February 25, 2013

The Climate Change Movement and Obama--Getting One Thing Very Right

[Like the piece I did last week about crowd estimates on steroids, this is a response to the Climate Change rally I attended in Washington DC earlier this month. Like that one, it is from the vantage point of a movement veteran so aged that my first DC demo was in 1965.

This one is primarily aimed at folks who, like me, are members (or sympathizers or exes) of revolutionary socialist organizations in the US. These have not generally covered themselves in glory when it comes to taking part in or even acknowledging, let alone building, the current crucial and vibrant incarnation of the decades-old environmental movement. I hope others will find it of some use as well.]

One thing that several old school lefties have commented on since the February 17 Climate Change rally in DC is how much the event revolved around Barack Obama. Among the main speakers was Van Jones, who spoke of having had the "honor of working with this president" in his first administration and addressed his remarks to his former boss.

Many hand-made signs and banners in the crowd featured Obama's picture and/or anodyne pro-environment quotes from his speeches. And the most widely distributed preprinted sign featured one of those Big Blue Marble shots of Earth from space on a black background—and on the other side had a big graphic based on Obama's 2012 campaign logo.

This certainly wasn't what you'd see at a rally of the remnants of the anti-war movement or, say, civil liberties activists. Generally the old heads I have spoken to or whose reflections I have read have felt this was a real problem and indicative of the low level of political understanding among the participants. I plan to argue in a later article that this misreads to some extent the dynamics and the strategic thrust of the movement.

What I want to deal with here is the fact that the environmental movement, and especially the struggle to stop the Keystone XL pipeline which is presently at the core of that movement, is doing exactly what a lot of leftists and socialists said they were going to be doing right about now.

I refer to those groups and individuals who argued in early 2012 (if not before) that revolutionaries and socialists should work hard for Obama's re-election or at the very least get out and vote against his opponent. Generally, their argument was based on the dangers posed by a possible Republican victory in the aftermath of the 2010 mid-terms (an argument which developed real weight as the GOP's racism and voter suppression efforts escalated).

"Of course," they would insist, "on the day after the election, we have to get back into the streets and organize against him, or at least his worst policies."

Well, you know who did that? The anti-Keystone XL people, that's who.

As the strong current of Obamoptimism at the rally shows, these are not exactly folks who were voting Romney. A few Green Party locals were present and the party's 2012 presidential candidate Jill Stein (who centered her candidacy on environmental issues, unlike Obama and Romney, neither of whom said a mumbling word about them the whole time). That hardly meant that the majority at the rally went third party last year, though.

Let's look at how this movement carried itself around the election and since. On Monday, November 5, the day before the election, several dozen activists barged into the Washington DC office of McKenna Long & Aldridge, the main law firm lobbying for TransCanada's pipeline project. They knew that this brief occupation, in solidarity with the ongoing Tar Sands Blockade, was not going to get major media coverage on the eve of the election. They were making a point--that the movement was going ahead no matter what happened the next day.

On Thursday, November 8, two days after the election, Bill McKibben, the most prominent anti-Keystone XL leader, kicked off a four-week Do The Math tour, speaking at an indoor rally/teach-in of 2,000 in Seattle. By early December, the tour had made 20 more stops in cities around the country, drawing similar numbers each time. This helped lay the groundwork for further development of the movement, including last week's Climate Change rally.

News kept coming in the weeks after the election. In early December two protesters chained themselves to 600 pound concrete barrels inside a section of pipe slated to be added to the section of the pipeline under construction near Winona TX. This was the latest, and riskiest, of a long series of civil disobedience actions that have been bedeviling companies trying to finish pipeline segments to create "facts on the ground" arguing for its completion.

A week later a Texas judge granted a temporary injunction to a Texas landowner whose property had been seized by eminent domain to build the same pipeline section. On college and university campuses across the country, scores of powerful student campaigns ramped up their demands that their schools' endowments divest all stockholdings in fossil fuel corporations. All this before Inauguration Day. Then the DC rally.

Obviously this is a powerful movement, with impressive organization and equally impressive room for initiative and a variety of tactics. I would suggest that one reason the movement is so strong and vibrant is that it didn't dissolve itself into the Obama campaign, but fought right up to the election and was fully prepared to hit the ground running the minute it was over.

[As I mentioned above, I hope to write one more piece, with observations on several aspects of the rally, and the movement that held it. Among those topics will be the thinking behind and problems with the movement's overall soft approach to Obama and how revolutionary socialists should respond to it.]

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