What a Failed Civil Rights Campaign Can Teach Activists of Today

December 30, 2017

By Cam Fenton

In early December, Canada’s National Energy Board gave Texas pipeline company Kinder Morgan permission to ignore local laws and permits while starting construction on its Trans-Mountain pipeline. Scheduled to ship nearly 900,000 barrels of tar sands per day from Alberta to Burnaby, British Columbia by 2019, the project is a potential lightning rod for the climate movement.

As someone with more than a decade involved in campaigns to stop tar sands expansion, I’ve been struggling with a simple question: How do we stop Kinder Morgan now that it’s been approved?

On the one hand, there is a newly minted provincial government in British Columbia that took power with a promise to “use every tool” at its disposal to stop the project. On the other, the federal government, in support of Alberta and Kinder Morgan, has argued the province has no real recourse for action.

The movement, especially indigenous peoples, have pledged fierce resistance. In the last few months of 2017, we’ve started seeing sparks of disobedience — a mass flotilla shutting down Kinder Morgan’s terminal construction, a series of actions bird-dogging the same federal leaders who approved the pipeline and the launch of the Tiny House Warriors project, an indigenous-led strategy to construct tiny homes along the path of the pipeline.

As inspiring and important as these actions have been, we still don’t have a clear answer to the question at hand: What is the end-game for stopping Kinder Morgan once and for all? Drawing from all my experiences from campaigns, both successful and failed, I see only two ways that the Kinder Morgan pipeline doesn’t get built.

The first way is for the federal approval, and the permits that come with it, to be overturned or revoked. If one of the ongoing court challenges to Kinder Morgan is successful in overturning the project’s National Energy Board approval, the door re-opens to a federal government rejection — much like the Northern Gateway project, an approved tar sands pipeline to the coast of British Columbia, was rejected by a federal court in 2016.

Mounting delays could also keep Kinder Morgan from starting serious construction well into the next 2019 federal election. That would open the door for a shift in the federal government’s position on the pipeline, or a shift in who controls the government and where the balance of political power lies in Canada.

The second option is for Kinder Morgan to pull the plug. So far, we haven’t seen a pipeline company back away from an approved tar sands pipeline. The closest example came earlier this year, when — after years of work and millions invested — TransCanada walked away from its Energy East project. It was a major victory for people-powered organizing, which blocked it in Quebec and forced it to undergo a comprehensive climate change review.

Extrapolating the mix of political, regulatory and economic challenges that sunk Energy East, we can assume that for Kinder Morgan to walk away the TransMountain project, it would need to face a veritable wall of opposition. Provincial and local political hurdles, physical construction delays and collapsing investor confidence would need to add up to a broad public acceptance of this project having no chance of reaching completion.

To get there, it’s going to take a campaign of escalation, coordination, strategy and no small bit of luck. In order to do it right, activists and organizers are going to need to learn from the past — specifically two historic campaigns that occurred over 50 years ago.

Albany vs. Birmingham

In January 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. and a group of civil rights leaders gathered just outside of Savannah, Georgia for a meeting that would change the course of American history. The movement had just suffered one of its most stunning defeats: the Albany campaign.

The massive desegregation campaign in Albany, Georgia had started with energy and massive participation. Thousands of people were willing to go to jail, including King. But after two years, they had fallen short of winning any concrete demands for the local movement.

Why did Albany fail to achieve its goals? Most casual observers point to the shrewdness of Albany Police Chief Laurie Pritchett.

During previous campaigns, like the recently victorious Freedom Rides, civil rights organizers had largely been met with aggressive, obstinate and overtly racist police leaders. Some of these men actively ordered their departments to attack and violently arrest activists, while others collaborated with white supremacist groups to support extrajudicial assaults. Pritchett, however, took a different tact.

Much like the protesters opposing him, Pritchett had also read Gandhi and, therefore, understood what they were trying to do: use the drama of arrests, police violence and local officials upholding segregation laws in defiance of federal orders to land front page coverage in national newspapers. Armed with this knowledge, he only arrested protesters under “law and order” regulations and directed and trained his deputies to show restraint when policing marches and performing arrest.

The result: Albany stayed in the back pages of the newspapers, which ensured that the federal government had no direct cause to intervene in the city.

This lesson speaks to our current moment. In September, the British Columbia detachment of Canada’s Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or RCMP, established something called the Division Liaison Team. Dressed in grey windbreakers and polo-shirts, this team exists to “work with all groups that are planning and executing events so that they are able to fulfill their objectives in the safest manner for everyone.”

Their goal is straight out of the Pritchett playbook: Squash the drama. What King learned in Albany is that they needed a plan for that escalation, not just a bunch of actions that would hopefully be enough to reach their goals.

In their 2015 book on mass movement organizing, “This Is an Uprising,” Mark and Paul Engler offer another lesson from Albany that is relevant to the struggle of defeating Kinder Morgan. They explain that the Albany campaign started without a clear and comprehensive idea of what victory looked like. The earliest actions in Albany were not deployed as part of a specific strategy in the city, but inspired by other actions taking place on the heels of the Freedom Rides. The Englers describe the genesis of the Albany campaign as a “diffuse, broad-based attack on the segregationist power structures without adequately analyzing their opponents’ weaknesses.”
That lack of planning meant that Albany leaders exhausted their supply of bail money after two days of mass action, leaving hundreds of people languishing in jail and putting a planned bus boycott — a crucial part of their escalation strategy – in jeopardy.

This is not to say that regular people can’t make a huge difference. Too often, however, we get more focused on tactics than on the full picture narrative of how movements win. To date, a number of high-conflict, powerful actions have been taken to stop approved pipelines — such as the Line 9 pipeline in eastern Canada and the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline in Texas — both with mixed results.

While these actions, and the people who organized them, were heroic, they didn’t stop the projects they aimed to block. The reasons for that are no doubt many, but for the climate movement rallying to stop Kinder Morgan — or any pipeline for that matter — one lesson is crucial: Single actions, no matter how many people participate, won’t stop these projects.

In Albany, according to the Englers, “all these factors contributed to a catastrophe. But together they pointed to a more fundamental problem: There was no clear plan to use the steady escalation of nonviolent conflict to make the pressure on racist structures unbearable.” Put another way, people had a plan to fight, but no plan to win — which is exactly the problem the climate movement has with Kinder Morgan.

Project Confrontation

Taking the lessons from Albany into account, King and his colleagues drafted something called Project C — with the “C” standing for confrontation.

Project C became the blueprint for the Birmingham campaign, one of history’s most iconic fights for social justice. In Birmingham, a potent mix of civil disobedience, mass action, boycotts and more triggered a national crisis that not only helped to desegregate the city, but also set the wheels in motion for the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

Meticulously planned, Project C decided to target the racist and overbearing Police Chief Bull Connor. They picked Birmingham, in part, because it was a hotbed of vicious white supremacy, and because Bull Connor had a reputation for responding to protests with violence and aggression.

They set goals for the amount of money the movement would need to cover bail for large numbers of people participating in civil disobedience. The goal, as King later wrote in his infamous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” was to “create a situation so crisis packed that it will inevitably open the door to negotiation,” exposing and forcing the entire United States to come to terms with the true, vicious nature of Jim Crow segregation.

In Birmingham, the crisis was cultivated through mass, principled, nonviolent direct action that provoked Bull Connor to use every nasty tool at his disposal to crack down on resistance. The actions started as a slow simmer and built to a steady boil with the Children’s Crusade — a massive march in Birmingham, where thousands of school children were met with police batons, water cannons and attack dogs. When photos from the Children’s Crusade hit the front page of national newspapers, the campaign burst onto the national agenda.

It took risks. It took guts. It took discipline. It took creating a steady, constant escalation of planned actions — exactly what I think we need to stop Kinder Morgan.

A Project C for Kinder Morgan

If you accept, as I do, that Kinder Morgan can only be stopped by either a shift in the position of the Trudeau government or the company abandoning the pipeline project, then you must also accept that either of those conditions requires an unprecedented, dramatic political moment.

In 2016, a moment like this captured global attention in Standing Rock. A Native American encampment to protect sacred land and water began at a slow simmer, eventually drawing the attention of the world, when — after a constant series of spiritual actions and acts of civil disobedience — police attacked protesters with water cannons in sub-zero temperatures. The public outrage and the response to this stoked a fire that put enough pressure on President Barack Obama to reject a crucial permit required for the pipeline.

The challenge facing Kinder Morgan opponents is that a crisis born of police action is not a given. In rural North Dakota, Native Americans have been the subject of police violence for as long as colonial police forces have existed. While it’s true that the indigenous peoples in British Columbia have faced the same story with the RCMP, things like the Division Liaison Team tell us that there is a concerted effort on the part of police, likely at the behest of the federal government, to avoid these kinds of conflicts around Kinder Morgan. It’s possible that sustained confrontation around Kinder Morgan could result in the kind of police overreach that provokes a national crisis, but right now it seems likely that we’ll see more of a Laurie Pritchett approach to policing Kinder Morgan protests than a Bull Connor approach.

At the same time, that doesn’t mean crisis is impossible to provoke. Shortly after approving the Kinder Morgan pipeline in 2016, Federal Natural Resources Minister Jim Carr threatened to use the military to get the Kinder Morgan pipeline built. It’s a comment he quickly walked back, and while it hints at the potential of the federal government authorizing excessive force in policing Kinder Morgan protests, it likely speaks more to the Trudeau government’s tendency towards bluster and political overreach. With the ascendance of British Columbia’s New Democrats, on a pledge to fight Kinder Morgan with “every tool” available, federal political overreach is almost inevitable. In fact, it’s already underway.

A few weeks ago, the Canadian government gave its support to Kinder Morgan in a bid to overrule local and regional permitting, which the Texas oil company says is holding up its pipeline’s progress. Responding to this claim, British Columbia Environment Minister George Heyman told the federal government to “get its nose out of British Columbia’s business.”

With comments like this, it’s clear that we have smoke, but we still need fire. To date, the provincial government’s main “tool” in the fight against Kinder Morgan has been rhetoric. It is saying the right things, but many in the province are looking for action, like the legal “tools” for stopping the pipeline that environmental lawyers laid out earlier this year. These tools, and others, could provide the most significant delays to the Kinder Morgan pipeline, as well as provoke the kind of federal government overreach that would put Kinder Morgan front-and-center in Canadian politics.

We don’t have to wait for the provincial government to take action. Instead, we can act, with recognition that strategic civil disobedience can pressure leaders into living up to the moral leadership undertaken by everyday people.

In June 1963, just months after the Children’s Crusade pushed the Birmingham campaign to a crescendo, President John F. Kennedy delivered his now infamous Civil Rights Address. The speech marked not only the president’s embrace of the civil rights movement, but his recognition of Project C’s strategic brilliance. During his speech, he remarked that it was “the fires of frustration and discord” where “redress is sought in the streets in demonstrations, parades and protests” that moved him to action.

Project C’s success in moving Kennedy to act hints at another lesson for the Kinder Morgan movement: taking the fight national.

In the run up to the Birmingham campaign, King and his compatriots surmised that moving politicians like Kennedy would require action from Northern whites. At the time, Jim Crow laws kept most African Americans in the South out of the electoral process, and so neither Democrats nor Republicans seriously considered their opinions in any political calculus. For Project C organizers, that meant they needed to draw the eyes, stir the hearts and move the feet of the people politicians most coveted: white liberals and progressives across the United States. In the end, Project C inspired more than 150 actions across the United States, shocking the established order.

To stop Kinder Morgan, this has to be about more than just a pipeline. On the ground, the goal of the Birmingham campaign was to desegregate that single Alabama city. But the Southern Christian Leadership Conference organizers knew that trying to desegregate the South one city at a time was impossible. They looked at Birmingham as not just an instrumental campaign, but as a chance to wage a broader, symbolic struggle. To do this to Kinder Morgan, we have to treat this not just as a battle to stop one pipeline, but as a flashpoint in the fight to keep fossil fuels in the ground, respect indigenous rights, and shift Canada and the world to 100 percent renewable energy.

From Strategy to Action

For the past few months I’ve felt caught between two truths. On the one hand, Kinder Morgan has started construction, and that demands response. On the other, a response without a pathway to victory has felt, at times, as dangerous as not responding at all.

Albany and Birmingham offer helpful lessons to our current moment, and — like the designers of the Birmingham campaign — we should apply the lessons of the past to the struggle ahead.

We know that, in challenging Kinder Morgan, we’re likely to face a restrained and measured police response much more akin to Laurie Pritchett than Bull Connor. That means we need to create drama by other means — such as by using a steady escalation of action to demonstrate moral leadership and by calling our local and provincial political allies into action. If they take bold stands against Kinder Morgan, they will draw the company and federal government into dramatic, public conflicts.

We also know that the fight against Kinder Morgan needs to be more than just a series of actions against a single pipeline. Kinder Morgan was approved without adequate climate considerations and against the opposition of indigenous peoples and communities. We have to demonstrate that, in the era of climate change, this cannot happen without facing mass civil disobedience. In other words, we need fires of frustration and discord, and we need them from Vancouver to Toronto and everywhere in between.

We also have to remember that in Albany organizers stumbled into the fight of their lives and paid dearly for it. In Birmingham they marched, heads held high, into an even greater fight with a plan to win, changing American politics forever. In taking on Kinder Morgan, we have to be prepared to win, not just be spoiling for a fight.

As the Sun-Tzu quote goes, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” It’s an overused quote, but right now — as we gear up for what could well be one of the decisive battles over the fate of our climate — it’s worth considering.Φ

Born and raised in Edmonton, Cam Fenton has worked on climate justice campaigns all across Canada. He is the former Director of the Canadian Youth Climate Coalition and currently works for 350.org. He is based in Vancouver, BC. @CamFenton. This article appeared on December 13 at Waging Nonviolence.

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