4 lessons for climate organizers from the anti-nuclear movement

The Abalone Alliance "circling up" at a Diablo Canyon protest in 1979. (FoundSF/Jessica Collett)

The Abalone Alliance “circling up” at a Diablo Canyon protest in 1979. (FoundSF / Jessica Collett)

I’m imagining an American social movement that defeats a dangerous form of energy through mass organizing, legal appeals and nonviolent direct action. In only 30 years, the movement wins the support of the public, drives corporations out of business and demonstrates that alternatives are more economically viable.

A daydream about the climate movement, right? Actually, activists in the United States (and other countries) already showed how it’s done in the movement against nuclear power. As we take on the fossil fuel industry and its supporters in the 1 percent, we can learn a lot from another David-and-Goliath struggle from not so long ago. Activists took on utility companies, the banks that profit from nuclear investments, giant corporations like General Electric and the government — and won.

Campaign failures, movement victories

In looking through the 20 anti-nuclear case studies in the Global Nonviolent Action Database, I was struck by the dynamic interaction between campaign and movement strategy. The movement succeeded partly because the organizers on both levels understood how individual campaigns generate momentum for the movement as a whole.

From Bodega Bay, California in 1962 to Shoreham, New York in 1976  to Tulsa, Oklahoma in 1973 and Montague, Massachusetts in 1974, local campaigns fought the industry and politicians. They used a variety of tactics, including teach-ins, plays, sit-ins, picketing and occupying space. They leaned heavily on training to speed up transfer of knowledge on what was working best.

The two most prominent U.S. anti-nuclear campaigns were led by the Clamshell Alliance in New England and the Abalone Alliance in California. In 1977, the Clamshell Alliance organized over 2,000 people to demonstrate against the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant in Seabrook, New Hampshire. Over 1,400 people were arrested for trespassing and were incarcerated for days in National Guard outposts around New Hampshire. Over 500 of them refused to pay bail, and were ultimately released without consequence. National reporters descended on this previously obscure project, and awareness of the anti-nuclear movement skyrocketed overnight.

Most movement organizers are familiar with the moment when a previously obscure issue captures people’s imagination. Paul and Mark Engler call this a “trigger event” in their new book “This is an Uprising.” Not every trigger event results in lasting movement growth, but Seabrook did, because of the diligent work of movement trainers to spread the Clamshell Alliance to newly interested people across the country.

The most prominent of these new alliances was the Abalone Alliance in California. Abalone achieved a breakthrough in its fight against the proposed Diablo Canyon nuclear facility when it organized over 500 people to risk arrest in 1978 and then held a rally with over 25,000 people in 1979.

Despite the favorable publicity and massive growth of each campaign, both Clamshell and Abalone failed to achieve their local goals. The Diablo Canyon facility was delayed, but it ultimately became operational in 1985. In Seabrook, one of the two planned reactors was eventually built. Nuclear power is still generated at these sites today. Looking through a narrow lens, both could be regarded as dramatic failures.

It’s obvious, though, that both Clamshell and Abalone won huge victories for the anti-nuclear movement as a whole. They strengthened the movement by setting a high-profile example of mass organizing and nonviolent direct action, inspiring groups in other regions to expand in numbers and strategic sophistication.

After the massive 1977 Seabrook occupation, and the sustained organizing that followed, not a single nuclear power plant was approved for decades. Clamshell and Abalone failed to block their local facilities, but they contributed greatly to the overall victory.

Fight the war, not just the battle

The activists in Clamshell and Abalone teach us a lesson that is especially needed now: We should strategize on the local campaign level and the movement level. This is hard work — especially when we’re in the weeds of a local campaign — but it is necessary. If the Clamshell folks had said in 1976, “Well, it looks like we can’t stop the Seabrook plant,” they would have been correct. As it turned out, even thousands of arrests and sustained national media attention couldn’t stop Seabrook. But if they had given up their local struggle, they would have missed an opportunity to boost the national movement.

A war is more than the sum of its battles. Lost battles can be victories for the overall war, just as successful battles can be a net negative for the broader struggle. I’m reminded of the journalist who encountered a U.S. general during the Vietnam War and asked him how the war was going. The general replied, “It’s going great! We’re winning nearly every battle.” “Congratulations, sir,” the journalist said. “But I’ve noticed that each battle is closer to Saigon.”

A more recent metaphor is 2013’s debt-ceiling showdown. Liberals gloated over what they called a Democratic victory, but seemed to forget that their “victory” was equivalent in spending to the 2012 budget proposal from Republican Paul Ryan, which at the time was correctly seen by Democrats as disastrous.

Generals and politicians need to pay attention to the big picture — and so do we.

If we accept that we need to be seeing our local battles as part of a larger struggle, here are some moves that will support local campaigns to support, and benefit from, the rest of the movement.

1. Go big

Local activists should consider which campaign tactics will most help the movement as a whole. Ordinary marches and rallies are rarely noteworthy enough for people to pay attention. Instead, go for numbers, dramatic nonviolent actions and other tactics that will make people pay attention. Even when your local campaign seems unwinnable, you can still win a huge victory for the national movement. This is what the Clams did.

2. Feed off others’ momentum

When another campaign, local or national, is getting a lot of press, don’t resent it. Use it! This is not a zero-sum game. Attention and resources flowing to anybody in the movement can generate more attention and support for everybody in the movement. A few years ago, I got arrested in my home state of Michigan to protest Enbridge’s expansion of a tar sands pipeline. When people struggled to understand the issue, I would call it “the Keystone XL of Michigan,” and then it would make sense to them. Rather than resent Keystone’s disproportionate share of attention, I used it to raise attention on the local pipeline.

3. Know what success looks like

When the Clamshell Alliance failed to stop the Seabrook facility, many of its members fell into despair and local organizing suffered. Rather than feeling victorious for having sparked a national movement, they felt defeated. We can do better today. All movement leaders and members should know that success means growing the movement and winning public support for the cause. If we’re doing these two things, even lost battles can pave the way to ultimate victory.

4. National and local is a two-way street

National organizations need to become more adept at supporting local campaigns to strengthen the whole movement. According to Waging Nonviolence columnist George Lakey, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — during the civil rights era — “developed a kind of power grid, one in which local campaigns that heated up and needed more resources could tap regional and national energy: seasoned organizers, money, additional volunteers to join direct action … and a network of allies.” These resources helped generate more drama, more attention, more campaign victories and more momentum for the movement.

Finally, when national organizations get involved with local campaigns, they need to work strenuously to ensure that the local activists get credit where it’s due. This is a challenge because national media like to credit national organizations, but the challenge must be met. Otherwise, debates over ownership and credit can distract people from the strategic value of having the “power grid” that Lakey describes.

Eyes on the prize

Much of this may seem obvious from an abstract level, but the opposite is true when organizers are in the thick of a local campaign. It’s hard to keep the big picture in mind when the local fight is in front of you every day. Especially as the focus of the U.S. climate movement shifts from Keystone and international policy battles to a proliferation of local infrastructure fights, organizers would do well to keep these lessons in mind.

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