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Frank Coughlin: The Humility of Love: A Lesson from Chiapas

By Frank Coughlin, Deep Green Resistance New York
Humility. An important word you rarely hear in our culture anymore. Our culture seems to be going in the opposite direction, everything with a superlative. Everything bigger, faster, better, stronger. Everything new, shiny, pretty, expensive. But never humble. “Dude, love that car. It’s so humble.” Yeah, you never hear that.

Politically on the left, in the “fight” as we call it, we’re just as guilty. We have a tendency towards ego, self-righteousness, hyper-individualism. We want our movements to be better, stronger, bigger. We want the big social “pop-off”, the “sexy” revolution, perhaps our face on the next generation’s t-shirts. But we never ask for humility. As we near what most scientists predict to be “climate catastrophe”, I’ve been thinking a lot about humility. I recently was able to travel to Chiapas, Mexico to learn about the Zapatista movement. I was there for a month, working with various groups in a human rights capacity. While I was there to provide some type of service, I left with a profound respect for a true revolutionary humility. This essay is not designed to be a complete history of the Zapatista movement, but perhaps it can provide some context.

The Zapatistas are an indigenous movement based in the southern state of Chiapas, Mexico. The name is derived from Emiliano Zapata, who led the Liberation Army of the South during the Mexican Revolution, which lasted approximately from 1910-1920. Zapata’s main rallying cry was “land and liberty”, exemplifying the sentiments of the many indigenous populations who supported and formed his army. The modern-day Zapatistas declare themselves the ideological heirs to these struggles, again representing many indigenous struggles in southern Mexico. While the Zapatistas became public in 1994, as their name implies, their struggle is the culmination of decades of struggle. Many of the mestizos (non-indigenous) organizers came from the revolutionary student struggles of the 60s and 70s in Mexico’s larger cities. In 1983, many of these organizers, along with their indigenous counterparts, who represented decades of indigenous organizing in the jungles of Mexico, formed the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN).

From 1983 to their dramatic declaration of war against the Mexican government in 1994, the EZLN formed and trained a secret army under the cover of the Lacandon Jungle. After a decade of organizing and training in the context of extreme poverty, an army of indigenous peasants, led by a mix of mestizos and indigenous leaders, surprised the world by storming five major towns in Chiapas. They chose the early morning hours of January 1st, 1994, the day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) went into effect. The connection with NAFTA was intentional because the destructive neoliberal policies inherent in the agreement were viewed as a death sentence to indigenous livelihoods. They used old guns, machetes, and sticks to take over government buildings, release prisoners from the San Cristobal jail, and make their first announcement, The First Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle. With most wearing the now signature pasamontañas over their faces, they declared war on the Mexican government, saying:

We are a product of 500 years of struggle: first against slavery, then during the War of Independence against Spain led by insurgents, then to avoid being absorbed by North American imperialism, then to promulgate our constitution and expel the French empire from our soil, and later the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz denied us the just application of the Reform laws and the people rebelled and leaders like Villa and Zapata emerged, poor men just like us. We have been denied the most elemental preparation so they can use us as cannon fodder and pillage the wealth of our country. They don’t care that we have nothing, absolutely nothing, not even a roof over our heads, no land, no work, no health care, no food nor education. Nor are we able to freely and democratically elect our political representatives, nor is there independence from foreigners, nor is there peace nor justice for ourselves and our children.

But today, we say ENOUGH IS ENOUGH…

We, the men and women, full and free, are conscious that the war that we have declared is our last resort, but also a just one. The dictators are applying an undeclared genocidal war against our people for many years. Therefore we ask for your participation, your decision to support this plan that struggles for work, land, housing, food, health care, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice and peace. We declare that we will not stop fighting until the basic demands of our people have been met by forming a government of our country that is free and democratic.

Very true to the words of Zapata, that it is “better to die on your feet than live on your knees”, the EZLN fighters engaged in a self-described suicide against the Mexican government. As Subcommandante Marcos, now known as Subcomandante Insurgente Galeano, the public face of the EZLN, stated, “If I am living on borrowed time, it is because we thought that we would go to the world above on the first of January. When I arrived at the second day, and the following, it was all extra.”1

What followed was a war of government repression. The quiet mountain towns of Chiapas were flooded with advanced military equipment and troops. A twelve-day battle ensued, with rebel retreats and civilian massacres, finally ending with a cease-fire. Following this “peace agreement”, the EZLN no longer offensively attacked, but refused to lay down their arms. The government engaged in raids, attacks on civilian populations, and initiated a paramilitary war. Formal peace accords, known as the San Andres Accords, were signed between the government and the EZLN leadership in February of 1996. They addressed some of the root causes of the rebellion, such as indigenous autonomy and legal protections for indigenous rights. While signed in 1996, the agreements did not make it to the Mexican congress until 2000. There they were gutted, removing key principles as signed by the EZLN, such as the right of indigenous autonomy. Much has been written on the history of the EZLN after the failure of the peace accords, including the march to Mexico City, as well as the EZLN’s attempts at fostering a larger social movement force. The EZLN released their “Sixth Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle”, which highlights their call to the Mexican and international populations to work to ”find agreement between those of us who are simple and humble and, together, we will organize all over the country and reach agreement in our struggles, which are alone right now, separated from each other, and we will find something like a program that has what we all want, and a plan for how we are going to achieve the realization of that program…”

In 2003, the EZLN released a statement that began the process of radically restructuring the Zapatista communities with the development of autonomous municipalities, called caracoles (conch shell). The name caracole was picked because as Marcos once explained, the conch shell was used to “summon the community” as well as an “aid to hear the most distant words”. The caracoles and their respective “councils of good government” (as opposed to the “bad government” of Mexico) were designed to organize the rebel municipalities as well as to push forward the original mandate of indigenous autonomy. With the failure of the San Andres accords, the Zapatistas openly decided that they would follow the word of the accords that they had signed, regardless of the Mexican government’s policy. In line with their mandate to “lead by obeying”, the EZLN, the armed aspect of the Zapatistas, separated themselves from the work of the civil society and abdicated control of the Zapatista movement to the caracoles.

The objective was “to create — with, by, and for the communities — organizations of resistance that are at once connected, coordinated and self-governing, which enable them to improve their capacity to make a different world possible. At the same time, the project postulates that, as far as possible, the communities and the peoples should immediately put into practice the alternative life that they seek, in order to gain experience. They should not wait until they have more power to do this. “What has occurred in the past decade is that the Zapatistas have put the original demand for indigenous autonomy into practice by creating autonomous governments, health systems, economic systems, and educational systems. In doing so, they have stayed true to the ideals of “leading from below” and a rejection of the ideal to overtake state power. They have “constructed a world in which they have realized their own vision of freedom and autonomy, and continue to fight for a world in which other worlds are possible.”

Their fight is very much alive today, more than twenty years after its first public appearance. My recent visit was to the Oventik caracole, located in the Zona Alta region. Myself and three others were sent as human rights observers with El Centro de Derechos Humanos Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas (Fray Bartolome de Las Casa Human Rights Center) to the small community of Huitepec, immediately north of the mountain town of San Cristobal de Las Casas. Here the community is placed in charge of protecting the large Zapatista reserve of Huitepec from loggers, poachers, and government forces. As observers, our task was to accompany the Zapatista families on their daily walks through the 100+ acre reserve, keep track of any intrusions on the autonomous land, and document any infractions. We lived in a simple house, with a fire to cook on and wood panels for sleeping. There was no running water, minimal electricity, and no forms of electronic communication, even with the close proximity to the town of San Cristobal.

Through these eyes we learned of the daily struggle of the Zapatistas. The community consisted of eight Zapatista families. Originally fifteen families, many of them had left Zapatismo to suffer against poverty with the “bad” government. The families who stayed as Zapatistas were indigenous to the area, having struggled to protect the land long before the Zapatista’s uprising in 1994. The families lived in poverty, dividing their time between protecting the reserve, growing flowers for sale in San Cristobal, and working their rented fields two hours away. Their days started with the sunrise and often ended long after the sun had set. Their hands were strong and their walk through the mountains fast, evidence of a lifetime of hard labor. They told us of life before the uprising, coming to Zapatismo, their struggles with inner council decisions, and their hopes for the future.

We bombarded them with questions, testing the theories of the Zapatistas we had read in books and working to understand the structure of their autonomy. Most spoke Spanish fluently, but outside of our conversations, they spoke their indigenous language. Often times, long questions were answered with a pause and then a “Si!,” only to find out later that much had been lost in translation. The Zapatistas taught us to recognize medicinal plants on our walks, how to cut firewood, helped our dying cooking fires, and shared tea and sweet bread with us. For much of our time together we sat in silence, staring at the fire, each unsure of what to say to people from such different cultures. We, the foreigners, sat in silence in the reserve, lost in our thoughts, struggling to understand the lessons in front of us.

Fortunately, there was little work to be done in our role as human rights observers. As the families stated, most of the repressive tactics of the “bad” government in that area have been rare in recent years. Paramilitary and military forces still affect Zapatista communities, as evidenced by the assassination of José Luis López, known as “Galeano” to the community, a prominent teacher in the caracole of La Realidad in May of 2014. In addition, a week prior to our arrival, paramilitary forces had forcibly displaced 72 Zapatista families from the San Manuel community.

As I look back on my experience, I am forced to place it in the context of what we on the left are doing here in the US and I think back to the humility of the experience. The backdrop of the experience was always in the context of the severe poverty the community struggled against. The families cleaned their ripped clothes as best they could, walked for hours in the jungle in plastic, tired shoes, and spoke of their struggle to place food in their stomachs. They told us of the newborn who had died a few weeks prior to our arrival. They softly commented on the lack of rain in their fields, which meant that no crops had grown. When asked what they would do, they shrugged their shoulders, stared off into the horizon, and quietly said “I don’t know.”

One of the elders (names intentionally left out for security reasons) told us of what he felt for the future. He told us that little by little, more and more Zapatistas are asking the EZLN to take up arms again. He felt they were at a similar social situation as they were in 1993, prior to the uprising. And then he said something that truly humbled me. He said, “we love this land, and if we’re going to die anyway, it would be better to die fighting.” His face was filled with a distant look, touched by sadness, but also of determination. And then there was silence. No theories, no Che t-shirts, no rhyming slogans. No quotes, no chest thumping, no sectarianism. Just the honesty of someone who has nothing left to lose and everything to gain. In that moment, I was gifted the glimpse of the true humility of revolutionary thought. Here was a man who has struggled to survive his entire life. He fights in the way he knows how. He has a simple house and wears the same tucked in dirty dress shirt. He works in the fields as well as the communal government. He knows that the fight he and his community face are against massive transnational corporations who wish to extract the precious resources underneath his ancestral land. He knows that they will hire the government, paramilitary forces, and the police to intimidate and coerce him into submission, likely killing him and his family if he refuses. He lives in an area of the world that has been described as one of the most affected by climate change. And because of this climate change, a force that he did not cause, his children will not have food for the winter. He does not talk of Facebook posts, of petitioning politicians, of symbolic protests. There is no mention of hashtags, things going “viral”, “working with the police”, buying organic, fad diets, or identity politics. There are no self-congratulatory emails after symbolic protests. He doesn’t say anything about “being the change,” “finding himself,” or engaging in a never-ending debate on the use of violence versus non-violence. He simply states “we are part of this land and we will die to protect it,” and then continues walking.

I find myself thinking about that community as I re-enter the world of activism here in New York City. We are bombarded with the temptations of an insane and immoral culture of consumption. As I write this, young black men are being assassinated by police officers, inequality is at an all-time high, the newspapers are filled with “Fashion Week” events, and people are camping out in front of the Apple store for their new Iphones. On the left, communities are organizing around every type of campaign, with a growing focus on climate change. While there is some great grassroots work being done, even in the insanity of New York City, I can’t help but see the lack of humility that exists in our progressive communities. I include myself in this critique, and write as a member of the Left.

Our conversations are dominated with rhetoric and sectarianism. We talk in the language of books and posts, not in material experiences. We speak of “developing” the third world, as though our complicity in a globally destructive system of capitalism is somehow as invisible as we would like to believe. We use our politically correct language and speak of our “individual oppression”. We wait for perfection, for the “revolution”, wearing our “radical” clothes, speaking our “radical” talk in our “radical” spaces that are devoid of any connection to the material world. And at the end of the day, the destruction around us, the destruction that we are complicit in, continues. Something that has embedded itself in my thoughts this past year is exemplified by two quotes.

One is a quote by Che Guevara, in which he says, “At the risk of sounding ridiculous, let me say that the true revolutionary is guided by great feelings of love.” The second is a lyric by the group “The Last Poets”, where they proclaim, “Speak not of revolution until you are willing to eat rats to survive, come the Revolution.” Quite different ideas, and yet, as I return to the craziness of New York City, I see how similar they are. Revolution is a term often thrown about without a clear definition. Some people see revolution in the context of an armed uprising of oppressed peoples, others, like the CEOs of Chevrolet, see revolution in terms of their new car line. Others see a “revolution of ideas” transforming the world. For the Zapatistas, it is based in the “radical” idea that the poor of the world should be allowed to live, and to live in a way that fits their needs. They fight for their right to healthy food, clean water, and a life in commune with their land. It is an ideal filled with love, but a specific love of their land, of themselves, and of their larger community. They fight for their land not based in some abstract rejection of destruction of beautiful places, but from a sense of connectedness. They are part of the land they live on, and to allow its destruction is to concede their destruction. They have shown that they are willing to sacrifice, be it the little comforts of life they have, their liberty, or their life itself.

We here in the Left in the US talk about the issues of the world ad nauseum. We pontificate from afar on theories of oppression, revolutionary histories, and daily incidences of state violence. We speak of climate change as something in the future. But so often we are removed from the materiality of the oppression. Climate change is not something in the future, but rather it is something that is killing 1,000 children per day, roughly 400,000 people per year. Scientists are now saying that the species extinction rate is 1,000 times the natural background extinction rate, with some estimates at 200 species a day, because of climate change. Black men are being killed at a rate of one every 28 hours in the US. One in three women globally will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime. There are more global slaves than ever in human history, with the average cost of a slave being $90. It is estimated that there is dioxin, one of the most horrific chemicals we have created and a known carcinogen, in every mother’s breast milk. We read about “solidarity” with the oppressed and work for “justice”. We speak of “loving the land” and wanting to “protect” nature. But how can we say we “love” these people/places/things when the actions we take to protect them have been proven to be wholly ineffective and stand no chance of achieving our stated goals?

We are told to focus on small lifestyle reforms, petitioning politicians who have shown that they do not listen to us, and relying on a regulatory system that is fundamentally corrupt. We are bombarded with baseless utopian visions of a “sustainable world”, complete with solar panels, wind turbines, abundance, and peace. But these are false visions, meant to distract us. Our entire world infrastructure is based in an extractive, destructive process, without which our first world way of life is entirely impossible. Everything from the global wars, increasing poverty, the police state, and climate change are built around this foundational injustice. These injustices are inherent and are not “reformable”. If it were our child being slaughtered to mine the rare earth minerals necessary for our technology, would we perhaps have a different view of our smartphone? If our land were being irradiated by runoff from solar panel factories, would we think differently about green energy? If our brother was murdered by a police officer to protect a system of racial oppression, would we be OK with just posting articles on Facebook about police brutality? If paramilitaries were going to murder our family to gain access to timber, would we engage in discussions on the justifications for pacifism?

In the face of the horrific statistics of our dying planet, we need a radically different tactic. We need a radical humility. As an example, just to temper the slaughter of the 400,000 human beings being killed by climate change would require a 90% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. That means no more industrial food production, no more travel, no more development of green energy, no electricity, no internet, no police state, and I’m sorry to say, no fucking iPhone 6. Tell me how our movements even touch on the reality of our current situation? I think that for the majority of the Left in the “developed world”, if we truly had love as our foundation, our actions would have much more humility.

For me, this is what Che is speaking to. Those who truly want to change the world need to base their reality in a reality of love. It is love, with all its beauty and romanticism, but also with its inherent responsibility, that powers those who are willing to sacrifice. With that love comes a loss of self and the beginning of humility. Most of us here in the global north who fight for global justice must learn this humility. We, as a whole, are more privileged than any other population has ever been in human history. History has shown that we will not give up this privilege. We will not “eat rats” voluntarily, no matter how radical we may think we are. These things can only be taken from us. If we truly want a world of justice, we must understand this fact and accept the humility to forget ourselves.

The Zapatistas, like almost all indigenous movements, have at the base of their revolution a love of the land. By losing themselves into the larger struggle of the land, they allow the land to teach them how to struggle. But their fight is not our fight. They demand us to return to our cultures and fight. Because what will ultimately kill the Zapatistas will not be the Mexican government. It will be the Mexican government, hired by transnational corporations coming from the US and Canada, who will build dams, extract mineral resources, and create “free-trade zones” so that we can continue to enjoy our material comforts. Until we lose our identity-based politics, and allow ourselves to learn from those who are being oppressed by our lifestyle, we will never achieve the justice we think we desire. Author Drew Dellinger writes in a poem entitled “Angels and Ancestors”: “I pray to be a conduit. An angel once told me, ‘The only way to walk through fire…become fire.’”

If we work for justice, let us embrace this humility and allow ourselves to be led by those who know. Let us become fire. And perhaps in that way, we will be ready to eat rats.

Time is Short: Resistance Rewritten, Part 2

Editor’s Note: This article originally ran August 8, 2013, in the Deep Green Resistance News Service.  We are republishing the entire Time is Short series, and welcome your comments.

By Lexy Garza and Rachel Ivey / Deep Green Resistance

Humans are storytelling creatures, and our current strategy as a movement is a story, with a beginning, middle, and end.  We need to ask whether that story matches up with reality, and with the way social change has happened throughout history.

Resistance Rewritten part II

So here’s the story as it stands:

  • By raising awareness about the issues, we will create a shift in consciousness.
  • A shift in consciousness will spark a mass movement.
  • A mass movement can successfully end the murder of the planet by using exclusively pacifist tactics.

We all know this narrative, we hear it http://localhost/chapters/ns/resistance/strategy/time-is-short-resistance-rewritten-part-ii/referenced all the time, and it resonates with a lot of people, but we need to examine it with a critical eye along with the historical narratives that are used to back it up. There are truths behind these ideas, but there is also the omission of truth, and we can decipher the interests of the historian by reading between the lines. Let’s take each piece of this narrative in turn to try and find out what’s been omitted and those interests that omission may be concealing.

So let’s start with the idea of “a shift in consciousness.”  The idea that we can educate society into a new and different state of consciousness has been popularized most recently by writers like David Korten, who bases his analysis on the idea:

“The term The Great Turning has come into widespread use to describe the awakening of a higher level of human consciousness and a human turn from an era of violence against people and nature to a new era of peace, justice and environmental restoration.”

Another way that this idea is often mentioned is in the form of the Hundredth Monkey myth. A primatologist named Lyall Watson wrote about a supposed phenomenon where monkeys on one island began teaching each other to wash sweet potatoes in the ocean before eating them. Myth has it that once the hundredth monkey learned to do it, monkeys on other islands who had no contact with the original potato washing monkeys spontaneously began washing potatoes, exhibiting a kind of tipping point or collective jump in consciousness. The existence of this phenomenon has been thoroughly debunked, and even Watson himself has admitted that he fabricated the myth using “very slim evidence and a great deal of hearsay.” This hasn’t stopped optimistic environmentalists from invoking the hundredth monkey phenomenon to defend the idea that through raising our collective consciousness, by getting through to that hundredth monkey, we’ll spark a great turning of humankind away from the behaviors that are killing the planet.

Unfortunately, this line of thinking doesn’t pan out historically. Let’s take the example of resistance against the Nazi regime and the genocide it committed. And let’s look at some omitted historical information. In 1952, after the Nuremberg Trials, after all of the information about the atrocities of the holocaust had become common knowledge, still only 20% of German citizens thought that resistance was justifiable during wartime which, under the Nazis or any other empire, is all the time. And mind you, the question was not whether they personally would participate in the resistance; it was whether they thought any resistance by anyone was justifiable.

At the time that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, 80% of Southern whites still disapproved of giving legal rights to black people. So, raised awareness of the atrocities of the holocaust and of American slavery did not translate into an increased willingness to support resistance.  It was not a shift in consciousness that got the civil rights act passed – it was the hard and dangerous work of organizing, protesting, and putting pressure on the government not by changing its mind but by forcing its hand. [1]

This same unfortunate trend is true about current efforts to educate about climate change. A recent Yale study found that raised awareness about the facts of climate change is not the most powerful influence on someone’s attitude about the issue. Far more powerful on an individual’s attitude are the attitudes of their culture and their community. Right now, the culture we live in here in the US is dedicated to downplaying the risks and tamping down any kind of resistance. Our way of life depends on the very technologies that are causing climate change, and it’s difficult to make someone understand something if their salary, much less their entire way of life, depends on not understanding it. [2]

Pointing these things out is not intended to devalue education efforts. If we didn’t think education was important, we wouldn’t be writing this, and every social justice movement that’s had a serious impact has been very intentional about education. But it’s important to put education in perspective as just one tactic in our toolbox. If we’re looking to education and raising awareness as a strategy unto themselves as many seem to be, history tells us that we’re bound to be disappointed.

So who is served by the dominance of this narrative?  Those who are profiting from the destruction of the planet are the ones whose interests are served by this because the longer we wait for the mythical great turning, or the hundredth monkey, or the next level of consciousness, the more time we give this system to poison the air and water, gut the land, and chew up what little biodiversity we have left.

Ideas can be powerful, but only if they get people to act.  History tells us that more awareness often does not translate into more action.  Let’s take the focus off trying to change people’s ideas about the world, and start focusing on changing material circumstances.

Mass Movement

Part and parcel with the idea of a consciousness shift is the hope that such a shift will lead to a mass movement, and this idea is extremely prevalent among many environmentalists.

We have Bill McKibben saying things like, “I can’t think of anything we can do except keep trying to build a big movement. There’s nothing else that’s ever going to do it.” – Bill McKibben

This is a very absolute statement, and it shows that folks like McKibben who have the most clout in the mainstream environmentalist crowd are telling us in no uncertain terms that building a mass movement is the only hope that we have to halt the destruction of the planet. I would hope that if he’s so sure about that, he has history and some evidence on his side to back it up.

And to be certain, there are examples throughout history of times when numbers mattered. Strikes, the Montgomery Bus Boycott – the key factor in some victories has been numbers.  But the omitted history here is that a mass movement is not the only thing that has ever worked.

One of the most successful movements against oil extraction to date has been MEND, which stands for Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta. The area was being ravaged by Shell, and just a few hundred people took on both the Nigerian military and Shell’s private military. They’ve won popular support among the Niger Delta community, and more importantly, those few hundred people have managed to make significant reductions in the oil output from the region, which is something that mainstream environmental movement can’t boast by any stretch of the imagination.

The French Resistance to German occupation during WWII played a significant role in facilitating the Allies rapid advance through France, and active resisters to the Nazi occupation of France was composed of about one percent of the population. Supporters, judging by how many people were reading the underground newspaper, were as much as ten percent of the population, but the active resistance – those who were organizing strikes, gathering intelligence on the German military, sabotaging arms factories, attacks on the electrical grid, telecommunications, attacking German forces and also producing underground media about these activities – these folks were a very small segment of the population, about one percent, hardly a mass movement.

The Irish Republican Army, which fought the British occupation of Ireland, is a similar case with regard to the numbers.  At the peak of the IRA’s resistance, when they were the most active, they had 100,000 members, which was just over 2% of the population, only 15,000 of which were guerilla fighters.  And they had 700 years of resistance culture to draw on, while our modern environmental movement has been losing ground steadily in the fifty years since its birth.

This is not to say that broad popular support isn’t something we should hope for or something we should value, but we do need to call into question the idea, an idea that people like Bill McKibben seem to completely buy into, that a mass movement is the only scenario we can hope for.  The history of resistance tells us otherwise, it tells us that small groups of committed people can be and have been successful in resisting empire.

Who is served by the dominant mass movement narrative?  The people who are murdering the planet are served by this narrative. They are the victors, and they will continue to be the victors until we stop buying into their version of history and their vision of the future.  While we wait for a mass movement, they are capitalizing on our paralysis and our inaction.  And another 200 species went extinct today.

Dogmatic Pacifism

Recently we’ve seen the rise of the term eco-terrorist to define groups or individuals who use tactics involving force.  We’ve even seen recent legislation, like House Bills 2595 and 96 in Oregon, used to redefine tree sits and other nonviolent forest defense tactics as terrorism.  The FBI defines eco-terrorism as “”the use or threatened use of violence of a criminal nature against people or property by an environmentally oriented, subnational group for environmental-political reasons, or aimed at an audience beyond the target, often of a symbolic nature.”

When I hear the term eco-terrorism, I’m reminded of a bumper sticker that my friend has on her car, which says “they only call it class warfare when we fight back.”  In this case, they only call it terrorism when people fight back.  US imperialism, police violence, and the eradication of 200 entire species every single day – to the FBI, these things don’t count as terrorism.  But the destruction of property, even if it harms no humans at all, gets condemned not only by the FBI, but by mainstream environmental organizations as well.

“The Sierra Club strongly condemns all acts of violence in the name of the environment,” said Bruce Hamilton, Sierra Club conservation director. “That type of criminal behavior does nothing to further the cause of promoting safe and livable communities.” I would like to hear Bruce Hamilton tell that to the living communities who are still alive today because of the use of forest defense tactics.  I think they would disagree.

A side note on the Sierra Club: Between 2007 and 2010 the Sierra Club accepted over $25 MILLION in donations from Chesapeake Energy, one of the biggest gas drilling companies in the US and a firm heavily involved in fracking. Of course, the higher ups in the Club kept this from the members. At the time they ended their relationship with Chesapeake Energy in 2010, they turned their back on an additional $30 million in donations.  We have to ask if a corporation, which like all corporations is singularly capable of focusing on profits, would donate any money much less that much money to a group using tactics they felt would be remotely likely to put a dent in their revenue.

So people like Hamilton are not only condemning acts they calls violent, but they’re condemning criminal behavior in the name of the environment.  The problem with that is that the government, and the corporations that run it, THEY decide what is criminal and what isn’t, and they are increasingly criminalizing any action that has a chance of challenging their power or profits.

As activist Tim DeChristopher found out, something as nonviolent as bidding on land against oil companies is criminal.  As occupy protesters found out, occupying public space is criminal.

If activists accept the line between legality and criminality as a line that cannot be crossed, they accept the idea that activists should only take actions sanctioned by the very people whose power we should be challenging.  The state tends to criminalize, or classify as “violent,” any type of action that might work to challenge the status quo. Let’s keep that in mind as we look at the historical examples that are often used to back up this emphasis on the exclusive use of nonviolent tactics.

The fight against British occupation led by Gandhi is often the first and most prominent example used to promote exclusive nonviolence. Gandhi gained notoriety by leading large nonviolent protests like marches, pickets, strikes, and hunger strikes. He eventually was allowed to engage in negotiations with the occupying British who agreed to free imprisoned protesters from prison if Gandhi called off the protests.  Gandhi is sometimes portrayed as single handedly leading a nonviolent uprising and forcing the British to make concessions, but we have to ask – what is the omitted history here?

The truth is that the success of the movement against the British occupation was not solely the result of pacifist tactics; it was the result of a diversity of tactics.  While Gandhi was organizing, a socialist named Bhagat Singh became disillusioned with what he saw as the ineffectiveness and hypocrisy of Gandhi’s tactics.  Singh went on to lead strikes and encourage militancy against the British occupation, and is considered one of the most influential revolutionary leaders in India, more revered by some in India than Gandhi.  The combination of economic tactics, peaceful and symbolic actions, cultural revival, and yes, militancy, had an effect together.  Most in the West, the activists that I’ve met that look to nonviolence as the primary guiding principle for their tactics have never heard of Bhagat Singh.

George Orwell had this to say on the topic of Gandhi: “Pacifism is objectively pro-fascist. This is elementary common sense. If others imagine that one can somehow ‘overcome’ the German army by lying on one’s back, let them go on imagining it, but let them also wonder occasionally whether this is not an illusion due to security, too much money and a simple ignorance of the way in which things actually happen. As an ex-Indian civil servant, it always makes me shout with laughter to hear, for instance, Gandhi named as an example of the success of non-violence. As long as twenty years ago it was cynically admitted in Anglo-Indian circles that Gandhi was very useful to the British government. Despotic governments can stand ‘moral force’ till the cows come home; what they fear is physical force.”

Another prominent proponent of nonviolence was Martin Luther King Jr. For a people terrorized by the violence of poverty, police violence, white supremacist terrorism, and other horrors, the power of King’s words and the importance of his work, his significance to the civil rights movement, cannot be overstated.  Other nonviolent groups and action like the freedom riders were very effective in demonstrating the reality of racist brutality.  However, the gains made by the movement during that time were not solely the result of nonviolent tactics.

The Black Panther party and other groups were advocating for self-defense tactics and militancy, and they were widely censured for it by more mainstream elements within the movement, much like militant environmental defense is being censured by the mainstream today.  A group called the Deacons for Defense and Justice was training black communities in armed self-defense tactics.

Again, in the case of the civil rights movement, it was not nonviolent tactics alone that produced the gains of that era; it was a diversity of tactics.

We already mentioned MEND, and MEND is not a nonviolent group.  They are an armed militia, and they use tactics from sabotage to kidnapping oil executives in order to defend their land and their people. The land is being utterly decimated by oil extraction.  The people live in poverty despite the Nigerian government making millions from the oil rich area.  The tactics MEND uses are a last resort.  Before MEND, the resistance in the Niger Delta was primarily nonviolent, and it was led by a man named Ken Saro-Wiwa.  Ken Saro-Wiwa and his group, Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People, never deviated from their commitment to nonviolence, even as Ogoni resistance leaders were being routinely murdered, both by oil company thugs and legally, through state execution.  In 1995, despite a massive human rights outcry from around the world, Ken Saro-Wiwa was executed on false charges by the Nigerian government, along with eight other Ogoni resistance leaders.  As Orwell pointed out, the Nigerian government and the oil companies it serves can stand “moral force” until the cows come home, it has no effect.  But the physical force of MEND’s tactics was able to reduce oil output by one third between 2006 and 2008.

The movement for women’s suffrage is another movement often misremembered in the popular imagination as being won solely by nonviolent means.  In Britain, women started out with pickets, and lobbying, and letters to the editor. But when these tactics failed, some suffragists moved on to direct action, such as chaining themselves to the railings outside the prime minister’s home, and to actually going and casting ballots illegally, which got them arrested.  After a protest in 1910 turned into a near riot due to brutal police beatings of protesting women, the movement began to wage guerilla warfare, orchestrating systematic window smashing campaigns and arson attacks.  The slogan of this movement was “deeds, not words.” They were imprisoned and tortured for their efforts, but in 1918, they won the right to vote.  Again, this fight was won by a diversity of tactics.

So there’s a pattern here to which parts of history become mainstream, and which parts become marginalized and even forgotten.

Whose interests are served by omitting militancy from the historical record? It is in the interest of governments and corporations that we never seize the physical force to actually stop them.

However, plenty of people around the world ARE seizing that physical force, and they have been throughout history.  Instead of haggling with Monsanto over ineffective regulations of GMO crops, and the labeling of GMO products, Hungary decided to burn all of Monsanto’s GMO corn fields within their borders to protect the integrity of their other crops.  Another example of GMO resistance is that this past June in Southern Oregon, 40 Tons or 6,500 sugar beet GMO crops were destroyed by hand and the field burned over a three night period. There has been a complete media blackout of this in response, perhaps to avoid inspiring more folks from taking this type of action.

Fracking equipment was set ablaze around so called New Brunswick in Canada two weeks later. This is coming at a time of increased indigenous resistance to hydraulic fracturing in the region, after numerous direct actions, midnight seizures of drilling equipment, and a local man being struck by a contractor’s vehicle.

Another example of resistance through physical force is that instead of accepting the Brazilian government ignoring their voices and sentencing their way of life to be destroyed, hundreds of indigenous demonstrators occupied and began to manually dismantle Belo Monte Dam construction.

So let’s look again at the narrative we began with:

  • By raising awareness about the issues, we will create a shift in consciousness.
  • A shift in consciousness will spark a mass movement.
  • A mass movement can successfully end the murder of the planet by using exclusively pacifist tactics.

I hope that we’ve been able to demonstrate that while there are underlying truths here, this narrative leaves out a lot of important information, and as a result, a strategy based on this narrative is not working.

Here’s a version of those ideas that incorporates some of the omitted information that we talk about today.

  • Education is vitally important, but we can’t expect raising awareness to galvanize most people into action, especially when action would threaten their privilege and entitlement.
  • Popular support is valuable, but resistance has often been carried out by small groups of determined people, not by mass movements.
  • Nonviolence can be a powerful tactic, but winning strategies are marked by a diversity of both peaceful and militant tactics.

What does this mean for our actions?  How can we incorporate this information into our strategy?

  • Vocally challenge these narratives
  • Support extra-legal resistance
  • Support political prisoners
  • Adhere to security culture

We tried really hard as we were writing this to not sugarcoat any of this.  When I’ve spoken frankly in the past about biodiversity collapse, catastrophic climate change, and the horror I feel in response to them, I’ve had some people say “tone it down.  Don’t be so doom and gloom, you’ve got to give the people hope.”  Let me say now for the record – fuck hope.  We don’t need it.  As one author put it, “hope is a longing for a future condition over which you have no agency.”  In other words, you only need hope in situations where you have no control, no power.  Those who do have power, who are using that power to murder the planet, have written a narrative that masks the power we could wield, that lies in order to make sure we never claim the tools to challenge their profits.

Every day that we abide by their rules and accept the narrative that serves their power is a day we waste.  But every day is also a new chance to rewrite that narrative, to change the story.  With a truer understanding of the past we can form a more effective strategy for the present.  With a more effective strategy in the present, we can reject a future on the dying planet they have us headed toward.

With everything, literally, at stake, it’s time to do what we can with what we have, and it’s time to claim the legacy of resistance that these and other examples of silenced history could teach us.

References

[1] http://books.google.com/books?id=kKv8PXwIiFkC&pg=PA237&lpg=PA237&dq=civil+rights+gallup+polling+1960&source=bl&ots=-TTg7n7EbO&sig=odTF9mCzMqJkuPH2xZoRYCDPYaI&hl=en&ei=HkLgS-WcFpKwNtWsmKsH&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=6&ved=0CCAQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q&f=false

[2] http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1981907

This is the second part of a two piece series on strategic resistance by Lexy Garza and Rachel Ivey. The first piece is available here: Resistance Rewritten, Part 1.