Martin Luther King's Legacy and the Power of Nonviolent
In opposing the Keystone XL oil pipeline, demonstrators
are getting a sense of the civil rights leader's courage
By Bill McKibben
August 25, 2011
I didn't think it was possible, but my admiration for Martin
Luther King, Jr., grew even stronger these past days. As I
headed to jail as part of the first wave of what is turning
into the biggest civil disobedience action in the
environmental movement for many years, I had the vague idea
that I would write something. Not an epic like King's
"Letter from a Birmingham Jail," but at least, you know, a
blog post. Or a tweet.
But frankly, I wasn't up to it. The police, surprised by how
many people turned out on the first day of two weeks of
protests at the White House, decided to teach us a lesson.
As they told our legal team, they wanted to deter anyone
else from coming - and so, with our first crew, they were.
kind of harsh.
We spent three days in D.C.'s Central Cell Block, which is
exactly as much fun as it sounds like it might be. You lie
on a metal rack with no mattress or bedding and sweat in the
high heat; the din is incessant; there's one baloney
sandwich with a cup of water every 12 hours.
I didn't have a pencil - they wouldn't even let me keep my
wedding ring - but, more important, I didn't have the peace
of mind to write something. It's only now, out 12 hours and
with a good night's sleep under my belt, that I'm able to
think straight. And so, as I said, I'll go to this weekend's
big celebrations for the opening of the Martin Luther King
Jr. National Memorial on the Washington Mall with even more
respect for his calm power.
Preacher, speaker, writer under fire, but also tactician. He
really understood the power of nonviolence, a power we've
experienced in the last few days. When the police cracked
down on us, the publicity it produced cemented two of the
main purposes of our protest: First, it made Keystone XL -
the new, 1,700- mile-long pipeline we're trying to block
that will vastly increase the flow of "dirty" tar sands oil
from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf of Mexico - into a
national issue. A few months ago, it was mainly people along
the route of the prospective pipeline who were organising
against it. (And with good reason: tar sands mining has
already wrecked huge swaths of native land in Alberta, and
endangers farms, wild areas, and aquifers all along its
Now, however, people are now coming to understand - as we
hoped our demonstrations would highlight - that it poses a
danger to the whole planet as well. After all, it's the
Earth's second largest pool of carbon, and hence the second-
largest potential source of global warming gases after the
oil fields of Saudi Arabia. We've already plumbed those
Saudi deserts. Now the question is: Will we do the same to
the boreal forests of Canada. As NASA climatologist James
Hansen has made all too clear, if we do so it's "essentially
game over for the climate." That message is getting through.
Witness the incredibly strong New York Times editorial
opposing the building of the pipeline that I was handed on
our release from jail.
Second, being arrested in front of the White House helped
make it clearer that President Obama should be the focus of
anti-pipeline activism. For once Congress isn't in the
picture. The situation couldn't be simpler: the president,
and the president alone, has the power either to sign the
permit that would take the pipeline through the Midwest and
down to Texas (with the usual set of disastrous oil spills
to come) or block it.
Barack Obama has the power to stop it and no one in Congress
or elsewhere can prevent him from doing so. That means - and
again, it couldn't be simpler - that the Keystone XL
decision is the biggest environmental test for him between
now and the next election. If he decides to stand up to the
power of big oil, it will send a jolt through his political
base, reminding the presently discouraged exactly why they
were so enthused in 2008.
That's why many of us were wearing our old campaign buttons
when we went into the paddy wagon. We'd like to remember -
and like the White House to remember, too - just why we
knocked on all those doors.
But as Dr. King might have predicted, the message went
deeper. As people gather in Washington for this weekend's
dedication of his monument, most will be talking about him
as a great orator, a great moral leader. And of course he
was that, but it's easily forgotten what a great strategist
he was as well, because he understood just how powerful a
weapon nonviolence can be.
The police, who trust the logic of force, never quite seem
to get this. When they arrested our group of 70 or so on the
first day of our demonstrations, they decided to teach us a
lesson by keeping us locked up extra long - strong treatment
for a group of people peacefully standing on a sidewalk.
No surprise, it didn't work. The next day an even bigger
crowd showed up - and now there are throngs of people who
have signed up to be arrested every day until the protests
end on September 3rd. Not only that, a judge threw out the
charges against our first group, and so the police have
backed off. For the moment, anyway, they're not actually
sending more protesters to jail, just booking and fining
And so the busload of ranchers coming from Nebraska, and the
bio-fueled RV with the giant logo heading in from East
Texas, and the flight of grandmothers arriving from Montana,
and the tribal chiefs, and union leaders, and everyone else,
will keep pouring into D.C. We'll all, I imagine, stop and
pay tribute to Dr. King before or after we get arrested;
it's his lead, after all, that we're following.
Our part in the weekend's celebration is to act as a kind of
living tribute. While people are up on the mall at the
monument, we'll be in the front of the White House, wearing
handcuffs, making clear that civil disobedience is not just
history in America.
We may not be facing the same dangers Dr. King did, but
we're getting some small sense of the kind of courage he and
the rest of the civil rights movement had to display in
their day - the courage to put your body where your beliefs
are. It feels good.
[Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books about the
environment, beginning with The End of Nature in 1989, which
is regarded as the first book for a general audience on
climate change. He is a founder of the grassroots climate
campaign 350.org, which has coordinated 15,000 rallies in
189 countries since 2009. Time Magazine called him 'the
planet's best green journalist' and the Boston Globe said in
2010 that he was 'probably the country's most important
environmentalist.' Schumann Distinguished Scholar at
Middlebury College, he holds honorary degrees from a dozen
colleges, including the Universities of Massachusetts and
Maine, the State University of New York, and Whittier and
Colgate Colleges. In 2011 he was elected a fellow of the
American Academy of Arts and Sciences.His latest book is
Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet.
Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.
Submit via email: [log in to unmask]
Submit via the Web: http://portside.org/submittous3
Frequently asked questions: http://portside.org/faq
Search Portside archives: http://portside.org/archive
Contribute to Portside: https://portside.org/donate