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Fearless Summer Week of Action Begins Next Week

Front line environmental groups have been among the most active in the movement -- challenging the Tar Sands Pipeline, fighting mountaintop removals, opposing tar sands excavation and working to stop, not regulate, the practice of hyrdro-fracking for methane gas. Things are going to get hotter as the Fearless Summer campaign of epic actions against radical energy extraction kicks off next week beginning June 25th.

Two Mountain Justice Actions in One Day

As part of this year’s Mountain Justice Summer, five blockaders have shut down the only road leading to the headquarters of Alpha Natural Resources, which engages in terribly destructive mountaintop removal coal mining. Three residents of Central Appalachia and supporters with Mountain Justice chained themselves to an industrial tank of black water in front of Alpha Natural Resources’ Bristol, Va., headquarters to protest Alpha’s mountaintop removal strip mining and coal slurry operations across the region. “I’m risking arrest today because mountaintop removal has to end now for the future viability of Appalachia,” says Emily Gillespie of Roanoke, Va., whose work with the Mountain Justice movement is inspired by Appalachian women’s history of non-violent resistance. The tank of water represents coal contamination from affected communities across the Appalachian region.

Frack Fight: A Secret War of Activists — With the World in the Balance

(photo: Adam Welz/CREDO Action)
By Ellen Cantarow
TomDispatch.com, November 19, 2012
 
There’s a war going on that you know nothing about between a coalition of great powers and a small insurgent movement.  It’s a secret war being waged in the shadows while you go about your everyday life.
 
In the end, this conflict may matter more than those in Iraq and Afghanistan ever did.  And yet it’s taking place far from newspaper front pages and with hardly a notice on the nightly news.  Nor is it being fought in Yemen or Pakistan or Somalia, but in small hamlets in upstate New York.  There, a loose network of activists is waging a guerrilla campaign not with improvised explosive devices or rocket-propelled grenades, but with zoning ordinances and petitions. 
 
The weaponry may be humdrum, but the stakes couldn’t be higher. Ultimately, the fate of the planet may hang in the balance.
 
All summer long, the climate-change nightmares came on fast and furious. Once-fertile swathes of American heartland baked into an aridity reminiscent of sub-Saharan Africa. Hundreds of thousands of fish dead in overheated streams. Six million acres in the West consumed by wildfires.  In September, a report commissioned by 20 governments predicted that as many as 100 million people across the world could die by 2030 if fossil-fuel consumption isn’t reduced.  And all of this was before superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc on the New York metropolitan area and the Jersey shore.
 
Washington’s leadership, when it comes to climate change, is already mired in failure. President Obama permitted oil giant BP to resume drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, while Shell was allowed to begin drilling tests in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska.  At the moment, the best hope for placing restraints on climate change lies with grassroots movements. 
 
In January, I chronicled upstate New York’s homegrown resistance to high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, an extreme-energy technology that extracts methane (“natural gas”) from the Earth’s deepest regions.  Since then, local opposition has continued to face off against the energy industry and state government in a way that may set the tone for the rest of the country in the decades ahead.  In small hamlets and tiny towns you’ve never heard of, grassroots activists are making a stand in what could be the beginning of a final showdown for Earth’s future.
 
Frack Fight 2012
 
New York isn’t just another state.  Its largest city is the world’s financial capital.  Six of its former governors have gone on to the presidency and Governor Andrew Cuomo seems to have his sights set on a run for the White House, possibly in 2016. It also has a history of movements, from abolition and women’s suffrage in the nineteenth century to Occupy in the twenty-first. Its environmental campaigns have included the watershed Storm King Mountain case, in which activists defeated Con Edison’s plan to carve a giant facility into the face of that Hudson River landmark. The decision established the right of anyone to litigate on behalf of the environment.
 
Today, that activist legacy is evident in a grassroots insurgency in upstate New York, a struggle by ordinary Americans to protect what remains of their democracy and the Earth’s fragile environment from giant corporations intent on wrecking both. On one side stands New York’s anti-fracking community; on the other, the natural gas industry, the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation, and New York’s industry-allied Joint Landowners Coalition.
 
As for Governor Cuomo, he has managed to anger both sides.  He seemed to bow to industry this past June by hinting that he would end a 2010 moratorium on fracking introduced by his predecessor David Paterson and open the state to the process; then, in October, he appeared to retreat after furious protests staged in Washington D.C., as well as Albany, Binghamton, and other upstate towns.
 
“I have never seen [an environmental movement] spread with such wildfire as this,” says Robert Boyle, a legendary environmental activist and journalist who was central in the Storm King case and founded Riverkeeper, the prototype for all later river-guardian organizations. “It took me 13 or 14 years to get the first Riverkeeper going. Fracking isn’t like that. It’s like lighting a train of powder.”
 
Developed in 2008 and vastly more expansive in its infrastructure than the purely vertical form of fracking invented by Halliburton Corporation in the 1940s, high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing is a land-devouring, water-squandering technology with a greenhouse gas footprint greater than that of coal. The process begins by propelling one to nine million gallons of sand-and-chemical-laced water at hyperbaric bomb-like pressures a mile or more beneath Earth's surface. Most of that fluid stays underground. Of the remainder, next to nothing is ever again available for irrigation or drinking.  A recent report by the independent, nonpartisan U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded that fracking poses serious risks to health and the environment.
 
New York State’s grassroots resistance to fracking began about four years ago around kitchen tables and in living rooms as neighbors started talking about this frightening technology. Shallow drilling for easily obtainable gas had been done for decades in the state, but this gargantuan industrial effort represented something else again.
 
Anthony Ingraffea of Cornell University’s Department of Engineering, co-author of a study that established the global warming footprint of the industry, calls this new form of fracking an unparalleled danger to the environment and human health. “There’s much more land clearing, much more devastation of forests and fields. . . thousands of miles of pipelines. . . many compressor stations [that] require burning enormous quantities of diesel. . . [emitting] hydrocarbons into the atmosphere.” He adds that it’s a case of “the health of many versus the wealth of a few.”
 
Against that wealth stands a movement of the 99% -- farmers, physicists, journalists, teachers, librarians, innkeepers, brewery owners, and engineers. “In Middlefield we’re nothing special,” says Kelly Branigan, a realtor who last year founded a group called Middlefield Neighbors. “We’re just regular people who got together and learned, and reached in our pockets to go to work on this. It’s inspiring, it’s awesome, and it’s America -- its own little revolution.”
 
Last year, Middlefield became one of New York’s first towns to use the humblest of tools, zoning ordinances, to beat back fracking. Previously, that had seemed like an impossible task for ordinary people. In 1981, the state had exempted gas corporations from New York’s constitutionally guaranteed home rule under which town ordinances trump state law. In 2011, however, Ithaca-based lawyers Helen and David Slottje overturned that gas-cozy law by establishing that, while the state regulates industry, towns can use their zoning powers to keep it out. Since then, a cascade of bans and moratoria -- more than 140 in all -- have protected towns all over New York from high-volume frack drilling. 
 
This Is What Democracy Looks Like
 
Caroline, a small hamlet in Tompkins County (population 3,282), is the second town in the state to get 100% of its electricity through wind power and one of the most recent to pass a fracking ban.  Its residents typify the grassroots resistance of upstate New York.
 
“I’m very skeptical that multinational corporations have the best interests of communities at heart,” Don Barber, Caroline’s Supervisor, told me recently. “The federal government sold [Americans] out when they exempted fracking from the Clean Water and Air Acts,” he added.  “Federal and state governments are not advocating for the civil society. There’s only one level left. That’s the local government, and it puts a tremendous load on our shoulders.”
 
Caroline’s Deputy Supervisor, Dominic Frongillo, sees local resistance in global terms.  “We’re unexpectedly finding ourselves in the ground zero for climate change,” he says. “It used to be somewhere else, mountaintop removal in West Virginia, deep-sea drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, tar sands in Alberta, Canada. But now...it’s right here under our feet in upstate New York. The line is drawn here. We can’t keep escaping the fossil fuel industry.  You can’t move other places, you just have to dig in where you are.”
 
Two years of pre-ban work in Caroline included an election that replaced pro-drilling members of the town board with fracking opponents, public education forums, and a six-month petition drive. “We knocked on every single door two or three times,” recalls Bill Podulka, a retired physicist who co-founded the town’s resistance organization, ROUSE (Residents Opposed to Unsafe Shale Gas Extraction). “Many people were opposed to gas-drilling but were afraid to speak out, not realizing that the folks concerned were a silent majority.” In the end, 71% of those approached signed the petition, which requested a ban.
 
On September 11th, a final debate between drilling opponents and proponents took place, after which Barber called for the vote.  A ban was overwhelmingly endorsed. “For the first time,” he told the crowd gathered in Caroline’s white clapboard town hall, “I will be voting to change the balance of rights between individuals and civil society. This is because of the impacts of fracking on health and the environment. And the majority of our citizens have voted to pass the ban.” The board then ruled 4 to 1 in favor.
 
Stealth Invasion
 
About a year and a half ago, as Caroline and other towns were moving to protect their land from the industry, XTO, a subsidiary of Exxon-Mobil Corporation, began preparing for a possible fracking future in the state.  It eyed tree-shaded, Oquaga Creek, a trout-laden Delaware tributary in upper New York State’s Sanford County, leased the land, and applied to the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) for a water-withdrawal permit. XTO required, it said, a quarter of a million gallons of water from the creek every day for its hydraulic fracturing operations.
 
Delaware Riverkeeper, an environmental organization, found out about the XTO application and spread the word. Within days, the DRBC received 7,900 letters of outrage.  On June 1, 2011, hundreds of citizens, organized by grassroots anti-frackers, packed a hearing in Deposit, a village in Sanford Township that lies at the confluence of the creek and the western branch of the Delaware River. Only two people spoke at the meeting in favor of XTO. One was the Supervisor (mayor) of Sanford, Dewey Decker. He applauded the XTO application and denounced protestors as “outsiders.”  He is among a group of landowners who have leased land to XTO for hundreds of millions of dollars.  (Decker refused to be interviewed for this article.) The rest of the crowd spoke up for the creek, its fish, and its wildlife. The Delaware River Basin Commission indefinitely tabled the XTO application.
 
While a grassroots victory, the episode also served as a warning about how determined the industry is to move forward with fracking plans despite the state-enforced moratorium still in place.  As a result, Caroline and other towns are continuing to develop local anti-fracking measures, since they know that the 2010 ban on the process will end whenever Governor Cuomo okays rules currently being written by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).
 
When it comes to those rules and fracking more generally, the DEC has a conflict of interest.  While it is supposed to protect the environment, it is also tasked with regulating the very industries that exploit it through the agency’s Mineral Resources Division. Last year, the DEC received over 80,000 written comments on the latest draft of its guidelines for the industry, the 1,500-page “SGEIS” (which stands for “Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement"). Drilling opponents outnumbered proponents 10 to 1. The deluge was a record in the agency’s history.
 
Activists weren’t the only ones with a keen interest in the SGEIS, however.  Documents obtained through New York’s Freedom of Information Law indicate that, in mid-August 2011, six weeks before the DEC made its statement public, the agency shared detailed summaries of it with gas corporation representatives, giving the industry a chance to influence the final document before it went public.
 
Two days before the SGEIS was opened to public scrutiny, an attorney for the Oklahoma-based Chesapeake Energy Corporation and other companies asked regulators to “reduce or eliminate” a requirement for the sophisticated testing of fracking fluids.  Such fluids are laden with toxins, including carcinogens, which storms could wash away from drilling sites -- an especially grim prospect given the catastrophic flooding experienced in the state over the last three years.
 
At the same time, two upstate New York journalists revealed that Bradley Field, the head of the DEC’s Mineral Resources Division, had signed a petition that denied the existence of climate change.  Formerly of Getty Oil and Marathon Oil, Field also serves as the state’s representative to the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission and the Ground Water Protection Council, both industry fronts which maintain that fracking is benign.  As this was coming to light, state officials anonymously leaked word of a plan to open five counties on New York’s border with Pennsylvania to fracking as long as communities there supported the technology.
 
This is What Autocracy Looks Like                                       
 
In May 2012, Dewey Decker and his board passed a resolution pledging that the town of Sanford would take no action against fracking, while awaiting the decision of the DEC. There was no prior notice. Citizens were left to read about it in their local papers. “You wake up the next morning and say, ‘What happened?’” commented Doug Vitarious, a retired Sanford elementary school teacher.
 
In June, a headline in the Deposit Courier, a Sanford paper, read “Local Officials in Eligible Communities Approve Pro-Drilling Resolutions.” Accompanying the piece was a map of towns that had passed such resolutions. The subscript under the map read: “Joint Landowners Coalition of N.Y.” The JLCNY is the state’s grassroots gas industry ally, whose stated mission is to “foster... the common interest... as it pertains to natural gas development.” Decker represents the organization in Sanford.
 
During the summer, Vitarious and other citizens asked their town board where the resolution had originated, but were met with silence. They requested that the board rescind the resolution and conduct a referendum.  Decker refused.
 
By the end of August, 43 towns in the region had passed resolutions modeled on one appearing at the JLCNY website. It stipulates that at the local level “no moratorium on hydraulic fracturing will be put in place before the state of New York has made it’s [sic] decision.” Under New York’s Freedom of Information Law, Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy and the National Resources Defense Council obtained records from Sanford and two other towns about how they achieved their objectives. The records, says Bruce Ferguson of Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy, “detail contacts between gas industry operatives and officials.”
 
Two months before superstorm Sandy swamped parts of the state, Sue Rapp, a psychotherapist from the town of Vestal, told me that flooding worries her as much as anything else about fracking. Upper New York State suffered flooding in 2010 and 2011. And then came Sandy.  Floods turn millions of gallons of fracking waste-water for which there is no safe storage into streams of poisons that wash into waterways.
 
Unlike Sanford’s board, Vestal’s has not formally blocked debate. It has heard arguments for a moratorium by Rapp and an organization she co-founded, Vestal Residents for Safe Energy (VERSE), as well as pleas for a moratorium by physicians and academics. Its reaction, however, has simply been to sit on its hands, waiting for the DEC and Cuomo to make a final decision. This amounts to adopting the JLCNY position in all but formal vote.   “What is happening?” asked Rapp rhetorically at a demonstration in Binghamton this past September.  “They are trying to shut us down. But we do vote and we will vote. We do not constitute [what pro-drillers call] the tyranny of the majority, but simply the majority. That is called democracy.”
 
Demonstrations against Cuomo’s frack plan, which drew thousands to Washington D.C., Albany, and elsewhere in New York, included pledges to commit sustained acts of civil disobedience should the governor carry out plans to open the Pennsylvania border area of the state to fracking. At the end of September, the New York Times announced that Cuomo had retreated from his June stance. The report credited the state’s grassroots movement for his change of mind.  Legendary for his toughness and political smarts, the governor will confront a political challenge in the coming months. Either he will please gas-industry supporters or his Democratic base. Whichever way he goes, it could affect his chances for the White House.
 
The stakes, however, are far larger than Cuomo’s presidential aspirations.  Opening any part of the state to fracking will certainly damage the local environment.  More importantly, a grassroots win in New York State could open the door to a nationwide anti-fracking surge.  A loss might, in the long run, result in a cascade of environmental degradation beyond the planet’s ability to cope.  As unlikely as it sounds, the fate of the Earth may rest with the residents of Middlefield, Caroline, Vestal, and scores of tiny villages and small towns you’ve never heard of.
 
“All eyes are on New York,” says Chris Burger, a former Broome County legislator and one of a small group who persuaded New York’s last governor, David Paterson, to pass the state’s moratorium on fracking. “This is the biggest environmental issue New York has ever faced [and not just] New York, the nation, and the world. If it’s going to be stopped, it will be stopped here.”
 
Ellen Cantarow, a Boston-based journalist, first wrote from Israel and the West Bank in 1979. Cantarow has written on women in the labor force, social activism, and the Middle East. Her work has been published in the Village Voice, Grand Street, and Mother Jones, among other publications, and was anthologized by the South End Press. More recently, her writing has appeared at Counterpunch, ZNet, TomDispatch and Common Dreams.

Occupy Wall Street Begins “Year II” With Call to Debt Resistance

By Yates McKee
Waging Nonviolence, September 16, 2012

 

Occupy Wall Street demonstration on September 15 down Broadway to Zuccotti Park, New York City.Occupy Wall Street demonstration on September 15 down Broadway to Zuccotti Park, New York City. (Photo: PaulSteinJC)
 

"The whole world is watching! The whole world is watching!" cried voices across Zuccotti Park on Wednesday night as 30 people sat with their arms interlocked, surrounded by cameras and sympathetic onlookers. NYPD officers were positioned some distance away at the concrete barricades that had begun surrounding the park. Confronting the sit-in with mock dispersal orders were Sam Corbin and Logan Price, OWS Direct Action trainers tasked with helping to prepare participants for the People's Wall, a nonviolent civil disobedience action in the Financial District planned for the morning of Monday, September 17.

 

September 17 (S17) is of course the one-year anniversary of the occupation of Zuccotti Park, a reclaiming of public space that galvanized the political imagination of the country and the world with its proclaimed opposition between the 99 percent and the 1 percent, its prefigurative emphasis on horizontality and mutual aid, and its linking of grievances from climate change to Stop and Frisk to predatory debt. All summer, OWS organizers have poured their energy into preparing for a three-day convergence of "education, celebration and resistance" to mark the anniversary — which will include assemblies, trainings, a concert, and a day of direct actions including the People's Wall99 Revolutions and the eco-themed Storm Wall Street. At the same time, those of us working to organize it are keeping our eyes on the prize of long-term movement building for campaigns like the fight against the expansion of fossil fuel extraction and Strike Debt, an effort to organize a mass upsurge of debt resistance.
 

Chastened by the disappointed expectations surrounding the May Day call for a general strike, throughout the S17 planning process organizers have been wary about "overpromising and underdelivering," in the words of Aaron Bornstein. And yet, as S17 approaches, a messianic sense of expectation and promise has taken hold of crazy-eyed Occupiers working 24/7 to pull together the final pieces of the convergence as an unknown number of sympathizers from around the country make the pilgrimage to Lower Manhattan to share in the anniversary observance. Rather than simply a backward-looking commemoration of occupied Zuccotti Park, OWS organizers have stressed that the convergence is designed as a launching pad for what they call "Year II" — a phrase that boldly suggests a new calendric cycle on the order of the French Revolution.
 

As Michael Hardt and Toni Negri have argued in their recent book Declaration,OWS and related movements around the world have practiced what they call an "autonomous temporality," refusing to play by the expectations of the electoral system, the news cycle, and predetermined metrics of success and failure. And yet, though many are loathe to admit it, the global media presence will be a crucial ingredient for S17. Indeed, the S17 anniversary is unique in the recent history in that it provides a moment in which international media will be turned to a progressive social movement because of a milestone of the movement's own making (rather than because of a convention or a summit where there happen to be protesters). The challenge facing OWS organizers is to strategically take advantage of this spotlight and to demonstrate that the movement of the 99 percent has only just begun.

The process of preparation is not entirely distinct from the day of action itself. As S17 approaches, organizers have deliberately encouraged members of the press to attend meetings that in earlier phases on the movement might have been considered off-limits. The weekend leading up to Monday the 17th will be an outdoor, public sequence of escalation.
 

Monday is framed with the word "Resistance," preceded by "Education" (Saturday) and "Celebration" (Sunday). The overall trajectory of the weekend is that of a period of planning, training and outreach, with these themes threaded throughout the three days.
 

On Saturday, Washington Square Park will become the site for an Occupy Town Square pop-up occupation (that, for better or worse, will coincide with an officially sanctioned folk music festival that was only publicized by the Parks Department a week earlier). Featuring food and an orientation infrastructure, the pop-op occupation revolves around two primary elements. First, one can expect a series of large thematic assemblies focused on movement-building around topical arenas such as debt, environment, police and prisons, workers' struggles, money and politics and health care. Second, there will be an intensive training in direct action and legal issues will take in order to prepare people for participation in the actions on Monday. Following the assemblies and trainings, a book-release assembly will take place across the street at Judson Memorial Church for the Debt Resistors' Operations Manual, a freely distributed publication from Strike Debt aimed at building the analyses, strategies and networks of mutual support necessary to refuse the control of creditors over the lives of the 99 percent. The manual will be accompanied by a performative sermon against usurious debt by Occupy Catholics, followed by a screening of archival footage and video work related to the past and future of OWS.
 

Sunday will begin with a march from the Spectra Energy pipeline construction site —where OWS environmental activists have recently escalated their direct action campaign — led by the Occupy Guitarmy. This Spectra Blast Parade will culminate at Foley Square, where the Guitarmy will open the OWS Anniversary Concert, featuring artists from across the stylistic spectrum including Tom Morello, The Chapin Sisters, Michelle Shocked, Rebel Diaz and, as a last-minute addition, Lee Ranaldo of Sonic Youth. Scheduled to emcee the event is Jello Biafra of the legendary political punk band The Dead Kennedys. The concert will also include a participatory direct action training designed both to make a visual impact and to orient the audience toward actions on Monday. In keeping with the thematic framework of "celebration," the concert is scheduled to segue into a precession led by Occupy Faith to Zuccotti Park, where an Occupy Rosh Hashanah service will be held to bless the New Year for the Jewish community as well as for Occupy more generally.
 

Monday morning ultimately remains a wildcard, given the unpredictable spatial strategies of the NYPD. The widely published OWS plan will combine the People's Wall, at several targeted intersections near the Stock Exchange, with mobile actions launched from a series of overlapping thematic zones, including the 99 Percent Zone (which will orient newcomers entering the Financial District near Zuccotti Park), an Eco-Zone (which lead into the 10 a.m. Storm Wall Street action), and the Educationand Strike Debt Zones (which are likely to coordinate their efforts in the selection of targets and tactics).
 

There have been weeks of open planning meetings for the morning's actions through an affinity group spokes council. This spokes council has primarily focused on the 99 Revolutions framework, which enables a multiplicity of creative disruptions to be undertaken simultaneously by small affinity groups in intersections throughout the Financial District on the morning of S17. Descending in part from the Plus Brigadesinitiative developed by OWS in the spring, 99 Revolutions aims to create a mobile spiral or swirl likened by some to a "people's hurricane." This "mobile" tactical framework is designed to both enable a multiplicity of autonomous actions while also complementing the "stationary" logic of the People's Wall, a more traditional sit-in-style action in the pattern of the civil rights movement. While in the early stages of the S17 process this diversity of tactics was contentious, in the final weeks the two approaches have been recognized as mutually supporting rather than mutually opposed.
 

In addition, a third, ecologically-themed action called Storm Wall Street featuring "polar bears on bikes and the Solar panel and Rising Sea Level Swimmer Brigade" will focus on connecting the dots between Wall Street, the fossil fuel industry and the climate crisis. This conversation has gained major traction over the course of the summer in OWS as organizers have fanned out across the country to join struggles against mountaintop removal, tar sands extraction and fracking.
 

Throughout the afternoon, Foley Square is slated be a fallback safe space for mutual aid and support, and it will serve as the staging ground for a culminating Popular Assembly at 6 p.m. (Legal efforts are underway with OWS' institutional partners in the labor movement to force the city to keep Zuccotti Park itself open, in which case the Popular Assembly will relocate.) Organizer Mark Adams envisions that the Popular Assembly could develop into a weekly horizontal, non-decision-making space that will allow for updates from ongoing campaigns and project groups.

Strike Debt is among the strongest campaigns poised to take advantage of S17, treating the anniversary not as an end, or an end in itself, but as a beginning. Strike Debt organizers have strategized all summer about launching a multi-pronged offensive against the predatory debt system, with the eventual goal of sparking a nationwide debt-resisters' movement that would strike at the foundations of capitalism as a whole. Strike Debt has created a sophisticated press and propaganda unit, with articles and interviews seeded throughout the progressive media landscape, along with dynamic visual materials and performative actions. A key node in these interlocked efforts is issue 3 of Tidal: Occupy Theory, Occupy Strategy, in which the theme of debt resistance is woven throughout. Most strikingly, the back cover of the magazine features a stylized advertisement for S17 by R. Black in which an army of hooded debt resisters hold aloft their burning debt statements in a gesture that evokes the draft-resisters movement of the 1960s. This graphic served as a kind of pre-mediation for a staged propaganda video released in August, featuring masked members of the "Invisible Army of Defaulters" reading a poetic communiqué and burning debt statements in a collective bonfire.
 


While the video served as a kind anarcho-surrealist fiction evoking a shadowy underground resistance, last weekend Strike Debt staged a full-on coming out party for debt resisters with a speak-out and ritualized debt burning in Brooklyn's East River State Park. Breaking the silence and shame surrounding the condition of indebtedness, participants delivered often-emotional testimonials concerning crushing medical bills, astronomical student debt, underwater mortgages, predatory credit card interest rates, unpaid legal fees, punitive budget-cuts and the ever-present anxiety of the all-powerful credit score.
 


As the debtors spoke and burned their documents, they were transfigured into a beloved community of debt resisters. As the flames rose, the spirit of anti-capitalist jubilee was in the air. The blessed smoke mingled with spectral visions of a People's Wall, 99 Revolutions and a Storm that would wash the eco-cidal tyrants of Wall Street out to sea. But even in their excitement and their fervor about the OWS anniversary, the debt resisters recognized September 17 as just another date on the calendar of the Old World. Perhaps the "autonomous temporality" of OWS might also mean liberating itself from its own circles and cycles. A post-S17 meeting has already been set for September 23 to begin the conversation about forming a debt-resisters' union, and plans for a People's Bailout involving the strategic purchasing and cancellation of toxic household debt are in the works for the fall.

 

On S17, the whole world — or at least more of it than usual — will indeed be watching. But what people will see emerging probably won't fit their expectations. Like the occupation of Zuccotti Park one year ago, it will be untimely, otherworldly and terrifying to the 1 percent.

 

The Power of Training for Direct Action

 

Training for acts of civil disobedience can delve deeper than the actions themselves.

By George Lakey
Waging Nonviolence, July 26, 2012
 
Direct action training at Occupy Tampa last October. By Jason, via Flickr.
 
Usually, direct action training is what it sounds like: training in preparation for a direct action. Sometimes, however, the training itself is the action.
 
Consider this story. The members of a hospital workers union were frustrated because their strike was being disregarded by the employer. The formerly locally owned Pennsylvania nursing home where they worked had been taken over in the 1980s by a Canadian corporation that wanted to break the union. The workers had never had to go on strike before and felt uneasy about picketing on the streets of their small city; they saw themselves as the “solid citizens” of the working class who didn’t make trouble.
 
Still, the corporation wasn’t willing to negotiate seriously, and they felt forced to do what they thought of as an undignified thing by going on strike. But even then, the strike wasn’t working; the employer stonewalled.
 
The union’s organizer called me and asked for a civil disobedience training. “The members don’t want this,” he said, “but they are willing to explore the C.D. option because they are running out of patience. They want a full evening of training.”
 
Barbara Smith of the Jobs With Peace Campaign agreed to co-facilitate. We found over 60 workers in the union hall when we arrived — virtually the whole staff who were free to come. The main part of the workshop was role-playing a sit-in in the offices of the nursing home management, with some members playing police who came in to arrest the workers. I marveled at the courage of these longtime residents of the town, blue-collar people who prided themselves on never having been in trouble with the law, pretending to be handcuffed and led off to police vans. Some were visibly shaking, but they did it.
 
At the end of the evening, we did a closing circle. Barbara initiated it and asked each person to say why they cared so much about this struggle that they were willing to take the risk. I was moved by the depth with which they spoke. The youngest said that she was taking the risk “because Mildred” — nodding to an elderly woman across the circle from her — “is close to retirement and deserves for her last year to be treated with respect.”
 
I saw the tears in Mildred’s eyes, and when it came to her turn in the circle, she said, “It’s amazing that Karen said what she did, because I was going to say that I’m taking this risk because she’s just started her life as a worker, and I want her to know the dignity of being in a union.”
 
The next day I got a phone call from the union organizer. “The boss called me,” he said. “He wants to restart negotiations on a serious basis.”
 
The organizer laughed. “Of course we assumed there was a company spy in our training last night, so the boss would find out what we were planning. But I didn’t expect a turnaround right away. Looks like they don’t even want to face the civil disobedience—they just want to settle!”
 
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“What do you think was involved in that?” I asked.
 
“A lot of things,” he said, “but I’ll bet one of the most important ones was that closing circle. The spy could see the members’ determination. I’m sure they don’t want to deal with that!”
 
This incident reminded me of something much larger, a decade before in New Zealand. Many New Zealanders opposed the South African rugby team coming to play New Zealand’s national rugby team, planned for 1973. Their slogan was, “Don’t import apartheid sport!” The New Zealand protest was part of a series of sports campaigns in the British Commonwealth putting pressure on South Africa to abandon apartheid.
 
The New Zealand campaign invited me to facilitate a series of training camps in preparation for their direct action. The training was to serve three purposes: to bring together organizers from a variety of movements (including environmental, Maori, and women’s) to learn popular education methods of training, to train trainers for the anti-apartheid campaign itself, and to create a context for the main leaders of the anti-apartheid campaign to gain more unity and strategic cohesion.
 
 
New Zealand’s right wing got wind of my being invited and launched a national petition drive to ban me from the country, on the grounds that I was a known foreign agitator whose work threatened the public order. But the government allowed me in, and the petition drive ensured that our three weeks of trainings were done in the glare of media attention—a positive thing in itself.
 
The last of the three trainings focused on the anti-apartheid activists and leaders. I knew ahead of time about the differences that divided them and their competitiveness with one another. I led an intense simulation that lasted over 12 hours and brought the entire camp to the point of exhaustion and fresh insights. At that point, the training turned into a planning session that brought the movement into strategic unity for the first time.
 
At the end of that training, the head of New Zealand’s national police force asked to see me, “off the record.” He said that after all the media attention and national controversy I’d gotten, he needed to meet me personally. We had a vigorous interchange, and when the conversation turned to the South African rugby team, he said he would recommend to the government that it prevent the team’s visit. “You’ve won,” he said.
 
“How?” I asked.
 
“The leadership at the camp created a strategy we can’t beat,” he said, “and the nonviolent training program reinforces the strategy. If the rugby tour happened, it would be a disaster for the government.”
 
I tested his conclusion, asking about various repressive options the government might have at its disposal, like calling out the troops to back up the police. He explained why each option would end poorly for the government and probably cost it the next election.
 
From back home in Philly, I followed subsequent events and, indeed, without the grassroots movement having to implement its direct action campaign—and to the fury of hard-core rugby fans—the government canceled the South African rugby team’s tour.
 
It may be time to experiment more with using training as a form of action. In April, the Earth Quaker Action Team climaxed its 200-mile Green Walk for Jobs and Justice with a training in Pittsburgh, on the sidewalk in front of the national headquarters of PNC Bank.
 
First, there were attempts to deliver an invitation to PNC’s CEO to meet with us. Then, people from Appalachian coal country talked about the suffering they experience from mountaintop removal coal mining and called on PNC Bank to stop funding extreme extraction, including fracking.
 
Finally, the walkers staged a practice action, complete with role-playing police “arresting” demonstrators in a sit-down on the sidewalk.
 
The excitement of the training slowed traffic on the busy downtown street. EQAT staff organizer Zach Hershman, who facilitated the training, said through the bullhorn, “We need to practice so we’re ready to return to Pittsburgh and stage a sit-in in the bank.”
 
After the role-play was over, Zach asked for a show of hands on how many had previously done direct action. Many had not. After the event was over I turned to a gray-haired woman next to me who had not raised her hand and asked her about that. Her face turned thoughtful.
 
“When I was young in the civil rights days, I knew racism was wrong but I didn’t join the sit-ins. I was scared. Then the anti-Vietnam war protests started and I agreed with them, but I was too scared to join.”
 
She paused, and looked right at me. “But now,” she said, “I’m not scared any more.”
 
George Lakey is Visiting Professor at Swarthmore College and a Quaker. He has led 1,500 workshops on five continents and led activist projects on local, national, and international levels. Among many other books and articles, he is author of “Strategizing for a Living Revolution” in David Solnit’s book Globalize Liberation (City Lights, 2004). His first arrest was for a civil rights sit-in and most recent was with Earth Quaker Action Team while protesting mountain top removal coal mining.
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