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.





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.





BREAKING: Keystone XL Denied!

18 01 2012

In case you haven’t heard the thunderous celebration by the North American climate movement, today the State Dept is set to outright reject the Keystone XL pipeline. #booyah

This is a reminder that people power works. Direct Action works. Social movements work. Grassroots organizing works. Lets take some time today to celebrate another huge victory.

Every time we win, it builds our resolve for the next fight. We know the fossil fuel industry owns Congress, and so far the Keystone XL campaign has been like playing Whack-A-Mole, or kinda like going to battle with a zombie who just won’t die. There may yet be another stage of the fight, and there will definitely be other theaters of engagement heating up in the Tar Sands fights, like the Enbridge Northern Gateway. I’m confident we’ll be ready to take em on. Moments like this help us remember our power, and that its worth all the headaches and stress of movement building. So lets keep winning.

If you’re in DC, help build the momentum by joining 500 referees blowing the whistle on congress being soaked in big oil Jan 24th. Or this friday, you can join the J20 (January 20) #occupy actions all around the world mobilizing to take on dirty corporate interests. Here in the Bay Area we will be shutting down the SF financial district with nonviolent direct action (check out the hot Lady Gaga outreach flashmob video here).

Here’s a quick sampling of the breaking coverage of the Keystone XL victory from Bill McKibben, and on Globe and MailWashington Post, Mother Jones, Huffington Post, ThinkProgress, Grist, Daily Kos, and Politico.

Congratulations, climate movement. What a great way to kick off the new year, eh?





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.





I’m on tour with the beehive collective!

29 03 2011

Animals strategizing at the Highlander Folk School

Whew! What a whirlwind it’s been. I’ve been doing a collaborative tour with the Beehive Design Collective for the last month! We’ve been in West Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and North Carolina so far. We’re so grateful to so many people in the coal fields sharing their stories with us. We’ve stood on top of mountains where we could see 3 mountaintop removal moonscapes at once; given workshops for a middle school girls afterschool program; presented alongside frontline coal community advocates; facilitated interactive organizing trainings at community spaces; given keynote talks at conferences; hung out at community colleges; and had so many generous people open up their homes to us and share with us raw and painful accounts of the challenges they’re up against in their fights for justice.

It has been absolutely exhausting, but deeply politically fulfilling.

We’re leaving coal-affected regions now, and excited to come to Pensylvania, Washington DC, New York, Connecticut, Massachussets, New Hampshire and more. You can check out some of our upcoming dates at Aid and Abet’s site.

It’s been exciting experiment so far that I hope I’ll have more time to reflect on in the near future: mixing beehive style storytelling and graphic presentations with interactive training content on organizing, social movement strategy, campaign strategy, action design, and more. In some cases we’ve been tag-teaming trainings with an organization during the day, and a public beehive presentation at night, but mostly we have been mixing the two somewhat fluidly. It’s felt engaging and a much more accessible format than your standard training OR your standard lecture-style presentation.

For a full listing of our dates (some have info forthcoming), click below:

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SF to Cancun: Social Movements Bring Hope as COP16 Falters

7 12 2010

Thousands of community activists around the world take action to promote Local Solutions to the Climate Crisis


The tone inside the conference center at the U.N. Climate Negotiations in Cancun has been a bit dismal this past week. Yet despite the reduced expectations inside, this morning the international peasant movement La Via Campesina gave us a new injection of hope and vision with a vibrant march of thousands of small farmers, Indigenous peoples and community activists through the streets in Mexico. It kicked off today’s international day of action – “1,000 Cancuns” – where grassroots organizations across the world demonstrated local resiliency and real solutions to the climate crisis. 30 coordinated events took place in the U.S. and Canada today, anchored by the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance.

Here in San Francisco, more than a dozen local community organizations joined forces to help convert a Mission District parking lot into a community garden and park with affordable housing units. Click here for photos.

“This action demonstrates a tangible solution to the climate crisis by promoting local food production, challenging our dependence on automobiles and strengthening bonds within the community,” explained Teresa Almaguer of People Organizing to Demand Environmental & Economic Rights (PODER) “The climate crisis requires community-based solutions and an end to corporate influence within the UN climate negotiations.” In addition to planting vegetables, participants enjoyed live music, theatrical performances and speakers all focusing on solutions to the climate crisis. A common theme at the event was increasing local food production in the fight against climate change, in contrast to the corporate-driven false solutions being put forth inside the U.N. negotiations.

“Industrial agriculture is one of the top three sources of greenhouse gas emissions,” said Michelle Mascarenhas-Swan of Movement Generation. “Agribusiness corporations profit from everything from fertilizer and pesticide sales to control of what goes onto supermarket shelves. The people are left paying the true costs in polluted water, depleted soil, diet-related diseases, and climate disruption. Meanwhile, U.S. agribusiness harms small farmers, farm workers and consumers – in the U.S. and around the world.” Read the rest of this entry »





At COP16 Cancun: Canadian First Nations Representatives Deploy Giant Human Banner Demanding End to Tar Sands Development

2 12 2010

Cancun, Mexico, Dec 2, 2010 — Indigenous Peoples of Canada and their allies from around the world are in Cancun at the COP-16 climate summit demanding real action to reduce fossil fuel pollution. Over twenty people with color-coded T-shirts that spelled out the words “Shut Down the Tar Sands” in both English and Spanish gathered in front of the Maya building to directly deliver their message to UNFCCC delegates. Participants included Indigenous community representatives from fossil fuel impacted community across Canada and the U.S., many carrying personal banners linking tar sands with the destruction of their territories.

Melina Laboucan-Massimo of the Lubicon Cree comes from a community impacted by tar sands. “We have seen the destruction of our lands happen right before our eyes. Our water is being contaminated and we are seeing droughts throughout the region. My family used to be able to drink from our watershed, and now within my lifetime we can no longer do so. Young and old people alike have developed respiratory illnesses as neighboring plants emit noxious gases into the air. First Nations and farming communities have reported health effects to the wildlife and livestock. The area is drastically changing – I fear for the future of my homeland.”

The tar sands are the fastest growing source of GHG emissions in Canada. Unless Canada changes track emissions from the tar sands industry are set to triple to over 120 millions tonnes. Clayton Thomas-Muller of the Indigenous Environmental Network said, “Our communities demand real solutions to address the climate crisis and that means shutting down the tar sands and a moratorium on new fossil fuel development.”

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