CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE AS TACTIC, NOT CULTURE
(Edited transcript of speech by Mitch Friedman, Executive Director of Northwest Ecosystem Alliance, to Ancient Forest Activist Conference in Ashland, Oregon, 2/3/96)
I'm substituting up here for Matt McWilliams, who I understand is pretty good at talking about campaign message and strategy. I don't know what he would have said, but think of me as Matt McWilliams in handcuffs. Actually my reputation has changed quite a bit, I haven't been arrested in about seven years, though I had previously been getting busted at maybe the rate of three or four times a year. So at this point I guess I'm "radically challenged," but maybe those of you who think I've sold out or compromised can give me a little bit of rope and we'll see what we can do.
The first thing I want to do is honor the role that Earth First! has played in the ancient forest issue over the last thirteen years. Feel free to applaud -- not for me but for Earth First! -- and not just Earth First! but civil disobedience. (Applause)
What I want to talk about is staying on message in a campaign that's tactically aggressive. I see civil disobedience as a tactic for delivering a message, rather than as a culture. In 1985 in the Millennium Grove, in the Willamette National Forest, we carried out one of the first tree sit actions. I was one of six people in what at that time where the oldest trees in Oregon. Sitting eighty feet up there on a platform for a few days, looking down and having time to think, and I can remember what was in my mind. I was acting out of desperation. I didn't have confidence that we would succeed, that we would achieve our objectives of protecting substantial ancient forest tracts. By no means did I believe at that time that we would see the cut reduced to, on the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, for instance, under five million board feet per year from the 300,000 million of a decade ago. I think for many of us working at that time -- in the front lines with kriptonite wrapped around our necks -- our progress has outpaced our wildest dream, even though we still have far to go.
Aggressive civil disobedience had a key roll in that history. It brought the original attention, from which the issue matured to the point where we could make substantial gains. This issue has a history of boldness, forged in direct action, that allows us to even talk about zero cut. Civil disobedience has played a key role, though not the only role, in that history. Though we are now trying to beat back an offensive from the other side, the clearcutting rider and other Congressional assaults, I feel that this is a year of opportunity for us. I haven't never seen organizing opportunities like we have this.
Our opposition refers to us as the environmental industry, even though we are few, sometimes feeble, and always out-spent. They see us as strong, even while we gripe about the media being owned by the corporations, and our neighbor is bugging our phones or whatever it is -- we think everything is against us! Well it is true that we are the little guys. But that has advantages, too. We can be more of a guerrilla movement. We can be dynamic. We can shift our tactics. We can shift our message. We can shift our alliances, all at the blink of an eye. These are the advantages of smallness, and of guerrilla movements.
But we too often have stagnated. When we always use the same message, and always use the same tactics, then we are easily defeated by an opposition that, while much slower (at least in theory) has really danced circles around us at many times over the years. We need to think of ways of being dynamic, and utilizing our advantages.
In 1988, after I had a run up a dozen or so arrests in a few years, I looked left and right and saw the same people sitting next to me on the logging road that I saw the week before. They looked, acted, and kind of smelled the same -- no offense. But I started to think we had stagnated. Here we were, with our support for an endangered ecosystem, and our huge and so-called visionary Earth First! wilderness proposals that could be entirely supported within the mainstream of scientific thought, getting carried away with how radical we were, to the exclusion of building strategic alliances. I was trying to infiltrate the North Cascades Audubon chapter at the time, and I started to find that these people were kindred spirits, that they didn't need to be infiltrated, that the things I stood for they as well stood for! I started to wonder why the scientists in Audubon, and the little old ladies in tennis shoes, weren't sitting next to me on the logging road instead of the guy with dreadlocks. And I started to think that there would be better ways to convey our message to the public which poll after poll shows supports our issues. Don't take offense if you like to feel kind of cutting edge and radical, but what we stand for is mainstream. Okay, maybe many of us do have other agendas that are more radical than protecting ancient forests, but we come together on a common theme.
I want to talk about this dilemma in the context of something that's recently gone on. As I left Earth First! to organize other efforts, such as the Ancient Forest Rescue Expedition and an increased familiarity with conservation biology in our movement, I've always hoped for the opportunity to come back to the civil disobedience part of the campaign. I dreamed of the day when the scientist and the little old lady would sit in the logging road and the Earth First!ers would sit on the side quietly applauding, ducking the roving eye if the cameras. I see that opportunity this year. I see anger and passion when I talk to my friends in Audubon and the community groups. The people that were active in the Adopt-a-Forest groups seven or eight years ago are now coming forward and they're angry! They are saying, "I'm ready to get out on the front lines!" The organizing opportunities are monumental this year, largely because of the clearcut rider.
I have to say to the people and forests of Oregon, Montana and Idaho -- the states that are getting hammered far worst than Washington -- we sympathize with you. We don't have as many nasty sales. But we are trying to use those nasty sales we do have as horror stories, organizing opportunities to build support to repeal the whole rider.
The organizing opportunities on the Olympic Peninsula are exceptional. Classic ancient forests, inside Late-Successional Reserves and Tier I Watersheds, that communities started organizing around eight years ago. I started hearing rumblings from people, long time organizers, that there's a high anxiety level, and that people are ready to act. Mainstream people, community people. I wanted to develop a comfort zone with these people, to train them in civil disobedience and give them a chance to empower themselves to where they felt it was their campaign, and they could go out and protest in their own idiom. I hoped they would take on this tactic that has radical overtones, but modify it to be an expression of their own view point.
But what happened was that some of the Earth First!ers from other communities came in. I think there is a notion that logging protest is an intellectual property right of Earth First!, and that if there is a protest you've got to have people there in torn-up jeans carrying an Earth First! banner. What I saw happen, was the community energy dissipated. People didn't want to be associate with that idiom. It was very frustrating .
In contrast, there is a remarkable group in Bellingham, the Western Endangered Species Alliance (WESA), of Western Washington University. These are passionate, aggressive activists, not moderate sell-outs like me. They're vegans, maybe anarchists, and every bit as idealistic as anybody else in the movement. But they are strategically savvy, and they are humble, and they want to do what's going to most help the forest. We were able to work with these students and eventually link them with some elders of the Tacoma Audubon and Sierra Club chapters and other people, and put together a very effective protest within the office of Congressman Norm Dicks.
Fifteen people got arrested, mostly WESA activists, all wearing formal business clothes. Robert Greenway, a 63 year-old constituent of Dicks' district and former member of the Port Townsend Planning Commission, and these elders of the Audubon Society led the charge and what we got out of that was incomparable. Front page press, prime time coverage, that emphasized the community aspect, emphasized the forest, and nowhere did you see the radical image that would distract support from those messages. It really confirmed for me that this sort of thing can be done, if we can get around the need to always have the radical in the radical situation. This, I believe. will make our movement far more effective.
The change involves more, however, than Earth First!ers in costume. We need to correct some deeper perceptions that have contributed to stagnation and cynicism in our movement, and allow us to evolve to be more effective. Paraphrasing Rita May Brown, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. I recall a whole series of myths that I once believed, and maybe even helped create, within the Earth First! culture. I want to challenge them right now, in my own words.
First myth: THERE'S NO SUCH THING AS BAD PRESS. That's an old Richard Nixon adage. Didn't work for him, won't work for you. A corollary of this myth is that the press is going to screw you anyhow. We get so caught up in our outrage of the corporate juggernaut (which includes the press) that we begin to think the press is part of a conspiracy trying to damn us. While those tendencies may or may not be present in the media, we are still the guerrillas. We can be dynamic. We can out-maneuver them to bring forward a new message, a new contingency, a new carrier of our message, each time. With creativity, we can almost always find a way to get our message out. We can at least always maximize our probability of getting our message out in the most impactful way.
Second myth: THE HAIL MARY PASS IS GOOD STRATEGY. (Sorry about the sports metaphor, I think its my only one in here. In football, when a team is losing and there remain only a few second in the game, they will attempt a "Hail Mary Pass." Which is to throw the ball as high and as far as you can and pray that someone on your team catches it for a touchdown.) The Hail Mary pass is the best way I can describe many radical press events: Nobody's doing anything, so let's do something! Then the same five people go climb a tree, or lock down to a bulldozer, or conduct a puke-in, or something. The question that follows the action is "Did we get press?," instead of the more important question, "Did we get good press?" We cannot afford to leave our organizing and media messages to luck or chance. The Hail Mary Pass is nice to have as a last second option, but we still have time to do things right in this (and most) campaign.
Third myth: EXTENDING THE SPECTRUM ALLOWS THE MAINSTREAM GROUPS TO TAKE STRONGER POSITIONS. Let's call this one Foreman Envy. It's a great strategy, and probably deserves to be on page one of any strategy book. But the Earth First! strategy book seems to end there, with just one page. A good strategy book should be as thick as the Bible, which says, "For everything there is a season." What is today the season for? What will we do tomorrow? If we do a puke-in today, what can we possibly do for an encore? People have been studying and practicing strategy for thousands of years. If it was as easy as always taking the extreme, frankly we would all have been blown up by now.
Fourth myth: NOBODY IS KEEPING SCORE (sorry for another sports metaphor). I think those of us in urban communities look at things differently than rural activists, Because the rural people know that the score is being kept. Whenever something happens in a rural community, such as a disrespectful action or even out-of-town activists from the base camp acting self-righteously at the gas station, residents get feedback about it. Bad press and bad grapevine affects them. People in the rural community know that what goes around comes around and mistakes may last for years. For instance, I wish like hell that we had not laid siege to the Okanogan National Forest Headquarters after the RRR in 1988. Since that fateful day, the whole movement in that area has had to work very hard to get past obstacles to alliances and public support. We gave people an excuse to hate turn us of.
In urban areas you don't get that clear feedback. It is not because no score is being kept, but only because the scoreboard is far less visible in the frenzy of urban media and urban life. I won't go so far as to say that God is watching, but I will say that only an excellent strategist can keep track of the score on a regional or national scale, and figure out how to maneuver a very difficult campaign, such as Zero Cut or even repeal the rider, from point 'A' to point 'B'. I assure you it will require more than the "throw a Hail Mary Pass then go to the pub" approach.
Fifth myth: IMAGE IS NOTHING, THIRST IS EVERYTHING. Sprite soft drink is very wrong about this. My observation is that, "It isn't only what's in your heart that counts, but your hairstyle". I know I'm going to get a lot of heat for, but its damn important. We need to find affective messengers, not just affective messages. We all know when we are at a protest, even if God Herself was sitting there with a kryptonite lock around her neck, the TV camera will focus on the hippie-with-a-drum. Nothing against the hippie. There is a lot that hippie could be doing to contribute to the message and the movement, but being in front and on the camera is not one of them. Most people will respect your message if they believe that you are respecting them. And most people take offense at people who reject the norms of appearance. Why should they listen to you when your appearance tells them (at least they think it does) that you don't respect them? If you don't care about reaching those people, then don't call the media.
Sixth and last myth: US RADICALS ARE CHOSEN TO SUFFER. Maybe this myth is rooted in the rich Hebrew heritage of our movement. While lots of Earth First!ers have Jewish blood (e.g., Daryl Cherney, Howie Wolke, Dana Lyons, John Seed, many more), we cannot allow ourselves indulgent self-flagellation. The notion that if we weren't out there imbedded in concrete in the freezing rain, nobody would be, is patently false. It's a croak! In fact, in many cases if the Earth First!er wasn't there with the kryptonite lock, if the Earth First!er was instead going around spreading their enthusiasm and their information, we might find there to be a lot of people willing to make some comparable commitment. But they will only do it if they can convey their own message. The commercial fisher wants to deliver a fish message. The racial minority wants to deliver an environmental justice message. The children want to deliver the future generation message. The Auduboner want to deliver the bird message. The senior wants to deliver the responsibility message. And they all have their own way of doing so.
So working with other groups is not a matter of convincing them to get behind the Earth First banner. It's a matter of convincing yourself to get behind a common banner and one that everyone can share. I believe that radicals are at their best when they are organizing moderates to do radical things. There are some ways that I think can help you in doing this.
IT'S ABOUT EARTH FIRST, NOT EARTH FIRST! FIRST: I remember at the forest rally (before Clinton's forest summit in Portland), we had seventy thousand people in the pouring rain supporting forest protection. I thought it was an epiphany. We had worked our butts off for two weeks to pull this rally together and make it something that would celebrate the message of ancient forests, and we had success beyond our wildest dreams. But from some people, all we got was whining about how we shouldn't be celebrating the message of the forest, we should be instead celebrating the role of the messengers, particularly people who had sacrificed in civil disobedience. I saw that as selfish and divided loyalty. Its a shame, but history doesn't always honor it's fallen. But if they were successful, those fallen are honored by the justice the won, and that is great honor indeed.
GIVE CREDIT, DON'T TAKE CREDIT: To be effective organizers, and to build the broad-based movement which we are capable of and will need to win, we must be willing continually to give the credit, not take the credit. It is particularly important to give credit to grassroots, to other constituencies, and even, sometimes, to politicians. This is about finding ways to be ecocentric, not egocentric, and help ourselves get beyond the obstacles to doing effective organizing so we may continue to build the movement in this year of incomparable opportunity.
FEIGN HUMILITY: David Brower taught me this when I was a young, rambunctious EF! activist. I was about to participate in a debate with a couple of timber industry people, and I asked David, "While I've never been in a debate, I know I can kick these guys butts because I know more than they do and I'm right. What do I have to do tactically to succeed." Brower replied, "Well if you're so smart and you know you can defeat these guys, it's obvious what you need to do is feign humility." So if your full of dignity and respect for other people and for the Earth, wear it on your shirt sleeve. If your not, feign humility. It works.
This year we have great issues to organize around. Issues like the clearcut rider, sweetheart deals in congress, and the attack on the environment by the radical right, are resonating with the public more than anything we've ever seen. And we have energy greater than we had even at the height of the ancient forest wars. The polls, as it's been pointed out time and time again, show that people care about the environment. They may be against the radical connotations of some aspects of the environmental movement and certainly some tactics, but we can work around that. In fact, opinion research has found that environmental protests often turn people against our issues, because they cannot relate to our persona or tactic even if they share our concern. Again, the key will be finding the right messengers. We have much to work with, and will only have ourselves to blame if we fail to make great progress on national forest protection, in particular.
I want to close now with a story about an article that Ken Brower, David's son, wrote about Earth First! some years back. Ken is a great conservationist and a fine writer. He came out to Portland where some friends and I were doing protests. I was coordinating Washington Earth First at the time, and we had a saying that if you weren't irreverent, you're irrelevant. I was one of the principle agitators behind the short-lived but infamous Stumps Suck movement. We were pushing the envelope in a very big way and we thought we were bloody cool, and we certainly expected Ken Brower to share that opinion. When his article came out in Harrowsmith Magazine, he described an event were we were sitting around and talking about getting arrested somewhere. One friend was making fun of the police and was talking about this "fat-assed cop." Brower wrote that found himself thinking about this fat-assed cop, and sympathizing with him. He realized that if he were stuck in a foxhole at war, he could depend on that Fat-assed Cop more than he could us Earth First!ers.
It made me think about how we sometimes alienate even our allies. The only way that we are going to make progress on these issues is if everything we do is infused with a spirit of dignity and respect. We have one hell of a sales job to do and the audience we need to reach has to be greeted on their own terms. They are receptive to the things we say but only if we come to them in ways that don't cause them to close the door in our face before we say it. If we can do that, we can win. But if we get caught up in our emergencies and fail to do things right, we will isolate ourselves from the public, and we will lose. To much is at stake to allow that.
Mitch Friedman, Executive Director Northwest Ecosystem Alliance
POB 2813, Bellingham WA 98227