The story of the Capitol Power Plant

Look mom! I'm in a book! It just came out. Its called The Next Eco-Warriors and is an anthology of young activists working on environmental issues. While there are plenty of  "activist anthologies" out, this project excited me because it is  designed for a popular audience. My mom could find it in a random  bookstore. It's being released in multiple countries. And most of the  people reading it are likely not active themselves…yet.

Most  chapters are personal stories of overcoming difficult odds in service of  protecting Mother Earth. The challenge, as I saw it, was to write a  personal story that could be accessible and digestible to the (likely  older, white, middle class) audience, many of whom have an existing  political frame of a "conservation movement." The task was to then shift that  story by underscoring concepts of economic and racial justice,  privilege, solidarity, movement building, and collective organizing. I  chose to write about my experience helping organize the Capitol Climate Action (CCA). While I have written reflections on this complicated action for other organizers before (here and then here), most of these accounts were analytical; they didn't actually tell the story at all, they just explained outcomes. Even those accounts felt a little too  celebratory – they didn't fully get into the behind-the-scenes  coalition drama, the challenges around community accountability, or ways  the action itself could have better embodied climate justice. I was  hesitant to write another "victory" account that didn't interrogate  these real concerns, even though its mostly "insider" debate amongst  organizers. I was even more hesitant about writing a first-person  narrative about a group effort – a common challenge for organizers  writing about collective process to an audience who has a default framework of honoring individual efforts.

And yet, because the Capitol Climate Action was designed to mobilize thousands of "passive allies"  – people who agree with us but aren't yet organizing alongside us – the  story of CCA itself seemed a useful narrative to communicate those  ideas. No one had simply told the story – and  used it as an opportunity to highlight and explain key justice-based  concepts to the very audience that was the key demographic CCA tried to  mobilize. Despite all the way I might organize the action differently  next time, it was a beautiful story that was well positioned to teach  some of these lessons.

So here was my attempt at it, direct from the book (also check out chapters by my friends Ben Powless and Enei Begaye):

We Shut Them Down: Ending Coal at the Capitol Power Plant

Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission,
betray it or fulfill it.

—Frantz Fanon

There  were thousands of us. The snow was four and a half inches deep and it  was minus seven degrees Celsius outside. We could already hear the Fox  News commentators and their usual absurdities: “A global warming protest  in the snow? Maybe this climate change stuff isn’t real after all. Ha  ha ha!” But by the end of the day, even Fox gave positive coverage to  the largest civil disobedience to solve the climate crisis in U.S. history.

On March 2, 2009, around four thousand people came to the  Capitol Power Plant in Washington DC, a coal plant that powers the  Capitol building. More than two thousand of them risked arrest in a  sit-in. The vast majority had never been to a demonstration of any kind  before, let alone engaged in a form of nonviolent direct action. People  from communities most directly impacted by coal’s life cycle—from Navajo  reservations in the Southwest to Appalachian towns in the Southeast—led  the march. With vibrant, multicolored flags depicting windmills, people  planting gardens, waves crashing, and captions like "community",  "security", "change", and "power", we sat-in to blockade five entrances to the  power plant that literally fuels Congress. We called the whole thing  the Capitol Climate Action. I was one of the lead organizers. And I was  exhausted.

We  had been organizing for ten months. Watching the idea grow and take a  life of its own was almost like raising a child—complete with snotty  temper tantrums and sleepless nights among the awe of bringing a light  into this world. And the action scenario was actually pretty simple.

The  belching smokestacks just two blocks from the Capitol building made a  fitting target for a national flash point. They symbolize the  stranglehold that the dirty fossil fuel industry—and coal industry in  particular—has on our government, economy, and future. Democrats on the  Hill had spent nearly three decades "trying" to get the plant off coal,  only to be blocked by coal-state legislators in their own party. Speaker  of the House Nancy Pelosi had made feel-good statements about cleaning  up Washington before, but we had yet to see any action. She enters our  story later though. Here’s the point: burning coal is the single biggest  contributor to global warming. We won’t be able to solve the climate  crisis without breaking its hold.

***

The  action conversation started in the summer of 2008 while walking down a  dirt road. It’s brown dust arced around boundless fields and dense  Virginia trees and fed into an encampment of tents interspersed with  banners and slogans like “Leave it in the ground!” hand-stitched in  cloth. The ridge of trees sheltered makeshift clearings intended for  workshops and strategy sessions and opened like a mouth into a wooded  area with even more tents hiding in the underbrush. The Southeast  Convergence for Climate Action brought together activists from across  the region and was coordinated by a grassroots network called Rising  Tide. I went as part of a facilitation team to run trainings.

We  spent our nights listening to panels of retired union coal miners,  talking about their thirty-year struggle to protect their families from a  reckless and parasitic industry. Their communities were impoverished.  Their tap water was so contaminated with heavy metals that it ran  orange. That’s what happens when you blow tops off entire mountain  ranges in order to feed America’s fossil fuel addiction. And almost  nobody paid attention to their struggle—they were poor.

Their  families were on the frontline. I considered how when I flip on my light  switch, it’s like a trigger, blowing up a mountain thousands of miles  away. My stomach still hurts when I think about how my convenience comes  from the pain of communities like these. I will never have to cry over  my child poisoned from resource extraction. But others will. We have a  word to describe the act of flipping that light switch: privilege.

At  that camp, we heard grandmothers tell of their lifetimes of activism. I  found myself captivated by stories told by aging antinuclear activists.  Wrinkled faces were lit up around a campfire as the shared tales of the  historic occupation of the Seabrook nuclear facility, an action that  helped shift and inspire a mass movement and resulted in a de facto  moratorium on new nuclear power plants.

We all agreed: our generation needed our Seabrook.

Rising  Tide had made arrangements for a Navajo activist named Enei Begaye to  come from across the country to speak. Enei works with the Black Mesa  Water Coalition and Indigenous Environmental Network. I drove to pick  her up from the airport. On our way back, we rolled across the Virginia  hills and spent hours talking about our work. Enei told me about one of  the biggest strip-mining companies in the country, Peabody Coal. “Our people have maintained a lifestyle that is in line with Mother Earth and the caretaking of all things, well before 1492.”  Peabody’s operations were devastating Black Mesa in a Native  reservation in Arizona. But her community was resisting. She chuckled, “Indigenous communities have been green way before it was hip.”

Black  Mesa is a sacred mountain. Many families on the reservation do not have  running water or electricity. Yet the company steals 3.3 million  gallons of pristine fresh water to mix it into a coal slurry so it can  be shipped to provide power to cities in my state of California. Enei’s  face hardened.

The Indian wars are not over. We are still fighting to protect our lands and territories.” We talked about colonization most of the way home. I thought more about my light switch.

The next day, Enei sat before a hundred activists and declared, "We  are all connected through the bloodlines of energy. Through the grid  lines of power plants. And in realizing our interconnectedness, we need  to unlearn the individualism we’re taught in this country. We need to relearn the responsibility of community."

She  was right. The light-switch flippers are inextricably bound to those  who live in places where resources are stolen. I was caught in that web,  just like everyone else. But I have dedicated my life to transforming  it.

That night, after facilitating back-to-back trainings, a few  friends and I sat down to chat about the big picture. The mosquitoes  were biting. I had spent the day talking myself hoarse to young  activists about the organizing lessons of Ella Baker, an unsung civil  rights heroine who helped build the Student Nonviolent Coordinating  Committee, a black-led civil rights group helping register Southern  black voters in the early 1960s. I had become obsessed with her methods  of building mass movements. Mass, as I had learned from Ella, meant millions. Our task was daunting. I swatted a mosquito and scratched my skin till I bled.

A  friend named Matt mentioned an idea that had been on the backburner,  something activist Bill McKibben had proposed to him a year earlier—a  small civil disobedience at the Capitol coal plant. The idea was  inspired by images of civil rights protestors half a century earlier,  dressed in suits, prefiguring the world they wanted to see by sitting-in  and integrating in the lunch counters. One key piece of Ella Baker’s  organizing was moving beyond inspiring a committed core of righteous  do-gooders, to a mass-action model. Unlike mass actions some of us had  been a part of, we didn’t want to mobilize just activists, but also lots  of people who had never done activism before. We picked the Capitol  Power Plant as our target. We called it a generational act of civil  disobedience.

***

Bill McKibben was enthusiastic about the  way the idea had evolved. With Bill as a key spokesperson who could  connect to large groups of passive allies and light-switch flippers, we  proceeded to build a coalition of national groups.

That’s where the challenges started.

Three  months later, we had about sixty groups endorsing the action. We tried  to collaborate with another coalition called Energy Action. I had been  on Energy Action’s steering committee at the time, but we were mired  from the start in coalition challenges.

It was time for another  conference call. The debate was the same: coalition representative after  coalition representative voiced their support for the action. And then  one or two people would “block” the proposal. I had a certain ritual for  these calls by now. I sat on the floor in the corner of my office so  that I could repeatedly bang my head into the wall. I tore my hair out,  literally. We were running out of time. I thought about Ella Baker’s  slow work of building consensus among people with different  perspectives. Despite coalition differences, we had gotten more than 120  groups to endorse, and we reached the point where we needed to launch. I  emailed Bill. He wrote the call-out letter with poet Wendell Berry. It  went public. They opened with this:

There are moments in a  nation’s—and a planet’s—history when it may be necessary for some to  break the law in order to bear witness to an evil, bring it to wider  attention, and push for its correction. We think such a time has  arrived, and we are writing to say that we hope some of you will join us  in Washington, DC, on Monday, March 2 in order to take part in a civil  act of civil disobedience outside a coal-fired power plant near Capitol  Hill.

And then the floodgates burst.

Dr. James Hansen,  the NASA climatologist who first publicly articulated the phenomenon of  global warming, endorsed our action and did a public service  announcement. So did Susan Sarandon and other celebrities. Former mayor  of Salt Lake City Rocky Anderson called to say he wanted to get  involved. Soon we had an ever-expanding list of scientists, celebrities,  politicians, and other “legitimizers.”

The action was viral.  Endorsements were flooding in from organizations across the political  spectrum. There were calls between rabbis, pastors, and preachers about a  faith-based march contingent. Will.I.Am, Goapele, Michael Franti, and  other famous musicians endorsed. Racial and economic justice groups,  public health organizations, and green businesses wanted to sign up to  be part of our action. We trained more than two thousand people in  nonviolence. Hundreds of first-time activists were getting trained  daily. The action was showing up on Internet message boards, Twitter,  Facebook, blogs, and across the web. Guerilla wheat paste, graffiti, and  stencils promoting the action began to appear in iconic places across  the country. People were registering to participate on our website  daily. None of this was magic—it was the result of slow work of dozens  of people in our organizing core. Volunteers were phone banking, making  hundreds of calls to recruit people. We held teleconference mass  meetings where hundreds could call in and get updates. And I got to  facilitate them.

There was no turning back now.

The action  had become its own organic being. We struggled to keep it all together.  The twice-weekly conference calls between convening organizations,  various working groups, and action teams were barreling forward. We had  lined up interviews with our major spokespeople, and they started to  appear in national papers. Capitol Climate Action was a beautiful beast  that we were racing to keep up with and shape.

***

It was a  couple weeks until the big day. We were in Washington, DC. The slush  sloshed. The ice cracked. We could see our breath in the cold. Gales of  wind cracked our faces as we emerged from the subway, across the lawn in  front of the Capitol building. Five other organizers and I trudged down  the tundra that had become downtown Washington, DC. The Capitol dome  looked almost majestic as it offered itself to the rays of sun peeking  through the clouds. It was short-lived. A haze of emissions pumping out  of the smokestacks would soon obscure its view. That was the image we  wanted plastered on newspapers across the country.

We looped  around the coal plant and measured out each entrance. Come the day, we  didn’t want anyone to get in or out. We needed to clarify how many  people were required to block each gate. And which march routes were the  most visually compelling, so a camera can see the Capitol building, the  marchers, and the smokestack. And what would be the most fun;  marching in circles is simply boring. And what would be tactically  effective, so that each team could deploy at each gate while secure with  a crowd of people around them.

This was our third time scouting  the area. Everything needed to be perfect. There would be grandmothers  and children at the action. All the organizers felt a responsibility on  our shoulders to make sure it was a safe and well-coordinated event for  all.

By the time we were back at the subway, there was a small  huddle of beefy cops. They were there for us. Actually, we had planned a  meeting with them. I wasn’t our police negotiator. But one approached  me, asking, “So you’re going to have a few people down here to protest the plant, eh? You don’t have a permit.

Actually, a few thousand are coming.

You’re definitely going to need a permit.

We’re not getting one.

While  one organizer went to negotiate with the police, another organizer was  hanging out back at the coal plant. It was the shift change. We had met  with the union who supported the workers at the plant, to clarify that  we had no problems with them. We supported workers. The union was  supportive of our action, but we needed to make sure that there wouldn’t  be a conflict on the day of. So we leafleted during the shift changes.  Gone are the days when we’ll allow the media to frame our issues as  “environment vs. jobs.” We wanted a just transition to good, sustainable jobs for all.

***

One  week left. I woke up to Nell Greenberg’s frantic typing. Nell is a  communications genius and had been conspiring about the Capitol Climate  Action from the beginning. “Joshjoshjosh!” she called to me in a blur of fingers slamming on keys. “You’ll never guess what just happened!” Nancy Pelosi had just made a proclamation on Capitol Hill. They were going to phase coal out of the power plant.

We were caught between moments of shock and the compulsion to react as fast as possible. Did we win? What did it mean?

We had been talking to Pelosi for a while, and she had not  been pleased with our action. The Capitol plant had been a bit of a  black eye for a well-intentioned set of eco-initiatives. She didn’t want  us to shine a light on the Democratic Congress’s inaction.

We  called up people like Bill. We called up our frontline allies and  consulted with the community group that had been fighting that plant. “How could we march on a plant with a demand that had already been met?” we asked. “Let’s turn the action into a victory party in the streets,” Bill suggested.

No. Pelosi is just trying to take the wind out of our sails . . .  ” Nell interjected. The Capitol plant was indeed switching away from  coal . . . to natural gas. We knew that this action was supposed to be a  flash point for a larger commentary on coal—it wasn’t about this  specific plant as much as about an entire industry. And while natural  gas is an improvement, climate justice activists across the country were  opposing natural gas pipelines, hydrolic fracturing (fracking), and the  community devastation it causes. “…a victory party would be premature,” I finished. By now, Nell and I were completing each other’s sentences.

But  Pelosi did give us the gift of validation. We put out a press release  stating our intention to continue the protest—that this proves the  efficacy of grassroots people power—and we’re gonna keep pushing. The New York Times  and a number of other national papers picked up the story. Pelosi's  announcement backfired: it put our action into the spotlight. It  underscored the careful dance between radical activists and the  mainstream—how bold demands create more space for what is “politically  possible” in Washington. It proved to those who would disparage civil  disobedience that our tactics work.

We were rolling.

***

T minus four days.

I  navigated a labyrinth of several hundred flags being painted bright  green, yellow, blue, and red. We had converted a Greenpeace warehouse  space into an art factory. Art is beautiful and carries the message of  our actions, but ours was also tactically functional. The  different-colored flags were set up to designate different “blocs” in  the march. Each set of colors would have a mass of people behind it,  deployed at different times down the march route, and occupying a  different entrance. It was just one way we were able to direct and  organize mass action in a fluid and clear way.

The hum of sewing  machines stitching fabric together competed with hip-hop and reggae.  Butts were shaking in tune with spray cans shaking. Stencils with "power", "community", "change", and "justice"  were churned out faster than we could hang them to dry. Young people  with circular saws cut hundreds of bamboo shafts, while others strung  cloth across them. Banners were painted. "Power past coal" placards were stained. German playwright Bertolt Brecht once said, “Art is not a mirror to reflect reality, it is a hammer with which to shape it.” By making all our art ourselves, we were reshaping new clean energy economies.

While  we strung together our protest signs, organizers were meeting down the  hall to plan out the direction they’d offer participants. At this point,  hundreds of people were pulling all-nighters to make the action  possible.

Finally, it was the big weekend.

We converted a  second warehouse into a Capitol Climate Action convergence space. The  broken beams, dusty walls, cracked bricks, and holes in the floor seemed  fitting. It hosted more art parties and continuous nonviolence  trainings all weekend. The Ruckus Society brought a crew of trainers of  color to teach civil disobedience to hundreds of mostly white students.  They joked about their role, “We’re here to put some chocolate chips on this cookie!” Race was front and center in a lot of conversations about how we would build a new world together. Legions of light-switch flippers  were beginning to understand their role in our power lines of  relations. I wished to myself that we had the time and space to go  deeper with people about movement strategy and making change. I was  proud of our nonviolence training factory but nervous that it was too  much of a surface introduction. “The real victory for this action,” I told a friend, “is whether or not all these people go back home and roll up their sleeves and do community organizing.” I decided to say the same thing to kick off our first mass meeting that night.

Nearly  four hundred packed into our dusty warehouse. The walls were coated in  cracking brick and giant colorful banners. Pressing the megaphone to my  lips I shouted, “Who here is from the Northeast?” Cheers thundered across the room. “What about the Southwest?” “Yeahhh!”  activists boomed. As I called out each section of the country, the  noise was deafening. Everyone was in tha house. Part infosession and  part pep rally, that meeting brought a catharsis that reminded me why  those endless hours of organizing were worth it. Crews of youth from  Oakland taught everyone chants. Mass-action veterans and elders like  Lisa Fithian broke down the plan, with giant maps papering the walls. We  were organized. Later that night, youth from across the country danced  and celebrated the birth of a new era.

***

Then it was the  big day. Energy Action Coalition had a rally in front of the Capitol  building, mobilizing some thousands of youth. I was encouraged by their  turnout. The so-called apathetic youth didn’t exist here that day. When  their rally was over, we had teams in place to direct people three  blocks away to our convergence spot.

May and Will from 350.org  helped set up the sound system. Like bees buzzing around a hive,  friends were setting up the banners and flags I spotted my childhood  hero Dr. Vandana Shiva. Her snuggly embrace made me feel like an old  friend. It was our first time meeting in person, though we had spoken  many times about us kicking off the rally together. Dr. Shiva’s work had  inspired me for years. I was giddy.

Are you ready to start?” I asked.

Lets do it.” She smiled.

The  bullhorn was back on my lips. In kicking off the rally, I think I said  something cheesy about how the warmth of our bodies and action were  going to heat up the cold day. After a few minutes of leading some  chants, we suddenly found ourselves surrounded by thousands of people,  already moving in unison. Dr. Shiva took the mic.

Vandana talked  about the Global Justice Movement confronting the World Trade  Organization ten years earlier in Seattle, grounding us in the streams  of movement that swirled around us, helping us stand on the shoulders of  organizers before us.

Dr. Shiva has a presence that is calm and grounded but loud. She didn’t yell into the microphone as much as hummed, "your  protest, your rally, your action today is definitely the signal to the  world that the rule of injustice and the rule of oxymorons is over. We  will tell the governments of the world, don’t hide behind each other! We  will challenge their false solutions, we have the real stuff. And we  are gonna build it!"

In handing me back the bullhorn, I felt as if she was passing the torch. I was humbled. “Lets go!” We shouted, and we were off.

It  was like clockwork. Action teams deployed to each gate, locking them  down. I thought about the brave crews of activists who were blockading  the back gates, out of the view of the cameras and all the fanfare. Less  concerned with the spectacle of it all, they were there to do a job.  Many affiliated with Rising Tide, they wanted to lock down the back, to  ensure that the Indigenous groups and Appalachians could lead the march  and be in the spotlight. Solidarity. A Piikani and Dené Native named  Gitz Crazyboy yelled into the bullhorn with an Indigenous contingent. He  had come down from northern Canada to talk about how Tar Sands oil  extraction was industrial genocide killing Indigenous communities and  their way of life. As he talked about the cancer rates in his community,  I looked at the army marching behind him and smiled.

We had a  full program. And the clock was ticking—if we didn’t surround our sound  stage with people quick, the police were going to overwhelm us and tow  it away.

I stepped on stage to emcee our main event. The sea of  people swallowed the power plant in front of me. Insulated with cheering  bodies, we had claimed our space. The cops couldn’t move our stage now.

The Internet was streaming with real-time photos of beautiful images of young people blocking gates with banners reading "closed: for climate justice!"  Red, yellow, green, and blue banners swept around the DC streets like  estuaries forming a river of endless faces yelling and singing.

I  had to find some way to keep energy up and keep rolling through our  tight program that featured hip-hop artists, scientists, politicians,  community members, and folk singers. It was a blur. Amid the constant  legal updates being barked over our radios, hot chocolate and blankets  being distributed to participants, and speakers, we needed to keep  people informed of the changing level of risk. Police negotiators were  trying to make sure that those who were risking arrest were in the right  places and that everyone was safe. I led chants and helped move us  through our barrage of speakers. Bobby Kennedy Jr. , Eleanor Holmes  Norton, Dr. James Hansen, Gus Speth. The list went on. Then Enei took  the mic.

We’re not environmentalists! We’re here because our people are dying.”  She was so precise with her analysis the seas of people in front of her  were captivated. Without a doubt, the stories from the frontline  community members, like Enei, energized the masses of people who sat-in  for hours upon hours—all day in the cold. Nobody was getting in or out  of that plant.

Then Bill addressed the crowd, “I’ve waited twenty years to see what the global warming movement was gonna look like, and boy does it look beautiful!” He motioned to the power plant that was now swarmed. “One down, six hundred more to go!

The  day was wearing on. We had reached the end of our speakers list. And we  got word from our police negotiator that the cops had no intention of  arresting anyone today. And we didn’t have any other cards up our  sleeves.

We had already achieved our goal—the plant was shut down  for the day. But we were all worried that it would feel like an  anticlimax.

Even in the eleventh hour, even after we won, we were still debating the exit strategy. We could have escalated. “What about scaling the fences?”  someone suggested. Anyone trying to enter the actual facility would  definitely get arrested. I smiled at the thought of Dr. Hansen climbing  over barbed wire. Wasn’t gonna happen. And the more radical activists  who would be gung ho for such an endeavor would take the spotlight off  of the frontline folks and spokespeople. We wanted to make sure that as  much as possible the messengers in the media were people most directly  impacted by the issue.

We needed to end on a high note. I got the go-ahead from the tactical team and stepped onto the stage.

Well, I’ve got some good news, and I’ve got some better news . . . ” I joked. Cheers erupted. “The good news is that we shut them down. Operations have stopped. We’ve won!” When the yelling died down, I continued, “And the better news is that they didn’t even need to arrest us for it to happen!” It was my somewhat ungraceful attempt at a reframe. People were too excited to care much. “Lets see a show of hands of who has shut down a coal-fired power plant before today?” One or two people put their hands in the air, a bit confused. “And who is now gonna go home after today and do it again, and again, and again?” The thunder had returned.

The crowd marched back up the street, singing. The action was over. Mostly.

A few stragglers were unimpressed. They wanted to stay locked down till the bitter end. “We were promised that there would be arrests. This isn’t a real civil disobedience, this was a choreographed photo op.”  They had a point. We did much more hand-holding with this action than I  had ever seen in any other mass mobilization. It was part of the  terrain with the goal of engaging so many new folks. And I still think  we made the right choice in the end. Escalation for its own sake is  never the goal. Instead, we were able to meet a large number of new  people "where they were at," and compel them to newer levels of  engagement they had never done before.

***

The Capitol  Climate Action hoped to change the national conversation on climate.  Within a single media cycle, we had positive pieces about a mass climate  action in the Associated Press, Time Magazine, CNN, USA Today, New York Times, Democracy Now!, the Nation, and a host of others. The action generated more than seven hundred media stories.

In  doing so, we wanted to open a doorway into the movement for lots of new  people and legitimize nonviolent direct action as a tactic. The breadth  of endorsing organizations is one indicator of success. More than a  hundred groups publicly endorsed the action, ranging from public health  organizations, religious groups, and clean energy businesses to  grassroots environmental networks, labor groups, and racial justice  organizations.

I feel proud of how the Capitol  Climate Action served to supercharge the movement against coal in the  United States. Just three days after our action, there was another civil  disobedience action at Coal River Mountain in West Virginia. Six days  later, there was a mass action in Belgium blockading European Union  Finance Ministers, with more than 350 arrests, citing our Capitol action  as a big inspiration for their recruitment. On March 14, there was an  action in Knoxville protesting the Tennessee Valley Authority around a  recent coal ash sludge spill. The same day, eighty activists inspired by  our action marched in Palm Springs, California, as part of the Power  Past Coal campaign. Three inspired actions happened that week in  Massachusetts. Decentralized actions targeting coal happened across the  continent on April 1. A month later, there was a mass action called the  Cliffside Climate Action in North Carolina to stop Duke Energy’s  proposed coal plant.

And that’s just the beginning. Our generation  is entering a profound time of transition and crisis. That much is  certain. But the future is unwritten. Our work together will determine  whether or not, on the other side of things, there will be justice for  people and the planet.

The Arab Spring and the Changing Dynamics of Global Struggle

The Arab Spring, the Japanese nuclear accident, the progressive/labor motion in response to the rightwing attacks in Wisconsin and throughout the Midwest, and the demographic changes reflected in the 2010 U.S. census, are reshaping the U.S. and global political terrain.

These events are not immediately connected and each has its own particular dynamics. But together they advance and aggravate the two big world trends I outlined in my Notes on Election 2010: the global rise of the developing world and the relative decline of U.S. and Western power as well as the intense struggle within the U.S. as to how to navigate that global sea change together with the impending people of color majority. Indeed the IMF recently announced their estimate that according to one key indicator China will surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest economy by 2016.

These notes address some of the new dynamics underscored and advanced by the Arab Spring, including its implications for U.S. politics.

Changing Dynamics of Struggle in Developing World

The Arab Spring was completely unpredictable in its timing, form, rapidity, politics and Arab-wide form, and it remains to be seen what its outcomes will be.

At another level, however, it was completely predictable. Much of the developing world, including the Arab world, has gone through dramatic economic development in the last thirty years. The corresponding socio-economic transformation has given rise to new social forces that the old repressive regimes, most of more than thirty years duration, proved unable to incorporate or suppress.

At different paces and in different forms, mass struggles by sparked by new social forces against reactionary regimes&#151whether Kings, military or military backed strongmen or former revolutionaries turned dictators&#151have swept Asia (1990s&#151e.g. Philippines, Indonesia, S. Korea), Latin America (2000s&#151mainly through leftwing electoral victories), parts of Africa (esp. southern and sub-Saharan Africa), and now the Arab world. One might even include the demise of the former socialist camp and the recent “color revolutions” in former Soviet republics in this context.

These uprisings are notably diverse according to national and regional particularities. But they are also remarkably different from earlier mass struggles in the developing world: they have focused on turning out local dictators as opposed to focusing primarily on anti-colonial or anti-U.S. aims. The Arab Spring has thus far not even targeted Israel.

These movements have been mass democratic struggles as opposed to mass anti-imperialist struggles. Of course, democracy and anti-imperialism are very often intertwined in the developing world. But the leading element seems to have switched to internal democratic struggles compared to the mass national liberation movements of the 1910s through the 1980s.  

Indeed a number of the revolutionary nationalist leaders of the 1960s and 1970s who ended up degenerating into undemocratic regimes are now the targets of democratic uprisings&#151Mugabe, Gaddafi and Assad. And it is also they who are among the most violent defenders of their regimes.

The democratic uprisings in the developing world of the last twenty years have also been notable for their largely peaceful strategies compared to the mostly armed national liberation movements of the 1920s to the 1980s. Indeed, that wave of revolutionary nationalism, like Marxist-Leninist socialism (and European social democracy), was eclipsed in that latter decade. Most movements since then have different dynamics and different leadership.

Indeed, the Middle East, led by Nasser in Egypt but also the Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party (including Hafez al-Assad in Syria and Saddam Hussein in Iraq) and the Palestine Liberation Organization, was one of the world centers of the revolutionary nationalist, socialist motion of the 1950s to the 1980s. Although these regimes made powerful progress in their early years, they or their successors eventually degenerated into narrow dictatorships and even allied with the U.S. In the 1990s radical Islamism emerged as the main rallying center of anti-imperialist sentiment.

In this context, the emergence of the Arab Spring is a welcome mass democratic counterpoint to Islamic terrorism. There are, of course, radical differences between mass-based Islamic political groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas compared to narrowly terrorist groups like al-Qaeda whose targets are often civilians. Nonetheless the Arab Spring’s mainly peaceful, mass driven and secular democratic flavor is a powerful development that seems to be eclipsing the al-Qaeda-like approach and having much more positive impact. Perhaps this will be strengthened in the wake of the U.S. assassination of Osama bin Laden.

Finally, as a result of the much higher level of economic development of the developing world compared to the past, these movements are largely urban-based rather than rural based, and extremely diverse and complicated in their social composition and political orientations. They cannot be fit into simplistic or outdated categories or theories. Instead they must be studied and interacted with based on a concrete analysis of each movement in its own terms.

The Developing World and the Intensification of the Fight for Energy

While primarily local democratic uprisings, the Arab Spring events, like the fights in Asia and Latin America, are reconfiguring global economic and political power. Many countries are rapidly gaining new economic power and are strengthening the economic ties among themselves, independent of the West.

The BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) are most notable in this respect. The IMF recently announced that it expects the Chinese economy to replace the U.S. as the world’s largest by 2016. And China has replaced the U.S. as burgeoning Brazil’s main trading partner: economic interaction among developing countries among themselves has exploded.

Fast on the heels of the BRIC are the Next 11 (the “N11”: Bangladesh, Egypt, Indonesia, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, Korea, Turkey and Vietnam). South Korea is the first former colony to become an advanced capitalist country. No less an imperial leader than Goldman Sachs predicts that by 2050 only the U.S. of the current G8 will rank among the top eight economies of the world.

The rapid economic development of the Global South is creating massive new demand for energy, just as peak oil is reached. And, whatever the exact outcomes of the Arab Spring, oil political expert Michael Klare believes that with it the “old oil order is dying, and with its demise we will see the end of cheap and readily accessible petroleum&#151forever.”

Meanwhile the Fukushima disaster shows the pitfalls of turning to nuclear energy to fill the gap. Along with climate change, these developments underscore the importance of moving away from fossil fuels and toward renewable and safe energy sources.

Changing Politics of the Middle East

The Arab Spring is a turning point of global importance because oil has been central to world economic development and politics since WWII.  Over that time, the U.S. has spared little expense or scruple to cobble together a reactionary alliance of Arab police states with Israel to safeguard its interests. The formation of OPEC in the 1960s and 1970s was a critical turning point in world economic history, but the West managed to reconstruct a web of power. Now the Arab people are disrupting that arrangement.

Although the struggles are still intense and the outcomes not at all clear, the genie is out of the bottle for the old regimes. Some new level of democracy is likely in many of the countries, and that by itself is enough to disrupt the old straight up imperialist/authoritarian alliance. This has been duly noted by the Obama administration and outraged U.S. rightwing.

Unlike previous U.S. regimes that routinely, and often brutally, backed their allied dictators throughout the world, the Obama administration has addressed the Arab Spring with halting but nuanced steps in a new direction. Its aim remains the same: to advance U.S. imperial interests. However, Obama’s actions also represent an understanding of new limits on U.S. power.

Washington surprised many by early on calling for Egypt’s Mubarak to step down, despite the fact that Mubarak was a lynchpin of U.S. power. Indeed it was the second largest recipient of U.S. aid (after Israel) for three decades, to the tune of $30 billion. Washington then backed an orderly electoral transition only to see Mubarak unceremoniously thrown out by the people.

In Libya Obama eschewed traditional U.S. unilateral military action in favor of multilateral action, indeed multilateral action spearheaded by France and the U.K., not the U.S. He clearly hopes to circumscribe the U.S. effort rather than to be drawn into another long and likely failed war. I do not back his policy, but still take note of its new characteristics. Indeed, it is optimistic to think that the Libyan attack will lead to any stability in the short run, and Obama runs the risk of having his administration defined by Afghan and Libyan quagmires.

Meanwhile Israel, the Saudi Kings, and the U.S. Republicans hew to the hard line and hope to salvage the old alliances against the Arab masses and Iran (whose influence has risen with the U.S. stalemates in Iraq and Afghanistan and alongside the Arab Spring) by using whatever force is necessary. The Republicans rail against Obama taking a back seat to France and want all out war in Libya, and cannot imagine peace with the Palestinians. The U.S. rightwing and the Israeli rightwing are lockstep.

Indeed Israel is a dangerous wild card. Fearing the loss of its main allies in the region&#151Turkey and Egypt&#151it is faced with the potential of having to choose between making substantial peace with the Arab world, starting with the Palestinians, or an even more dangerous war stance including a possible attack on Iran. Such an attack would loose entirely unpredictable forces into a Middle East already wrought by U.S. invasions and mass uprisings.

The recent unity agreement between Hamas and Fatah is a major development that accelerates and deepens the Arab Spring and the various conflicts it involves. It was brokered by the caretaker Egyptian government ushered in by the overthrow of Mubarak, demonstrating the regional, indeed global, significance of the political shift underway in Egypt.

The new unity has been denounced by Israel&#151and the U.S. rightwing&#151who may now face a united Palestinian front for the first time in decades, one that includes Hamas which the entire Western establishment has labeled “terrorist.” Palestine is once again at the center of Middle Eastern and world politics.

The Pivot of Politics

The Arab Spring is the latest demonstration of the drive of the people of the developing world to democratize their governments and empower themselves. It also highlights the complicated, multi-layered process of struggle in the developing world.

The tremendous variance in politics of the developing world gives the U.S. and the West significant room to maneuver and divide. Yet there is little doubt that, overall, this motion is increasingly limiting the power of the U.S. and is ushering out the brutal phase of history characterized by Western colonialism and imperialist domination.

The fight over the shape and pace of this inexorable process is the main battleground of history in our time, shaping both world and U.S. politics.

The varying responses of different political forces in the U.S., both within the ruling circles and within the population as a whole, lie at the root of the sharp polarization of politics in this country.

International competition is one of the root causes of the rightward motion of the economic elite over the past forty years and its attacks on the living standards of working and poor people, especially people of color, in this country. Fear of the loss of U.S. supremacy is also fundamental to the powerful rise of far right populism in that same period, especially its latest incarnation, the Tea Party. The attempt to reassert U.S. supremacy has also given rise to the gigantic increase in U.S. military spending&#151which has more than doubled since 2000&#151and murderous military adventures.

The polarization between those who are determined to reassert U.S. dominance by any means necessary&#151an inherently racialized notion&#151and those that understand that such a policy is dangerous, destructive and unrealistic is the pivotal dividing line in U.S. politics today. The racialization of politics is particularly pronounced due to the tremendous growth of people of color in the U.S. and their clear leftward politics. The right cannot win without isolating people of color and the left cannot win without mobilizing them.

To be sure there are important divisions on the center/right, between reactionary Tea Partyists and old line Republican conservatives, and on the center/left between realistic elitists and genuine progressives. I would argue that the building of a powerful progressive trend inside and outside the Democratic Party is key to exposing, splitting, and defeating the right.

However, as we undertake to build that powerful force, we must try to avoid letting the right split us from moderate allies and thereby prevail. This will be complex given the right’s momentum and the elite realists (and affluent centrists) tendency to collaborate with the right in attacking progressive-leaning social sectors even as they do battle with the right electorally and otherwise.

Only a progressive bloc that is far stronger, more combative, flexible and strategic than what we have now will have a chance to navigate this terrain. Still, the old adage, “unite the left, win over the middle, and isolate the right” was never more relevant.

The stakes are enormous for the people of the world as we enter into the 2012 political season.


Bob Wing is a longtime activist and the founding editor of ColorLines magazine and War Times/Tiempo de Guerras newspaper. He now lives in Durham, NC. Thanks to Max Elbaum for his usual insightful suggestions.