The Horse Latitudes of Resistance


This story originally appeared in News & Viewpoints, October 5, 2007

It’s an interesting time for Americans who understand citizenship as an active personal responsibility. United States policy is as committed as it has ever been to visions of empire with all the trimmings. In addition to the imperial quagmire in Iraq and curtailment of civil liberties at home, we’re facing a climate crisis that’s inconvenient for corporate interests. But widespread public dissatisfaction is more evident in opinion polls than it is at the ballot box or on the street. Activists stage massive protests to an audience that seems not to extend much beyond the like-minded. And yet, communities like Asheville, North Carolina, are beehives of effective social action. What’s going on here? I recently sat down with two Asheville women deeply committed to issues of energy and climate change to get their views on political action and where it may be headed.

Mary OlsonMary Olson works for NIRS, the Nuclear Information and Resource Service. NIRS, based in Takoma Park, MD, has a twenty-nine year history of supporting sustainable energy and opposition to nuclear power and nuclear weapons. In the 1990s, Olson coined the term “Mobile Chernobyl” to describe an earlier federal plan to ship high-level nuclear waste across the country. Today she is a leader in Southeast regional efforts to oppose the resurrection of the nuclear power industry and resume the nuclear arms race. As a member of the Sustainable Energy Council of WNC, she works to redirect energy policy in the Carolinas away from fossil fuel plants and towards sustainability. Olson was also a coordinator of the recent Southeast Convergence for Climate Change.

Abigail SingerAbigail Singer belongs to a younger generation of activists. She was an organizer of the Southeast Convergence, a week-long immersion in trainings and discussions of climate activism. The Convergence garnered press attention for the heavy surveillance it provoked from law enforcement agencies and for a rowdy demonstration outside an Asheville office of Bank of America. Protesters demanded an end to the bank’s funding of mountaintop removal coal mining and other new coal projects. Five demonstrators were arrested. Singer is a co-founder of Rising Tide North America and has worked on several projects related to ecosystem defense, indigenous solidarity, mountain top removal, globalization and climate change. She was herself arrested early this year for her part in hanging a banner over a highly visible Asheville billboard. It opposed construction of an oil-fired peaking power plant in the nearby town of Woodfin. The incident helped galvanize popular opposition, and the Woodfin Planning and Zoning Board eventually rejected the proposal.

Voting by other means
We began with Singer telling me why voting is not enough. “The electoral process has been so bought-out that it’s not possible to do very much from a political office. People who have been able to get into positions of power have had to compromise whatever principles they started out with to the point where it’s impossible to enact any type of systemic change.” Has voting become irrelevant? “I think there are still some good things that can be done through pressuring legislators,” she replied, “but I certainly wouldn’t put most of my eggs in that basket. Real change comes from the grassroots.”

Olson agreed in part but added, “Voting is also a vital arena for social activism. It’s an opportunity for people to come to grips with the fact that, if you believe in democracy, we’ve really lost ours to a great degree. At bottom, we have to decide whether we do or don’t believe in democracy. We have a culture of control and top-down authority and a culture in which we’re taught that a candidate is going to make it all better. Do we really believe in decentralized authority? A lot of people are turning to activities besides voting because they’re so demoralized by the results of what voting does.”

Activism and direct action
I wondered about the difference between “activism” and “direct action,” a term we’ve recently been hearing more. Olson noted that these concepts encompass a wide range of activities, from civil disobedience to leafleting, anything that takes people out of their chairs and engages them with an issue. “And there’s a difference between individuals and organizations. I think it’s time that we have a discussion in our community about this. Actions that individuals may take on their own cover a wider range. There’s a hell of a lot of activism in the names of organizations out there, but there are limits to what those organizations can endorse in terms of appropriate behavior. Organizations are constrained by the laws.”

Singer distinguished between organizational action and collective action. “I think the real power lies in people not just making consumer or lifestyle choices but coming together collectively and organizing.” There are many definitions of direct action, she said. “For me, direct action means directly intervening in a process of destruction or exploitation or building community-based alternatives, like growing your own food so you’re less dependent on industrial systems of agriculture, or being off the grid. The ‘direct’ part is organizing to make the change ourselves rather than relying on an institution or asking politicians to do it for us.

“Every action should be part of a long-term strategic campaign centered around pressure points where we can effect change,” she continued. “A lot of the things we’re working on, like climate change, are intangible. It’s not like we’re going to do something one day or one year and there are going to be huge societal shifts because of it. But we do them in the faith that they’ll catch on and become part of a broader movement.”

Sometimes, as in the power plant case, the desired microcosmic outcome is achieved in the short term. Woodfin nixed the project. Singer said that the recent Bank of America action in Asheville was one of several that have targeted the bank’s investment choices. “I’m sure that our action here made it up to higher levels of their corporate structure. When these actions happen in lots of different places, changes will have to be made.”

How do you measure effectiveness?
I asked Singer how she evaluates the effectiveness of an action. “We’re self-critical and welcome feedback from people about what worked and what didn’t from differing perspectives. We look at our original goal and whether or not we accomplished it. What’s empowering for people is definitely an important aspect.”

Olson said, “My piece of it is about building community, working toward a real movement. We use the term movement in a sloppy way. Movement is when a whole block of society has a common goal, a common demand. They’re moving together. It’s been a long time since there was a real active movement.

“My recent work has been about fostering an intergenerational connection. One of the triumphs [of the Convergence] for me was putting together a panel called ‘Elders of the Movement.’ One of the speakers was Brett Bursey, who thirty years ago had a campaign called the Natural Guard. They mobilized tens of thousands of people at the Savannah River Site [a major nuclear industry and radioactive storage complex]. He talked about the reason for taking direct action not necessarily being about the outcome of the campaign. He said the reason to do it is yourself and your relation to the world. To make an integrated presence out of your life, so you’re saying and doing and being the same thing. And the satisfaction that comes from that. Bringing together people who were active on these issues thirty years ago with people who are just getting involved because they’re of college or high school age, forged a connection with substantial meaning for everybody present. The people who risked arrest and were arrested the following week felt that they were connected to something bigger and knew that they came out of a community of people. They weren’t alone.”

Singer said, “In my experience the strongest communities come out of resistance. Some people see actions like the one at Bank of American and assume that’s all we do. They don’t hear about community-run bike shops, community-run gardens, the real grunt work of building alternative structures. In a culture that keeps us so isolated and divided from each other, the land, and from ourselves, you could say that [building community] is itself an action.”

Rising Tide has emphasized processes that are non-oppressive and non-violent. NIRS has also steered clear of destructive tactics. Is nonviolence a guide they both use to distinguish legitimate from illegitimate actions? “I hesitate about the word legitimate,” Singer said. “There’s a broad range of actions you can take that are very contextual. What may be legitimate for me may be very different from someone else.”

She also had an issue with how nonviolence is often interpreted. “The term ‘nonviolence’ is really thrown around. If you’re not nice and polite, some people consider that violence. I have a problem with that. Property destruction is similarly misrepresented. ‘Property destruction’ and ‘violence’ are different things. Violence is something that harms a living thing: a person, an animal, a tree, or whatever. In our culture, property often trumps people and the Earth. These things are sacrificed for the paper in your printer. I like to push people to think where the violence in our society really lies. Most violence is in business as usual and capitalism grinding on, killing workers, forests, and oceans. That’s violence. We’re surrounded by normalized violence and don’t recognize it for what it is. Capitalism is extremely violent. Confronting this normalized violence in a direct way is not violent; it’s necessary.”

Olson said that when an event has a media focus, she attends to how the press will portray it. She also reiterated the distinction between individuals and organizations. “Legitimacy is a pejorative word, but assuming that we’re not talking about causing violence, tax-exempt organization have a narrower range of options than individuals or informal groups. From my own philosophical point of view, I’m a Taoist. If you fight evil directly, you become it. That defines some activities as not legitimate because they render me in the same category of things I protest against. I want to aid the progress of the good.”

Singer turned the question of legitimacy around. “It’s difficult in a society that’s so profit driven, to try to get a message across that fundamentally questions the thesis of how our society functions. People argue that you have to work within the system. You have to find ways for people to still make money off of the projects you’re talking about. I question that logic. We have to be more public about questioning the idea that we can have it all: be sustainable, be profitable, don’t need to change anything. We can still have our air conditioners, our iPods, etc. Economic growth is fundamentally unsustainable. We’re seeing this play out with climate change. We’re going to see some drastic changes whether we like it or not. We can make them voluntarily or wait until Nature does it for us. I consider carbon trading and carbon offset schemes, the feel-good fixes, to be illegitimate. They’re trying to keep a fundamentally unsustainable system in place by appeasing people’s consciences while maintaining business as usual.”

Artificial carbon capture is doubly illegitimate, Olson added, because it’s untested technology that’s being touted as offering energy independence from oil while placating climate warriors.

“If we want to fight climate change, we have to stop taking fossil carbon out of the ground,” Singer said. “Governments and corporations are inventing all sorts of things to distract us from this basic fact. They want to convince us that drilling for oil and mining coal is still an acceptable thing to do. That’s crazy. At a basic level, that’s what we need to be saying, not trying to find little fixes for individual projects.”

I asked about the place of arrests in protest actions. What function does it serve? Singer responded, “There’s a reason why some things are legal and others not. It’s in the interest of the system to keep business as usual plugging along. From that perspective, a lot of things aren’t legitimate as protests. It takes more than writing letters and distributing leaflets to shake people out of what our culture has become.”

Who gets shaken out of complacency, the culture or the person being arrested? Olson said, “This is a point for me at the moment. I’m okay with what’s been happening, but the fact of the matter is that we need a movement before arrests become meaningful in the larger sense. Gandhi didn’t set things up so a few people went out and got arrested. He had the eyes of two nations on him. King was the same. The marches were enormous. There has to be a movement there before arrests take on the power they had in the past. I’m not opposed to setting up a [protest] line in front of a reactor site. The Wackenhut guards have shoot to kill authority now, so you have to be very up front about a nuclear plant arrest scenario. We do it as training. It’s empowering to the individual who says, ‘This is so important to me that I’m going to cross this line to show you how much I care.’ [The value of arrest is] a combo of the individual, the community the individual is part of, and the media angle. If there are arrests, you have more of a story than when you don’t. But I’m convinced that what we’re doing today with civil disobedience has very little yet to do with the historical meaning of that term. My goal is getting us to the point where we have a movement behind the small wedge of an action a person might take. Then it can have the power King and Gandhi had.”

Is the idea then to put the adversary in a moral dilemma that makes him misbehave and hits him in the conscience? Singer objected. “I feel like it’s missing a few layers to say that these events through our history have pushed people until they gave in on a moral basis. The Civil Rights movement was so successful because there was also the Black Power movement to back it up. King and Malcolm X didn’t agree on everything, but they benefited each other. The history of people who organized themselves to defend themselves needs to be equally celebrated along with the history of Martin Luther King. It’s the same with India. The British Empire was weak from fighting a war. If not for that, who knows whether Gandhi would have been successful. I don’t think Britain necessarily had a great change of heart. And I don’t think the US government had a change of heart when it granted worker’s rights or rights to vote. It came from people rising up and demanding those changes.

“We’re far from that, now,” Singer continued. “People go to work and come home and watch TV. Everyone is just in coping mode. They’re so disempowered and afraid. It’s all they can do to take care of their families. The idea of putting themselves out there for some abstraction like climate change, I’m sure, is difficult. But I also think very few would have heard about [the Bank of America action] had it not been for the people who got arrested. I think we need to be creative when the media is so consolidated and controlled by corporations. There’s a reason why certain viewpoints are never represented in the mass media. It’s a real challenge to make alternatives accessible to people.”

What about the element of surprise? Does it heighten the impact of an action? Olson thinks it does when an event includes a media component. “If you don’t have surprise, you don’t control the message. That’s fundamental. If the media is involved, you have to get there first.”

Singer took a step back from the question. “Everything depends on the context. Surprise can be beneficial. The approach we took to the Climate Convergence was opposite. We said there was going to be an action and announced the day. Because we were meeting near Asheville, they knew the general area where it would take place. We think that direct action is an important thing. It was a big part of what the Convergence was about, giving people direct action skills and putting those skills into practice. Events like the Convergence may be more successful in countries that have a culture of disobedience, like in Europe. Climate Camp in the UK is a different situation. There, public opposition is respected as part of a healthy democracy. Last year, they advertised that they were going to shut down the biggest coal-fired power station in the UK. People came, and they got a lot of media.”

What other principles are important in designing an action? Singer said, “Re-localization of our lives is a good thing. I would question any large-scale centralized attempt, because part of the problem is having everything hierarchical and top-down.”

Olson sees the general issue as nudging people to wake up to realities they’ve been avoiding. “It’s finding the dream state and designing actions to challenge it. I’m not convinced that arrest scenarios are the best. You can creatively use street theater to do things that cause people to go ‘What?’ and maybe get it.”

Where lies the future?
Olson said that she’s actively praying and questing for a new activist paradigm, one that excites more people. “Everywhere I go, I ask, what’s the new movement? What’s it called? How can we make it happen? The conversation is getting more interesting, and I’m more and more hopeful that more and more people are engaged in the same quest. Maybe together we’ll come up with it. The old ways are still there, but we’re bored with them. Activism has to be about engagement. It has to be about fun. It’s got to be alive.”

Boredom was a common complaint at last January’s anti-war rally on the National Mall. Only calls for impeachment seemed to generate excitement. I wondered whether Singer had been around long enough to be bored. “Oh, I’ve been bored,” she laughed. “That’s why I don’t go to those big marches any more. Activism has to change. The political climate is changing. We’re going to see more government repression. We’re going to have to take that into account and change how we work. I don’t think any of us has the answers individually, but as we create collective spaces where people come together, new and innovative ideas will organically grow.”

Olson was inspired by insights she gained during anti-oppression training at the Convergence. “We privileged people, the white folks with the money to go to fancy colleges, carry the oppression of isolation. The isolation of not having a community. When we do get community, we start telling ourselves it isn’t the right community because we’re all white or all privileged. It was heartening to hear people in the group saying it’s not that we need to get Black people here or Hispanic people here. Building diversity is important, but we disable ourselves in that conversation. We need to be where we are and then reach out to other people where they are and find out how we can support them.  I need to build greater diversity in my friendships. I’m hoping that, as I do, I’ll get new ideas about how we can move forward.”

Singer said, “I’m glad you brought up anti-oppression and diversity. It’s not just about race or class. It’s diversity in all senses: background, ideas, rural, urban, all these things. The whole idea of diversity came out of corporate America. Much like the mainstream environmental movement, it looked around and said, ‘Wow, we’re really white, and this looks kind of bad. We have a lot of power and privilege, but the most affected people are not at the table. We’ll get more people of color on our board, we’ll diversify, and we’ll be okay.’ This approach is detrimental to everyone. It’s a tokenizing and superficial way to address deep issues. If we’re going to have a future, we need to take anti-oppression work really seriously. On an individual level, we need to push ourselves out of our comfort zones and not expect people outside our circle to come to our events. We need to go to other folks’ events and be active listeners. And genuinely care about what people outside our little circles are doing and what’s important. Not every community is going to have the same solution. Different approaches will be relevant in different places."

Personal measures
“Activism can be overwhelming,” Olson said. “There are a large number of issues and crises we can engage with. It seems like a huge responsibility. Where will I put my time? I like to encourage people to use the Fun Meter. It’s an honest gauge of whether our soul is actually there. There’s no reason to suffer as an activist. If you have your greatest fun writing songs about issues you know something about, great. If your fun is lobbying, going to the national capitol, great. If you have the greatest fun designing direct actions and mobilizing people, great. Whatever it is, people should not worry about doing everything. It’s about discovering where you rock and roll. Any other model is going to wear you out. Use the Fun Meter.”

Singer sternly concurred. “I support the Fun Meter.”

—Michael Hopping
copyright © 2007 all rights reserved



Copyright © 2007 michaelhopping.com

Asheville, NC