Seeking thick-headed activists…

This post came from an email conversation with Post Carbon Institute’s Strategist-Extraordinaire Tod Brilliant, who argued that we should recruit farmers and grandmothers since college-age protesters would get written off as “spoiled elites.” Tod has a totally reasonable view and might be right. In fact, it’s a very similar warning that Martin Luther King, Jr. gave to the Freedom Riders. They ignored his advice and went anyway, demonstrating that there is something strangely powerful about watching another person put themself in harms way.

I think college kids who protest and get a citation will definitely not get sympathy. Those who spend a night in jail probably won’t get much either. Those who get released from a night in jail to go straight back and repeat their action might start arousing some curiosity. Those who defy a judge’s strong warning that returning a third time will guarantee a year in prison will begin to actually move people. When college kids become former college kids who have been kicked out because of their activism, we’ll start making some progress. The “uppity brats” critique only sticks if anyone who wields it has ever sacrificed as much as the college kid is currently doing. I think where the direct action wing of the current movement has fallen short is that they have substituted perceived risk for actual risk, and it is not the same thing.

I’d bet Peaceful Uprising has a longer list of committed grandmothers than any similar group in the country. They’re on board and ready to get arrested in part because they watched a college kid who reminds them of their sons and grandsons face 10 years in prison for defending his future. The advantage of sustained resistance is that it gives us the opportunity to bring more people on board, and it becomes less important who took the first step.

I think Climate Ground Zero is a decent example of what sustained resistance does to public opinion. When they arrived, they were attacked as outsiders and had a steady barrage of beer bottles flying at their house. After this year’s week long tree sit, 6 local security guards quit after being asked to harass the activists. Two showed up at the CGZ house and interviewed on film about how shitty Massey is.  After living there for almost two years, the beer bottles have stopped, a level of relative decency has been established, and a few locals are joining them.  While CGZ might be a negative example of the problems of alcoholism and poor self-care, they are a great positive example of the power of just not going away.

I’m not too worried about public opinion if we can mobilize a serious resistance movement. My bigger concern is whether or not we have a few hundred people in this country willing to make real sacrifices to turn things around. We just haven’t even scratched the surface of the level of commitment needed for a successful social movement. It’s late enough in the game that if we don’t find that kind of commitment, it doesn’t matter how effective our lobbyists are. When things get ugly, I will be less concerned about emission levels than apathy levels. I will be less concerned about the number of electric cars than the number of people willing to resist injustice. Now that it might be too late for a carbon tax to solve the problem, it really matters how we get that carbon tax.

If there’s one thing I hope liberals learn from the tea party, it’s that criticisms are only effective if the criticized care. We threw buckets of criticism, most of it legitimate, and they didn’t care and kept moving forward (well actually backward, but where they were headed anyway.)  They showed that resisting criticism is a lot more important than avoiding criticism.  What is it about liberals that they always back down in the face of criticism and name calling? Oh no, they called us treehugging communists, let’s back off and recruit some small business owners…

We’re trying to take power and profit away from some of the biggest and most ruthless corporations in the world. Whoever is carrying our message will be attacked. Every time a great strategist on our side comes up with a good framing, 50 professional spinsters paid 100 times as much as us will find a way to critique it. The movements that win are the ones that refuse to go away or back down.  More than age, income, profession, or anything else, the one thing that matters about who we put out front is stubbornness.  I’ll trade all the strategy in the world for stubbornness.

(I’ll be posting more details soon about what that sustained resistance movement might look like and how it can lead to substantive policy reforms like a carbon tax.)