Sweep out dirty politics — and stop the Keystone XL in the process

Outside a shop in North Philadelphia in 2009. (Flickr/Tony Fischer)

Outside a shop in North Philadelphia in 2009. (Flickr/Tony Fischer)

The State Department has been caught doing a dirty trick and then trying to hide it. Asked by the White House for an expert memo on the consequences of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, State produced a report in March written by people from TransCanada, Koch Industries and Shell Oil — the same corporations that stand to gain mega-bucks from the project. Then, as Mother Jones later revealed, State redacted the corporate connections of the authors when filing the report for public consumption.

What we activists around the country can do is use this dirty trick to tip the balance against the pipeline. We need to grab our brooms, converge on federal offices and sweep out dirty politics!

August 12 will be the first move. CREDO, Rainforest Action Network and the Other 98% are calling people to Washington, D.C. to sit-in at the State Department and expose the dirt.

Why this strategy can make a difference

Over 69,000 people have signed a pledge that if the Keystone XL Pipeline isn’t stopped, they will commit civil disobedience. The pledge idea builds on the strategy of the 1980s Pledge of Resistance in warding off a threatened U. S. invasion of Nicaragua.

President Obama, not Congress, will make the decision on the pipeline. The pledge poses a dilemma of “if this, then that” — if you don’t do the right thing, we take an action you won’t want us to take. It’s simple and straightforward, and it’s good organizing because it invites people to step up to a bolder action than they might otherwise do.

Unfortunately, while the “if this” of the pledge is fairly clear, the political force of the “then that” has been vague until now.

Protest lacks impact when it only registers disapproval: “We protesters don’t approve of what you’re doing. ”
“So what? ” a decision-maker often says. “I didn’t expect you to approve! I weighed the pros and cons on this decision and I already took your disapproval into account. What else do you have to show me? ”

A protest amplifies its impact when it adds something new to the decision-maker’s list of pros and cons.

President Obama has a remarkable reputation for being clean inside a Beltway full of dirty politics. Most Americans believe the political system (especially Congress) is corrupt, and they think Barack Obama is above that. His reputation is part of his political credibility, and he needs it as the calendar moves ahead and there still remains so much to get done.

The pipeline project is a perfect example of dirty politics, and the corruption implicit in the State Department’s pro-pipeline recommendation can be an additional “con” to add to the president’s list. That is, the president must consider this perception an important factor if the truth moves beyond the readers of Mother Jones and the few other media that covered it. And that’s where we citizens come in, through our choice of how to act on our pledge to resist the pipeline.

Instead of us saying we don’t approve, we can appeal to a widely shared value in America: clean political decision-making. We can do that by showing up at federal buildings with our brooms and insist on cleaning up the premises, especially the offices of the State Department and the U.S. Attorney. (The U.S. Attorney can initiate action against conflict of interests in other departments.)

We realize that some people in the federal building might not appreciate our activity and might even have us arrested — but then tens of thousands of us have already committed to taking that risk.

Together, we can send a carefully pinpointed political message: We the people can help our president say “No” to the corporate interests that snuck in the back door of his State Department. This way of strategizing picks up on a smart move by Martin Luther King, Jr., that few people have recognized. When Dr. King wanted to push President Kennedy on the issue of civil rights, he went to Alabama and campaigned in Birmingham. He didn’t just go to D.C. He knew that pressuring politicians is less about talking to them, and more about changing the political context.

Enter Edward Snowden

A current political problem for President Obama is his government’s pursuit of Edward Snowden. A majority of Americans polled believe Snowden is a whistleblower, not a criminal. A major German parliamentarian praised Snowden for his action, saying he has “done us a service.” Mass-media attention to Snowden remains high despite the lack of new revelations.

Our widespread use of this tactic can stimulate progressive and centrist media outlets to ask the White House a related question: Has Obama entirely turned his back on the sermons he’s preached on transparency? Persecuting Snowden plus ignoring State’s corruption? What’s the next anti-transparency move he will back among the agencies he supervises? It connects the debate about the pipeline to questions of transparency and the credibility of government that are very much on people’s minds lately.

By lifting up the issues of dirty politics, money, and abuse of authority, the fight to stop the Keystone XL becomes linked with multiple other issues so that it doesn’t compete for activist energy. This means that winning on Keystone helps us win on other issues, too, hastening the even bigger wins to come as we build a truly mass movement for climate justice.

Start small and grow

There is no question that this is a stunt. But what we’re proposing is an action that can connect the issue to a major theme — corruption. We’re exposing the State Department’s dirty trick, which gives Obama increased political space to disagree with its findings. Politicians don’t want to look messy, and this action uses that fact in our favor.

The action is replicable in many parts of the country. Almost everyone has a federal office within easy reach. In fact, one way to increase the media impact of this action might be a “snowball-style” action. Start with, say, two people, then the next day four. Then eight. Then 16, and so on. If coordinated in different regions, this could catch fire as a national story.

We like that brooms are easy to find and are different from typical demonstration props. The media, like most of us, enjoy variety. We recommend wisk brooms without long handles if your locality worries about security.

And what could be more elemental — almost like the Salt March of Gandhi? Take your broom, meet other activists at the post office or federal building, and clean up the dirt!

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