In Ohio, the People Push Back on Fracking

27 06 2012

Tired of waiting for their leaders to ban the destructive drilling practice, citizens passed their own resolution—and took over the Statehouse to make it heard.

By Joshua Kahn Russell. Originally published in Yes! Magazine

Last week an estimated 1,000 people took over the Statehouse in Columbus, Ohio to protest the destructive practice of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” Joined by others from neighboring states facing similar issues, this “People’s Assembly” rallied and marched to the Capitol building—without a permit—to decide how they, the people, could end the practice in their state.

Jamie Frederick was one of them. She had been told by doctors that it was safe to drink her well water, despite the presence of gas wells surrounding her home. She later discovered the water was contaminated with chemicals used in the fracking process. As a result, she says, she has lost her gall bladder and can’t risk having children because of fatal health risks and potential birth defects.

“If there had been solar panels and wind turbines surrounding my home instead of gas wells, I never would have gotten sick, and I would be called ‘Mom’,” she told the crowd. These days, she said, her mouth bleeds and it’s difficult to talk: “I am losing my voice more all the time. But I seem to have found it today.”

As the Assembly convened, the rotunda, filled to capacity, thundered with stomping, clapping, and chanting that was hushed when families shared experiences of being devastated by the side effects of fracking, as Frederick was. Some had been invited to testify at the Statehouse in the past, only to find empty rooms and legislators who, they felt, did not respect their concerns.

These stories had been shared throughout the lead-up to the action, with three full days committed to workshops, trainings, and cross-movement strategy sessions. Teri Blanton, of Appalachia, connected fracking to another highly destructive extraction process she has been fighting in her own neighborhood: mountaintop coal removal. “They’re trying to do to you what they’ve done to us,” she said. “‘Regulation’ just gives them permission to do it. If you think regulation works, take a look at the West Virginia strip mining.”

The Ohio Assembly ended with the passage of a “people’s legislation” to ban fracking. Though no actual law backs this resolution, it signifies a commitment by many in the state to oppose further development of fracking wells.

This July will see thousands more mobilize in Washington, D.C. for the Don’t Stop the Frack Attack rally. Grassroots communities across New York State are already speaking out against Governor Andrew Cuomo’s attempt to turn the Southern Tier of New York into a sacrifice zone for fracking. This creative, nonviolent action bubbling across the United States may turn out to be the most powerful way of halting extreme energy development at the expense of both people and the planet.

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Shift the Spectrum of Allies

7 05 2012

I am excited and honored to be one of 60 contributors to a new book called Beautiful Trouble: A Toolbox for the Revolution. The book reads as an activists manual, weaving together case studies, principles, theories, and tactics, distilled from years of working in many movements for social change. Here is one of my entries in the book, based on lessons from Training for Change, the Highlander Center, Ruckus Society, and others.

Shift the Spectrum of Allies.

In sum: Movements seldom win by overpowering the opposition; they win by shifting the support out from under them. Determine the social blocs at play on a given issue, and work to shift them closer to your position.

Activists are often good at analyzing systemic social problems, but less good at thinking systemically about organizing.

Activism is about using your power and voice to make change. Organizing is about that, too, but it’s also about activating and empowering others. It helps to think in terms of groups. Successful movement-building hinges on being able to see a society in terms of specific blocs or networks, some of which are institutions (unions, churches, schools), others of which are less visible or cohesive, like youth subcultures or demographic groupings.

Analyzing your spectrum of allies can help you to identify and mobilize the networks around you. A spectrum-of-allies analysis can be used to map out a local campaign or to strategize for a whole social movement.

Here’s how a spectrum-of-allies analysis works: in each wedge you can place different individuals (be specific: name them!), groups, or institutions. Moving from left to right, identify your active allies: people who agree with you and are fighting alongside you; your passive allies: folks who agree with you but aren’t doing anything about it; neutrals: fence-sitters, the unengaged; passive opposition: people who disagree with you but aren’t trying to stop you; and finally your active opposition.

Some activist groups only speak or work with  those in the first wedge (active allies), building insular, self-referential, marginal subcultures that are incomprehensible to everyone else. Others behave as if everyone is in the last wedge (active opposition), playing out the “story of the righteous few,” acting as if the whole world is against them. Both of these approaches virtually guarantee failure. Movements win not by overpowering their active opposition, but by shifting the support out from under them.

For example, in 1964, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a major driver of the civil rights movement in the U.S. South, conducted a “spectrum-of-allies style” analysis. They determined that they had a lot of passive allies who were students in the North: these students were sympathetic, but had no entry point into the movement. They didn’t need to be “educated” or convinced, they needed an invitation to enter.

To shift these allies from “passive” to “active,” SNCC sent buses north to bring folks down to participate in the struggle under the banner “Freedom Summer.” Students came in droves, and many were deeply radicalized in the process, witnessing lynching, violent police abuse, and angry white mobs, all simply as a result of black people trying to vote.

Many wrote letters home to their parents, who suddenly had a personal connection to the struggle. This triggered another shift: their families became passive allies, often bringing their workplaces and social networks with them. The students, meanwhile, went back to school in the fall and proceeded to organize their campuses. More shifts. The result: a profound transformation of the political landscape of the U.S. This cascading shift of support, it’s important to emphasize, wasn’t spontaneous; it was part of a deliberate movement strategy that, to this day, carries profound lessons for other movements.

Further insights:

Explanation of the “Spectrum of Allies,” from NewTactics

Strategy tool for “Spectrum of Allies,” from Training for Change

Douglas McAdam, Freedom Summer. Oxford Univ. Press, 1988.





Defusing the Carbon Bomb

22 08 2011

Wanted to make a quick personal update – shortly after leaving Salt Lake City to train & help coordinate actions for Tim Dechristopher’s trial, I am now in Washington DC for the next few weeks. We are coordinating sit-ins for 14 days in a row, where 50-100 people are risking arrest each day at the White House to draw attention to, and ultimately stop, the Keystone XL Pipeline. Thousands have signed up to participate, and we’ve already seen overwhelming media attention. This pipeline would another tentacle on the largest fossil fuel development on the planet, the Alberta Tar Sands, and NASA climatologist James Hansen calls it “game over for the planet” if it goes through. So we’re drawing a line in the sand for Obama.

I’m here as a trainer and action coordinator, helping organize and prepare participants to commit an act of civil disobedience, and help navigate & facilitate the experience with them. Many are risking arrest for the first time. It’s an honor to support them through it, and even though we are just beginning, this action already feels historic. It’s particularly nourishing to me that so many of the participants are of an older generation – its a thrill getting to train people twice my age. On our first day, the youngest person arrested was 17, and the oldest was 71.

There is of course a lot more to say, but unfortunately we don’t get time to write much these days… though I am updating twitter regularly. In other brief news, my booklet/organizing manual Organizing Cools the Planet, co-authored with Hilary Moore, comes out in a couple weeks. I can’t wait.

Here’s a video from the first day of our action:





26 go to Jail for Justice outside SLC courthouse

26 07 2011

Today, Tim DeChristopher was sentenced to 2 years in prison and taken away from the courthouse without goodbyes or the option to self-report. In court, Tim said “You can put me in prison but it will not deter my future of civil disobedience and it won’t deter others who are willing to fight to defend a livable future.”

Blockading the courthouse entrance following Tim's sentencingOutside the Courthouse, hundreds of supporters had gathered from the Salt Lake City community, singing, chanting, and speaking out as they bore witness to the sentencing. Immediately after the bang of the gavel Ashely Anderson and Ashley Sanders were hauled out of the courtroom for loudly rallying people inside saying, “this court has proven itself incapable of justice. So the people will take it back – it is now our court!” foreshadowing the civil disobedience to come outside. As Henia Belalia left the Courthouse, she made an official statement declaring, “If there was ever a day in history to take action, this is it.” And people took action. Peaceful Uprising activists did a sit-in to blockade the 2 front entrances of the Federal Courthouse, to tell the world “its ours” and emphasize that if Tim was going to jail, they were too, giving meaning to the slogan “we are all Bidder 70.” Taking their lead, members of the community began to join the blockade to show their love and outrage. 26 people were arrested.

A mother who joined the blockade was with her three children during the time of arrest, and said in tears “I need you to see this, its for your future.” Those participating in the sit-in chose to emphasize their point that business as usual is unacceptable by moving to blockade a major intersection in front of the courthouse during rush hour. As supporters continued to sing and support those who locked down, Tim DeChristopher was quickly rushed out the side door in chains and loaded into a police van. We can only hope he felt our support, and that that support is carried to all people of conscience who do what is right for people and the planet.

Today a true crime was committed in every federal courthouse in the United States. Why is Tim now in prison for protecting our future, while corporate CEOs walk free with millions of dollars for destroying it? We recognized today that our justice system has failed us. It, like our economy and other branches of government, are controlled by the fossil fuel industry. And today we affirm that we stand with millions actively taking it back. Please see our official response to the sentencing for action opportunities and links to all of the remarkable actions that are being taken around the country.

Act! The movement is with you.





Breaking: Tim DeChristopher sentenced to 2 years in prison, taken immediately into custody

26 07 2011

Tim DeChristopher was sentenced to 2 years in prison today at the Salt Lake City federal courthouse. He was taken immediately into custody, being denied the typical 3 weeks afforded to put his affairs in order and say goodbye to his friends and family.

Federal prosecutors asked for Tim to receive an extra harsh prison sentence in an effort to intimidate the movement that stands with him. They hoped that by condemning him to years behind bars, they would “make an example out of him” and deter all of us from taking meaningful action. But Tim is already an example. He’s an example of the courageous acts that people across our movements are taking to fight for justice and a liveable future. We support Tim by continuing to organize. Our response to this sentence is an affirmation: we will not be intimidated.  What’s your response?

The government’s statement is clear. Tim has been sentenced to 2 years as punishment for his politics; for the uncompromising content of his speeches and organizing in the two years sincehis act of civil disobedience protected 150,000 acres of land. Ironically, his principled views and motivations behind his actions he took were never allowed to enter a courtroom, due to their “irrelevance.” In a highly political trial, the jury was unjustly stripped of its right to be their community’s conscience and manipulated into making a political prisoner of a peaceful and concerned young man.

Tim DeChristopher

Author and activist Terry Tempest Williams said, “To think that a young man in an act of conscience might [do any amount of time] in a federal prison for raising a paddle in an already illegal sale of oil and gas leases, compared to the CEO of BP or the financial wizards on Wall Street who have pocketed millions of dollars at our expense  – and who will never step into a court of law to even get their hands slapped, let alone go to jail, is an assault on democracy.”

She’s right. But we have the power to turn this assault on democracy into a battle for democracy. Today the Salt Lake City community is expressing both their love and their outrage.

Fossil fuel lobbyists knew that Tim would be indicted the evening before it was officially filed, Jury members explained that they were intimidated throughout the process. The fossil fuel industry should not control our justice system.

Unless we decide to respond accordingly, as Tim serves his time, the real criminals — the fossil fuel industry wrecking our planet and our communities — will continue to run free, unaccountable for the countless oil spills, asthma attacks, contaminated waterways, cancer clusters, and carbon seeping into the air we breathe every day. If the justice system is intent on prosecuting the people protecting rather than pillaging the planet, we must confront the real criminals ourselves. With our heads held high, we continue to stand on the moral high-ground – and will do what’s right, despite the consequences. We know that mother nature’s consequences of inaction are far harsher than any imposed by a court system.

But we are not isolated individuals. We come together with our communities as groups of empowered agents of change who know our system is broken and does not represent us. Our communities represent us, and our vision of a resilient, just, and sustainable world that we are fighting for.

Tim’s sentence is a call to action.

For those of us who’ve been following his story fervently, our hearts were broken today. It is a sad moment. But we now have an opportunity and a responsibility to act on those feelings of hurt and outrage. For Tim’s sacrifice to truly mean something, for the spark it ignites in each of us to burn, we all must take action.

2011 has already become a year of peaceful uprisings around the country. As Tim once said, we were never promised that it would be easy. We know it will take courage, sacrifice and a willingness to sustain our resistance in our fight for real Justice. Tim has taken a step and we will take the next thousand.

Here are a few upcoming action opportunities to join:

We’ll see you on the streets,

Peaceful Uprising and Tim’s community of courage.





Evolutionary logic of collective action (series)

15 02 2011

Beyond the Choir is publishing a valuable series of articles getting at the root of human behavior and ways we are hard-wired for collective change. Below are four articles from Jonathan Smucker. Check em out.

In this series I explore how evolutionary theory might help to explain the origins and logic of collective action, and how it might inform the thinking and strategies of progressive change agents.

This is the landing page for the series. You can bookmark it and check back for new posts, which I’ll be linking to from this page.

  1. Humans: not just selfish
  2. War, xenophobia and other downsides to group selection
  3. The Political Identity Paradox
  4. Immigration: anatomy of a progressive narrative




U.S. State Dept, Translated

14 02 2011

All last week during the Egyptian uprising, many of us joked that Obama would take a firm stance asking Mubarak to immediately step down…at least 3 days after he steps down. While Egypitans and freedom-loving people around the world were rejoicing this weekend with an important and momentous battle won (and a long struggle still ahead), the U.S. government was saving face. Obama declared that it was a beautiful example of non-violent mass movement and moral force. He’s right, of course. But as the U.S. administration’s position constant shifts and turns may be confusing to the casual observer. Luckily Diary of a Walking Butterfly shares with us a translation of the U.S. State Dept’s position two weeks BEFORE people toppled their repressive U.S.-backed regime with nonviolent mass movements….

‘Oh what’s that? Sorry its hard to hear you with all these flags flapping in my ear.’ — David Cross

On another note, it has been fascinating to watch the political divides in the Right Wing in the previous week. Many conservatives were ready to see Mubarak go, and liked the idea of the military taking over. Many others (including Fox News) threw their hats in with the Islamophobes, creating a fantasy of an Islamic fundamentalist overthrow a-la-Iran. Glenn Beck’s conspiracy theories, as always, were the most entertaining – that U.S. Communists were forming an alliance with Middle Eastern “Islamic Terrorists,” and engineering a revolution in Egypt to create a haven and base-of-operations for the coming revolution in the U.S. While its fun to laugh at his lunacy, the political fracturing among the Right is important, and will likely increase with time. Another blog on that soon…