Eyes Wide Shut | The Tar Sands Action Protest & The Paralysis of a Movement – Excerpt

Eyes Wide Shut | The Tar Sands Action Protest & The Paralysis of a Movement

August 30th, 2011

Cory Morningstar

Following is an excerpt from Ward Churchill’s Pacifism as Pathology, first published in 1986. For anyone interested in mitigating the global collapse of all ecosystems and deterring planet-wide and species-wide genocide, this is essential reading.

For anyone wishing to take a critical look at the Tar Sands protests by groups funded (in some cases created) by the Rockefellers and other corporate foundations – who will stop at absolutely nothing to keep the current power structures intact – the excerpt from this essay is sure to wake one from the paralysis trapping and constraining movements and societies to the status quo.  The parallels of Churchill’s essay and events in Washington DC being celebrated and endorsed, while the planet rests on the precipice, are nothing less than Orwellian.

The question central to the emergence and maintenance of nonviolence as the oppositional foundation of American activism has not been the truly pacifist formulation, “How can we forge a revolutionary politics within which we can avoid inflicting violence on others?” On the contrary, a more accurate guiding question has been, “What sort of politics might I engage in which will both allow me to posture as a progressive and allow me to avoid incurring harm to myself?” Hence, the trappings of pacifism have been subverted to establish a sort of “politics of the comfort zone,” not only akin to what Bettelheim termed “the philosophy of business as usual” and devoid of perceived risk to its advocates, but minus any conceivable revolutionary impetus as well.[55] The intended revolutionary content of true pacifist activism — the sort practiced by the Gandhian movement, the Berrigans, and Norman Morrison – is thus isolated and subsumed in the United States, even among the ranks of self-professing participants.

Such a situation must abort whatever limited utility pacifist tactics might have, absent other and concurrent forms of struggle, as a socially transformative method. Yet the history of the American Left over the past decade shows too clearly that the more diluted the substance embodied in “pacifist practice,” the louder the insistence of its subscribers that nonviolence is the only mode of action “appropriate and acceptable within the context of North America,” and the greater the effort to ostracize, or even stifle divergent types of actions.[56] Such strategic hegemony exerted by proponents of this truncated range of tactical options has done much to foreclose on what ever revolutionary potential may be said to exist in modern America.

Is such an assessment too harsh? One need only attend a mass demonstration (ostensibly directed against the policies of the state) in any U.S. city to discover the answer. One will find hundreds, sometimes thousands, assembled in orderly fashion, listening to selected speakers calling for an end to this or that aspect of lethal state activity, carrying signs “demanding” the same thing, welcoming singers who enunciate lyrically on the worthiness of the demonstrators’ agenda as well as the plight of the various victims they are there to “defend,” and – typically – the whole thing is quietly disbanded with exhortations to the assembled to “keep working” on the matter and to please sign a petition and/or write letters to congress people requesting that they alter or abandon offending undertakings.

Throughout the whole charade it will be noticed that the state is represented by a uniformed police presence keeping a discreet distance and not interfering with the activities. And why should they? The organizers of the demonstration will have gone through “proper channels” to obtain permits required by the state and instructions as to where they will be allowed to assemble, how long they will be allowed to stay and, should a march be involved in the demonstration, along which routes they will be allowed to walk. Surrounding the larger mass of demonstrators can be seen others — an elite. Adorned with green (or white, or powder blue) armbands, their function is to ensure that demonstrators remain “responsible,” not deviating from the state-arm banded sanctioned plan of protest. Individuals or small groups who attempt to spin off from the main body, entering areas to which the state has denied access (or some other unapproved activity) are headed off by these arm-banded “marshals” who argue — pointing to the nearby police – that “troublemaking” will only “exacerbate an already tense situation” and “provoke violence,” thereby “alienating those we are attempting to reach.”[57] In some ways, the voice of the “good Jews” can be heard to echo plainly over the years.

At this juncture, the confluence of interests between the state and the mass nonviolent movement could not be clearer. The role of the police, whose function is to support state policy by minimizing disruption of its procedures, should be in natural conflict with that of a movement purporting to challenge these same policies and, indeed, to transform the state itself.[58] However, with apparent perverseness, the police find themselves serving as mere backups (or props) to self-policing (now euphemistically termed “peace-keeping” rather than the more accurate “marshaling”) efforts of the alleged opposition’s own membership. Both sides of the “contestation” concur that the smooth functioning of state processes must not be physically disturbed, at least not in any significant way.[59] All of this is within the letter and spirit of cooptive forms of sophisticated self-preservation appearing as an integral aspect of the later phases of bourgeois democracy.[60] It dovetails well with more shopworn methods such as the electoral process and has been used by the state as an innovative means of conducting public opinion polls, which better hide rather than eliminate controversial policies.[61] Even the movement’s own sloganeering tends to bear this out from time to time, as when Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) coined the catch-phrase of its alternative to the polling place: “Vote with your feet, vote in the street.”[62]

Of course, any movement seeking to project a credible self-image as something other than just one more variation of accommodation to state power must ultimately establish its “militant” oppositional credentials through the media in a manner more compelling than rhetorical speechifying and the holding of impolite placards (“Fuck the War” was always a good one) at rallies.[63] Here, the time-honored pacifist notion of “civil disobedience” is given a new twist by the adherents of nonviolence in America. Rather than pursuing Gandhi’s (or, to a much lesser extent, King’s) method of using passive bodies to literally clog the functioning of the state apparatus — regardless of the cost to those doing the clogging — the American nonviolent movement has increasingly opted for “symbolic actions.”[64]

The centerpiece of such activity usually involves an arrest, either of a token figurehead of the movement (or a small, selected group of them) or a mass arrest of some sort. In the latter event, “arrest training” is generally provided – and lately has become “required” by movement organizers – by the same marshals who will later ensure that crowd control police units will be left with little or nothing to do. This is to ensure that “no one gets hurt” in the process of being arrested, and that the police are not inconvenienced by disorganized arrest procedures. [65]

The event which activates the arrests is typically preplanned, well publicized in advance, and, more often than not, literally coordinated with the police — often including estimates by organizers concerning how many arrestees will likely be involved. Generally speaking, such “extreme statements” will be scheduled to coincide with larger-scale peaceful demonstrations so that a considerable audience of “committed” bystanders (and, hopefully, NBC/CBS/ABC/CNN) will be on hand to applaud the bravery and sacrifice of those arrested; most of the bystanders will, of course, have considered reasons why they themselves are unprepared to “go so far” as to be arrested.[66] The specific sort of action designed to precipitate the arrests themselves usually involves one of the following: (a) sitting down in a restricted area and refusing to leave when ordered; (b) stepping across an imaginary line drawn on the ground by a police representative; (c) refusing to disperse at the appointed time; or (d) chaining or padlocking the doors to a public building. When things really get heavy, those seeking to be arrested may pour blood (real or ersatz) on something of “symbolic value.”[67]

As a rule, those arrested are cooperative in the extreme, meekly allowing police to lead them to waiting vans or buses for transportation to whatever station house or temporary facility has been designated as the processing point. In especially “militant” actions, arrestees go limp, undoubtedly severely taxing the states repressive resources by forcing the police to carry them bodily to the vans or buses (monitored all the while by volunteer attorneys who are there to ensure that such “police brutality” as pushing, shoving, or dropping an arrestee does not occur). In either event, the arrestees sit quietly in their assigned vehicles – or sing “We Shall Overcome” and other favorites — as they are driven away for booking. The typical charges levied will be trespassing, creating a public disturbance, or being a public nuisance.

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13 Comments on “Eyes Wide Shut | The Tar Sands Action Protest & The Paralysis of a Movement – Excerpt”

  1. Erica Says:

    Le sigh. I get it. I’ve watched all the DGR videos. I’ve read your other post calling Tar Sands Action a “Commodification” of DeChristopher (although he endorsed it). On the other hand I’ve been mildly reprimanded from one in the NGO community suggesting there’s a “better way” than getting arrested. One can’t win, apparently! Getting arrested certainly wasn’t a big deal (to me) but look, people have to start somewhere. Courage is built bit by bit, as are numbers. You’ve an awful lot of finger-pointing going on here, too – what have you done for the cause lately?


  2. Lorna Salzman Says:

    My criticism is based on one major thing: McKibben’s refusal to state and URGE action on the MEANS he proposes to achieve that 80% reduction/350 ppm. He has no platform, no proposals, no recommendations beyond direct action. That is why I asked what the plan was for AFTERWARDS. He has none.

    This warrants criticism of the strongest kind. Have you ever asked him how he thinks we should achieve our goals? He has no answer.

    Direct action succeeds only when part of a broad multi-front campaign of education, lobbying, litigation, and grassroots organizing. The anti nuke movement discovered this early on and as a result succeeded in pretty much shutting down the domestic reactor business. I wish that the global warming people were smart enough to understand this.

    Maybe they are not our enemies but they certainly are obstacles and they are part of the problem, which is how to create a unified movement behind a strong unified agenda and platform. No environmentalist worth her salt has ever considered whether the battle she was “insuperable” and whether fighting was winnable or unwinnable. It still had to be fought.

    And no, they are NOT doing everything they can think of. McKibben explicitly rejected in an email to me the notion of lobbying and legislation. He said it was futile. This is not what I consider leadership, to put it mildly. I have given him and other groups many suggestions for meaningful action: an EcoPAC for starters, an energy legislation proposal for another. That they still refuse to consider them is their fatal flaw…and will be fatal for the rest of us too.

    They haven’t raised the stakes either. The stakes are votes and public support for a PROGRAM. He has no program. He has no ideas. He is also a morally righteous religious preacher. Morality and a couple of bucks buys a NYC subway token. It isn’t politics.

    He gets big bucks from foundations; he solicits support from corporations; he is undercutting the rest of us in every way possible and thereby subverting any chance of a broad movement. These things are facts and need to be stated clearly.

    Lorna Salzman


  3. Reader Says:

    ho hum, no surprise, sad so many though fall for this, and i got a lot of emails from veteran real activists going on the bus, (pollution) to go there and sit down and pay DC constables $100 for the opportunity after(summons)… good for the grad students though!;-)


  4. Archipelagan Says:

    Well constructed and articulated argument Lorna. Yours, is an essential critique of a highjacked, corporatized, and neutralized version of “activism”.

    It seems the algebra of the tipping point will be based upon Americans finally realizing recurring “natural” disasters, such as what are now occurring on the Gulf and East coasts of the US, the “exceptional”droughts of the Midwest and Southwest, and the wildfires of the West and Northwest (to mention but a few), can be traced back to their collective unnatural reactions.

    There is something decidedly unnatural about a reaction by any creature choosing either abysmally ineffectual responses such as McKibben’s — or no responses at all — to overt threats upon their daily existence, their children’s futures and ultimately, their survival as a species.

    It seems only when Americans’ collective misery index equals whatever governmental threats of retaliation get projected, that such tipping points get finally realized.

    Then the cruel calculus of inertia will settle in like a bad dream — from both, the inertia of the electorate, and the inertia of oceans and atmosphere already oversaturated with CO2.

    ps. Erica: Lorna’s critique is essential to “the cause”, and stands on its own as a valuable contribution to that cause. Each of us are morally obligated to seek our highest potential as agents of change on the basis of however we can be most effectual. Lorna pulls this off splendidly by pointing to the fact the status quo activism exemplified by McKibben and too many others, is an artifact of sabotage, collaboration in construction of illusions, and merely serving the maintenance of corporate control of state policy.


  5. witsendnj Says:

    A scathing description of exactly what occurred at the Tar Sands Action Lorna – you might have been there it was so exact! Except you missed what Bill McKibben said on the very last day as he congratulated everyone on being serious and grown-up. “It’s not about stunts, and silly costumes,” he said.

    Yes he did!! Mothra wept a little at that.

    Later everyone wearing black t-shirts lined up and on cue, stripped them off, threw them in the air, leaving them on the ground like little pools of spilled oil. Never have I seen so many pale white hairy tubby potbellies, other than at a beach. But I guess because 350 planned it that was not a stunt.



  6. Connie Tuttle Says:

    I am somewhat astonished that so-called eco-activists seem to have chosen Bill McKibben as their personal whipping boy. Here is a man who YEARS before most persons even understood what was happening to the planet wrote a book (The End of Nature) that was also printed in The New Yorker. The New Yorker, for heaven’s sake, thereby bringing it to the attention of a previously somnolent population. That he may not agree with what the “militant” wing of the environmental movement deems is required for change does not lessen his contributions to the “movement.” What is going on among environmentalists mirrors what went on in earlier campaigns for “change” and it’s not limited to the 1960s…it’s part of the historical record going as far back as any “revolution” one cares to discuss. A small population decides the status quo cannot be allowed to continue for whatever reason (in this case the end of the world as we know it); that population spreads the word; more people join “the cause;” as more people join, more egos are involved; as more egos are involved more dissension grows; as more dissension grows, the potential for violence grows; as the potential becomes the reality the state steps in and crushes the opposition. The French Revolution ended in the Napoleonic empire; the American Revolution crushed internal opposition before a nation state had even been created. The environmental movement is consuming itself in the exact same way the old joke about the Democratic party states: Democrats standing in a circle and shooting at each other.
    The question that needs to be asked is terribly simple (and tragic): Is the survival of homo so-called sapiens REALLY that big a deal? Yes, we will bring down other species as we self-destruct, but as has been shown in books and film, the world without us will do quite nicely (and if the truth be told, much better). That we will likely have no part in Earth’s healing is just the way it is: to assume we can “save” the planet is nothing more than one more manifestation of human hubris (what got us into this mess in the first place).
    This does NOT mean that we sit idly by and let the corporate pigs “have their way” with Earth and our children’s future. But it ought to mean that we focus not on our petty squabbles and erudite essays, but on GETTING THE JOB DONE. This means leaving egos at the door, and finding common ground, rather than feeding the beast by feeding on each other.


    • rpauli Says:

      Yes Connie. Human survival is the very first decision we have to make. Should we? Do we expect to survive? Should we fully inform our children that we messed up so bad? Should we all change into apocalyptic cornucopians and just enjoy heavy consumption?

      There are physical laws describing how we can easily meet our extinction – but no law of science that says we will do so, or must do so.

      This is a test, a lesson. And lessons not learned will be repeated.

      We have yet to decide.


      • Dave the Wizard Says:

        We actually don’t have to inform our children of our screwup and its severity. They, regrettably will discover that all on their own through having to live with the results. And it is not something that will happen “sometime in the future”– that future is here and now every day with each “freak” occurrence of natural forces– colder, hotter, drier, wetter, windier,…… When will we face the fact that “normal” is only normal as long as it stays within previous parameters and then the freak occurrences become the new normal. Having peaceful protest co-opted by the holders of the status quo power means that the only hope is to escalate protest beyond the “allowable” comfortable levels to make the power structure uncomfortable, even fearful till we reach the point that fear of instability and protest leading to total loss of power and privilege is stronger than fear of losing some power and privilege, while holding onto the remainder. The ballot box could do that–but not with our fragmented movements, or “feet in the streets” beyond what the authorities allow us, as previous real protest movements here and abroad have shown us. Wimpy sanctioned imitations are like company unions– all show, no go.

  7. Connie Tuttle Says:

    Makes sense, Wizard. Now “all” that’s needed is a methodology and follow-through.


    • GreenHearted Says:

      Connie, you said something that hurts: “Yes, we will bring down other species as we self-destruct, but as has been shown in books and film, the world without us will do quite nicely (and if the truth be told, much better).”

      The books and films are wrong. We are making the biosphere uninhabitable, not just “taking a few species down with us.” The rock will remain, sure, but we are devolving the planet back to a moonscape, taking “life” with us. I can’t see how that’s going to be “much better” than the stunningly precious diversity of life living here now.

      Because most people in our EuroAmerican Western societies don’t give a flying $#@! about “life” itself (ie, other species), it seems the only way to safeguard the future is to help others see the importance of saving their own species from extinction.



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