic occupation of the Seabrook nuclear facility, an action that helped shift and inspire a mass movement and resulted in a de facto moratorium on new nuclear power plants.
We all agreed: our generation needed our Seabrook.
Rising Tide had made arrangements for a Navajo activist named Enei Begaye to come from across the country to speak. Enei works with the Black Mesa Water Coalition and Indigenous Environmental Network. I drove to pick her up from the airport. On our way back, we rolled across the Virginia hills and spent hours talking about our work. Enei told me about one of the biggest strip-mining companies in the country, Peabody Coal. “Our people have maintained a lifestyle that is in line with Mother Earth and the caretaking of all things, well before 1492.” Peabody’s operations were devastating Black Mesa in a Native reservation in Arizona. But her community was resisting. She chuckled, “Indigenous communities have been green way before it was hip.”
Black Mesa is a sacred mountain. Many families on the reservation do not have running water or electricity. Yet the company steals 3.3 million gallons of pristine fresh water to mix it into a coal slurry so it can be shipped to provide power to cities in my state of California. Enei’s face hardened.
“The Indian wars are not over. We are still fighting to protect our lands and territories.” We talked about colonization most of the way home. I thought more about my light switch.
The next day, Enei sat before a hundred activists and declared, “We are all connected through the bloodlines of energy. Through the grid lines of power plants. And in realizing our interconnectedness, we need to unlearn the individualism we’re taught in this country. We need to relearn the responsibility of community.”
She was right. The light-switch flippers are inextricably bound to those who live in places where resources are stolen. I was caught in that web, just like everyone else. But I have dedicated my life to transforming it.
That night, after facilitating back-to-back trainings, a few friends and I sat down to chat about the big picture. The mosquitoes were biting. I had spent the day talking myself hoarse to young activists about the organizing lessons of Ella Baker, an unsung civil rights heroine who helped build the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, a black-led civil rights group helping register Southern black voters in the early 1960s. I had become obsessed with her methods of building mass movements. Mass, as I had learned from Ella, meant millions. Our task was daunting. I swatted a mosquito and scratched my skin till I bled.
A friend named Matt mentioned an idea that had been on the backburner, something activist Bill McKibben had proposed to him a year earlier—a small civil disobedience at the Capitol coal plant. The idea was inspired by images of civil rights protestors half a century earlier, dressed in suits, prefiguring the world they wanted to see by sitting-in and integrating in the lunch counters. One key piece of Ella Baker’s organizing was moving beyond inspiring a committed core of righteous do-gooders, to a mass-action model. Unlike mass actions some of us had been a part of, we didn’t want to mobilize just activists, but also lots of people who had never done activism before. We picked the Capitol Power Plant as our target. We called it a generational act of civil disobedience.
Bill McKibben was enthusiastic about the way the idea had evolved. With Bill as a key spokesperson who could connect to large groups of passive allies and light-switch flippers, we proceeded to build a coalition of national groups.
That’s where the challenges started.
Three months later, we had about sixty groups endorsing the action. We tried to collaborate with another coalition called Energy Action. I had been on Energy Action’s steering committee at the time, but we were mired from the start in coalition challenges.
It was time for another conference call. The debate was the same: coalition representative after coalition representative voiced their support for the action. And then one or two people would “block” the proposal. I had a certain ritual for these calls by now. I sat on the floor in the corner of my office so that I could repeatedly bang my head into the wall. I tore my hair out, literally. We were running out of time. I thought about Ella Baker’s slow work of building consensus among people with different perspectives. Despite coalition differences, we had gotten more than 120 groups to endorse, and we reached the point where we needed to launch. I emailed Bill. He wrote the call-out letter with poet Wendell Berry. It went public. They opened with this:
There are moments in a nation’s—and a planet’s—history when it may be necessary for some to break the law in order to bear witness to an evil, bring it to wider attention, and push for its correction. We think such a time has arrived, and we are writing to say that we hope some of you will join us in Washington, DC, on Monday, March 2 in order to take part in a civil act of civil disobedience outside a coal-fired power plant near Capitol Hill.
And then the floodgates burst.
Dr. James Hansen, the NASA climatologist who first publicly articulated the phenomenon of global warming, endorsed our action and did a public service announcement. So did Susan Sarandon and other celebrities. Former mayor of Salt Lake City Rocky Anderson called to say he wanted to get involved. Soon we had an ever-expanding list of scientists, celebrities, politicians, and other “legitimizers.”
The action was viral. Endorsements were flooding in from organizations across the political spectrum. There were calls between rabbis, pastors, and preachers about a faith-based march contingent. Will.I.Am, Goapele, Michael Franti, and other famous musicians endorsed. Racial and economic justice groups, public health organizations, and green businesses wanted to sign up to be part of our action. We trained more than two thousand people in nonviolence. Hundreds of first-time activists were getting trained daily. The action was showing up on Internet message boards, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and across the web. Guerilla wheat paste, graffiti, and stencils promoting the action began to appear in iconic places across the country. People were registering to participate on our website daily. None of this was magic—it was the result of slow work of dozens of people in our organizing core. Volunteers were phone banking, making hundreds of calls to recruit people. We held teleconference mass meetings where hundreds could call in and get updates. And I got to facilitate them.
There was no turning back now.
The action had become its own organic being. We struggled to keep it all together. The twice-weekly conference calls between convening organizations, various working groups, and action teams were barreling forward. We had lined up interviews with our major spokespeople, and they started to appear in national papers. Capitol Climate Action was a beautiful beast that we were racing to keep up with and shape.
It was a couple weeks until the big day. We were in Washington, DC. The slush sloshed. The ice cracked. We could see our breath in the cold. Gales of wind cracked our faces as we emerged from the subway, across the lawn in front of the Capitol building. Five other organizers and I trudged down the tundra that had become downtown Washington, DC. The Capitol dome looked almost majestic as it offered itself to the rays of sun peeking through the clouds. It was short-lived. A haze of emissions pumping out of the smokestacks would soon obscure its view. That was the image we wanted plastered on newspapers across the country.
We looped around the coal plant and measured out each entrance. Come the day, we didn’t want anyone to get in or out. We needed to clarify how many people were required to block each gate. And which march routes were the most visually compelling, so a camera can see the Capitol building, the marchers, and the smokestack. And what would be the most fun; marching in circles is simply boring. And what would be tactically effective, so that each team could deploy at each gate while secure with a crowd of people around them.
This was our third time scouting the area. Everything needed to be perfect. There would be grandmothers and children at the action. All the organizers felt a responsibility on our shoulders to make sure it was a safe and well-coordinated event for all.
By the time we were back at the subway, there was a small huddle of beefy cops. They were there for us. Actually, we had planned a meeting with them. I wasn’t our police negotiator. But one approached me, asking, “So you’re going to have a few people down here to protest the plant, eh? You don’t have a permit.”
“Actually, a few thousand are coming.”
“You’re definitely going to need a permit.”
“We’re not getting one.”
While one organizer went to negotiate with the police, another organizer was hanging out back at the coal plant. It was the shift change. We had met with the union who supported the workers at the plant, to clarify that we had no problems with them. We supported workers. The union was supportive of our action, but we needed to make sure that there wouldn’t be a conflict on the day of. So we leafleted during the shift changes. Gone are the days when we’ll allow the media to frame our issues as “environment vs. jobs.” We wanted a just transition to good, sustainable jobs for all.
One week left. I woke up to Nell Greenberg’s frantic typing. Nell is a communications genius and had been conspiring about the Capitol Climate Action from the beginning. “Joshjoshjosh!” she called to me in a blur of fingers slamming on keys. “You’ll never guess what just happened!” Nancy Pelosi had just made a proclamation on Capitol Hill. They were going to phase coal out of the power plant.
We were caught between moments of shock and the compulsion to react as fast as possible. Did we win? What did it mean?
We had been talking to Pelosi for a while, and she had not been pleased with our action. The Capitol plant had been a bit of a black eye for a well-intentioned set of eco-initiatives. She didn’t want us to shine a light on the Democratic Congress’s inaction.
We called up people like Bill. We called up our frontline allies and consulted with the community group that had been fighting that plant. “How could we march on a plant with a demand that had already been met?” we asked. “Let’s turn the action into a victory party in the streets,” Bill suggested.
“No. Pelosi is just trying to take the wind out of our sails . . . ” Nell interjected. The Capitol plant was indeed switching away from coal . . . to natural gas. We knew that this action was supposed to be a flash point for a larger commentary on coal—it wasn’t about this specific plant as much as about an entire industry. And while natural gas is an improvement, climate justice activists across the country were opposing natural gas pipelines, hydrolic fracturing (fracking), and the community devastation it causes. “…a victory party would be premature,” I finished. By now, Nell and I were completing each other’s sentences.
But Pelosi did give us the gift of validation. We put out a press release stating our intention to continue the protest—that this proves the efficacy of grassroots people power—and we’re gonna keep pushing. The New York Times and a number of other national papers picked up the story. Pelosi’s announcement backfired: it put our action into the spotlight. It underscored the careful dance between radical activists and the mainstream—how bold demands create more space for what is “politically possible” in Washington. It proved to those who would disparage civil disobedience that our tactics work.
We were rolling.
T minus four days.
I navigated a labyrinth of several hundred flags being painted bright green, yellow, blue, and red. We had converted a Greenpeace warehouse space into an art factory. Art is beautiful and carries the message of our actions, but ours was also tactically functional. The different-colored flags were set up to designate different “blocs” in the march. Each set of colors would have a mass of people behind it, deployed at different times down the march route, and occupying a different entrance. It was just one way we were able to direct and organize mass action in a fluid and clear way.
The hum of sewing machines stitching fabric together competed with hip-hop and reggae. Butts were shaking in tune with spray cans shaking. Stencils with “power“, “community“, “change“, and “justice” were churned out faster than we could hang them to dry. Young people with circular saws cut hundreds of bamboo shafts, while others strung cloth across them. Banners were painted. “Power past coal” placards were stained. German playwright Bertolt Brecht once said, “Art is not a mirror to reflect reality, it is a hammer with which to shape it.” By making all our art ourselves, we were reshaping new clean energy economies.
While we strung together our protest signs, organizers were meeting down the hall to plan out the direction they’d offer participants. At this point, hundreds of people were pulling all-nighters to make the action possible.
Finally, it was the big weekend.
We converted a second warehouse into a Capitol Climate Action convergence space. The broken beams, dusty walls, cracked bricks, and holes in the floor seemed fitting. It hosted more art parties and continuous nonviolence trainings all weekend. The Ruckus Society brought a crew of trainers of color to teach civil disobedience to hundreds of mostly white students. They joked about their role, “We’re here to put some chocolate chips on this cookie!” Race was front and center in a lot of conversations about how we would build a new world together. Legions of light-switch flippers were beginning to understand their role in our power lines of relations. I wished to myself that we had the time and space to go deeper with people about movement strategy and making change. I was proud of our nonviolence training factory but nervous that it was too much of a surface introduction. “The real victory for this action,” I told a friend, “is whether or not all these people go back home and roll up their sleeves and do community organizing.” I decided to say the same thing to kick off our first mass meeting that night.
Nearly four hundred packed into our dusty warehouse. The walls were coated in cracking brick and giant colorful banners. Pressing the megaphone to my lips I shouted, “Who here is from the Northeast?” Cheers thundered across the room. “What about the Southwest?” “Yeahhh!” activists boomed. As I called out each section of the country, the noise was deafening. Everyone was in tha house. Part infosession and part pep rally, that meeting brought a catharsis that reminded me why those endless hours of organizing were worth it. Crews of youth from Oakland taught everyone chants. Mass-action veterans and elders like Lisa Fithian broke down the plan, with giant maps papering the walls. We were organized. Later that night, youth from across the country danced and celebrated the birth of a new era.
Then it was the big day. Energy Action Coalition had a rally in front of the Capitol building, mobilizing some thousands of youth. I was encouraged by their turnout. The so-called apathetic youth didn’t exist here that day. When their rally was over, we had teams in place to direct people three blocks away to our convergence spot.
May and Will from 350.org helped set up the sound system. Like bees buzzing around a hive, friends were setting up the banners and flags I spotted my childhood hero Dr. Vandana Shiva. Her snuggly embrace made me feel like an old friend. It was our first time meeting in person, though we had spoken many times about us kicking off the rally together. Dr. Shiva’s work had inspired me for years. I was giddy.
“Are you ready to start?” I asked.
“Lets do it.” She smiled.
The bullhorn was back on my lips. In kicking off the rally, I think I said something cheesy about how the warmth of our bodies and action were going to heat up the cold day. After a few minutes of leading some chants, we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by thousands of people, already moving in unison. Dr. Shiva took the mic.
Vandana talked about the Global Justice Movement confronting the World Trade Organization ten years earlier in Seattle, grounding us in the streams of movement that swirled around us, helping us stand on the shoulders of organizers before us.
Dr. Shiva has a presence that is calm and grounded but loud. She didn’t yell into the microphone as much as hummed, “your protest, your rally, your action today is definitely the signal to the world that the rule of injustice and the rule of oxymorons is over. We will tell the governments of the world, don’t hide behind each other! We will challenge their false solutions, we have the real stuff. And we are gonna build it!”
In handing me back the bullhorn, I felt as if she was passing the torch. I was humbled. “Lets go!” We shouted, and we were off.
It was like clockwork. Action teams deployed to each gate, locking them down. I thought about the brave crews of activists who were blockading the back gates, out of the view of the cameras and all the fanfare. Less concerned with the spectacle of it all, they were there to do a job. Many affiliated with Rising Tide, they wanted to lock down the back, to ensure that the Indigenous groups and Appalachians could lead the march and be in the spotlight. Solidarity. A Piikani and Dené Native named Gitz Crazyboy yelled into the bullhorn with an Indigenous contingent. He had come down from northern Canada to talk about how Tar Sands oil extraction was industrial genocide killing Indigenous communities and their way of life. As he talked about the cancer rates in his community, I looked at the army marching behind him and smiled.
We had a full program. And the clock was ticking—if we didn’t surround our sound stage with people quick, the police were going to overwhelm us and tow it away.
I stepped on stage to emcee our main event. The sea of people swallowed the power plant in front of me. Insulated with cheering bodies, we had claimed our space. The cops couldn’t move our stage now.
The Internet was streaming with real-time photos of beautiful images of young people blocking gates with banners reading “closed: for climate justice!” Red, yellow, green, and blue banners swept around the DC streets like estuaries forming a river of endless faces yelling and singing.
I had to find some way to keep energy up and keep rolling through our tight program that featured hip-hop artists, scientists, politicians, community members, and folk singers. It was a blur. Amid the constant legal updates being barked over our radios, hot chocolate and blankets being distributed to participants, and speakers, we needed to keep people informed of the changing level of risk. Police negotiators were trying to make sure that those who were risking arrest were in the right places and that everyone was safe. I led chants and helped move us through our barrage of speakers. Bobby Kennedy Jr. , Eleanor Holmes Norton, Dr. James Hansen, Gus Speth. The list went on. Then Enei took the mic.
“We’re not environmentalists! We’re here because our people are dying.” She was so precise with her analysis the seas of people in front of her were captivated. Without a doubt, the stories from the frontline community members, like Enei, energized the masses of people who sat-in for hours upon hours—all day in the cold. Nobody was getting in or out of that plant.
Then Bill addressed the crowd, “I’ve waited twenty years to see what the global warming movement was gonna look like, and boy does it look beautiful!” He motioned to the power plant that was now swarmed. “One down, six hundred more to go!”
The day was wearing on. We had reached the end of our speakers list. And we got word from our police negotiator that the cops had no intention of arresting anyone today. And we didn’t have any other cards up our sleeves.
We had already achieved our goal—the plant was shut down for the day. But we were all worried that it would feel like an anticlimax.
Even in the eleventh hour, even after we won, we were still debating the exit strategy. We could have escalated. “What about scaling the fences?” someone suggested. Anyone trying to enter the actual facility would definitely get arrested. I smiled at the thought of Dr. Hansen climbing over barbed wire. Wasn’t gonna happen. And the more radical activists who would be gung ho for such an endeavor would take the spotlight off of the frontline folks and spokespeople. We wanted to make sure that as much as possible the messengers in the media were people most directly impacted by the issue.
We needed to end on a high note. I got the go-ahead from the tactical team and stepped onto the stage.
“Well, I’ve got some good news, and I’ve got some better news . . . ” I joked. Cheers erupted. “The good news is that we shut them down. Operations have stopped. We’ve won!” When the yelling died down, I continued, “And the better news is that they didn’t even need to arrest us for it to happen!” It was my somewhat ungraceful attempt at a reframe. People were too excited to care much. “Lets see a show of hands of who has shut down a coal-fired power plant before today?” One or two people put their hands in the air, a bit confused. “And who is now gonna go home after today and do it again, and again, and again?” The thunder had returned.
The crowd marched back up the street, singing. The action was over. Mostly.
A few stragglers were unimpressed. They wanted to stay locked down till the bitter end. “We were promised that there would be arrests. This isn’t a real civil disobedience, this was a choreographed photo op.” They had a point. We did much more hand-holding with this action than I had ever seen in any other mass mobilization. It was part of the terrain with the goal of engaging so many new folks. And I still think we made the right choice in the end. Escalation for its own sake is never the goal. Instead, we were able to meet a large number of new people “where they were at,” and compel them to newer levels of engagement they had never done before.
The Capitol Climate Action hoped to change the national conversation on climate. Within a single media cycle, we had positive pieces about a mass climate action in the Associated Press, Time Magazine, CNN, USA Today, New York Times, Democracy Now!, the Nation, and a host of others. The action generated more than seven hundred media stories.
In doing so, we wanted to open a doorway into the movement for lots of new people and legitimize nonviolent direct action as a tactic. The breadth of endorsing organizations is one indicator of success. More than a hundred groups publicly endorsed the action, ranging from public health organizations, religious groups, and clean energy businesses to grassroots environmental networks, labor groups, and racial justice organizations.
I feel proud of how the Capitol Climate Action served to supercharge the movement against coal in the United States. Just three days after our action, there was another civil disobedience action at Coal River Mountain in West Virginia. Six days later, there was a mass action in Belgium blockading European Union Finance Ministers, with more than 350 arrests, citing our Capitol action as a big inspiration for their recruitment. On March 14, there was an action in Knoxville protesting the Tennessee Valley Authority around a recent coal ash sludge spill. The same day, eighty activists inspired by our action marched in Palm Springs, California, as part of the Power Past Coal campaign. Three inspired actions happened that week in Massachusetts. Decentralized actions targeting coal happened across the continent on April 1. A month later, there was a mass action called the Cliffside Climate Action in North Carolina to stop Duke Energy’s proposed coal plant.
And that’s just the beginning. Our generation is entering a profound time of transition and crisis. That much is certain. But the future is unwritten. Our work together will determine whether or not, on the other side of things, there will be justice for people and the planet.