Longview citizens ask port commissioners to “decline to sign” agreement with Haven
It’s an all too familiar scene here in Washington State as yet another fracked product from North Dakota wants access to our public ports. This time it’s a special meeting at the Cowlitz County Expo Center in Longview, Washington on Thursday evening, February 19th.
The hall is filled with 250 to 300 people, the majority of whom are anxious to express opposition to a psychic, economic and physical threat to their community’s security and work life. In front are the seated and typically silent public officials, this time three Commissioners from the Port of Longview. The meeting’s chair, Commissioner Bob Bagaason, readies his gavel to discipline any public impertinence then gives the floor to yet another corporate front man who, without hearing any gavel, takes up more time that he is allotted.
Who is not in the hall?
George B. Kaiser is among the 100 richest people in the world and the richest person in Oklahoma. He took over his father’s Tulsa based Kaiser-Francis oil company in 1966. By 2010, it was the 23rd largest nonpublic energy exploration in the U.S. In 1990, he bought the Bank of Oklahoma which was in FDIC receivership. Now his bank holding company is in nine states and his ownership share is around $2.3 billion. Overall, Mr. Kaiser is worth about $10 billion.
Pierre F. Lapeyre, Jr. and David M. Leuschen are “graduates” of Goldman Sachs where they founded that investment firm’s Global Energy and Power Group in the 1980s. In 2000, they founded their own energy and power focused private investment firm, Riverstone Holdings, a joint venture with the Carlyle Group. Since that time they have created a series of multi-billion dollar energy funds including the 2006 acquisition of Kinder Morgan, one of the largest pipeline operations in the U.S. Their main focus has been taking advantage of the fracking/horizontal drilling revolution in domestic shale oil fields. Riverstone has $6.1 billion committed to investments in energy storage, transportation and processing.
Mr. Leuschen lives on a 160,000 acre Montana ranch, funds his own charitable foundation and through it supported Nature Conservancy’s successful effort to buy a million acres in the Lolo and Flathead National Forests. Mr. Lapeyre resides at his Redding, Connecticut 24 acre estate with 9,832 square feet of livable space currently assessed at around $5.6 million dollars.
Riverstone Holdings and Kaiser Midstream, which is owned by George Kaiser, partnered with Sage Midstream in 2012. Then in April, 2014, Sage Midstream created Haven Energy Terminals, LLC. Greg Bowles is the President of both Sage Midstream and Haven, which are based in Houston, Texas.
This brings us to the Expo Center and Mr. Bowles on a Thursday evening in February.
Mr. Bowles wants to transport the otherwise flared propane and butane from the North Dakota Bakken shale oil fields to the Port of Longview on 100 car unit trains using pressurized DOT 112 tanks that would arrive every day and a half, 20 or so a month. Then, unload the trains at Berth Four in the middle of the Port’s eight berths, store it in a state of the art tank designed for “middle east” security and later transfer the liquified gas via pipelines to 900 foot ships slightly bigger than Panamax tankers three times a month for export to those countries that don’t have a natural gas distribution system like the U.S. Finally, Mr. Bowles wants the Port of Longview Commissioners to sign a lease with Haven Energy Terminals on March 10 so the permitting process can begin.
As you can imagine, the question and answer period with Mr. Bowles was both frustrating, yet enlightening for audience members. Mr. Bowles, of course, was not about a profitable return on the half billion dollar investment by Kaiser, Leuschen and Lapayre. Rather he was about “jobs”, “safety” and “the environment.”
Here’s a few of the exchanges between audience members and Mr. Bowles.
Q. What is the blast zone on the tank car if the whole car went up?
A. It would depend on how the car went up.
Q. What is the safe speed at which this unit train can run?
A. 5 mph inside the facility. Don’t know speed on main line.
Q. Are pipes from tank to ship permanently fixed.
A. Riverstone is a registered investment adviser with the S.E.C
Q. 900,000 barrels in the storage tank. What is the evacuation distance?
A. The local fire officials will know.
Q. Why not place this in a less populated area like Barlow point?
A. We considered it, but not suitable.
Q. If a tank car is on fire, how much water would you need?
A. The fire department will determine this.
Q. We are due for a 9.0 earthquake. We are in a liquefaction zone. What would happen?
A. It would depend on the location of the quake.
Q. How will the tank ships effect the spring salmon run on the river?
A. A Coast Guard study waterway suitability assessment will determine that.
Q. Will there be another hearing after Coast Guard and Fire Department report is finished?
A. (Addressed to Commissioners): No answer.
After the question and answer period, comes another ritual familiar to those who participate in such “special meetings,” a tightly regulated two minute comment period in front of silent public officials. Though this effort is rarely effective, people continue to speak; it’s what’s available. Besides, despite the rush to Olympia during legislative session, the public ports are ground zero in this state for the political struggle over fossil fuel extraction, their bomb train transport and overseas export.
Spokespersons for ILWU Local 21, President Jason Lundquist, Vice President Michael Wilcox and Labor Relations Committee representative Darin Norton each state their Local’s opposition to the project. They have met with Haven for the past year, but find them misleading with no answers to their questions. They don’t think this project is a good fit for a break bulk port. [Break bulk is cargo that must be loaded individually and not in shipping containers or in bulk such as oil or grain.] The proposed facility has an inherent danger, doesn’t generate enough revenue, will cut the port property in half and turn the Port of Longview into a landlord.
Health professionals like Dr. Kelly O’Hanley, Regna Merritt from Physicians for Social Responsibility and Alona Steinke from Vancouver point out how trains delay emergency vehicles at crossing, spew cancer causing diesel particulates particularly susceptible to school children near the rail lines, pose a catastrophic risk far beyond any capacity to respond and create sacrifice zones for the twenty-five million Americans who live in the blast zone.
Jasmine Zimmer-Stucky, an organizer for Columbia River Keepers, states that if all proposed fossil fuel terminals are built it would mean thirty-five more ships a month in the river, all of which, including the VLGC propane tankers, could shut down other river traffic with safety zones as they transit the 66 miles from Longview through the notoriously dangerous Columbia River bar to the Pacific Ocean. Jasmine’s point is reinforced by retired Captain Phil Massey who tells the Commissioners they must not sign any lease before the Coast Guard study is completed.
Diane Dick, a close observer of the Port and President of the Landowners and Citizens for a Safe Community, points out that this project is not in the Port’s publicly developed Schedule of Harbor Improvements and therefore should not proceed. She also notes that the Commissioners are contemplating a decision that will effect communities all along the rail line from Spokane south to Pasco and down the Columbia River to Vancouver. Diana Gordon from the rail town of Washougal points out that both her city government and school district have passed resolutions of concern about these dangerous trains.
There are a few folks who speak in favor of the project. A spokesperson for JH Kelly, a union contractor in line to build the facility, wants SEPA and FERC process to vet the project so the community can live safely. A Trustee from Lower Columbia Community College thinks the vetting process will lead to a more educated and better paid work force. The head of the Economic Development Council believes the permitting process will be very thorough and that the Haven Energy Terminal project will mean local jobs.
The port decision
As the meeting winds down, Commissioner Bagaason states the Port will meet here again to vote on the proposed lease with Haven. Community leaders like Diane Dick have not seen the proposed lease and have no idea if the Port intends to make it public before the vote. Don Steinke, a community organizer from Vancouver, points out that if the Port signs such a lease they will, like the Port of Vancouver, be obligated to advocate for the project through the entire permitting process just like the Port of Vancouver advocates for the Tesoro/Savage Bakken oil marine terminal in spite of massive community and political opposition.
Even with their formal silence, it appears the Port Commissioners are preparing to sign the lease. They have negotiated a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Cowlitz County as a co-lead in the process for a SEPA determination. The MOU identifies their respective point persons for this process, chooses the international engineering firm, Parsons Brinckerhoff, as the third party environmental consultant for the SEPA analysis and enters into a “Staffing Agreement” with Haven covering the costs of SEPA compliance. Nevertheless, the Port is still accepting comments on this proposed project until March 10, 2015 when they say they will vote on the lease and at least one of the Commissioners is up for election in August.
Dan Leahy, a resident of Olympia’s Westside and proud member of the Decatur Raiders.
Advancing social justice through the actions of activist athletes
We usually have a warped version of the way things used to be. I heard somewhere that the more you access memories, the less accurate they become. With that in mind, the early 90’s were a fantastic time to be a kid. According to my mind’s eye, my childhood was filled with skittles, rollerblading, learning how to flirt with girls and a whole lot of basketball.
I did in fact spend hours on the basketball court. Usually I played with other military brats, but often it was just me, the ball, and the hoop. I like to think I did this out of pure dedication and love of the game—a young boy with dreams of basketball glory and that if I stayed on that court just long enough I could manifest my own real life role in Michael Jordan’s Playground. For those who may not remember, the movie came out in 1991 and documented MJ’s rise to his first finals victory alongside the narrative of another young African American kid when he was a cut from his high school basketball team.
There’s a memorable scene between the kid and MJ in which I replace myself as the kid like this: I play basketball all day with my friends and stay long after everyone else goes home. I shoot bricks until sun starts to drop behind the high-rise apartments. I can’t allow myself to go home on a brick so I take one last shot. A swish! And the ball rolls to the feet of Michael Jordan who gracefully picks it up and says, “Nice shot, I see you’ve been practicing,” he says with a championship smile. I gaze in amazement. “I know you like to play alone. You don’t mind if I shoot with you, do ya?”
In anticipation, I have not only been practicing my jump shot, but also the look I would give MJ—a look of calm bewilderment.
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
I feel it’s safe to say that millions of other kids have had eerily similar delusions.
During this time, MJ was climbing to the top of the NBA and to a billion dollar industry as well. His influence would eventually dwarf any held by his sports contemporaries. Kids around the world consumed him with fervor.
For many people of my age, Michael Jordan played a significant role in our understanding of the world. Not only did he set the standard of greatness, he also represented a wholesome success. He was flash, brilliance and hard work, all wrapped up in a handsome persona. None of his off court fumbles ever penetrated the psyche of an eleven-year-old kid.
Michael Jordan taught many kids many different lessons. The one with deepest repercussions, however, wasn’t his ability to come through at clutch moments, but his absence from any matter concerning social justice.
There was plenty of opportunity. In the early 90’s, while Michael Jordan was building the foundation of a dynasty, the U.S. military was busy developing the Gulf War, apartheid was coming to a close, and NAFTA was being signed.
It may be unrealistic to imagine MJ taking a stand on carpet bombing and trade agreements, but we also saw the uprisings in Los Angeles over police brutality and Magic Johnson was making headlines by announcing he had contracted HIV. These were two pivotal moments in history and two occasions we heard little if anything from not only MJ but the majority of well-known sports figures.
Perhaps the defining example of MJ’s dedication to social ambivalence was in 1990. When asked if he would support black candidate Harvey Gnatt in his attempt to unseat Senator Jesse Helms—a politician who opposed the creation of a national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.—Michael Jordan declined, later telling a friend that “Republicans buy sneakers, too.”
Regardless of their decision to engage in civic dialogue, professional athletes have an impact on our culture. Whether they take the social ambivalent route of MJ or the loud and proud approach of Muhammad Ali, their choices have far reaching effects on a population obsessed with sports. Now that I have outgrown of my Air Jordan’s, the point is beyond why MJ failed to support Harvey Gnatt, but what roles should professional athletes take in creating learning environments for the children who aspire to be like them?
Fortunately today we don’t have far to search to find examples of prominent athletes sharing in the legacy of Ali, Bill Russell, Arthur Ashe and others. A significant number of athletes and star athletes are deeply involved in their communities’ issues both on and off the court. The Jordan wanna-be’s of today have plenty of well-rounded role models from which to choose and that over recent months the actions taken by high-profile athletes have profound benefits for people working towards social change.
When the failure to indict Darren Wilson and Daniel Panteleo sparked a national outrage over police brutality, basketball player Derrick Rose wore a shirt stating “I Can’t Breathe” in a game against the Golden State Warriors. This prompted LeBron James (LBJ) of the Cleveland Cavaliers to comment, “It’s spectacular, I loved it. I’m looking for one.”
LBJ wore his shirt soon after, along with fellow player, Kyrie Irving. The Brooklyn Nets, whom they played against, had also donned the shirts. President Obama applauded James’ effort saying he “did the right thing.” In a display of just how far the conversation about sports and politics has come, Obama continued,
“We went through a long stretch there where [with] well-paid athletes the notion was: just be quiet and get your endorsements and don’t make waves.”
Soon enough, high profile players all over the NBA could be seen commemorating the lives of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Akai Gurley and the all the other black men, women and children who have been murdered by police. The Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings, Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Lakers all had players who showed support for victims of police brutality.
Lakers franchise player, Kobe Bryant, said it wasn’t about race but about justice. “It’s important that we have our opinions. It’s important that we stand up for what we believe in.”
Derrick Rose, who had previously been active in his hometown of Chicago, spoke poignantly about his decision, “I grew up and I saw it every day… I saw the violence every day.”
Basketball stars weren’t the only ones to participate in the conversation. Prior to the Garner decision, five NFL players for the St. Louis Rams raised their hands in the “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” action during their pregame introductions. Washington Safety Ryan Clark said, “Brown could have been any one of us. He could have been any one of our brothers, our cousins…”
College athletes also speak out
Beyond the world of men’s professional sports, collegiate athletes broadened the response by wearing a variety of shirts with similar messages. We can see the direct impact such actions have on both teams and their communities.
On November 29, Knox College Women’s basketball player Ariyana Smith [who The Nation called the “the first athlete activist of #BlackLivesMatter”] courageously performed a one-woman demonstration at the Knox College v. Fontbonne University game held in Clayton, Missouri. During the national anthem, Ariyana walked with her hands up in a ‘hand ups, don’t shoot’ gesture towards the American flag and laid on the ground for 4.5 minutes to bring awareness to the police killing of Michael Brown, whose body was left in the street for 4.5 hours. She was suspended for one game. A few days later the college reversed the decision after talking with other members of the team.
In an interview with a local television station, Ariyana said, “I could not go into that gymnasium and pretend that everything was okay.”
On Saturday, December 13, the University of California’s women’s basketball team, wore shirts that read Black Lives Matter and We Are Cal on the back. On the front of their shirts each player had the name of an African-American who was killed by police or by lynching, along with the date of death.
This statement put police brutality in a historical context. Although it was somewhat at odds with the viewpoint of their NBA counterparts whose comments were directed more towards support for the family and “justice,” the women at Cal added to the national conversation about the root of the problem between police and people of color. By providing examples throughout US history, the women demonstrated that the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner were not isolated incidents, simply the most recentin a long line of police violence against communities of color.
On December 13, in a game versus Michigan, the Notre Dame Women’s basketball team wore pre-game warm up shirts that read “I Can’t Breathe.” They also posted pictures on Twitter, accompanied thequote, “If you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything.”
The women were supported by their coach Muffet McGraw. In a post-game press conference, McGraw addressed the teams decision to take a stand, “I was really proud of our team…You have to be willing to stand up and fight.” Mr. McGraw add, “These are the lessons that I want them to learn. I want to have strong, confident women who are not afraid to use their voice and take a stand.”
Having the support of their coach is undoubtedly a major factor in allowing student athletes to feel empowered, knowing they have the ability to help make change.
Activism at the junior level
No team at the collegiate or professional level appeared to have dealt with the amount of controversy that was created around the decisions of some high school basketball players around the country. One of the more inspiring examples of athletes taking a stand came far from any ESPN reporters or corporate-sponsored stadiums.
In Northern California, the Mendocino Girls and Boys basketball teams were disinvited to a tournament hosted by nearby Fort Bragg High School. The athletic director at Fort Bragg High informed the team from Mendocino they wouldn’t be allowed to play over concern that players planned to wear “I Can’t Breathe” shirts. Fort Bragg officials said they worried about the reaction some people would have to the shirts and that they were too small a school to deal with such a situation.
A couple days later, the teams were re-invited to the tournament. The school district reversed its ban indicating the shirts would be allowed as long as they caused no problems. A First Amendment lawyer, who represented one of the players, shared that the reversal by the Fort Bragg School District came just moments before she intended to file a federal court motion arguing that barring the shirts violated the free speech rights of the student athletes.
In the end, the girls team did not participate in the tournament, but the boys team did. Regardless, the decision by the athletes to stand up for something they believed in caused ripples throughout Mendocino county as well as leading international coverage of the situation and certainly local residents have been impacted, including the coach of the Mendocino girls team,
The girls offered a thoughtful explanation for their decision in a public letter:
“The Mendocino High School Varsity girls and boys basketball teams made the decision to wear the shirts without the initial encouragement of any parent, coach or other adult. We, the players, wanted to express our support for the people who face prejudices, racism, and police brutality daily in our country and convey our concern about these injustices to the public.”
These girls provide an inspiring example of the capacity of student/athletes to take the lead and continue the conversation.
Across the country, in Hartford, CT, “I Can’t Breathe” shirts received a different reaction when worn by members of the Weaver high school basketball team. Their coach, Reggie Hatchett, referred to the influence of NBA players in their decision.
“LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, some NBA teams and others, like the Notre Dame women’s team, have worn the shirts. So Weaver will, too,” Coach Hatchett continued, “Wearing the shirts shows our pride in our team’s multi-ethnicity…We are socially responsible and aware of what is right.
“When you have young men under your wing, there’s a serious responsibility not just to teach them sports, but also make them understand the community that they live in.”
Students meet resistance
On December 12, another group of student/athletes were inspired to wear “I Can’t Breathe” shirts to demonstrate solidarity with those who are fighting against racial inequities in the criminal justice system. High school basketball players from Salt Lake City—Kleahl Parker, Daurice Mouelle and James Kauli—watched NBA players wearing the shirts and were moved to join the national conversation.
Although they had their coaches support and permission, the school’s administration did not agree. Though the students were welcome to wear the shirts to school, as basketball players they would be representing the school and the shirts would not be allowed.
During a game on December 18, the boys wore their shirts during warm-ups and started the game in them. During the second quarter, the assistant coach was approached by the principal who told him the boys couldn’t wear the shirts while on the bench. None of the boys removed their shirts.
At halftime the assistant principal met the boys at the locker room door and informed them wearing the shirts was a violation of Utah High School Activities Association rules. The boys who were wearing them agreed to either removed or covered them.
[Ed. note: Though a few days later the school’s administrators admitted they had errored and that the wearing of the shirts do not violate Association rules, they maintained the ban because the basketball games are school-sponsored.]
The boys promised to keep wearing their shirts even if they were under their uniforms because they wanted to educate people about the effects of racism. As young black men living in a predominantly white area, the boys had their own experiences with racism.
Student Daurice Mouelle stated, “Every time when I go out, my mom is always telling me to be careful. Don’t do anything stupid because of all of the things that have been happening. People judge you by your skin color, even though they don’t know you. And you never know what might happen to you when you go out, even if you’re not doing anything bad.”
The courageous actions of athletes
The students from Salt Lake City and other athletes from around the country are a vital part of the broader #blacklivesmatter movement. The moments that are experienced in and around the wearing of the shirts—the dinner conversations that were sparked, the interactions between students, school officials and community members, the sense of empowerment that often accompanies defiant acts—encourage young people to have confidence in themselves and in their beliefs.
The student-athletes learned a valuable lesson in participatory democracy and civic dialogue. Because of the courageous acts of these young people the community at large was exposed to lessons in dealing with adversity, engaging in political debate and expanding comfort zones. Moving forward, it’s important to remember that these examples are part of a revolutionary process, not to be consumed and tossed aside but to be valued and continued.
Regardless of who instigated the momentum, we do know that “basketball season as usual” was interrupted for many communities around the country.
These days I still spend a considerable amount of time on the basketball court demonstrating that some things never change. I still put up more than my fair share of bricks; however, I no longer have skittle-induced dreams about larger than life athletes materializing before me and whisking me off to basketball stardom. This time around I think of Ariyana Smith more often than Michael Jordan and the profoundly different playground that she and others have provided for the young basketball players of today.
Asaya Plumly is a local educator, anarchist and over the hill basketball player. A direct link to his unedited version can be found on his blog at nochipsnopeace.wordpress.com.
For the first time in two decades, Earthbound Productions—producer of the Procession—will not be providing a free community art studio in preparation for the beloved community event in April. According to Earthbound Productions director, Eli Sterling, community use of the art space had produced only about 10 percent of the props and costumes last year. And this is a good thing.
When the Procession first began in the mid-nineties, it was based on a 20-year plan—a generation in human time. Its goal was to provide an invitation to the Olympia community to participate in celebrating and reconnecting to the natural world. The originators hoped that the Procession would be culture changing and become an ingrained tradition within the community. Sterling claims the community has come to know the “Three Rules” and have repeated them to those who have trespassed. No words (written or spoken), no live animals, and no motorized vehicles.
In his letter to those involved in producing the Procession—some since the very beginning—Sterling wrote, “first and foremost, it is still incumbent upon all of us to ensure that the Procession’s invitation—to joyously celebrate our place in this miracle of the natural world—remains as safe and welcoming as it is heartfelt and encouraging…Secondly, as a non-profit organization, we are still saturated with the production expenses and requirements that necessarily accompany any endeavor that is as large and multi-facetted as the Procession of the Species Celebration.” [Ed. note: Please consider making an online tax-deductible donation (procession.org) to support this Olympia institution.]
As far as the possibility of a community arts studio in the future, Sterling believes that, even without the Arts Studio this year, they “have provided a marvelous inspiration of creativity, imagination, and sharing for 20 years and that the development of Procession art in our community will be as delightful as ever… However,” Sterling went on to say, “we need to remain in watchful review of how the community’s artistic expression is progressing without the availability of a subsidized core facility.”
For information on the Procession and possible specialty workshops involving luminary, music, or dance, please go to www.procession.org or call 360-705-1087.
On February 12 David Cobb came to Traditions Cafe in beautiful downtown Olympia to speak on the current movement to amend the US Constitution. David is an attorney and activist. In 2002 he ran as a Green for Texas State Attorney General and he was the Green Party candidate for president in 2004.
Traditions was packed with ‘Move to Amend’ supporters and local residents coming to learn about this movement. “The system is rigged,” David said, “and I use every tool available to create nonviolent systemic change.” David’s two hour talk was a mini college course in democratic process versus the multinational corporate “rule” over us. “The wealthy elite are stealing our commons,” he said, “economic and ecological crisis is here.”
The “Move to Amend” is a big step to repair the crisis situation we have found ourselves in. This beginning process is the petition drive to gain the grass roots support required to force Congress to address the issue. The prepared amendment has two parts. First, it establishes that rights belong to people and not to corporations. Second, it will limit the money corporations or wealthy individuals donate to political candidates and make all donations be publicly disclosed. Because of the Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court, an amendment is required to establish these measures.
“Amending the US Constitution is about the most difficult act we can do in our democracy.” Recall the failed Equal Rights Amendment for women in the 1970s. Without a very solid grassroots base for this amendment, it has no chance. David Cobb is one of the most encouraging people I have ever met but now it is up to us. A vibrant conversation in every community will be needed to push the amendment all the way through ratification.
All the details of the “Move to Amend” can be studied on their own website, movetoamend.org. Video archives of David’s talks and many other events can be found here under the media tab. To create exposure and begin the conversation, David says, is vital at this point in the process. Across the country there have been 299 local resolutions and one state resolution to support the amendment. Now is the time for the state of Washington; for us to consider which way we want our future to go.
“The founding fathers of this country were well aware of the danger of corporate rule and they put strict limits on what corporations could do,” David said. The Supreme Court has withdrawn those important limitations in the Citizens United ruling. If we care about the meaning of self-governance and democracy by the people, this is assuredly the time to act. There is a small but enthusiastic group of individuals struggling to gain the needed signatures on a petition around Olympia. But what is needed most is for people to educate themselves on this topic and talk to each other about what kind of world we want to live in.
“The CEOs, who are so addicted to power, have nothing to fear from us,” David said, “accept that we need to withdraw the unhealthy power they are addicted to. The popular democratic movement was really building itself until September 11th whence the US people withdrew into themselves. Now we can look to the global south to be reminded of how vital grass roots democracy is to people”
David Cobb has maintained a vocal and dynamic forward march in support of ideals that people around Olympia sometimes take for granted. Economic justice and ecological preservation are not winning because people are always distracted. As the crisis roles over into catastrophe we will be required to do mournful clean up or we can take democratic action now.
It’s clear this state of ours is in trouble. We have a governor and legislature refusing to fund basic education even in the face of a contempt order from the Washington State Supreme Court. At the same time, the governor and the legislature refuse to face the fundamental threat to our communities from BNSF oil trains even as one video after another show these same Bakken oil trains lighting up a small town in West Virginia. All we get from them is a bogus safety bill while the governor facilitates five new oil terminals and expanding oil refineries. And, on top of all that, the Democratic Party and its environmental front organizations want to give new property rights for carbon emissions to our biggest fossil fuel burning corporations.
Meanwhile at the national level, corporate rulers like Robert Rubin, Hank Paulson and Thomas Steyer plan on how to use this new risky environment of flooding coastal real estate and rising temperatures to make new profit centers and the National Academy of Science legitimates research on how to send sulfur dioxide into the stratosphere to reflect back the sunlight since it doesn’t appear any real effort to stop the burning of fossil fuels will be successful.
Naomi Klein says only a new social movement can get us out of this mess, but how does one construct such a movement when we remain fixated on the ever increasing environmental disasters and a non-responsive political class extracting profits from our public resources.
Social movement construction
Social movements arise out of a perceived failure of the political class to remedy some social injustice, like when farmers saw that the railroads controlled the production and distribution of their produce. Or when WWII vets faced the contradiction of having defeated a racist Nazi regime only to be confined within a racist system at home. Or, when those same vets came home thinking the end of war meant peace rather than continuous war. Or, now when our political class refuses to face the climate crisis with anything other than how can they make money off this new risk.
Perception of a social injustice is not enough, however. Some people believe social movements arise only when things get a lot worse. I don’t think so. Social movements don’t arise simply because an injustice gets worse. They arise in specific contexts: when organizers apply resources or charismatic leadership emerges or indigenous leadership attached to a community base moves against the injustice.
Whether it is any one of these or the combination of all three factors, social movement organizers need to answer four questions: who, what, with whom, and how? Who is the movement, the “we.” What does the movement want, its vision. Who are they going to get it with, the strategy. And, what is its method of enforcement, its tactic.
In order to answer these four questions, social movements need to be constantly creating and re-creating several key social movement components.
An autonomous space, within which movement participants can come to some new social analysis of the situation they are confronting, as Lawrence Goodwyn says. Sometimes that’s all I felt we could accomplish at the Labor Education Center I ran at Evergreen. A space that pushes out all the distractions that keep working people from thinking and planning. The Farmers Alliance used the cooperatives for this space. The Grange used their halls. The IWW used their reading rooms. The Knights of Labor used their Assemblies. The Civil Rights Movement used Highlander Center in Tennessee. Labor in Wisconsin used their School for Workers at the University. The US Social Forum promoted Peoples Assemblies for this space, as did Occupy Wall Street. Somewhere there has to be space for thinking not dominated by the corrupt political class, a space where analysis and strategy can be thought out.
New organizational forms
You don’t get new policy with the same institutions. Social movements create new organizational forms. And, the extent to which these forms mirror the society they want, they are successful. The Congress of Industrial Organizations was a new form to organize industrial workers across race and gender lines. The Civil Rights Movement created new local alliances that went beyond the existing ministerial structures. SNCC was a new organizational form parented by Ella Baker. The Women’s Liberation movement came out of consciousness raising groups. The Seattle WTO protesters rejuvenated “affinity groups”and developed convergence centers. The OWS utilized governance assemblies, like the Peoples Movement Assemblies of the US Social Forums. Rising Tide is a new formation linking indigenous struggles to environmental justice, as is Idle no More. Or, the Cowboy Indian Alliance fighting the Keystone XL. Or the newly formed Solidarity Roundtable on Oil in Washington State.
There needs to be a mechanism to attract people to the movement, to the organizational form. The farmers alliances used roving “lecturers”. The Townsend movement used a commissioned sales staff. Much of the organizing in the mid-1930s used radio programs. The AFL-CIO unions used hired organizers. The Black Panther Party used free breakfast programs and free health clinics. The alliance of unions and environmental groups used the March to Miami cross country bus trip. Indigenous nations are using reinvigorated traditions, like the Lummi Totem Pole Journeys.
Without a strong internal communication system, one that is owned and controlled by the movement itself, the movement will be defined by its enemies. Sending press releases to media outlets owned by your enemy is beyond counter productive. The Farmers Alliance sent out “lecturers.” The Seattle Union Record, which announced the Seattle General Strike of 1919, was a daily newspaper owned by the labor movement itself. The key communication device that linked the sitdown strikers at GM’s plant in 1936 to the community was the Women’s Emergency Brigade. Many of the CIO union drives were assisted by foreign language newspapers and cultural associations. The people who shut down the WTO Ministerial in Seattle used the intimacy of the affinity groups, impenetrable by provocateurs, as well as flags to denote levels of danger.
Successful social movements need money and it does make a difference where it comes from. If it doesn’t come from the movement’s base, independence and the movement itself is jeopardized. The labor movement had union dues. The Civil Rights Movement had church donations. The Townsend movement had fan club purchases of booklets, pins, etc.
A major difficulty with social movements resourced by external funders is that movement priories get distorted and disconnected from its potential base. Who pays the piper calls the tune.
A new political voice
The pinnacle of social movement development is the creation of a new political voice, one that articulates the movement’s social vision emanating from that “autonomous space.” Practically all social movements eventually created such a voice. The Populist movement’s Peoples Party, the Progressive era’s Progressive Party, Huey Long’s Union Party, the Civil rights movement’s Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, Black Power’s Black Panther Party, the anti-nuclear Citizen’s Party, the environmental movement’s Green Party or the neo-conservative’s Tea Party.
A difficulty with many resource-based movements in the US is their attachment to an organizational form with a federal IRS 501 c3 designation or to an existing political party, both of which stymie the development of an independent political voice. Nevertheless, as is clear from the recent Wisconsin movement or our own contemporary fight to stop oil trains, absent a new political voice the movement will get suffocated in the existing framework of two-party politics.
Capacity to withstand governmental repression
As is obvious, the capacity and enthusiasm for governmental repression of social movements is growing by leaps and bounds. The post WWI Red Scare, Hoover’s FBI, the post WWII McCarthy era, the Red Squads and Cointelpro of the 60′s and 70′s, or today’s ICE police and Homeland Security state all represent the government’s protection of the political class. We saw this most recently in the nationally coordinated police attack on the Occupy Wall Street encampments. One of the greatest accomplishments of social movements is their ability to continue to build and expand their infrastructure and their community base knowing that repressive forces are acting against them.
Transforming existing resources into power instruments
This is a concept I learned from Aldon Morris, author of Origins of the Civil Rights Movement. It’s something that movements do. The Farmers Alliance transformed cooperatives into representations of the economy they promoted. Radio programs became recruitment devices. The Civil Rights Movement transformed a church into a movement center. Martin Luther King, Jr. transformed the language of the Church into an immediate demand. Greyhound buses became Freedom Rides. Breakfast programs became schools. Parks became general assemblies. What will trains become?
…the more things stay the same
Social movement history seems to have come full circle. The great populist uprising of the 1880′s and 90′s focused on finance, on creating a financial system attached to the existing economy. Here we are 100 plus years later and we are faced with the same problem. Finance has disconnected itself from the real economy and accumulated massive wealth selling debt to the rest of us. Now they are planning on creating new financial instruments to buy and sell pollution, steal indigenous land for “carbon sinks” profit off adaptation of coastal cities to rising sea levels or building new energy capacity for air conditioning in the Northwest.
I was asked a couple of years ago to give a talk about how local history informs modern social movements. I’ve always been amazed by this intersection.
The Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement, for example, focused on the 99% and the 1%. That’s what made it so extraordinary to read a Farmer’s Alliance song book from the late 1870′s, and see a song entitled, “Labor’s Ninety-Nine.” Here’ the first and final stanza.
There are ninety-nine that live and die in want, hunger and cold.
That one may revel in luxury and be wrapped in its silken fold.
The ninety-nine in their hovels bare. The one in his palace with riches rare. The one in his palace with richest rare.
The night so dreary, so dark, so long. At last shall the morning bring.
And over the land the Victor’s song of the Ninety and Nine shall ring.
And echo a far from zone to zone. Rejoice, for labor shall have its own. Rejoice, for labor shall have its own.
After 140 years we are back to the same 1% controlling it all. But we also have 140 years of historical struggle to create new social movements and challenge their hold on our future.
This Body will only comfort, all;
This Body will not hurt anyone;
This Body has Siddiqan’s inspirations
This Body has a great farmer’s noble pursuit;
This Body has Shafi’s humbleness and mystery
This Body has a medicine man’s passion;
This Body feels pleasure in growing Wholesome food & sharing;
This Body feels other fellow-being’s Pain & suffering;
This Body is in Harmony in a Natural world;
This Body will sooth people’s grief & sorrow;
This Body will absorb the pain, suffering, humiliation, & hatred;
This Body will only share the Pleasure, the Spirituality, the Humanity;
Hope for Real Peace, gives this Body reason to live!
I am a victim of the system.
A system structured
Wringing out my last ounce of dignity.
You’re a victim of the system.
Wrapped in chains,
Pulling out and downsizing your humility.
Day after day after day: time runs away!
All of us see it fly,
Yet no one voices out
A demand to retain it.
Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday
(Redundancy and repetition)
All of us conform
And no one thinks of changing it.
Graffiti on the street,
Let us know of the oppression.
Graffiti on the wall
Asks for revolution and organization.
Where do these rebels meet?
What happened to the uprisings,
Protests and outcries?
Where they all swallowed by globalization?
Indeed the system tells us we’re free
When we buy healthcare,
When we buy education,
When we buy our right to exist.
Would you not agree?
Every person chases the idea of fitting in
They are zombiefied and colonized,
Unwilling to resist.
Its demands are at its core:
To study for a printed diploma.
High School, College, University
PhDs, M.A.s and B.A.s
The horde of the bore
With white picket fences,
50’s pinup wives and
Bread winning husbands full of B.S.
What then? To retire? To Die?
Fifty, Sixty, Seventy, Eighty;
The decades pile up
Yet the empty contents evaporate.
The warning signs do not lie.
We see them as we travel
down the road, but we hide
Behind screens when we should retaliate
against the system: that cushiony nest,
that exaggerates and decapitates
our agitated lives
with pages bleached with regret.
The unrest becomes a pest,
Stench oozes from the walls
With hypocrisy and a twofaced dagger
That strives to slowly forget
the loneliness and the mistake
That was made
By listening to the abysmal society’s
Yet if it’s not too late to partake
In this fight and struggle,
Wake soon from your slumber
And voice out for justice, NOT SILENCE!
All who want it scream “Aye!”
As the rusted chains of that intangible
entity crumble beneath the wheels
of a revolutionary bus.
Realize and act on what you and I,
Together can achieve
Before the system and the structure
Swallows and forsakes us.