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Blow Up A Pipeline

David J

When it comes to tactical innovation, the global climate justice movement has been stuck in a rut. Prior to Covid, we witnessed decades of one-off marches and rallies, scattered direct actions (the Blockadia celebrated by Naomi Klein) and the more recent intervention by Extinction Rebellion (XR) using a specific form of mass civil disobedience. I will add the student strike organized by Fridays for Future and the occupation of Nancy Pelosi's office by Sunrise as similar but divergent tactics that met with varying degrees of success. Mostly underwhelming considering the scale of what needs to happen.

In his latest book titled How To Blow Up a Pipeline, author Andreas Malm surveys this tactical landscape and finds a common fetishization of not just non-violence but pacifism. Though he admits the non-violent, civil approach "has served the movement well", he finds it problematic that it is "the sole admissible tactic in the struggle."

I admire Malm for his willingness to approach this ticklish subject and feel he brings a desperately needed scrutiny and critique, demolishing revisionist readings of Gandhi, Mandela, MLK ,struggles against Thatchers poll tax and for women's suffrage among others. It is past time someone was willing to talk about and contextualize violence, property destruction and militancy. Emissions keep rising and time is running out. For Malm, the answer is a "radical flank" strategy, a good cop/bad cop approach where power is threatened by a faction willing to "blow up pipelines" and therefore makes concessions to the peaceful ones.

This makes sense to me and has historical precedence; I can imagine a point where "radical flank" becomes the best option. But I don't believe we are there. Where I take exception with Malm is with his assertion that we have exhausted mass non-violent civil disobedience based on the miss-steps of XR (for instance, embracing police and blocking commuters). He clearly states that for the civil rights movement in the US, "the turning point came at the Birmingham offensive in 1963", defined by "sit-ins, kneel-ins and jail-ins". A little more research would have shown Malm (and XR) that "filling the jails" has a long pedigree as a successful tactic when done right; organized, disciplined and with well trained cadres. This is how it was described by Howard Zinn:

“Thursday, May 2nd, is “D-Day” as students “ditch” class to march for justice. In disciplined groups of 50, children singing freedom songs march out of 16th Street Baptist church two-by-two. When each group is arrested, another takes its place.

There are not enough cops to contain them, and police reinforcements are hurriedly summoned. By the end of the day almost 1,000 kids have been jailed.

The next day, Friday May 3rd, a thousand more students cut class to assemble at 16th Street church. With the jails already filled to capacity, and the number of marchers growing, Eugene “Bull” Connor, the Commissioner of Public Safety in charge of the police and fire departments, tries to suppress the movement with violence.”

Between April 3rd and May 7 roughly three thousand are arrested and booked, filling not only the jails but an “improvised fairground prison…and open-air stockade” as well. This all takes place in conjunction with a well-organized boycott of downtown businesses and public transport. Televised scenes of savage reaction by the racist police are broadcast throughout a horrified nation which is then forced to confront the injustice. Instead of this coordinated, concerted action, Malm fetishizes "diversity and plurality of tactics" and the romantic "prefiguration" of groovy "action camps". It is my hope that organizers will look instead to these historical accounts of highly trained, thoroughly disciplined but otherwise ordinary workers, students and citizens peacefully yet militantly facing down the most brutal, violent regimes of state oppression. Consider the consequences African Americans in Birmingham 1962 faced. The risks they were willing to take. And what they achieved.