Some thoughts on civil disobedience, diversity of tactics, and coalitions (Part 1)
First I was being sued. Then I wasn’t being sued. Then I wasn’t being sued, again. Life fighting pipelines can be confusing. But that’s not what I want to write about right now. The first round of Kinder Morgan shenanigans looks like it is finally and completely finished—we will likely have to wait for the NEB decision, and the federal election, to see what may happen next. In the meantime, the reflection back on the experience can begin in earnest.
What I find myself reflecting on, and wanting to write about, are activist tactics and our wider strategies. I do so tentatively—not having the time to write about this topic as fulsomely as I would like, and as it deserves, and aware that what I’m going to write is probably not going to make anyone happy (I will, democratically, piss everyone off, I fear). This is also tentative because I ultimately haven’t made my own mind up yet—I’m sifting through the debris and rhetoric, trying to find the way to a better, more coherent movement. But I don’t have all the answers—just questions I feel I need to articulate.
I think whatever success the Burnaby Mountain resistance had it was largely success on the “public relations” side of things: many people heard about and supported the action (a late December 2014 Angus Reid poll suggests well over half of British Columbians were “closely” or “very closely” following the story, while 54% opposed the pipeline and supported the protest); and Kinder Morgan’s advertising efforts, and decision to drop the civil suit, even if that means they have to pay the defendants’ court costs, is a clear sign that they, too, feel they lost the public relations battle, and have to back peddle now.
How was this “success” (remembering that, so far, no pipeline has been stopped, so very much a qualified success) achieved? First, it helped that all this unfolded in an urban environment, where many people felt directly concerned, and where the media had ready access to the scene of the action and the many participants. As someone who played a spokesperson role (another topic I would like to write about at some point), I can say that I have never before experienced such a (largely) sympathetic media: reporters also seemed to consider themselves directly concerned about the project, and often expressed outrage or surprise when asking questions about the company’s plans and tactics. Secondly, it helped that the City of Burnaby was so vocally opposed to the project. Thirdly—and no doubt building from these first two factors—the campaign on the mountain was able to draw together a fairly broad “coalition” of activists, ranging from elderly local residents, First Nations elders, and “seasoned” activists, to young anarchists and first-time protestors. It was a wide swath and cross section of society, and included a very wide range of approaches and commitments.
What wasn’t always clear, on the surface at least, was how fractious and volatile this mix of individuals and groups was. In my reading of the situation, there were three main groupings. First, there were local residents and general “concerned citizens,” many of whom had been organizing opposition to Kinder Morgan’s plans under the umbrella of BROKE (Burnaby Residents Opposed to Kinder Morgan Expansion) for some time prior to the fall of 2014. This grouping tended to favour less confrontational tactics: town-hall discussions to raise awareness about the issue, rallies or peaceful street marches, pressuring various levels of government through their representatives, and working closely with the City of Burnaby. BROKE successfully applied for intervenor status with the NEB, in order to have a voice in the decision process (however limited and biased that process is).
The second group was comprised of diverse grassroots activists, including First Nations, who organized via loose affinity groups to take up a more direct action oriented position: on the ground occupation, and eventually a blockade of the proposed work site. This group was very small at first, more or less structureless and leaderless, and committed to placing their bodies in the direct path of the project.
Finally, the third group were the seasoned activists—many of them affiliated with environmental NGOs, and all of them with experience in multiple previous campaigns (including a group of Clayoquot Sound veterans). This group came in late, and it is indeed on the ground of the actual conflict—after the attempt by Kinder Morgan contractors to begin work on October 29 2014, and after the subsequent injunction hearing in early November, when the enforcement of the injunction began on November 20—that all three of these groups “came together.”
(Full disclosure: I worked, at various points, with both of the first two groups mentioned here, and actually saw merit, and sometimes fault, in both of their approaches. In time, I became more committed to the “caretakers” on the ground on Burnaby Mountain, and it was as a spokesperson for this group that I found myself being sued as a “conspirator” against Kinder Morgan’s interests.)
There are many things to say about NGOs, but I’m not going to focus on them here. What interests me, and seems to me to be at the heart of the matter, is the ability, or inability, of those first two groups to work together. The first group was anxious about the second group’s direct action focus, worried that more “radical” tactics like occupations and blockades would wind up losing the support of the “general public,” and felt that, tactically, a more moderate approach, loosely affiliated with the City of Burnaby, was most likely to succeed under these circumstances. The second group, in turn, felt that the first group’s tactics would take too much time, that Kinder Morgan would waltz in to do its work despite popular opposition and the attempts of the City of Burnaby to stop them in the courts (which of course turned out to be true), and that, contrary to the first group’s worries, the “general public” would be galvanized and motivated by the actions of protestors on the ground, giving their all to stop the pipeline.
This is all old hat to anyone who has spent any time around activism and social movements. This division reigned at Occupy Vancouver, just as it did on Burnaby Mountain. The point, to me, is not who is right and who is wrong—whose tactics are better, or more likely to succeed, and whose are doomed to failure. We could armchair quarterback this through the next fifty Superbowls and still not get anywhere. The question to me is how a diversity of tactics—which is what was more or less on display on Burnaby Mountain—might actually function, and how coalitions might—if they can be—be built around this functional diversity.
The dramatic and fast-moving events on Burnaby Mountain left these two groups little time to either a) completely split from each other, or b), really work out a means of organizing together. Rather, they were thrown together, had little time to do more than groan and complain about their differences, and, as the drama crested and the NGO activists moved in, the differences of these two groups in some ways disappeared behind the sound and fury of more than a hundred arrests, the appearances of “star” activists like David Suzuki, and the headline-catching stories of the arrests of 84 year old grandmothers and 11 year old daughters. Once again, the opposition of the state (in the form of the courts and the RCMP) did not allow time for a true movement to flourish—or collapse under its own weight. It never does. So what can we do?
In Part 2 of this series I will take a closer look at civil disobedience specifically, before turning, in Part 3, back to the question of diversity of tactics, coalition building, and movement organization.
And when I get this off my chest, I can go back to writing poems, plays, and other possibly less fractious things.