August 22, 2011

Gary Goff Is Going To Jail!

Gary Goff has been a good friend of mine for more than a quarter of a century, as has his partner Martha Cameron. We have strategized together, marched on Washington together, picketed red-lining realtors in his Brooklyn neighborhood together and protested too many wars and occupations undertaken by this country's rulers together. We have never been arrested together, though.

So when Gary told me that he was planning, at age 64, to go to Washington and take a bust doing civil disobedience, I was a bit surprised. Lately, much of his activism has been as a NYC employee and elected officer of his local in District Council 37 of AFSCME, at a time when civil servants are very much in the system's crosshairs.

Naturally I wanted to know what the hell he'd be facing arrest for, and why he thought that the situation demanded it. As he and Martha (who will be right there, doing logistics and media tasks in DC for Gary and other protesters) head for Washington, I am honored to publish this powerful and cogent answer to my questions.

Gary Goff: Why I'm Going to Get Arrested Next Week

I'm going to Washington, D.C., next week so I can get arrested. "Why?" you may ask.

The short answer is that I want to do what I can to prevent an environmental disaster. The long answer is a little more complicated. Here’'s what it'’s about.


As we run out of easy-to-reach oil and gas, we are turning more and more to high-risk extraction methods:– deep-ocean drilling, hydraulic fracturing (fracking) and tar sands refinement. Fossil fuels from conventional sources are bad enough. These are so much worse. Extraction is riskier, dirtier and infinitely more costly to the environment. Soil, oceans and freshwater are routinely contaminated.

The BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico exposed the dangers of deep-water drilling. The Oscar-winning documentary Gasland has opened our eyes to the dangers of fracking. But tar sands? Most of us in the United States don't even know what they are.

The world’'s largest deposits of tar sand--naturally occurring soil that is saturated with a sludge-like form of petroleum--are located in northern Alberta, Canada. For every barrel of crude oil extracted, four tons of tar sands are strip-mined and four barrels of freshwater are contaminated. According to Friends of the Earth, “during tar sands oil production alone, levels of carbon dioxide emissions are three times higher than those during conventional oil.” About 400 million gallons of freshwater are used daily. The residue--a toxic stew loaded with cyanide, ammonia and other dangerous substances--is stored in “tailing ponds” that are so large they can be seen from space. Indigenous communitiesliving near these ponds have high rates of renal failure, lupus, hyperthyroidism, and rare forms of cancer.

Scientists say the safe limit for CO2 in our atmosphere is 350 parts per million (ppm). We are currently at 392 ppm. The Alberta tar sands will likely add an additional 200 ppm. “If the tar sands are thrown into the mix it is essentially "game over,"” says Jim Hansen, NASA'’s leading climatologist.

The TransCanada Corporation plans to build the Keystone XL Pipeline to carry crude oil from the Alberta tar sands to refineries nearly 2,000 miles away on the Gulf Coast of Texas. This pipeline will cross 71 rivers and streams (including the Missouri, Yellowstone, and Red Rivers), the Ogallala Aquifer (which supports agriculture throughout the Midwest), any number of delicate ecosystems, and an active earthquake zone. One person has called the whole scheme a bomb with a 2,000-mile fuse.

Leading environmental organizations point out the real danger of pipeline leaks: tar sand oil is much more acidic than conventional oil, and therefore much more corrosive. TransCanada says the risk of pipeline leaks is minimal--one leak every twenty years at most. But since the Keystone Project began two years ago, the pipeline has already had 12 major spills!


At this point you might be thinking,
"“Okay, I get it. The tar sands are a bad idea. That pipeline is a really bad idea. But why go to Washington during the hottest, stickiest time of year? Why go out of your way to get arrested?”"
Here’'s the deal: Any pipeline that crosses the U.S. border needs a special Presidential Permit. If we are going to stop the expansion of the Keystone XL Pipeline, we have to convince the Obama administration not to issue the permit. Several weeks ago an impressive group of scientists, activists. and indigenous leaders put out a call for people opposed to the pipeline to engage in peaceful civil disobedience in front of the White House. (Click to see the Invitation.) This will not be a one-day action; it will take place every day from August 20 to September 3. So far, over 2,000 of us have signed up.

The older I get, the more I find myself thinking about the world I will leave my children and grandchildren. The race to the bottom, the juggernaut of greed that is bringing on global climate change, is truly frightening to watch. I don't know if getting arrested at the White House will stop it, but I have to try.

That’'s it. I've covered the basics of the issue and my thinking about why I'm doing what I'm doing. Below are some things you can do to help and some additional information.


Spend Some Time in the Slammer

If you would like to join the actions in Washington over the next couple of weeks, here'’s how you too can get arrested. And just think of the benefits: when the teacher asks how you spent your summer vacation, you'll have something interesting to say. (Click here to register.)

Tell President Obama: Stop the Pipeline!

I know, I know, another online petition. But petitions do matter: this one does, for sure. It will help support people like myself protesting in Washington, but more important, it will put Washington on notice that the American people are aware of--and oppose--this looming disaster. So do it; it only takes a minute. (Click here to sign the petition.)

Help Out the Folks Who Live on the Front Lines Every Day

Working-class communities, communities of color, and small farmers are disproportionately affected by environmental problems. The Keystone XL Pipeline is no exception. Indigenous communities in Alberta are already suffering: in Fort Chipewyan, with a predominately First Nation and Metis population, 100 of the 1,200 residents have died of cancer. If the pipeline is built, working people and people of color all along the way will be hit hard. Many of these people would like to be part of the Tar Sands Action, but they can't afford to make the trip. Tar Sands Action has set up a special fund to defray their costs. (Click to see donation page.)


The American Petroleum Institute claims that the pipeline will create “hundreds of thousands” of new jobs--as many as “465,000 jobs,” according to one API official. Union leaders representing the Teamsters, Plumbers, Operating Engineers, and Laborers have endorsed the pipeline, stating that it will “spur the creation of 118,000 jobs.” In hard times, the importance of jobs cannot be denied, but we need to be wary of such claims. Jeremy Brecher and Brendan Smith, who often write on labor issues, examined these figures closely and found them to be grossly inflated--a combination of wishful thinking and flimflam. The U.S. State Department'’s own estimate? Somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 new jobs over a period of three years.

And it'’s not just about jobs. The labor movement needs to represent workers in all aspects of their lives. As the late labor leader Walter Reuther once said, "“What good is a dollar an hour more in wages if your neighborhood is burning down?" What good is another week’'s vacation if the lake you used to go to is polluted and you can't swim in it?” What good is a union job if all we’'re doing is building our own gallows.


Tar Sands Action is the website developed by the protest’'s organizers.

One excellent source is Keystone XL Pipeline from the environmental group Friends of the Earth.

The Guardian newspaper in Britain generally has good coverage of environmental issues, including several useful pieces about tar sands and the pipeline.

The Global Energy Crisis Deepens
by Michael Klare is an in-depth look at how the end of conventional oil has lead to the development of more dangerous fuel sources. Klare has written extensively about the global impact of resource scarcity – specifically regarding war and politics.

For an excellent labor perspective on this issue, see Pipeline Climate Disaster: The Keystone XL Pipeline and Labor by Jeremy Brecher and Brendan Smith.

Labor activist Joe Uehlein is one of the original signers of the Tar Sands Action Invitation. As a young man he had a union job constructing the Three Mile Island nuclear plant. See his piece, Joining the Labor Movement and the Sustainability Movement: Together We Can Stop the Tar Sands Climate Catastrophe.

Read more!

August 18, 2011

Tactics (2): Nailing Presidential Hyprocisy

Tactics in the struggle come in all sizes and shapes, and I’m undertaking to post an occasional commentary on one or another that has struck my fancy. (First one's here. Suggestions for future articles are most welcome.)

This tactic is the Watchfire For Freedom, set alight in an urn directly opposite the White House on January 6, 1919 and kept burning day and night by members of the National Women’s Party in support of the demand that women be granted the right to vote.

Some background first: The Watchfire For Freedom came after the considerable momentum for women’s suffrage won in the first 15 years of the 20th century. At that point, the National Women’s Party, the militant wing of the suffrage movement, had decided to target President Woodrow Wilson, demanding that he actively support the passage of a national women’s suffrage amendment.

Even the patriotic fervor surrounding the US entry into World War 1 didn’t stop their 24/7 pickets at the White House. Neither did the arrests, jailing and, when they began hunger strikes, brutal force-feeding of NWP leaders like Alice Paul. Broad popular anger at this mistreatment swelled and Wilson caved in. While the war was still raging in early 1918, he pledged to push through Congress the vote for women as soon as combat ended.

Here’s where the Watchfire comes in. With the war over in November 1918, and the presidential promise of support in hand, how could the movement keep up the momentum? The Watchfire For Freedom urn was set alight, and kept alight, as the focal point for organizing and not merely as an abstract symbol. Wilson had led the US into the war in order, he claimed, to “make the world safe for democracy.” Every time he made a speech or issued a statement proclaiming or calling for democracy and freedom in war-torn Europe, Women’s Party leaders would take a copy of Wilson’s words and solemnly burn it in the urn, denouncing any talk of democracy when more than half the population was denied its most basic trapping in the US.

The Watchfire For Freedom stayed right in front of the White House until June 4, 1919, when the 19th Amendment passed the Senate.

So what are the particular merits of this tactic?

It provided a central focus for the suffrage movement when pressure needed to be increased to clear the final blockades of male supremacy in Congress and in state legislatures. It kept the focus concentrated on Wilson, the head of the Democratic Party, rather than dispersing it. It provided regular news to be reported when newspapers were the sole form of information (every big city boasted numerous papers and even small towns had one) and many of those papers were pro-suffrage.

It used the enemy’s weaknesses against him--the hypocrisy of proclaiming a new and democratic Europe while denying democracy to women here was clear and easy to understand.

It drew on the strength of the movement--the mainstream suffrage association had more than a million members and the National Women’s Party over 50.000. While maintaining a permanent vigil at the White House took resources, women were willing to travel from around the country and do their stints--like the Minnesota contingent headed by Berthe Moller, who brought pine boughs from their home state to burn in the urn, and who wound up in the hoosegow, evidently because they also added an effigy of Wilson to the flames!

Might imitating this tactic work today?

Probably not, but there are things to be learned from the reasons why it would likely fall short. First, most issues today are not as tightly focused as winning a single Constitutional Amendment, and few have a movement in the millions united around such a single political goal. Second, tactics pioneered by the National Women's Party have become ho-hum--their protests during the war were arguably the first mass civil disobedience protests at the White House.

And speaking of ho-hum, what about calling an elected official a hypocrite? It's universally understood today that politicians are lying double-talkers who will say and promise anything to advance their own interests, and those of their backers. Publicly charging them with hypocrisy usually gets from their most ardent defenders, whether Republican or Democrat, not indignant denials but tortured explanations of why political realpolitik demands that they fudge things so much.

And, of course, there's the problem that changes in military doctrine over the last hundred years mean the word, or even the concept, "watchfire" never crosses the average American's mind today, unless he or she is for some reason singing the second verse of "The Battle Hymn Of The Republic."

Read more!

August 15, 2011

Tactics: Chumping Nazis With Tee-Shirts

I'm a sucker for innovative tactics, always have been. It's worthwhile to go beyond "Hey now, that's cool...", though, and try and figure out what makes some tactics seem to deserve our appreciation.

I ran across one the other day. Seems that the lucky kids at a fascist skinhead music festival in Thuringia in what was East Germany got a free t-shirt, with a snazzy white on black skull and crossbones and, below it, the proud proclamation "Hardcore Rebels."

The only thing is, when they launder their new acquisition (or their mommies do), that stuff will all wash out, revealing a new message from the donors. This is an outfit called Exit Deutschland, whose aim is to help "young people transition out of militant right-wing lifestyles." The new message: "What happened to your shirt can happen to you. We can help you break with right-wing extremism."

Okay, let's contemplate this tactic--as a tactic. Me, I'm an ocean, a culture and two generations away from having much right to speak in the debate over whether trying to convert li'l Nazis-with-training-wheels into "normal" German kids is the best approach to fascist currents there.

The tactic, however, is elegant. Its strengths reveal themselves on minimal reflection. The kids take the tees because, duh, they're free.

Sooner or late, depending on individual hygiene standards, they learn that they have been chumped. That humiliation, and the larger-scale display of their movement's vulnerability, may be more even important than the penetration of the message that there is a specific alternative for those uncertain about their course, especially newbies.

Then there's the megaphone effect--the German media picked up the story, at least in passing, and spread the word that attendees at the show had been made fools of. This also raised the profile of Exit Deutschland and thus its potential reach and effectiveness.

As with any tactic, it's also important to look at the limitations. The scale of the tactic was necessarily limited. The concert, run by the ultra-right National Democratic Party, had only 600 of the fash in attendance. I have no idea what the group's finances are like, but for a real grassroots outfit, handing out 250 specially-printed shirts would be a significant expenditure.

Whoever did the actual infiltration and distribution may well have been captured on video and likely marked for retaliation by those who were played. And of course, it can't be expected to work twice in the same milieu.

No surprise. Tactics are by their very nature limited and can be countered by an enemy who understands them. But when a tactic is rolled out like this one was, it's a people's victory and worthy of contemplation as an aesthetic object in its own right.

Read more!