The Keystone XL Pledge of Resistance takes off

Climate activists staged a sit-in at the State Department in Chicago on Monday. (Flickr / Joe P. Dick/Shooting Star Photos Inc.)

Climate activists staged a sit-in at the State Department in Chicago on Monday. (Flickr / Joe P. Dick/Shooting Star Photos Inc.)

“It’s time to put our foot down,” the retired career Marine said with calm conviction.

He — like the two dozen other women and men who sat together in a downtown Chicago meeting room last Sunday — had concluded that the accelerating danger of climate change meant he personally had to do something. That’s why he and the others had turned up at the Keystone XL Pledge of Resistance nonviolent action training where they spent several hours preparing to risk arrest the following morning at the U.S. State Department’s local office. The department, which has jurisdiction in this case because it involves Canada and the United States, is expected to deliver its final recommendation to President Obama on the project in the next few months. Based on preliminary indications from the department in March, it appears to be leaning toward recommending that the administration approve the pipeline and issue the “presidential permit” which it requires.

The Keystone XL — designed to move Canadian tar sands oil through the United States to the Gulf of Mexico — will constitute what former NASA scientist James Hansen has called the “fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet.” Approving the pipeline will mean “game over” for the environment, Hansen said, in part because it will signal the lack of U.S. resolve to take the difficult steps required to reverse climate change. Hence the heavy duty organizing over the past two years, including 1,253 people arrested at the White House in 2011, numerous waves of nonviolent resistance, occupations of pipeline routes and construction sites, a million comments on the State Department comments line and, just this week, a clear statement of opposition from ten Nobel peace laureates.

But the people at CREDO Action knew this would not be enough. So this spring they began building a national nonviolent action campaign pegged to the State Department’s impending recommendation, with a call for people nationwide to commit themselves to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience if State gives the project a thumbs up. So far, over 62,000 people have taken this pledge, which has given ballast to CREDO’s breath-taking vision of “hundreds of peaceful civil disobedience actions” across the nation immediately after the State Department recommends going forward with the pipeline (issuing a “Draft Determination of National Interest”) and before the president makes his final decision. (If the president decides against the pipeline, the contingency plans will be tossed and much revelry will no doubt ensue.)

However solemn taking a pledge may be, by itself it mostly tends to devolve into another petition or even a “feel good” exercise. That’s why the training phase of this campaign is so important — and impressive. For the past few months, CREDO, Rainforest Action Network and the Other 98% have been putting together a meticulous plan to train hundreds of Pledge of Resistance “action leaders” equipped to organize actions and lead nonviolent action workshops in their own localities. Beginning June 29, they will host weekend-long trainings in 25 cities across the country to prepare action leaders, including in Boston, Tampa, Detroit, Raleigh, Kansas City, Dallas, Albuquerque, Los Angeles, Portland and Seattle. They are free and promise to be content-rich. A recent email from the campaign explains that it has “developed an amazing curriculum which will provide you with the resources and support you need to pull this off — even if you’ve never done anything like it before.”

At the same time, the campaign is organizing a series of small but strategic civil disobedience actions at key sites across the country beforehand to raise the visibility of the campaign, to increase the number of pledge signers, to practice for the large mobilization expected in the fall and, perhaps most importantly, to try to convince the administration that this campaign is real. White House officials have been told that massive civil disobedience will greet a pipeline approval, but they are understandably skeptical. The actions this summer hope to weaken this skepticism — and to increase the possibility that policy-makers will take into account the fact that massive, coordinated, nonviolent resistance could be a plebiscite on this administration’s actual commitment to environmental sustainability. The Chicago action was the first of these.

The Sunday training was relatively short but to the point: In four hours it knit together reflection on personal motivation, nonviolence guidelines, campaign briefing, action overview, preparing individual action statements, action role-play, de-escalating tactics and a one-hour legal briefing. The large facilitation team included CREDO’s Becky Bonds and Elijah Zarmin, who wrote email blasts for the 2008 Obama presidential campaign; Rainforest Action Network’s Amanda Starbucks, Nell Greenberg, Scott Parkin, Abigail Singer and Todd Zimmer, as well as the Other 98%’s Samantha Corbin.

The training was well-organized and facilitated. It was clear that the participants — including those who had never contemplated risking arrest before, which seemed to be the majority of those who attended — felt grounded and prepared for what would happen the next day. I appreciated the opportunity to take part, and I found myself traveling back in time to the first nonviolence trainings I had experienced in the early 1980s. I have since facilitated or co-facilitated scores of them; it had been a long time since I simply participated, and I appreciated the opportunity.

The organizers say that this campaign was inspired by the first Pledge of Resistance, a movement that a few of us started in 1984 in which eventually 100,000 people pledged to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience — and other forms of protest as well — if the United States invaded Nicaragua. There is some evidence that we succeeded in this goal — sources within the Reagan administration indicated to church lobbyists during the summer of 1985 that it backed off from a planned invasion after the imposition of the U.S. embargo on Nicaragua that year was met by 1,000 civil disobedience arrests at federal buildings organized by the Pledge.

Over the next several years, 20,000 pledge signers honored the commitment they made by risking arrest during legislative fights over funding for Nicaraguan rebels and over support for the death-squad government in El Salvador, and many other struggles. The Pledge became an emergency response network that grew accustomed to hitting the streets to clamor for justice and peace in Central America at times of escalations — for example, when the United States, out of the blue, provocatively dispatched 1,800 troops to the Honduran-Nicaraguan border in 1988, or when the six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter in San Salvador were brutally assassinated in November 1989. The hundreds of demonstrations that followed this atrocity created the conditions for the United States ending aid to El Salvador and establishing a United Nations-sponsored peace process. (Find more detailed overviews of the 1980s Pledge of Resistance here and here.)

The Keystone XL Pledge of Resistance draws on some of the same dynamics of its predecessor. It has enlisted thousands of people through the simple but powerful medium of promised action. It seeks to prevent a specific policy by increasing its potential political cost. It has a strong commitment to nonviolence (though the word does not appear in the pledge itself) and to nonviolent guidelines. It even uses the term “civil disobedience,” which, in some circles these days, is passed over in favor of “civil resistance.” I suspect this is because they want to be clear that going to jail is the heart of the campaign.

A booklet made by the organizers of the 1980s Pledge of Resistance. (WNV / Ken Butigan)

A booklet made by the organizers of the 1980s Pledge of Resistance. (WNV / Ken Butigan)

But there are some new features of the campaign that are also inspiring, including its effective mobilization of social media and its comprehensive approach to training. The original Pledge was highly committed to nonviolent action trainings for both preparation and organizing purposes. In the first months, we led five trainings a week in the San Francisco Bay Area, and continued to offer them on a regular basis after this. We even published a training manual named Basta! No Mandate for War that included an annotated, seven-hour training agenda with a series of supporting chapters that anyone could pick up and facilitate with. The Keystone XL Pledge has, however, taken nonviolent action training to the next level. Geared to organizing a large number of civil disobedience actions in a short amount of time, it has crafted an audacious but achievable plan to field hundreds of “action leaders” who, in turn, will be equipped to organize and train others. This will likely prove decisive in determining the success of this effort — and will offer many lessons for future organizing.

On Monday morning, 22 graduates of the Keystone XL Pledge’s first training — including the former Marine — were arrested in a disciplined tableau of citizen action, blocking the doors of the State Department’s Chicago office and calling on the president to live up to his positions on climate change. With this tune-up over — and the next one scheduled for mid-July in Washington, D.C. — the latest Pledge of Resistance is off and running.

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