Joshua Kahn Russell
Tar Sands Action
This weekend marked the end of the Tar Sands Action in Washington DC, and the beginning of a renewed surge of civil disobedience and action against fossil fuel extraction in the United States. A coalition from across the continent came together to sustain 14 days of sit-ins in front of the White House to pressure President Obama to veto a proposal for the Keystone XL pipeline. The Keystone XL threatens to split the U.S. from Canada down to Texas, all to ship the dirtiest crude oil from the Alberta Tar Sands down to the Gulf Coast for export to international markets. It spells trillions of dollars for big oil, death for Indigenous communities in Canada, displacement and poisoned air, land, and water for those living along the pipeline route, and disaster for the climate. In fact, Dr. James Hansen said if the pipeline goes through, it is essentially “game over” for the planet.
In the last two weeks 1,252 people were arrested sitting-in at the White House, and thousands more came out to support, rally, and build connections across movements. The vast majority of participants had never taken action before. Delegations of frontline communities came on different days to speak their truth directly to the White House, including a large delegation of Native American and Canadian leaders with Indigenous Environmental Network & Indigenous Peoples Power Project (IP3), communities from Appalachia, the Gulf Coast, and along the proposed pipeline route from Idaho, Nebraska, Montana, and Texas. Climate scientists, teachers, mothers, farmers, senators, and celebrities participated. The action persisted through both an earthquake and a hurricane, highlighting the message that the earth is in crisis and extreme weather patterns will only increase if this goes through. There were over 4,500 media hits, including every major media outlet in the United States and Canada (Wall Street Journal, AP, Reuters, CNN, NBC, Fox, CBC, NPR, Huffington Post, etc) and on the day of Hurricane Irene, we made the front page of the New York Times.
Through the process, nightly action briefings/trainings introduced thousands to Nonviolent Direct Action as a tool for change and as an orientation to movement strategy. The experience of these participants is one of the ways we measure success in the action.
The Tar Sands Action was thoroughly an intergenerational effort – on the first day the youngest person to be arrested was 17 and the oldest was 82. On the third day, an 84 year old woman greeted me as she was getting out of jail and said:
“When I saw all you young people leading trainings, I thought ‘yes! The youth will save us.’ But as I sat in with so many people in their 70s and beyond, I thought ‘no, we all have to do it together!”
Other participants shared insights like “It seems like this action was the training wheels I needed – and now I’m ready to ride the bike!”
The action was not just designed to pressure Obama and make a strong stand against the pipeline, but to offer a pathway into sustained organizing and action for people across the country.
The Ruckus Society’s network offered much of the training, facilitation, action coordination, and jail support. Our teams included Ruckus and Indigenous Peoples Power Project members: Rob C, Madeline G, Heather ML, Joshua KR, Hannah S, Jack D, Omi H, Gitz C, Adam T, Levana S; the art was coordinated by Cesàr M; and one of the action’s core coordinators was Matt L.
Mohawk activist and Ruckus member Ben P, took a photo of NASA’s Dr. James Hansen getting arrested, which Rolling Stone magazine called “Iconic” and the most important photo since the 1970’s “Blue Marble” photo, depicting Earth as a lonely sphere adrift in space.
Check out a video of Hansen’s statement at the White House.
It was an honor for Ruckus to support so many different groups and people from across the country, helping offer a pathway into movements for change.
Supporting Indigenous Leadership
One of the most powerful aspects of the action for a lot of the trainers was including testimonials and presentations from impacted peoples in each training. In addition to training, our organizational role was to help support Indigenous People’s Power Project (IP3) and Indigenous Environmental Network’s delegation to have a series of actions, including a statement at the Canadian Embassy, meetings with officials, public presentations, and of course, participating in the civil disobedience.
The scale and scope of this action raises many movement strategy questions for us that we’re excited to explore. While the “arrest count” was highly visible, we do not measure success in arrests, but in more qualitative measures such as:
1) Of the thousands who participated in this action, did we prepare them enough and offer them clear next steps to take their organizing and action to the next level beyond this action? Was it truly a doorway into sustained action, or just a flash-in-the-pan?
2) How much did the attention that this action gave to frontline voices create capacity for their ongoing work?
3) What new alliances were born out of this work between the environmental and other movement sectors? For example, Ben Jealous, the head of the NAACP came and spoke at one of the trainings – what are the next steps for us to build deeper relationships?
4) How does the media success of this action open up space to popularize Nonviolent Direct Action not just as a pressure-tactic, but as a strategic approach to campaigning?
5) How do we measure political success when the final week of the action saw a number of disappointing moves by the Obama administration, including his caving-in on Ozone standards? How do we understand this pipeline, whether its approved or not, as a piece of a larger puzzle of shifting the balance of forces in our society?
In the wake of the action, communities around the country have a renewed sense of energy for their own local fights, and Ruckus is excited to support them though that. In Montana, a group of grandmothers, including Margot Kidder (who played Lois Lane in the Superman films), and Tantoo Cardinal (a Cree actress who grew up in Alberta and starred in Dances With Wolves, and many other Hollywood films) will be working with Ruckus trainers to engage in direct action to stop the pipeline from coming through their homes. This action has made a national issue of the Tar Sands, which previously few people in the United States knew much about. It has offered an opportunity for continued pressure on Obama around pipeline approval, which Ruckus will stay involved with. It is also an injection of new support for the longstanding and ongoing Tar Sands fights, including the Heavy Haul, which Rising Tide activists in the US have recently been laying their bodies in front of trucks to stop, Indigenous Tar Sands campaigning in Canada, and finance campaigns in Europe.