Industry backlash against fossil fuel divestment forces the question: Which side are you on?

A crowd gathered in the cold near Wall Street on Friday to call for New York's divestment from fossil fuels. (Flickr / 350)

A crowd gathered in the cold near Wall Street on Friday to call for New York’s divestment from fossil fuels. (Flickr / 350)

If you’ve been to a major protest in the last 10 years, chances are you’ve heard the iconic chorus of “Which Side Are You On?” floating out from the crowd. While it’s been covered many times, the song’s potent message originally emerged from Appalachia’s brutal Coal Wars, labor struggles between miners and coal companies that stretched roughly from the 1890s through the 1930s.

At the time, union members would regularly find themselves blacklisted and evicted from their homes in the company owned-and-operated towns that dotted the Appalachian Mountains through much of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Those found to be affiliated with the union — often the United Mineworkers, or UMW — were pushed out of city limits by armed thugs, usually paid by some combination of the coal companies themselves and business-friendly sheriff’s departments.

One of the most memorable sites of conflict in the Coal Wars was Harlan County, Kentucky. On Feb. 16, 1931, in the throes of the Great Depression, the Black Mountain Coal Company announced a 10 percent wage cut, sparking a walkout among miners and a majority vote to unionize under the UMW. The striking workers soon found themselves embroiled in a pitched battle with both the coal operators and the county sheriff, J.H. Blair.

“Which Side Are You On?” was written just hours after a mob hired by Blair entered the home of its author, Harlan County resident Florence Reece, looking to assassinate her husband. A noted UMW activist, Sam Reece had heard about the attack hours earlier and fled Harlan, leaving Florence and their seven children terrorized as Blair’s men ransacked the house. Reeling from the assault, Florence “tore a sheet from a calendar on the wall” and penned one of the song’s lesser known lines: “They say in Harlan County there are no neutrals there. You’ll either be a union man or a thug for J.H. Blair.”

Now, as a new generation of organizers picks its own fight with the fossil fuel industry, Reece’s words have never been more relevant. In the last few days, oil, coal and natural gas executives have gone on the defensive, attempting to discredit campus and community divestment campaigners. The American Energy Alliance took to Twitter earlier this month to disseminate the hashtag #DivestmentTruth and encourage people to “take a stand against divestment!” The “campaign” Big Green Radicals, a project of right-wing public relations mastermind Richard Berman, has surfaced to criticize environmental organizations’ ties to everything from “dark money” to the Kremlin. They even made a surreal cartoon about Americans’ tortured love affair with oil drums. The Independent Petroleum Association of America, a national trade association of oil and natural gas producers, released a report and Wall Street Journal op-ed outlining the “costs of divestment,” which they say amount to $3.2 billion each year among university endowments. But as Rolling Stone journalist Tim Dickinson reported, there is no such evidence. In fact, he cites financial professionals whose models show no penalty for dumping fossil fuel stock.

There are a few things that might explain the industry’s newfound anxiety: the largest U.S. refinery strike in more than three decades, plummeting oil prices, and not-so-sunny prospects about what climate change means for unhinged economic growth. The industry, as told through the American Energy Alliance, also knows exactly why divestment is so threatening to their business model. “By ridiculing natural gas, coal and oil companies as ‘Public Enemy Number One’ — destructive of the planet itself — divestment activists,” they explained, “try to force companies into defensive positions for which there is no defense (no one is arguing that we should destroy the planet).”

Still, it’s not as if industry executives are somehow pulling the strings behind all of this backlash. Conservatives and liberals alike have voiced opposition to the movement, albeit for different reasons. The nature of polarization is that it forces everyone — not just opponents and movement-affiliated organizations — to choose a side. As the debate permeates mainstream news sources, increasingly large sections of society are made to take a firm stance, one way or another. Cameron Fenton,’s Canadian Tar Sands organizer, made the same point earlier this week in a Huffington Post article.

“The people in charge have avoided the critical decision on whether or not their institution should continue to prop up a climate-wrecking industry,” Fenton wrote, adding, “but these attacks on divestment have taken away this coveted ‘neutral’ ground.”

Thus far, college administrators have tried to have it both ways: denounce the problem and the proposed solutions alike. Faced with a groundswell of support for divestment, administrations have eagerly heralded institutional recycling initiatives, LEED-certified sustainable building projects and “green” lifestyle choices as more effective tactics for dialing down the crisis — anything, that is, but divestment. Last week, Gregory Brown, Swarthmore College’s Vice President for Finance and Administration, rejected the majority of students’ call to divest, emphasizing “the need to focus not on divestment from the producers of fossil fuels but on the consumers of such fuels.”

On this issue, colleges have found their interests more aligned with the fossil fuel industry than with their students, faculty, staff and alumni, a majority of whom, on many campuses, have signed on in support of divestment. It may not be too long before well-meaning, otherwise progressive college presidents quote industry-backed reports from the likes of the Independent Petroleum Association of America as a buffer against divestment advocates, maybe even inviting representatives of fossil fuel companies to their campuses to discuss the true value of their investments and consult with them on counter-strategies.

These dynamics are nothing new. In fact, this sort of polarization is a bittersweet marker of victory for the movement; at the very least, it’s a sign that divesters are doing something right. In the spring of 1960, students in Nashville, Tenn., had just kicked off a wave of lunch counter sit-ins that would spread throughout the South. The students have faced regular attacks from white mobs, who pulled them violently from their seats and beat them to the ground.

On April 17, two months into the Nashville campaign, Martin Luther King Jr. was in Washington, D.C., as a guest on “Meet the Press.” To give a sense for the show’s tenor, the first question asked was if “the sit-in strikes are doing the race, the Negro race, more harm than good?” The rest of the segment proceeded along similar lines, prompting King to defend the campaign’s use of nonviolent direct action, if not its very right to exist. The Nashville students, including Selma campaign architect Diane Nash and now-Congressmen John Lewis, had recently extended their campaign to include a boycott of segregated downtown businesses. Midway through the segment, Lawrence Spivak — the show’s producer and a regular panelist — turned to King. Referring to the boycott, he asked, “Wouldn’t you be on stronger grounds … if you refused to buy at those stores and if you called upon white people of the country to follow you?” In other words, why not just boycott? As he had to similar questions throughout the program, King responded resolutely, saying, “sometimes it is necessary to dramatize an issue because many people are not aware of what’s happening … If you didn’t have the sit-ins, you wouldn’t have this dramatic — and not only this dramatic, but this mass demonstration of — the dissatisfaction of the Negro with the whole system of segregation.”

The point, here, is not to draw shaky comparisons between the civil rights movement and the fossil fuel divestment movement. The “Meet the Press” panelists, in all likelihood, were not leading White Citizens Councils or Klan chapters. Many likely considered themselves liberals. The actions of the civil rights movement dramatized, as King said, the issue of race in America, illustrating its ugly, virulent nature by bringing the crisis of structural discrimination to white audiences — however progressive they were — for whom it had been easy to avoid. Being a moderate on desegregation became virtually impossible: You either stood with the nonviolent demonstrators being beaten in the streets, or with the police and mobs that were attacking them. Civil rights campaigners would come to win the battle for public opinion, in part, by making that choice clear; even if the movement’s most ambitious aims were not achieved, it created a new normal in which obviously denying African Americans the right to vote or use public facilities was no longer politically, socially or economically viable.

Polarization is inherently risky. There’s no sure way of telling how the public will react. Rather than convincing administrators, or even the fossil fuel industry, of their wrongs, divestment campaigners should be convincing everyone that the movement is right. As one crucial part of a broader movement for climate justice, divestment is looking to affect nothing short of a fundamental shift in our society’s relationship to the planet and the economy: to bring about a new normal. Ironically, the industry and its supporters understand this more deeply than many of their opponents. Shifting paradigms and cultural landscapes means shifting popular consciousness, not that of the worst actors. In short, the opponent may be the fossil fuel industry, but the target is the public.

It’s a testament to the divestment movement’s strength that it has managed to produce such a dramatic response from the industry; hopefully, it won’t be the last. With 450 events having taken place in 60 countries last Friday and Saturday for Global Divestment Day, the movement is already proving itself as full of skilled organizers. At the University of Mary Washington in Fredricksberg, VA., students followed a hundreds-strong statewide march for divestment with a weekend-long conference, Virginia Power Shift. Divestment organizers in Toronto held an action in the country’s stock exchange, just as 62 percent of faculty at the University of British Columbia voted to divest. With more than 30 students sitting in at Harvard, Global Divestment Day was not simply two days of action, but a statement of intent: divest now, or suffer the consequences of standing on the wrong side of history and public opinion. The challenge now for campaigners is to “polarize, polarize, polarize,” and come out on top.