In a Nation article from December, Bill McKibbon wrote of how the urgency of climate change dictated non-violent direct action as a key strategy. Retake examines McKibbon’s thinking and questions if we may need to learn something from Jennifer Marley. The post also includes a encouragement to attend today’s Public Safety Committee hearing.
First, please join me at the Public Safety Committee meeting at City Hall at 4pm today. We need to make it clear to our City Council that police force is not going to solve the Entrada conflict and we need to insist that substantive conversation begin immediately to redesign the Entrada. If you can’t attend, please contact the Mayor and City Council. For speaking points and contact info, click here. At the bottom of this post you will find a Ted Talk that describes how with only 3.5% of the population engaged in resistance, a government can not function. The talk goes on to outline the research that points to non-violent direct action as an enormously successful strategy.
Non-Violent Direct Action: Time to Sharpen a New Tool In Advocated for Justice
I suspect that the arrest of eight individuals at the Red Nation Entrada protest will substantially change the Entrada conversation. For years there have been statements from Hispanic and Indigenous leadership to meet and discuss making changes in the Entrada pageant and these statements were backed by pledges from leaders from City government, including our Mayor. The talks have either not occurred or have led nowhere. I suspect that the Entrada arrests will lead to substantive conversations that result in a change in the Entrada pageant and its part in the overall Fiesta celebration. And if this occurs, there is a lesson to be learned from these arrests.
I had been thinking about the potential impact of these arrests on the Entrada conversation and then happened to come across a Nation article written by Bill McKibbon. His point is that a commitment to non-violent direct action may be required to fundamentally change the climate change conversation and to accelerate the kind of actions necessary to addressing climate change. Throughout the article he quotes his mentor Jonathan Schell, appropriate as the article is a transcript of McKibbon’s speech at the inaugural Jonathan Schell lecture. McKibbon first quotes Schell thusly: “Violence is the method by which the ruthless few can subdue the passive many. Nonviolence is a means by which the active many can overcome the ruthless few.” McKibbon’s point is that while we do not have the power to force change, we can overcome the ruthless through non-violence and that non-violent direct action will be far more powerful and effective than thoughtful debate. McKIbbon asserts that presenting the facts to the powers that be is fruitless, as they have long understood the implications of climate change. They just choose profit over the planet. “Exxon has known all there is to know about climate change for four decades. Its product was carbon, and it had some of the best scientists on earth on its staff; they warned management, in clear and explicit terms, how much and how fast the earth would warm, and management believed them: That’s why, for instance, Exxon’s drilling rigs were built to accommodate the sea-level rise it knew was coming.”
McKibbon then goes on to cite three lessons that the climate movement and the immigration movement might well learn from.
- Lesson one: “Unearned suffering is a potent tool. Volunteering for pain is an unlikely event in a pleasure-based society, and hence it gets noticed. Nonviolent direct action is just one tool in the activist tool kit, and it should be used sparingly—like any tool, it can easily get dull, both literally and figuratively. But when it is necessary to underline the moral urgency of a case, the willingness to go to jail can be very powerful,”
- Lesson two: “These tactics are useful to the degree that they attract large numbers of people to the fight. Those large numbers don’t need to engage in civil disobedience; they just need to engage in the broader battle. If you think about it, numbers are the currency of movements, just as actual cash is the currency of the status quo—at least until such time as the status quo needs to employ the currency of violence. The point of civil disobedience is rarely that it stops some evil by itself; instead, it attracts enough people and hence attention to reach the public at large.”
- Lesson three: The real point of civil disobedience and the subsequent movements is less to pass specific legislation than it is to change the zeitgeist. The Occupy movement, for instance, is often faulted for not having produced a long list of actionable demands, but its great achievement was to make, by dint of recognition and repetition, the existing order illegitimate. Once the 99 percent and the 1 percent were seen as categories, our politics began to shift.
McKibbon asserts that it doesn’t take a majority of people, or anywhere close, to have a significant—even decisive—impact: “In an apathetic world, the active involvement of only a few percentage points of the citizenry is sufficient to make a difference. No more than 1 percent of Americans, for instance, ever participated in a civil-rights protest.” As Monica Reyes, one of the young immigration activists in the Dreamer movement—great organizers who did much to shift public opinion—put it: “You need to change the culture before you can change laws.” Or as that guy Abraham Lincoln once put it: “Public sentiment is everything.” McKibbon also makes the critical point that our window of opportunity may be closing where non-violent direct action will be tolerated in the US. “China and Russia are brutally hard to operate in, and India is reconfiguring its laws to go in the same direction. Environmentalists are now routinely assassinated in Honduras, Brazil, the Philippines. Australia, where mining barons control the government; clearly Trump and his colleagues would like to do the same here, and will doubtless succeed to one extent or another. The savagery of the police response to Native Americans in North Dakota reminds us how close to a full-bore petro-state we are.”
McKibbon concludes by pointing out that while MLK, Jr. may have been right about the arc of the moral universe as relates to civil rights, his point may not be as relevant to climate justice. “Martin Luther King would always say, quoting the great Massachusetts abolitionist Theodore Parker, that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice”—meaning that it may take a while, but we are going to win. By contrast, the arc of the physical universe is short and it bends toward heat. I will not venture to predict if we can, at this point, catch up with physics. Clearly, it has a lot of momentum.” Click here to read the entire report. It includes many references to the potential impact of a movement that includes as a central strategy: non-violent direct action.
Retake has already signed on for training and non-violent direct action with the Reverend Barber’s New Poor People’s campaign. But training and action for that campaign is not launching for months. It may be time for Retake to initiate more planning, training and direct action over the coming weeks and months. If you are interested in becoming involved in exploring how this could transpire, please write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Maybe we need to learn from the civil rights and antiwar movements and put our bodies on the line before the peril involved in doing so becomes too severe.
Paul & Roxanne