On March 2, 2009 around 4,000 people came to the Capitol Power Plant in Washington, DC, with over 2,000 risking arrest through civil disobedience. The vast majority had never been to a demonstration before, let alone engaged in non-violent direct action. People from communities most directly impacted by coal’s lifecycle—from Navajo reservations in the Southwest to Appalachian towns in the Southeast—led the march. With multicolored flags depicting windmills, people planting gardens, waves crashing, and captions like "community," "security," "change," and "power," we blockaded five entrances to the power plant that fuels Congress (the belching smokestacks just two blocks from the Capitol building made a fitting national target). We called the whole thing the Capitol Climate Action (CCA).
"Notable" people of all kinds joined our demonstration, legitimizing the tactic of civil disobedience for a mainstream audience. From the scientific community, Dr. James Hansen (the world’s foremost climatologist) and Gus Speth (former environment advisor to Jimmy Carter) risked arrest. Writers like Wendell Berry joined them. Environmental advocates like Dr. Vandana Shiva and Bill McKibben, religious leaders of all stripes, Congressperson Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), and celebrities such as Daryl Hannah also participated.
The snow was over four inches deep and it was 23 degrees when our action started at 1:00 PM. We could hear the Fox News commentators making the usual absurd statements: "A global warming protest in the snow?! Maybe this climate change stuff isn’t real after all, ha ha ha." By the end of the day, though, even Fox News gave positive coverage to the largest climate crisis protest to date. It was clear that the police had been overwhelmed by our numbers and were not going to arrest anyone unless we escalated to felony charges, which we were unwilling to do (though the image of Dr. Hansen scaling a fence would be pretty inspiring). Instead, we declared victory after shutting the plant down for the afternoon. Thousands of us exited on our own terms with a commitment to use the experience to build our local movements stronger in what has become a defining year for the climate.
We cannot win the battle on climate change without immediate, binding, science-based federal legislation. This year is crucial because the political window to pass such legislation is growing increasingly urgent as we march toward the United Nations climate talks in Copenhagen in December. In the U.S., the fossil fuel industry employs over 2,340 corporate lobbyists and is spending over $90 million to push false solutions (nuclear, "clean" coal, industrial agrofuels, and others) that devastate communities. In response, people’s movements need to create political space for progressives in office to write bolder policy (and push them do to so) in the short and mid-term. For the long-term, we need to continue to build community-based solutions, like wind farms, urban gardens, and other projects that localize our economies. This calls for an aligned inside/outside movement strategy that honors the different roles that a broad spectrum of organizations, networks, and activists must take.
The CCA strategy is to anchor an outside action-arm of this spectrum. The role of such an anchor is to help shift the center of political conversation in the U.S. further to the left.
Students from around the U.S. demonstrate at the Capitol Climate Action—photo by Robert vanWaarden
The pace of direct actions against coal has sharply increased since 2004. These campaigns have been organized and carried out by a polycentric global network of radical environmentalists, "frontline" communities (those most directly affected by injustice), student organizers, and traditional non-profits. In the United States, communities have been using non-violent direct action to confront coal at all stages of its lifecycle: finance, extraction, "cleaning" and transport, burning, and energy consumption. This trajectory began gaining momentum on November 10, 2004 with a blockade of Maryland’s Dickerson Power Plant. It grew to 3 major direct actions in 2005, 2 more in 2006, 6 in 2007, 18 in 2008, and 15 in the first 3 months of 2009.
Similar to the anti-nuclear movement of the late 1970s and early 1980s, the anti-coal movement has targeted specific mines and plants while challenging the overall legitimacy of fossil fuel-based economies. This struggle has transcended single-issue organizing and the varied efforts to stop coal have brought together diverse stakeholders. Stemming from the people of color, working class, and women-led environmental justice movement, climate justice has become a political banner for intersecting racial justice, economic equity, community health, climate, and environmental quality struggles, of which elements of "no coal" struggles are a part. It is useful to think of campaigns against coal as one strand of a robust frontline-led climate justice movement.
At CCA, marginalized communities impacted by mountaintop removal mining in Appalachia mobilized their bases to travel to DC. Indigenous communities resisting strip mining and resource theft from the southwest United States and from Canada joined them. Folks suffering from asthma and pollution caused by coal-burning plants in the inner city also played a role, and were joined and supported by thousands of others (primarily youth and students, but also religious congregations, families, teachers, and others) new to this movement.
Organizers from four national/regional non-profits (Greenpeace, Rainforest Action Network, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, and the Ruckus Society) comprised the CCA organizing core. These organizations were not community-based groups, but rather sought to act in solidarity with frontline groups. CCA organizers consulted such communities throughout the build-up and we invited these groups to lead the march and become spokespeople for the action.
CCA Goals and Outcomes
The Capitol Climate Action had three big-picture goals:
(1) Change the national conversation on climate
We wanted sympathetic mainstream media coverage, with a climate justice framework that highlighted coal as a driver of global warming. Within a single media cycle, we had positive pieces in the Associated Press, Time magazine, USA Today, CNN, New York Times blogs, "Democracy Now!,"the Nation, and a host of others. The action generated over 700 media stories.
We wanted the message to be specific enough to be impactful ("no more coal"), but also solution-oriented and visionary. Great care was taken to make sure the media reflected concerns ranging from public health to economic sustainability, weaving them together to make a political statement that was quite radical. While media outlets ignored the specifics around "2009 climate policy," the general media receptiveness to our broader message reflects an opportunity to continue to build and shape a new progressive narrative around climate and the economy.
(2) Press the new Administration and Congress for bolder climate policy
This "mid-term" goal is difficult to evaluate just a month after the action, but we are already seeing indications of some success. Three days before our action, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced that the Capitol Power Plant would be "greened" by switching from coal to natural gas. Our action objectives went well beyond this specific plant and natural gas is not the solution (it’s an industry-backed false solution), but it’s a step forward that was clearly the direct result of the threat of protest. While Pelosi’s move seemed aimed at taking the wind out of our sails, it had the opposite effect, publicly validating the power and efficacy of popular pressure to open the political window with a new Congress and Administration—and that we need to push harder.
We timed our action within the "first 100 days" of the new Administration to communicate that people are not waiting around to have change legislated for them. More specifically, CCA coincided with the largest lobby day on climate in history. Thousands of young people who attended the Power Shift 09 youth summit on the climate crisis (occurring that same weekend) demanded clean energy policy inside Congress. Various reasons prevented us from working explicitly with the Power Shift conference to have a publicly unified approach, which was a missed opportunity to integrate strategies and do thorough political education with participants about the value of outside friction creating inside momentum.
(3) Build the climate justice movement and legitimize non-violent direct action and civil disobedience
We believe that we will solve the intersecting crises of our time through a mass movement of millions. Therefore, we did not focus on mobilizing seasoned activists, but rather engaged previously "passive allies"—people who care about the issue, but had not yet taken action. The breadth of endorsing organizations is one indicator of success. More than 100 groups—from public health organizations, religious groups, and clean-energy businesses to grassroots environmental networks, labor and racial justice organizations—publicly endorsed the action.
We also measured success by how well this action served to "supercharge" the movement against coal. Three days after CCA, there was another civil disobedience action at Coal River Mountain in West Virginia. Six days later there was a mass-action in Belgium blockading EU Finance Ministers, with over 350 arrests, citing CCA as a big inspiration for their recruitment. On March 14, there was an action in Knoxville protesting the Tennessee Valley Authority around the recent coal ash sludge spill. The same day, 80 activists inspired by CCA marched in Palm Springs, California as part of the Power Past Coal campaign. Three CCA-inspired actions happened that week in Massachusetts. Decentralized "Fossil Fools Day" actions targeting coal happened across the continent on April 1. On April 20, there was a mass action called the "Cliffside Climate Action" in North Carolina to stop Duke Energy’s proposed coal plant.
Community members from Appalachia at the CCA—photo by Robert vanWaarden
CCA navigated new challenges. We wanted to be good organizers and "meet people where they were at"—which meant "baby steps" for brand new folks. After CCA, some of the more seasoned activists felt we did too much controlled hand-holding of new activists and should have escalated further. However, we could not have escalated this action without some incurring felony charges and potentially endangering others unprepared for it. Escalating to achieve arrests may have attracted more media coverage, but it would have focused on the arrests rather than the politics behind the action.
Clearly, CCA lacked a real decision dilemma from the beginning, putting us in a difficult spot on the day of the event. A "decision dilemma" is a direct-action term that refers to a certain kind of escalation. It means that we create a situation through non-violent action where the target is forced to either negotiate with the activists or react with force (including arrests). There are two kinds of direct action: "instrumental" and "expressive." Expressive actions communicate an idea. They are like a big exclamation point. They help shape popular discussion by influencing public debate. In these kinds of actions, arrests can help raise a profile, attract attention, and give activists a moral higher ground. They can also marginalize change-agents and distract from core messages, focusing on the tactic rather than the issue.
Instrumental actions have an immediate concrete goal, directly stopping something from happening (for example, blockading a port deploying weapons to Iraq). In such actions, arrests are not the goal, but often an unfortunate byproduct. As friends have noted, in any other struggle throughout history, getting captured is usually seen as a bad thing.
The lack of demands around this specific plant (defaulting to national policy-related demands being advanced by the students lobbying that day) undercut the possibility for one. There was no specific response we were demanding on that day other than the prevention of movement in and out of the plant. In freezing weather amid police determined to wait us out, we had no tricks up our sleeve.
In any case, at CCA I think we made the right decision for our circumstance, though questions about whether we could (or should) have shaped the action differently are valid.
While there were over 100 organizations endorsing CCA, the core organizing was convened by four non-profits. The resources and time from these groups helped this action be detail-oriented and well coordinated. The front-line community groups we consulted said they did not have the capacity to help in the organizing, but requested input on the message, as well as clear roles in the action itself. Tactical decisions were made by a group of folks prioritizing safety, empowering participants, and getting wide media coverage. Toward that end, we encouraged participants to form affinity groups (small groups to support one another). But unlike mass actions of the global justice movement era, these affinity groups did not have decision-making power during the action itself.
To have a sophisticated action-arm of a broader progressive coalition, we must be precise about the roles of different organizing models as well as the roles of various organizations within them: "insider" non-profits, direct-action oriented non-profits, radical grass-roots networks, community-based organizations, front-line communities, progressive politicians, and green businesses.
Our political landscape is shifting, as is the nature of the "environmental" movement. Three out of the four White House environmental "heavy hitters" are people of color. Environmental leaders with racial justice organizing backgrounds like Van Jones are becoming Obama’s advisors. This signals a meaningful opening.
Until now, struggles against the coal industry have primarily centered on preventing the construction of new coal-burning plants. We now need to go after existing coal plants across the country. It is unclear whether street protest is effective in decommissioning specific running coal plants, though lessons from the anti-nuclear movement are instructive. Direct actions at plants across the country did not decommission individual nuclear facilities, but cumulatively helped create a moratorium on nuclear plant construction that lasted decades.
The seeds are planted for decentralized actions against coal across the United States. Should we be successful at networking efforts, this network must weave itself into a broader climate justice movement. If we hope to win, the movement must be relevant enough to help create a broad-based progressive majority that is not afraid to build unlikely alliances across the political spectrum, while maintaining a principled anchor of its left wing.
Groups helping anchor the left wing of the "Obama nation" are tying conditions to our participation. These conditions currently center around economic empowerment and social uplift for communities of color and other impacted peoples, led by a compelling, if potentially co-opted, call for green jobs. Climate justice organizers can build their leverage in this new political terrain through increased demonstrations of power. The Capitol Climate Action sought to test our limits and found that we’re ready for more.