No other way: radical movement against climate change

Meditating on the climate actions on Sunday and the more radical movement on Wall Street the next day (with large-scale arrests and direct action), something that socialist Seattle city councilwoman Kshama Sawant said on Democracy Now! resonates with me. Others have articulated it, but this gets at the core of the mountain we all must climb:

“what we were talking about last night was that this collective action needs to be channeled into a really radical, militant, nonviolent mass movement that will raise concrete political demands.

What do we need to end, to really fight climate change? We need an end to fossil fuel use. We need a rapid transformation of the global economy into renewable energy. We need a massive expansion of mass transit, which will generate millions of unionized, living-wage jobs. And also, we don’t buy into the false dichotomy between jobs and the environment.”

These adjectives get at the meat of how the movement against climate change has to shift. It needs to go beyond the solutions offered by the political and economic establishment. It needs to be stout in the face of obstacles and oppression. It needs to keep the campaign in the nonviolent sphere, for violence is the strongest point of the groups that are responsible for wide-scale environmental destruction. And it needs to be big. Way bigger than 400,000 people in New York City. It stretches from rural cornfields in Iowa to sweatshops in Bangladesh and Vietnam. The entire energy economy has to be overturned. Whole communities must be placed on sustainable footing- the vast regions of coal fields and tar sands cannot be exploited if a thriving Earth is the objective.

Historian David Blight states bluntly in his marvelous free course on the Civil War and Reconstruction that at a certain point the abolitionist movement realized it had to move beyond mere reform and become extralegal. The crisis was so vast, with millions in chains and slavery on a path towards expansion, there was no other path than to break the law. The establishment will only give so much. Those used to signing MoveOn and Change.org petitions and holding carefully sanctioned protests will need to radicalize. Our communities, our countries, our planet is on a trajectory of great danger and destruction. My family down in Florida will find their homes underwater within my lifetime. Only radical movements can seize the initiative and put business and government on their heels. Action must be faster, more frequent, and more willing to take risks. The most effective activists are those that have worked through their fear.

Abolitionist spirit: the role of outside agitators

An anecdote that may help stir your thoughts about what has been happening in Ferguson:

Saturday afternoon I attended a political meeting, held weekly. The planned roundtable was scrapped. M., the original presenter, instead traced the history that has led to Ferguson. It was an incredible journey, encompassing mob violence, Jim Crow, the Red Summer of 1919, deindustralization. On first glance it was incredible that our presenter could have put this together on short notice. However, as a black woman, her life has been affected deeply by these historical tendrils. White Americans have their own historical path that is second nature, but it’s radically different.

Subsequent discussion had many different threads, but the recurring one was the presence of “outside agitators” in Ferguson. I referenced an article published in Jacobin about the origin of the term, going back to how it was used to describe the Freedom Riders and those northerners who came to register voters and protest segregation.

There were some splits in opinion. I simply pointed out that a race-class struggle should not be confined to a small Missouri town, where the authorities have state and federal backing but the protestors do not. Our political group debated the usefulness and place of white anarchists, and groups like the Revolutionary Communist Party, who have been operating during the unrest. Do you criticize the moral stances of these groups, or just disagree about their tactics?

After a long back-and-forth among the members, M. got to close the discussion. What she said surprised me, and her point was powerfully made. This was a conviction.

Looking at the history of black people in the United States, one could say that outside agitators have been crucial to progress and freedom. In fact, she said that they were “the best thing to happen to black people.”

Oldest known portrait of John Brown, 1846 or 1847.

By far, the most deified group of Americans are the Founding Fathers. American mythology paints them as selfless, defenders of abstract ideas and promoters of radical concepts of freedom and equality.

Of course, that’s not true, and there are plenty of selfish reasons that these strata of people had for revolution. What M. said is that a much better embodiment of that commitment were the abolitionists in that period of 1820 to after the Civil War.

They too had selfish reasons for their actions, but when one looks at someone like Garrison or John Brown, you see the outside agitator in its full form. As Professor David Blight of Yale bluntly puts in in his (freely available) course on the Civil War era, John Brown was a white person who killed whites to free black slaves. The Founding Fathers never killed anyone to free blacks, but rather give them more personal power over slave policy. That has happened again and again, and let’s not just paint it as whites taking pity on blacks. It was people of all races, but outsiders none the less- be it a class difference, a political difference, or jut a geographic difference. Brown, for all his atrocities and personal faults, most likely accelerated the end of slavery. He agitated. He was an outsider. Someones you need a person to stir the pot.

Of course, M.’s opinion is her own, and that doesn’t mean it’s a popular one. The example of abolitionists is electrifying for me. It is a unique way of defending the outside agitator.