Above: Potluck protest at Norman Bay’s home in Washington, DC. Bay is the Chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Photo by Jimmy Betts.
Senate Republican Policy Committee Chair John Barrasso (R-WY), a mouthpiece for the dirty energy interests (oil, coal and gas) who donated $674,182 to his campaigns since 2011, criticized Beyond Extreme Energy (BXE) for their actions against commissioners of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). Actions included delivering mail “to their homes” and then visiting the homes of four commissioners to hold peaceful demonstrations. In over-the-top language he called these non-violent protests “extremely troubling, very dangerous.” He also expressed anger at other activists “driving FERC Chairman Norman Bay from the stage in Albany, NY.” Barrasso, keeping up his fear rhetoric, described this as “physically intimidating public officials and their families.”
Barrasso pressed Jonathan Peress, of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), to condemn the tactics of Beyond Extreme Energy and asked why they were linking arms with BXE. Peress called the tactics “extremely unfortunate” and “not valid tactics.” The Sierra Club has also been critical of protests at the homes of FERC officials.
These “big green” environmental groups are making a tremendous error by dividing the movement (this is a common tactic used to stop movements) and not understanding that their lobbying power is increased by this type of grassroots activism. Sierra Club and EDF should be embracing BXE and defending their actions.
BXE’s protest were non-violent, even friendly. The “mail” that they hand-delivered was a Valentine’s Day card urging FERC to protect the one’s they love. The home visits were potluck dinners offering food to passers-by and neighbors, along with information about their FERC commissioner neighbor. These actions come after FERC has made public participation in decisions impossible. While there is the formal process of submitting comments, impacted communities have found that their comments are ignored. At public meetings, the public is not allowed to speak and is removed if they do so. After the first series of home potluck dinners, FERC closed their monthly hearing to the public and only showed it on web-television, inviting a select group of industry lobbyists to participate directly.
FERC commissioners are protected from direct contact with the public, many of whose lives they are destroying. BXE’s nonviolent protests at their homes have never involved any threats to the commissioners or their families. This week Green presidential candidate Jill Stein visited a BXE potluck protest and endorsed their actions.
The only threat is public awareness that a person living in their community is committing communicide by approving hundreds of miles of carbon energy pipelines and other infrastructure that is destroying communities, farms and woodland. BXE also provides information on the science of climate change which shows we need to stop building carbon infrastructure now or risk severe impacts that will displace millions of people and have major environmental impacts. FERC irresponsibly refuses to even consider the climate impact of their decisions. The risk to the commissioners is accountability for their decisions which should shame them.
Holding Officials Personally Responsible is Essential for Effective Advocacy
In fact, protests at homes of public officials and corporate CEOs is a common tactic used widely because it can be very effective. The response of Barrasso shows it is working and should continue. As Saul Alinsky, author or Rules for Radicals, pointed out “any effective means is automatically judged by the opposition as being unethical.” Alinsky would likely urge BXE to keep the pressure on, keep focusing on individuals not FERC and use a variety of tactics to keep them off guard and unsure of what is coming next. BXE has shown the commissioners that they will be held personally accountable by any means necessary. Commissioners should be worried when they speak in public, walk in their neighborhoods or go home.
This week the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit upheld the net neutrality rules of the FCC which ensure equal access to the Internet and uphold the principle that broadband providers must treat all Internet traffic the same. Holding FCC Chair Tom Wheeler personally accountable was a key to this victory. Wheeler had been moving to a tiered internet that would be unequal based on wealth. A campaign developed involving a large coalition of groups that produced a record 3.7 million comments. As we neared the end of the campaign, Wheeler was still not supporting reclassification as a common carrier to ensure net neutrality.
Along with our colleagues at Fight for the Future, Popular Resistance decided to escalate our tactics. We went to Wheeler’s Georgetown home and blocked his driveway at 7 in the morning. The NY Times tweeted, Wheeler was forced to take the Metro, a common carrier, to work. Later that day President Obama came out for the position we were advocating.
The home visit was an escalation of protests that focused on Wheeler personally, to hold him accountable, see, e.g. our musical production of “Which Side Are You On, Tom?
The day after blocking his driveway, Wheeler refused to follow the lead of the President and the millions of people who commented by announcing the FCC was an independent agency and would make its own decision. We escalated again placing door hangers throughout Wheeler’s neighborhood with his photo on them and describing how he was threatening the internet. We also made clear that we would continue to escalate until Wheeler agreed to reclassify. The FCC called some of our coalition partners to try and divide us, but that failed. Finally, the campaign won when Wheeler announced he would support reclassification as a common carrier and strong net neutrality rules.
An essential part of the strategy was focusing on Wheeler and holding him accountable. The tactics escalated to protests at his home at the key moment of decision-making.
Home Protests are a Common Tactic
Throughout the country public officials and corporate heads have faced protesters coming to their homes. These people are inculcated from the public so they never experience our anger. Bringing protests to their home lets them feel public anger, but also produces shame and ostracizing in their social group. Everyone around them knows what they have done and where they live.
In Washington, DC, Witness Against Torture and CODE PINK conducted a “torture tour” that not only went to the CIA headquarters but also to the homes of Dick Cheney and CIA director John Brennan. They held signs outside their homes saying “A Torturer Lives Here” and “Cheney: I’d Torture Again.” CODE PINK has also held protests at John Kerry’s home over Israel’s slaughter of Palestinians in Gaza. Twenty climate justice activists were arrested protesting at Kerry’s Georgetown home demanding he stop the Enbridge Pipeline from bringing Tar Sands into the United States. John Kerry was also protested outside of his Boston home by people calling for no war on Syria.
Some people have more than one home and find protesters at all of them. Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon has a home in New York City (where he says his wife and family live) as well as a home in Oregon (where he is senator). During the battle over fast track trade authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other trade agreements, we not only protested in his office with multiple day sit-ins, but we also protested at his New York City home while Oregonians protested at Wyden’s home in Oregon.
Fracking as also been a major source of home visits by protesters. Last month in Vermont, members of the People’s Department of Environmental Justice served an early morning notice of eminent domain at the home of Vermont Public Service Department Commissioner Chris Recchia. The notice stated, “the land belonging Commissioner Recchia is now under the legal jurisdiction of those most severely impacted by the permitting of the VGS Fracked Gas pipeline project.” Recchia looked confused when the protest began as he saw people flagging off major sections of his property and putting up a “fracked gas rig”.
In the UK, Greenpeace protesters wearing hard hats and construction gear, fenced off the country home of David Cameron put up a sign saying “We apologise for any inconvenience we may cause while we frack under your home,” and directed complaints to the phone number for Cameron’s office. In 2013, “elves” went to the Illinois governor’s home and set up a “fracking well” on his front lawn. The Colorado governor’s home was also besieged by fracking protesters.
Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan had his condo in Ann Arbor protested over the toxic water crisis in Flint. Protesters performed “Washing Away Snyder’s Sins” which included chants of “Justice for Flint, arrest Rick Snyder” and “Snyder, Snyder can’t you see, this poisoned water’s killing me” as walkers and traffic passed by. And Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin was protested at his home during the Wisconsin uprising. Mayoral Rahm Emanuel of Chicago was protested at his home by people calling for his resignation over police violence.
Not only public officials but also corporate leaders have been protested at their homes. Bill Gates was protested by kayactivists on Lake Washington in front of his mansion by people calling for him to divest from oil and gas. Nelson Peltz, the CEO of Wendy’s was protested outside of his home by farm workers and joined by Robert F. Kennedy’s widow. Greg Baer the deputy general counsel for corporate law at Bank of America was protested outside of his home by SEIU with fourteen school buses of people calling for the end to foreclosures.
During Occupy Wall Street, activists did a “Millionaires March” going to the Upper East Side homes of Rupert Murdoch, Jaime Dimon and David Koch, among others, to urge that they be made to pay their fair share in taxes. They chanted “We Are at Your House,” “Banks Got Bailed Out, We Got Sold Out” and protested the expiration of a New York’s millionaire’s tax that would produce a $5 billion tax break for the wealthiest. The protest got lots of positive response from residents in the wealthy neighborhood.
These are just a few of many protests at the homes of public officials and corporate heads. Senator Barrasso may not realize it but this is a tactic that is commonly used. And, the tactics used by BXE against the FERC commissioners are likely to escalate if they continue to approve carbon energy infrastructure that threaten communities and the planet.
Protests at Homes Need to be Part of a Campaign, Carefully Used
We are not making light of this protest tactic, going to someone’s home has the risk of backlash. It is important to organize in a way that pulls the public to the movement and does not push them away. It is always important to remember; the overriding goal of protest is to grow the movement.
Such protests have to be nonviolent and conducted in a way that does not inconvenience neighbors but educates them about why the protest is occurring. BXE’s use of a community pot luck is an excellent tactic for making their protests neighbor friendly.
These protests done right put the decision maker being protested in the position of being embarrassed in his or her community. The decision maker will wonder if people in the grocery store or walking in the neighborhood know about the controversial decisions they are making or in the case of FERC, whether neighbors know their neighbor is contributing to the destruction of the planet. This should make them very uncomfortable.
These protests are not the first step in a campaign. They are protests that are part of an escalation after many other tactics have been tried. People should also not expect this to be the final tactic, more escalation is likely to be needed. The target of the protest should expect their unpopularity to grow as well as to expect to be ridiculed.
These tactics seek to personalize the issue, to make it less abstract than a federal agency, especially one that is unknown to many people like FERC. The campaign will keep their focus on the people responsible, not let up, continue to escalate and make the person isolated and unpopular. The goal is to maintain constant, escalating pressure so the official pays a heavy personal price for their actions.
To those who claim this type of tactic is extreme, they should be reminded that the stakes are high. In the case of BXE and FERC, the issues are a true existential threat. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) now reports we can expect a nine-foot sea level rise by 2050. We are in a new era of climate change where the impacts are worsening, the temperatures are rising and we must rapidly end the carbon-nuclear energy economy.
Those worried about protests at decision-maker’s homes are focusing on the wrong issue – every coastal community around the world will have to be evacuated by 2050. That is hundreds of millions of people. The focus should be on the ones who are creating this catastrophe. That is why we are protesting at their homes. Accountability for these disastrous decisions is essential.