The Faint Glimmers of a New Populism?
Resisting the Pipeline in Texas
by Aidan McKinney
On February 15, 2003, I joined an estimated 15 million people worldwide in protests against the impending U.S. invasion of Iraq. The message that rang through the streets of the world couldn’t have been more clear — the war was immoral, unjust, and illegal. I remember the currents that tore through the crowds that day in Austin, TX. I remember the tangible sense of power that we felt as we marched on our small capitol building, and I remember the clarity that we affirmed with one another with our bodies and our words. I also remember watching helplessly, not so long after, as the first bombs fell on Baghdad. I remember the confusion and despair that took hold of me as the images of mu- tilated men, women and children came rolling in. My teenage self couldn’t grapple with the immensity of what was going on, with the sheer powerlessness of our words, our petitions, our sit-ins and protests. Why wasn’t it enough? Why wasn’t anything we were doing working to stop the violence being waged in our name?
I sit here, nine years later, alive with the conviction that we were only so powerless because we chose to be, haunted by the knowledge that, if we had wanted to, we could have shut that war down overnight.
We could have taken our numbers and blockaded every bottleneck of the U.S. economy: the oil refineries, the military bases, the shipping ports. The police and eventually the military would have come after us. We would have been jailed and pepper- sprayed and beaten by the thousands, but with those numbers thousands more could have answered. We would have clogged the jails, refused to give our names and cooperate with the legal system, holding steadfast to the clarity of our one simple demand: end the invasion, bring the military home, or we will take this economy down with us.
There are many reasons that we did not do this.
Chief among them is that many of our movements in the U.S. no longer think and act strategically — we do not name and seek to confront and dismantle the physical infrastructure that makes the functioning of the war machine and other atrocities possible to begin with. Our best efforts often go to confronting the symbols of political power — such as capitol buildings that are often empty of congressmen and women at the time of our arrival anyway.
Following this, there is a profound disconnect from reality on the Left. We speak about war as though it’s not inherent to our way of living. We speak of our economy as though its prosper- ity doesn’t depend on the routine issuance of profound global violence. We speak — and act — as though everything we take for granted in our daily lives — air conditioning, strawberries in January, the internet — could exist without daily war against the global poor and against the planet itself.
It’s occurred to me that deep down, we must know this about ourselves. We must know that we can’t have our cake and eat it too. Which is probably why we don’t really try, why we don’t do anything that could actually shut this thing down.
The truth of the matter is that the infrastructure that secures the power of the one percent and the infrastructure that is oppressing the poor and destroying the planet are one and the same — that infrastructure is, primarily, the fossil fuel industry.
The one percent will never willingly shut that infrastructure down. Indeed, against all sanity, they are continuing to increase fossil fuel extraction.
I write this from the woods of east Texas, where the unlikeliest of alliances against a key component of the fossil fuel industry is taking shape. Climate justice activists have joined with small Oklahoma and Texas landowners, environmental justice organizations, and Tea Party conservatives to shut down the construction of the southern leg of the Keystone XL Pipeline.
The concerns that draw us together are many. Many of us stand in solidarity with the indigenous of what’s now called Alberta, Canada, who are very much under assault. The boreal forests that they call home are being destroyed, their communities being violently uprooted, their bodies and waters and subsistence bases poisoned.
Many of us are driven to action by the understanding that the Tar Sands project as a whole is quite possibly the greatest contemporary threat to our planet’s climatic stability. If the Tar Sands project isn’t dismantled, it could very well be game over for our species and for our collective home.
For small-scale landowners and political conservatives up and down the pipeline route, this is a clear confrontation with the injustices of eminent domain and the overturning of private property rights by a multinational corporation and its governmental allies. Many of us across the political spectrum are outraged at the clear threat to the health and safety of millions of people by the presence of the pipeline that’s literally cutting through our front yards and fruit orchards and small farms. Environmental justice organizers along the Gulf recognize that this project will only further impoverish and poison the working class communi- ties that live in the shadows of those refineries slated to process Tar Sands bitumen once it gets there. Liberals and conservatives alike are beginning to understand that all legal recourses have been exhausted, and that the direct action tactics long advocated by radicals on the left are the necessary next step. And a smaller number of us know that it is high time that this war against our only home has two sides. And we intend to prove that strategic, sustained, and escalating resistance against the infrastructure of the powerful is possible and necessary.
So far, that resistance has taken the form of lockdowns to key pieces of equipment, which is a strong escalation from the symbolic protests and mass arrests that occurred in Washington D.C. and elsewhere a year ago. And recently, as of this writing, the escalation in tactics has gone one step further: an indefinite tree-sit right in the path of TransCanada’s destructive pipeline. There is an 80 foot tall tree village in east Texas, as well as a 40-foot tall, 120-foot wide scaffold wall, both occupied by some very brave people. These folks have several weeks’ worth of food and water, but if they are successful in maintaining that stronghold, they will doubtlessly need more material support in the coming times.
What do the less radical participants in our movement make of such radical tactics? They seem to be all aboard. For the liber- als and conservatives who worked hard to oppose the Tar Sands project and the pipeline from the start, this is certainly a welcome, brave upping of the ante for them. I’ve seen radical leftists, liberals, conservatives and far right-wingers train in nonviolent civil disobedience together. The feeling such moments give me is at once exhilarating and positively terrifying. People are beginning to realize that there will be no institutional intervention on behalf of our health and safety and the stability of our one and only climate. People are beginning to realize that we have to resist projects like this pipeline more directly, by physically putting a stop to them ourselves. How far that level of resistance goes tactically is a subject of intense debate, as always. But one thing has become very clear: something is shifting, and that something that is long overdue.
Here in this merging of political communities is uncharted territory, where the languages of the commons, of health and safety, of breathable air and drinkable water, of collective libera-tion and of private property concerns are all struggling to find a home with one another.
Some of our friends from the North can’t help but oscillate between voiced amusement to near shock that such resistance is going down in Texas, of all places. Those of us who are from here, however, know that it makes a perfect kind of sense, and that this likely represents the mere rumblings of an angry, waking giant whose time has truly come.
But growing such seemingly unlikely alliances is not only crucial in the fight against the Keystone XL in Texas, but in the greater war that we currently find ourselves in. The truth is that the bottlenecks and choke points of the fossil fuel industry do not lie in Brooklyn, the Bay Area, or the suburbs of Dallas — they are almost entirely found in the rural United States. If we are to have any chance at building a deep-seated, effective culture of resistance against fossil fuels for the long haul, we need to figure out ways to transcend the left-right dichotomy we so often take for granted.
Purple in The Circle
There are many of us involved in the campaign who do not see ourselves represented in the often-touted blue and red political map of this country. As some of us have become fond of saying, “There is purple in the circle of Tar Sands Blockade.” Most of us are from Texas, and a number of us grew up in small Texas towns or were raised in conservatively-minded families and communities. For us, this isn’t about contact with the unknown, but with the deeply familiar, and though there is tremendous pain where our beliefs do indeed diverge with those of our more conservative or libertarian counterparts, there are also profound and shared resonances with those who are often deemed to be our political enemies.
There are those of us who would no doubt be dismissed by the community as leftist environmentalists, save that a number of us eat meat (from locally, justly raised or wild animals eating their native diets) and that some us even hunt. There’s a core group of us who go to the local, small town farmers’ markets every week, and we give our financial support to local producers of grass-fed beef and dairy as well. Many of us share a critical nostalgia for the smaller, relatively more functional communities that have been destroyed this past century by forces like Wal-Mart. And we certainly share a visceral hostility for the federal government and the corporate press.
Meanwhile, there are those of us on the left in this campaign who recognize the cultural failings of the left — the unnecessary damage done by our youthful obsessions with shock value for the sake of shock value, our unnamed metropolitan smugness, the immaturity of many of our counter-cultural milieus. We recog-nize the hypocrisy of a left that wants to end imperial wars but also wants to maintain the “American way of life,” a connection that the right doesn’t seem to be confused about, however un-consciously or ruthlessly so. We recognize the wishful thinking of progressives who extol the renewable energy technotopia to come, and that there are folks on the right who are not simply hostile to the idea of wind and solar farms out of ignorance, but a willingness to look reality in the face and do the math. And even the very queerest among us recognize that the “culture wars” have been blown out of proportion and fanned into unnecessarily tall flames by those in power in order to divide us.
Some of us speak affectionately about building “the Texas Left”: a more militant left, a more down-home and grounded left, a more “don’t tread on me” left. We’re tired of pretending that the right has a monopoly on values and that the left has a monopoly on ecological concerns. We’re tired of pretending that we don’t belong in the places we grew up in, and that our only recourse is to migrate to progressive (urban) centers. We’re tired of hearing the patronizing voices of our peers as they hitch-hike and train- hop their ways through the rural U.S. We want to forge a new populism that challenges everyone: left, right and center. We push our peers to clean up their language and acknowledge the locals with “sirs” and “ma’ams.” We push ourselves to sober up and be attentive to how we conduct ourselves in private and in public. We encourage each other to set aside the self-righteousness and know-it-all attitudes we so often cling to among our own. We humble ourselves and seek to hear in the words of others places where we can all grow a new kind of home.
This also means that we lovingly but firmly try to open up conversations with folks that might not happen otherwise: “Yes, it’s a true and bitter shame that this multinational corporation is taking your land and poisoning your water, but remember also that this land was stolen from the indigenous once before, and that U.S. corporations do this to poor people around the world every single day.” Worded with respect and care, and in the context of the trouble that’s come about, folks might be surprised at just how receptive many folks really are.
At this moment it feels premature to speculate about where such alliances may or may not go. All conflicts have certainly not been set aside, and none of the individuals involved in this campaign can speak for the entirety of their communities and the places that they’re coming from. Tensions remain high among us, life remains messy. But somewhere in the spaces we share here there is the sense of a fragile, quiet, dawning thing, a shift that could truly bear out the kind of profound renewals we all need in the quieter battles and in the greater war to come.
Aidan McKinney is a steer-loving queer born and raised in Texas, where he is currently resisting the Keystone XL pipeline. He is a small-scale organic gardener specializing in perennial edible landscaping. His efforts center around the reclaiming of the Commons, the growth of living wealth from below, and the radicalization of the permacul-ture movement.