From Tim DeChristopher to Tar Sands Protests, the Environmental Movement Steps Up Civil Disobedience

by Will Potter on September 2, 2011

in Activism & Activists' Response

tar sands civil disobedience arrestsOne month ago, environmental activist Tim DeChristopher was sentenced to two years in prison for non-violent disobedience. The sentence was harsher than those handed down to people who burned churches and threatened black leaders. It was a sentence intended — like so many disproportionate sentences against activists — to send a message. But what message?

Environmental activists could have responded to this case in the way that corporations and politicians (who called DeChristopher an “eco-terrorist”) had intended. They could have scaled back their organizing to only milquetoast tactics that are 100% “safe”; they could have responded with fear.

Instead, we’re seeing something quite different as attention has shifted to the creation of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would draw oil from that tar sands of Canada to East Texas (this NPR story has a good overview). Already, more than 800 people been arrested for non-violent civil disobedience in Washington, D.C. Some of the arrests that have made headlines have included a top NASA climate scientist, Jim Hansen.

What has been even more inspirational is the response of young people who have been radicalized by both the sentencing of Tim DeChristopher and the Obama administration’s deference to corporate interests. A letter from student groups and youth leaders at the Tar Sands Action said in part:

Big corporations are using their financial influence to corrupt our democracy and deepen their pockets at the expense of Americans. And it’s not just related to energy and the environment; they are threatening the very foundations of our democracy, working to disenfranchise voters, attack workers’ rights and the middle class…The Keystone XL decision is a significant test of President Obama’s commitment to our generation, but it’s not the only one.

The letter astutely taps into what is so significant about the mass civil disobedience taking place in Washington right now. It has drawn national attention to a dangerous, misguided plan that President Obama should shut down. More broadly, though, I think these 800+ arrests  represent something bigger than this particular campaign. As Tim DeChristopher recently wrote from prison: “By its very nature, civil disobedience is an act whose message is that the government and its laws are not the sole voice of moral authority. It is a statement that we the citizens recognize a higher moral code to which the law is no longer aligned, and we invite our fellow citizens to recognize the difference.”

I would go even further: the government is not the sole voice of moral authority, and it is not any voice of moral authority. I don’t think most Americans would even consider that a radical statement at this point. Do you? We’ve watched bankers get bailouts while the environmental crisis worsens and unemployment increases. I think we need to remind ourselves that this is a sentiment that environmentalists in D.C. understand just as viscerally as pissed off Texans.

For more information and to get involved, visit Tar Sands Action and  Rising Tide North America.

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