Report from Appalachians Against Pipelines on recent action that shut down construction on the Mountain Valley Pipeline (MVP).
Montgomery County, VA — Yesterday, pipeline fighter Phillip Flagg locked himself in the path of the Mountain Valley Pipeline near Elliston, VA. MVP has been clearing and grading this section of the pipeline’s path in preparation to lay pipe. Phillip laid his body in the easement and locked his body to an underground concrete blockade directly in the path of the pipeline. His action stopped MVP work at the site for 7 hours, preventing the company’s progression towards the nearby Yellow Finch tree sits. Around 5:30 pm, Phillip was extracted from his blockade and arrested. He was charged with misdemeanor obstruction and released on $1,000 bail.
Phillip, who previously spent months living in a tree sit blocking the MVP, stated: “I cherished the time I spent in the tree sit, and I think back on it fondly. But I’m not too proud to admit that the time I spent in the oak simply isn’t enough to stop this pipeline. The forces we are facing will not be dissuaded by any individual effort. Each of us has our piece to contribute — when one person steps up, others will follow.”
A banner near the site of Phillip’s blockade read “STOP THE MVP — BLOCK THE PATH — NO PIPELINES ON STOLEN LAND.” The latter part of this message refers to the fact that Indigenous people inhabited the hills and hollers of this region for thousands of years — including Monocan, Moneton, Cherokee, and other Native peoples — before white settlers arrived (bringing with them genocide and forced relocation). Extraction and fossil fuel infrastructure are a continuation of the legacy of colonization; Appalachians Against Pipelines stands in solidarity with Indigenous-led fights against pipelines, from Unist’ot’en to the fight against Line 3 and beyond.
In the holler adjacent to Phillip’s action, the Yellow Finch tree sits have been blocking the path of the Mountain Valley Pipeline for 313 days and counting. In support of Phillip’s action, one of the anonymous tree sitters stated: “Every day, MVP’s construction work gets close and closer to the Yellow Finch sits, decimating acres of Appalachian forests, mountains, and waterways in its wake. Today and every day, we are putting our bodies on the line to stop it. Now is the time to stand up and fight back against the destruction of the earth. Join us! We’re still here. We won’t back down.”
The Mountain Valley Pipeline is a 42-inch diameter, 303-mile fracked gas pipeline that runs from northern West Virginia to southern Virginia. Earlier this month, a 70-mile extension into North Carolina (which was proposed in 2018) was denied its Section 401 Water Quality Certification by the NC Department of Environmental Quality. The Mountain Valley Pipeline endangers water, ecosystems, and communities along its route, contributes to climate change, increases demand for natural gas (and as a result, fracking), and is entrenched in corrupt political processes.
Resistance to the pipeline has only grown since the pipeline’s proposal in 2014. Grassroots-led pipeline monitoring and a nonviolent direct action campaign are ongoing. On June 17, 2019, builders admitted that the project’s budget has ballooned to $5 billion and that completion date has been delayed by 1.5 years at least.
The pipeline is in a state of uncertainty. MVP currently lacks permission to cross many water bodies and has been forced to explore alternate approaches in crossing through the Jefferson National Forest. The coming months will show whether construction is able to move forward in those areas, and whether investors will continue to believe in the pipeline’s ever-distant goal of completion.
Throughout the 2018–2019 school year, young people around organized massive school climate strikes to demand that the world’s leaders take immediate action to address climate change. The strikes started first in Sweden, then spread throughout the European Union and around the world. By March, 15 tens of thousands of students in more than 100 countries around the world walked out of school as part of the first Global Climate Strike for Our Future issuing a strong challenge to the world’s leaders. Greta Thunberg, one of the strike’s leaders wrote in an open letter in the Guardian,
“We, the young, are deeply concerned about our future… We will no longer accept this injustice… We demand the world’s decision-makers take responsibility and solve this crisis. You have failed us in the past. If you continue failing in the future, we, the young people, will make change happen by ourselves. The youth of this world has started to move and we will not rest again.”
These calls for climate strikes offer an inspiring vision for action at the scale and scope needed to disrupt the entrenched power structures that have created the climate crisis and continually blocked the serious measures needed to combat it. But beyond calls to walk out of school and work, truly effective climate strikes will require a strategy for mass participation and disruption to seriously threaten the entrenched power structures. It won’t be easy but by drawing on the lessons from previous mass strikes and tested organizing principles we believe that it is possible to build mass climate strikes that can offer a credible threat to the governments and corporations that have failed to address the climate crisis.
Strikes — A powerful tool in the toolbox
The term “strike” comes from a maritime tradition of workplace action where sailors would lower or “strike” the sails of their ship at sea demanding better treatment and working conditions from the ship’s captain and officers. Sailors would refuse to raise the sails and the ship would stay adrift until their demands were met, or at least an acceptable agreement had been reached. There was an art to organizing these early strikes. A large enough portion of the crew needed to be ready to take action so that they couldn’t be overpowered by the officers and loyal crew members. And the strikes were most effective when winds were high and the cost of lowering sails was greatest. If the strike failed the consequences to the unlucky sailors who overplayed their hands would be great. And ship captains knew that if the unrest was not addressed quickly it could escalate to a full blown mutiny.
Strikes moved ashore in the early 1600s with relatively small groups of indentured servants, slaves, apprentices, and craftspeople laying down their tools and refusing to work to demand better working conditions. While workers from all walks of life participated in different forms of strikes, skilled craft workers whose skills could not easily be replaced won the biggest gains during these early work stoppages. But as the industrial revolution and the introduction of steam-powered railroads transformed the organization of the economy, larger groups of unskilled industrial workers gained the ability to cause mass disruption by idling the factories and infrastructure that early industrialists relied upon to make their fortunes.
In 1877 workers on the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad (B&O) went on strike to protest wage cuts, choking the nation’s arteries and cutting off the lifeblood of the country’s commercial and industrial systems. The strike started in Martinsburg, West Virginia before spreading to Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and as far west as St. Louis, Missouri and as far north as Albany, New York. Thousands of railroad workers took part in the strike but its effects were much more widespread because the stalled rail line blocked factories from getting supplies or transporting their goods to market and brought passenger travel to a standstill effectively shutting down a large portion of the commercial and industrial activity in the country.
Later, in 1934 when Longshore workers in San Francisco and Teamsters in Minneapolis commercial activity in both cities ground to a halt. With the docks in Seattle’s ports effectively shut down and drivers refusing to move struck cargo, all of the businesses that relied on trading and transporting imported and exported goods were shut down. When Seattle’s truck drivers struck, “flying squads” of picketers refused to allow any truck roll through the city’s streets without a special permit from the union (strikers granted special permits to trucks moving supplies for hospitals as well as farmers from the supportive Farmers’ Holiday Association traveling into the city to sell produce in street markets). And as recently as this year, the wave of teachers strikes across the country rippled through entire communities, with parents of school children calling off work to stay home with their children while schools were closed (many parents and students used the time to join their teachers on the picket lines).
Mass Participation and Mass Disruption
Strikes are a very powerful tool, but they aren’t a tool to be used lightly. Strikes are, by their very nature, tools of mass participation. Just a handful of workers walking off the job isn’t likely to have a significant impact on operations. For a strike to be successful at impeding operations, large numbers of workers must be ready to collectively withhold their labor. This requires serious discipline and commitment. The costs of missing work — and a paycheck — can be significant for many workers. And the risks of being fired or retaliated against are serious. So the informed consent and active participation of large numbers of workers — particularly those most implicated in the strike activity — are essential ingredients in organizing a credible strike.
While some moderately successful strikes have been limited to specific workplaces or industries, throughout history, the strikes that have won sweeping societal changes won because they were able to spread throughout the economy, generating popular support, mobilizing mass participation and creating mass disruption. During the railroad strike, a large number of railroad workers walked off the job, refusing to work after management instituted pay cuts. But even more workers didn’t work because the trains were not running. Picketers refused to let trains leave stations or roundhouses, supplies weren’t delivered to factories, and passengers weren’t able to travel to conduct business. In Minneapolis, Teamsters made the decision that allowing any driver to move goods at substandard rates hurt every trucker so flying picket squads refused to let trucks driven by would-be strikebreakers move during the strikes.
Today’s labor strikes are much different than the strikes that led to the massive workplace gains a century ago. Because early strikes proved to be so powerful and disruptive, politicians offered something of a compromise, allowing strikes, but only under certain conditions. Anthropologist David Graeber observes,
“Unions are, paradoxically, the only organizations in the US legally permitted to engage in direct action; but they can do so only if they do not call it that; and only at the cost of accepting endless and intricate regulations over how and when they can strike, what kinds of pickets they can set up and where, whether, they are allowed to engage in other tactics such as secondary boycotts or even publicity campaigning, and so on.”
This uneasy compromise has been the subject of much debate within the labor movement. On one hand, federal labor law has offered some important protections for workers engaging in union activity, on the other hand, the legal framework of the National Labor Relations Act has dramatically constrained the repertoires of contention that are available to modern labor unions.
As a result of this uneasy compromise, the strikes that observers of the modern labor movement are familiar with bear little resemblance to the massively disruptive general strikes that led to the huge gains of the labor movement in the years before 1936. Early strikes relied on two essential components to create mass disruption: First, workers would organize large numbers of their co-workers to withhold their labor for the duration of the strike. Second, those workers and their supporters worked to actively disrupt commercial activity through pickets, blockades, social persuasion, and direct action.
This second, more active, component of early strikes was essential to creating mass disruption because it made the decision of whether or not to strike a collective one, not an individual one. Once workers collectively decided to call a strike, individual workers were no longer forced to make the tough individual decision of defying their employers and refusing to work — factories were inaccessible because their gates were blocked by strong picket lines; trains and trucks would not move because even if there were drivers and rail crews on hand willing to defy the strike, roads and rail lines would be blocked; shops would close partly because even if there were retail clerks ready to show up to work there would be no way to get goods to stock the shelves and customers would be discouraged from shopping.
Today, constrained by the framework of federal labor law, unions generally rely primarily on the more passive component of strikes — withdrawing labor en mass. Popular movement to fight climate change, however, are not bound by the constraints of the uneasy compromise of federal labor law, we are only bound by our ability to build mass participation, create mass disruption and withstand mass repression.
Striking for Climate Justice
The bold and courageous leaders of the student climate strikes captured the imagination of the world by walking out of school, Friday after Friday, eventually mobilizing millions of students in more than 100 countries around the world to take action. They have called for another round of mass strikes in September of 2019 and issued a challenge for older generations to join them.
“Millions of school strikers have shown us they’re serious about climate action. Adults, will you join our youth? School strikers are calling on everyone: young people, parents, workers, and all concerned citizens to join massive climate strikes and a week of actions starting on September 20. People all over the world will use their power to stop ‘business as usual’ in the face of the climate emergency.”
To date, climate strikes have relied mainly on large numbers of students withdrawing their participation in the status quo by walking out of class and joining demonstrations. But this round of climate strikes could truly jump scale and pose a credible threat to the politicians and corporations that have failed to take action on the climate crisis if we are able to combine organizing walkouts at massive scale with active disruptions to bring the economy to a screeching halt.
Building massive support and participation is one essential component of organizing for this September’s climate strike. But planning for mass disruption to actively shut down our political and economic system is what will make the difference between a powerful week of action and a serious challenge to the entrenched power structures.
If our movements can credibly plan to shut down the arteries of commerce and transportation we can transform a climate strike from an individual decision to withhold labor to a collective decision to shut down the economy until our demands are met. If we can ensure that commuter trains cannot run, key bridges are impassible for vehicular traffic, and major highways into commercial centers are blocked people will not be forced to make the tough individual decision about whether or not to go to work — going to work won’t be an option — they’ll be able to decide whether to stay home or to come out to the streets to join the demonstrations.
“But what about people just trying to go about their day? Won’t we just be inconveniencing them?“
To be sure, massive participation and broad popular support is an essential component of a successful climate strike. But if we are serious striking for climate justice we need to be serious about creating mass disruption. If we are going to invite individuals to give up pay, risk their jobs, or leave their classrooms to join a strike, we owe it to them to be serious about making it work. There can be significant personal costs to participating in a strike and strikes aren’t a tactic to call for lightly or to deploy as half measures.
The question of whether or not to organize mass disruption is an important gut-check for our movement. If we don’t think that the situation is urgent enough to warrant creating a mass disruption then the situation probably isn’t urgent enough to encourage large numbers of people to risk their livelihoods by going on strike.
A strike will be disruptive. Some people who want to go to work won’t be able to get to their jobs. Some parents will probably have trouble getting to their kids’ daycare to pick them up. Some people may have trouble getting to the pharmacy to pick up their medicine. Many people will miss paychecks. We can come up with plans to try to mitigate as many of these problems as possible, but if we aren’t ready to try to solve the problem of helping parents get their kids at daycare or finding ways people to get their medicine from the pharmacy, we aren’t ready to invite daycare workers or pharmacy techs to walk off the job.
From Individual Decisions to Collective Action
Organizing mass disruption to the key arteries of the economy also transforms participating in a strike from an individual decision to a collective action. If the strike just relies on individuals making the decision to withhold their labor or walk out of their classrooms, every person who participates in the strike is forced into a situation where they must personally decide whether or not they are going to strike and bear the full weight and responsibility of that decision with their employer or school.
But as the size of the strike grows, the risk becomes more distributed and dissipates. A boss can fire one or two workers for refusing to come to work during the climate strike. But can that boss afford to fire 100 workers for participating in the climate strike? 200 workers? 1,000 workers?
And if transportation infrastructure is shut down or the doors to the workplace are blocked, workers won’t need to make a decision about whether or not to go to work — they can’t go to work. And faced with the prospect of a mass strike and disruption that would make business as usual impossible, many employers would respond the way that they do in anticipation of a major snowstorm or the day after the home team wins the World Series — by simply closing their business for the day.
This doesn’t mean that a strike can be imposed from the outside or orchestrated by some vanguard of militant activists. Without the active participation of large numbers of people and popular support from many, many more — particularly those with the most at stake — a disruptive strike will almost certainly create an ugly backlash. And to the extent that disruptive activity impedes people who aren’t inclined to participate in the strike from getting where they want to go or doing what they want to do during the strike, it is best if the people doing the disruption are the ones with the closest relationship to the nodes of the economy they are disrupting. If commuter trains are going to be blockaded, people who normally ride those trains should lead those blockades; if bridges are going to be shut down, the people who normally rely on those bridges should take the lead in those shutdowns; if school buses are going to be kept in their garages, students who normally ride school buses should take the lead in keeping the buses in those garages.
Organizing at Scale
While organizing a climate strike that can credibly disrupt commercial activity within any city or region requires organizing at a massive scale, it doesn’t require unanimous participation. In a groundbreaking study of civil resistance campaigns around the world, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan found that movements that mobilized at least 3.5% of the population in sustained civil resistance were successful in creating transformative political change. While much easier to build towards than 100% participation, mobilizing 3.5% of the population is still an ambitious mobilization. That means engaging 25 thousand people in Seattle, 95 thousand people in Chicago, 290 thousand people in New York City or 11.4 million people nationwide in sustained civil resistance.
Right now there is no organization or party structure in the United States that has the resources or capacity to build a program to organize at this scale. But working alongside each other many different types of organizations can cobble together the best practices and traditions of a wide range of social movements to organize huge numbers of people to take bold and dynamic action.
From the labor and community organizing traditions, organizations can adopt the models of disciplined, structure-based organizing. Tools like mapping workplaces and communities to build lists and identify organic leaders and one-on-one organizing conversations with clear action steps to push people into action can allow us to go beyond ‘hand raisers’ and ‘usual suspects’ to go deep into our communities and engage people we would have never thought about engaging.
We can use structure tests like strike pledges and practice actions to find out where we have strong support and participation and spend time and energy going towards our “biggest worsts” to break down barriers to action. The Central American Solidarity Movement, Anti-War Movement, and Climate movements used these tools to great effect with “Pledge of Resistance” campaigns where people publicly committed to taking bold action in support of their movements. As more and more people sign pledges, the more timid and skeptical supporters of the movements became more confident that the actions were going to be powerful and they added their names. Pledge organizers could also identify key areas and communities that had not signed the pledge, identify what was holding people back, and work with those communities to break through barriers to action.
From the direct action organizing tradition, a movement to build a climate strike can adopt models of decentralized and autonomous organizing through affinity groups that take responsibility for making their own plans to meaningfully participate in the strike. During the WTO in Seattle in 1999, the Direct Action Network divided the city into sections surrounding the convention center like pieces of a pie. Different affinity groups or groups of affinity groups made plans within their own sections of the city to shut down traffic. Some organized marches or rolling blockades, others organized mass sit-ins, and still others organized lockdowns in key intersections. With the city shut down, the trade summit was delayed and talks eventually collapsed as delegates from the global south who were being strongarmed into the disastrous trade deal became emboldened by popular resistance from around the world.
From the Momentum model that has informed the great work of the Sunrise Movement, If Not Now, and Movimiento Cosecha, a mobilization for a climate strike can adopt the practices of frontloading and mass training to breakdown the bottlenecks and onboard huge numbers of people in the ‘moment of the whirlwind’ — when the movement begins to take on a life of its own. By developing a strong program of training and onboarding, new participants are able to quickly learn the structures, stories, norms, and repertoires of contention of the movement and jump into meaningful action right away. This allows the movement to quickly scale up and absorb the time and energy and capacity of huge numbers of people during times of peak activity — when it’s often hardest to meaningfully integrate new energetic participants — and harness that energy when the wave of action recedes as part of the natural cycle of social movements.
To be sure, the conditions for organizing a climate strike are not ideal. Many of our movements are on the defensive, facing down new attacks from the Trump administration at every turn. The organizational infrastructure to support massive direct action is relatively weak right now and September is only two months away. But time is running out and the climate crisis is on our doorstep. The conditions for organizing are only going to get more and more challenging in the months and years to come. Young people around the world have challenged all of us to take bold direct action to turn the political tides and seriously confront the climate crisis. Their visionary leadership has created the momentum and opportunity we need to take serious action for climate justice. This September, let’s give it a shot. Let’s go big and strike for climate justice.
SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH – Eight people were arrested and several received a citation at the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce in nonviolent resistance to the proposed Utah Inland Port this afternoon. The protest was a collaboration between the national Earth First! movement and local Utah organizations ICE Free SLC, Civil Riot, the Rose Park Brown Berets, Canyon Country Rising Tide, Utah Against Police Brutality, and Wasatch Rising Tide. A group of five people locked themselves together in the offices of the Chamber of Commerce while people gathered inside and outside of the building chanting and singing in support. Police were called to the scene and responded to the crowd of mostly youth with a violent show of force, shoving people out of the building, grabbing and jostling people, and even punching some people in the face.
The activist groups organized the action and adjacent rally to raise awareness of the devastating public health impacts of the proposed inland port, and its inherent environmental racism and classism, particularly to the communities surrounding the 16,000 acres set aside for the project. These neighborhoods include Rose Park, West Valley City, and Poplar Grove–communities of predominantly poor and low-income Latinx, white, and other people of color who already experience disproportionate pollution, policing, and other forms of disenfranchisement.
“Nonviolent direct action can shine a light on the grave injustice being done by the powerful elite with this destructive development, through the harm it will cause to the surrounding communities, wildlife habitats, and the planet,” said Adair Kovac, one of the protesters and a member of civil resistance group Civil Riot. “The violent response from the police yet again proves that law enforcement serves and protects the wealthy and their property and interests, not the majority of people.”
Grounded in a tradition of Indigenous resistance and Civil Rights movements, the action was an escalation of attempts made by impacted community members to reach Derek Miller, chairman of the Utah Inland Port Authority board, and other wealthy, politically connected stakeholders who support the port. Participants in the action have also testified at public hearings, submitted written comments, and supported the civil suit filed against the port by Salt Lake City Mayor Jackie Biskupski.
“As Chair of the Port Authority Board, and President of the Salt Lake Chamber of Commerce, Derek Miller has been an enthusiastic supporter of the proposed polluting port. Among the more troubling aspects of his cheerleading is his refusal to acknowledge the harm it will cause, and his habit of dismissing community concerns,” said representatives from Canyon Country Rising Tide.
photo credit: Laura Borealis
Research shows that sea ports and inland ports are enormous emitters of pollution. Ports run on diesel, and diesel emits tons of pollution. Salt Lake City already fails to meet federal air quality standards, and air pollution has led to an increase in health problems and even death of vulnerable community members.
“Historically, communities of color and immigrants on the West Side of Salt Lake have experienced much of the violence committed by the financial and political elite of Utah. Through processes of racist policing, gentrification, deportation, red-lining, and labor abuse, the west side has been continuously exploited for the benefit of those who do not live in our communities,” said Ella Mendoza. “The Inland Port represents a strategic assault on this community, as it is dependent on their displacement and suffering in order to function. Our communities continue to fight back against the racist, exploitative, and oligarchic systems that drive this terror, from the border to the Inland Port.”
The proposal also includes 10,000 acres of undeveloped wetlands adjacent to the Great Salt Lake – and landing place for over 10 million migratory birds each year whose habitat would be disrupted by the air, noise, and light pollution. And based on statements made by the Port Authority Board members who are legislators, the legislation just passed to expand the port authority’s jurisdiction is intended to create fossil fuel transloading hubs in rural communities, which would negatively impact air and water quality in these communities and further incentives to continue chipping away at Utah’s public lands, leading to an increase in fossil fuel-based greenhouse gas emissions.
“We are demanding that the Utah Inland Port project be canceled immediately and that anti-racist, sustainable rewilding alternatives be developed and managed by local communities,” said Eliza Van Dyk, an organizer with Wasatch Rising Tide. “If the polluting port is constructed, Derek Miller will be contributing to climate chaos, sacrificing the future of young people across Utah, and worsening structural and environmental racism in the Salt Lake Valley.
The protesters also drew connections between the development proposal–which is being messaged as an economic opportunity by the state of Utah, Salt Lake City and County councils, CBRE, Rio Tinto, Envision Utah, Savage, the Chamber of Commerce, and others–and the history of colonial violence by white settlers who dispossessed the Ute, Shoshone, and Goshute tribes of their ancestral lands and wreaked havoc on the web of life.
There is little time left for a just transition to a society that respects the planet’s limits and acknowledges the dignity of all beings. People are reclaiming their power and challenging the state and private actors driving our species toward extinction. We will defend our communities. “Our community is rising. Derek Miller and this illegitimate board have the option to stop contributing to climate catastrophe or to confront popular power,” said Maura Sanchez, an organizer with Civil Riot.
In Ferguson, Missouri in the summer of 2014 thousands of young Black people responded to the murder of Mike Brown with weeks of bold and fearless mobilization and direct action, facing down mass arrests and brutal repression to start a national movement for Black lives. In North Dakota in the fall and bitter cold winter of 2016, the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their water-protector accomplices fought back against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline by mobilizing tens of thousands put their bodies on the line, camping, praying and blockading construction equipment. On January 20th, 2017 thousands of people from all over the country converged in Washington, DC to confront the inauguration of President Donald Trump, blockading checkpoints, disrupting celebrations, and burning limousines.
All three of these moments of contention captured the imagination of millions across the country and around the world to catalyze unrest. Images of protesters facing down with riot police through clouds of tear gas, water protectors locked down to construction equipment, and limousines burning were projected across the front pages of newspapers around the world. But behind all of those dramatic moments, each of these uprisings relied on a complex network of movement infrastructure to make sure that everyone is fed and healthy, to facilitate communication and outreach, to provide legal support, and coordinate hundreds of other tasks to keep the action going.
In the Lawyers, Lockboxes and Money series we have explored the networks and organizations that work to serve food, offer medical care, and coordinate legal support for social movements throughout the past several decades. To start to examine the how social movement infrastructures is mobilized in moments of social movement uprising we can look at three significant episodes of contention in the United States in recent years: the Black Lives Matter mobilizations in Ferguson, Missouri following the murder of Mike Brown, the indigenous-led encampments blocking the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota near the reservation of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and the protests against the inauguration of President Donald Trump in Washington, DC on January 20, 2017.
Each of these mobilizations emerged separately in very different social and political contexts. But despite the differences in time, location, and issues raised in these mobilizations many of the same movement infrastructure organizations and networks emerged to provide important logistical support for each of these movements. The level of spontaneity, the relationships between movement organizers and movement institution organizations and networks, and the availability of internal resources all informed the ways that movement infrastructure was mobilized in support of each of these struggles.
Black Lives Matter — Ferguson, Missouri
At 12:02 pm on August 9, 2014 police officer Darren Wilson shot and killed Michael Brown, Jr., an unarmed Black teenager while he and a friend walked down the middle of a residential street in Ferguson, Missouri not far from Brown’s home. Ferguson Police left Brown’s body lying uncovered in the hot sun for four hours while crowds began to grow. That night and every night for the next several months, young Black people took to the streets demanding justice for Mike Brown and an end to racist policing.
Brown was not the first young Black man to be murdered by a police officer that summer, and he wouldn’t be the last. But his death sparked a movement. Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes, “For reasons that may never be clear, Brown’s death was a breaking point for the African Americans of Ferguson — but also for hundreds of thousands of Black people across the United States… It is impossible to answer, and perhaps futile to ask, the question ‘why Ferguson?’ just as it’s impossible to ever accurately calculate when ‘enough is enough.’”
“That evening, my best friend and I took the back streets into Ferguson, down the now-famous West Florissant Avenue, only to be turned around. The police had the streets completely blocked off. There was SWAT everywhere, in gas masks, full body riot gear, police dogs, batons, and really big guns, also known as M16’s swinging from their hands. This was unimaginable… The police dogs were barking so loud we could hear them through our rolled up car windows. As we drove away and found a safe space, anxiety took over. Yet, I was not afraid.”
The protests were met with brutal repression at the hands of local and state police and the Missouri National Guard. Outfitted with riot gear and armed personnel carriers, police officers sic’d dogs on protesters, deployed chemical weapons, shot rubber bullets and arrested hundreds. But people were not deterred. In the face of a militarized police force overwhelming police violence, hundreds of people returned to the streets night after night.
“I will always remember that the call to action initiating the movement was organic — that there was no organizing committee, no charismatic leader, no church group or school club that led us to the streets. It is powerful to remember that the movement began as everyday people came out of their homes and refused to be scared into silence by the police…In those early days, we were united by #Ferguson on Twitter — it was both our digital rallying cry and our communication hub.”
While the calls to action were organic, the mobilization happened within an ecosystem of organizations and networks. On a local level, the Organization for Black Struggle, Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment and Hands Up United all played a significant role in supporting the mobilization and national organizations including Color of Change, Black Lives Matter, and Black Youth Project 100 amplified the action beyond Ferguson. Alongside the nightly actions, a scaffolding of infrastructure emerged to support the burgeoning movement.
As police deployed chemical weapons and other ‘less lethal’ crowd control mechanisms, it became immediately apparent that if people were going to be able to stay in the streets, the movement would need to develop the capacity to provide medical first aid. Because there was not an active street medic team in St. Louis, community-based organization Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE) recruited volunteers who were interested in providing first aid on the streets. MORE set up a telephone training call with Noah Morris, a longtime street medic organizer who walked volunteers through the basics of providing first aid in the streets. The following week MORE was able to recruit a street medic team from Chicago to come to Ferguson to help build out a more formal medic support infrastructure.
In the first week of protests, as the arrest count grew, other organizers from MORE who had gained some experience organizing legal support for actions from the climate movement launched a legal support structure. “We printed up slips of paper with a legal support phone number on them and set up a fundraising link,” remembered Arielle Klagsbrun, an organizer who was working with MORE at the time. “The first two nights I went out to the streets and handed out these slips of paper while Molly [another MORE organizer] waited by the phones. People looked at me like I was crazy, but then the number and the link blew up on social media.”
The legal team trained volunteers to staff phone lines, set up an intake system to keep track of people who had been arrested and bailed out of jail. While the MORE team had some experience with organizing legal support for smaller actions, the volume of arrests was overwhelming. Volunteers were staffing four phone lines around the clock. A couple of weeks into the protests, Sarah Coffee, a veteran of the Midnight Special Law Collective showed up at the volunteer office to offer to help. Coffee, along with other legal workers affiliated with the NLG helped to set up a more formalized system that could handle the volume of arrests that were occurring on a nearly nightly basis.
Meanwhile, on the streets of Ferguson, Cathy “Mama Cat” Daniels, a retired grandmother went looking to find a way to help out. “I asked, ‘what can I do?’” she told the Huffington Post. “They said a little home-cooked meal wouldn’t hurt nothing, so I went home, and the next day I came back with spaghetti and salad and garlic bread. After that, every day I fed them. Every day.” Daniels would continue serving food through the weeks of protests and the non-indictment. Later on, volunteers from Seeds of Peace would travel into Ferguson to support Daniels, particularly during the Ferguson October mobilization and the resurgence of activity following the announcement of the non-incitement.
Geographically, the World Community Center in St. Louis where MORE and other organizations had their offices acted as an organizing hub for coordinating support work. Throughout the fall and into the winter, churches in Ferguson also opened their doors for meetings, vigils, and as safe spaces during the chaotic nights of protest. One national NGO gifted the movement a subscription to the Revolution Messaging platform which allowed organizers to send out mass texts to a list that grew to 6,000 cell phone numbers.
On October 10, sixty days after the murder of Mike Brown, Ferguson Action, an umbrella of St. Louis-based organizations kicked off Ferguson October, a weekend-long national mobilization bringing thousands of people from all over the country into St. Louis. Over four days organized dozens of actions and events including marches, rallies, trainings, and a series of direct actions in Ferguson and around St. Louis.
On August 8th of 2014, no one would have imagined that Ferguson, Missouri would become the site of a major uprising that would catalyze a national movement about structural racism and police violence. And certainly, organizers on the ground did not have the infrastructure that they would need to support that type of uprising. But within weeks, organizers in St, Louis were able to mobilize and deploy a sophisticated movement infrastructure by pulling from local assets that had been developed over time, years of relationships with organizers across a broad range of social movement spaces, and absorbing an influx of energetic volunteers, eager to plug into meaningful work.
In April of 2016, members of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and their supporters set up camp near the banks of the Cannon Ball River, in the path of the planned 1,172 mile Dakota Access Pipeline starting the Sacred Stone Camp. Construction of the pipeline would violate the Fort Laramie Treaty, which affirmed the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s right to their land and risk contaminating the tribe’s drinking water. LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, Standing Rock’s Historic Preservation Officer, said she hoped the camp would “educate the world about the abuse of fossil fuel, the history of the cultural sites along the path of the pipeline and provide education on non-violent direct-action training and non-violent civil disobedience against a billion-dollar oil company.” Participants in the camp eschewed the term “protester” as a negative and colonial term, referring to themselves instead as “water protectors.”
By June of that year, the camp had outgrown the Sacred Stone site, and a larger overflow camp, the Oceti Sakowin (Seven Council Fires) was set up nearby. The Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN), the Indigenous Peoples Power Project (IP3), Honor the Earth, Greenpeace USA, the Ruckus Society, and several other organizations released a video “Warriors Wanted,” a call to action for “trained action organizers” and “skilled builders.”
“We need folks to bring supplies and stay to take action with their bodies and prayers. We need allies to come prepared for the elements to stand with us on the high planes of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation and to peacefully stop this destructive pipeline with us. Be prepared to follow the guidance of indigenous leadership but also to operate with autonomy.
Indigenous people, climate activists, and other allies answered the call in droves. By late September more than 300 federally recognized Native American tribes were represented at the camps, and the camps swelled to more than 4,000.
The logistical and infrastructural challenges of operating a camp of four thousand people in rural North Dakota for several months were daunting. As winter approached these challenges became even more acute, communiques coming out of the camps inviting supporters became more specific about their needs. One call to action from the Oceti Sakowin Camp emphasized the logistical needs of the camp.
“Coming here is now about more than our individual experience, it’s about pulling together so we can Stand Strong. Oceti Sakowin needs community members prepared for arctic conditions. We need people with the fortitude to dedicate a significant portion of each day to the survival of the community. Please bring all-wheel-drive or 4-wheel-drive vehicles. Areas we need help most are in the kitchens, compostable toilet maintenance — an essential foundation for healthy communities, and people able to transport donations to camp from surrounding communities… We welcome skilled experienced builders who can help us with reinforcing existing structures. We welcome skilled medics and natural healers who work collaboratively to take care of our Water Protectors.”
By early fall, the water protectors had organized at least 13 different kitchens across the three main camps to feed the thousands of people who were living at Standing Rock. The main kitchen was coordinated by a vegan chef named from the Netherlands who had worked with a collective of vegan chefs in Greece that cooked meals at refugee camps for 8,000 people a day. Another kitchen was staffed by Seeds of Peace volunteers, yet another was led by Brian Yazzie, a Navajo chef and chef du cuisine at the Sioux Chef, a Minneapolis-based catering company that works to revitalize Native American food culture. Elizabeth Hoover from the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance (NAFSA) observed that preparing traditional indigenous foods became culturally and politically important to the movement. “Traditional foods are considered an important tool in, and motivation for, winning this fight against polluting fossil fuels. Getting traditional foods into camp to keep morale up — whether that was enough buffalo meat in the stews across camp, or more tribally specific delicacies… was an important focus.”
While the kitchen crews kept the camps fed, the Standing Rock Medic and Healer Council worked to meet the basic medical needs of the thousands of people who had converged at the camps and provide first aid to water protectors who had been injured by the police or by the cold during the numerous actions and confrontations. There was no shortage of volunteers interested in helping with the medic team, but organizers struggled to match volunteers with the appropriate skills with the appropriate tasks. One of the organizers of the Medic and Healer Council, said,
“We had to triage which volunteers we could take. Higher credentials were great, but folks needed to be able to work in our systems and be able to survive the conditions without being a drain. The effect of this was we prioritized more well-rounded folks who could stay longer than folks with high degrees of specialized training. There were a lot of folks who just showed up we had to tell to leave or that they weren’t welcome to work with us. A lot of folks were pissed off by that — especially white folks who felt more entitled.”
To fill the gaps experienced action medics reached out through networks of medics he had worked with in the past to recruit volunteers with both the skills and the cultural competency to do the work appropriately.
In addition to dealing with the logistical challenges of camping in North Dakota in the winter and police violence, water protectors at Standing Rock also faced hundreds of arrests and aggressive prosecution by authorities. In total the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline led to 836 criminal cases. The caseload was so large that the State of North Dakota was forced to appoint an additional judge to hear cases and allow out-of-state attorneys to practice in North Dakota. In its ruling, the Supreme Court wrote, “due to the significant increased caseload of the South Central Judicial District as a result of criminal charges stemming from the pipeline protests,” out-of-state lawyers would be permitted to represent defendants “in criminal cases pending in the south Central Judicial District arising from arrests made during protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline.”
Once out-of-state lawyers were allowed to take cases, attorneys from all over the country with backgrounds in a wide range of social movements were invited to take on water protector defendants. Some had backgrounds supporting Native American struggles while others traced their backgrounds to other social movements. Lawyers with backgrounds in the Wounded Knee Defense/Offense Committee, the Peoples’ Law Collective, the NLG Mass Defense Committee, the Civil Liberties Defense Center, the Center for Constitutional Rights, EarthRights International, the Oakland Law Collective as well as dozens of law firms all took cases. By the time all 836 cases were resolved 392 were eventually dismissed, 188 were granted pre-trial diversions, 146 resulted in plea agreements, 42 resulted in acquittals at trial, and 26 resulted in convictions at trial.
The fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline catalyzed the struggles for indigenous sovereignty and climate justice, capturing the imagination of millions of people all over the world. The thousands of people who poured into North Dakota brought global attention to the fight, but at the same time, they also brought dramatic logistical and infrastructural challenges. Over a ten-month period, social movement organizations and institutions from a wide range of movement traditions mobilized existing infrastructure and generated new resources under the leadership of indigenous leaders to support the camps and amplify the struggle. As a result, thousands of people were able to face down relentless police violence, aggressive prosecution, and the North Dakota winter mounting a forceful challenge to the rich and powerful fossil fuel institutions.
J20 — Two months of organizing, one day of action, and eighteen months of legal defense
On January 20, 2017, after a bitter presidential campaign, Donald Trump was sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. While his press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters that “this was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period,” many commentators observed that the crowd was embarrassingly small. Just outside the fenced-off parade route, human blockades had shut down the checkpoints leading into the parade route and National Mall, leaving thousands of would-be Trump-supporting audience members surrounded by angry protesters. Meanwhile, an anti-fascist bloc snaked through downtown Washington, leaving broken windows, spray-painted graffiti, and at least one firebombed limousine in its wake. Police responded with tear gas, pepper spray, flash-bang grenades, and mass arrests. By the end of the day, 234 people had been arrested — all of them facing serious felony charges.
Much of the infrastructure to support the protests, which came together under the banner of #DisruptJ20, was organized by the DC Welcoming Committee (DCWC), which described itself as “a collective of experienced local activists and out-of-work gravediggers acting with national support.” The DCWC continued, “We’re building the framework needed for mass protests to shut down the inauguration of Donald Trump and planning widespread direct actions to make that happen. We’re also providing services like housing, food, and even legal assistance to anyone who wants to join us.”
DCWC organizers experienced a unique set of conditions in mobilizing the infrastructure to support the protests. First, in contrast to more spontaneous mobilizations, like the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri after the murder of Mike Brown, the date and time of the Presidential Inauguration is prescribed in the Constitution. This gave organizers an important opportunity to plan ahead and build infrastructure before people spilled out into the streets. Second, as the nation’s capital, Washington, DC is home to a wide range of NGOs, movement infrastructure institutions, and experienced organizers.
To kick off organizing for the inauguration, DC-based organizers hosted a spokes council meeting on December 11th, 2016. Coming out of that meeting DisruptJ20 organizers began pulling together the logistical infrastructure for the protests. An e-mail report-back laid out the infrastructure plan, “We are putting together all of the infrastructure needed to support mass protests, including a convergence space for the week, mass housing, a legal collective, a medic collective, food, and security.” The report back included a link to volunteer to join one of the infrastructure teams and went on to describe some of the infrastructure plans.
“Medics-We’re looking for trained street medics, EMTs, Medical professionals, healers, body workers, herbalists, and anyone else to support the health and well-being of everyone participating in the protests against the inauguration.
Legal- We’re looking for law students, lawyers, trained legal observers, or anyone interested in helping staff the legal hotline or jail support.
Food-Seeds of Peace and Food Not Bombs are both involved in organizing food for the week. We need donations of both bulk foods, produce, and prepared foods, as well as volunteers.”
Robby Diesu, a longtime DC activist, said DCWC organizers — many of whom had worked closely with mainstream NGOs in the past — made a conscious decision to use their relationships with existing organizations to mobilize for DisruptJ20. While many of these NGOs did not have the stomach for being publicly associated with the unpredictable and confrontational street protests, “some of the people that work at NGOs want to support the work because they see it as important, even if it does not fit in their organizing model.” He also said that DCWC organizers saw organizing for the inauguration as an opportunity to build capacity within local social movements. “From the get-go, there was a conscious decision to use J20 as a training and development opportunity for newer organizers.” Newer activists stepped into leadership roles with the support of more experienced organizers who shared contacts, offered advice, and helped newer leaders debrief meetings and plan next steps.
The medical team also saw the protests at the inauguration as an important opportunity to develop new street medics. While there were a number of experienced street medics living in Washington, DC, there had not been a formal medical collective for several years. About a month before the inauguration, the DisruptJ20 medic team organized a 20-hour street medic training for new medics.
Heather, who was a member of the medic team for DisrupJ20 said that the upcoming action provided a useful backdrop for a training, the effort was “directed to Black and brown participants trying to practice mutual aid healthcare in their communities in DC and around the DMV [the DC, Maryland, Virginia metropolitan area].”
While that training was well attended and incredibly useful for local organizers, many of the participants were focused on organizing in their communities and not particularly interested in throwing a lot of energy in a mobilization with lots of people coming in from outside the area. Few of those trained ended up participating in the medic team for the inauguration. “The absorption of people from the training into the actual medical team was very low. A lot of people were there because they wanted to get skills to take to their community or other types of actions.” Between the training, veteran medics in DC and a call out over one of the national street medic email lists, a full complement of medics came together, ready to support the protestors who faced tear gas, pepper spray, and police violence.
One aspect of the infrastructure for DisruptJ20 that, in retrospect, turned out to be quite underdeveloped was the legal support structure. In 2004, after being slapped with a series of multi-million dollar lawsuits for unlawful mass arrests, the Washington DC Metro Police Department adopted a hands-off policy for protest activity, essentially ending mass arrests in Washington, DC. For the more than fourteen years leading up to Trump’s inauguration, DC police had not made a mass arrest other than those during planned civil disobedience activities. And even then, the DC Metro Police widely employed post-and-forfeit arrangements allowing protesters to pay and forfeit a small sum of money — usually $50 or $100 — to have their charges resolved.
During the protests against Trump’s inauguration, DC Metro Police rounded up and arrested 234 people, mostly near the anti-fascist bloc march. Nearly all of those arrested were charged with a suite felony and misdemeanor riot charges carrying a total of 60 years in prison. The DisruptJ20 Legal Working Group had conducted a series of “know your rights” trainings and published materials on what to do if arrested and how to navigate the Washington, DC court system — down to a detailed explanation of the city’s “post and forfeit” system. The legal working group also operated a legal hotline number, organized a jail support team to track people through the booking system.
While the legal team had posted on its website that, “for anyone who has legal entanglements that take them in the days and weeks after the Inauguration, we will be providing you with support the entire way through the legal process,” few organizers actually believed that mass arrests and prosecution were a likely possibility. The legal infrastructure was well prepared to track arrests, communicate with arrestees’ support people, document police violence and meet arrestees when they were released from custody, but it was not prepared to support hundreds of people from all over the country being prosecuted on serious felony charges.
Dylan Petrohilos who was involved in legal support work and, months later had his home raided and was himself arrested on charges relating to the inauguration protests, said “at the beginning of February we had no idea what was going on. Some people who were released had left town, and we were just trying to figure out where everybody was.” Recruiting activist lawyers to take the cases was challenging because at the time there was not an established network of lawyers and relationships between defendants and one of the attorneys most well-known for taking on activist legal defense cases in Washington became strained over strategic disagreements.
Eventually the legal support team, which became known as the Dead City Legal Posse, came together, recruiting a team of about 25 dedicated volunteers to coordinate fundraising, recruit lawyers, turn supporters out for hearings and trials, organize media support work, and take on the herculean task of supporting the hundreds of defendants who live all over the country who needed to regularly travel into DC for their hearings. Other support infrastructure came together as well. Jerry Koch, a grand jury resister who had spent 241 days in jail for refusing to inform to a grand jury, addressed one of the early defendant summits. The Tilted Scales Collective provided training and support for defendants and their lawyers on strategic decisions in political criminal defense work. Members of the RNC 8 who had faced felony conspiracy trials for their role in organizing protests against the 2008 Republican National Convention made personal phone calls to defendants offering their support and advice.
In November of 2017, the first group of defendants went to trial. After hearing four weeks of evidence the trial judge threw out the felony charges against the six defendants, ruling that no reasonable jury could return a conviction. After deliberations, the jury acquitted all six defendants of all charges. Then in January of 2018, prosecutors dropped charges for 129 of the remaining defendants, while moving ahead with the prosecution of the remaining 59 defendants, against whom the state apparently had the strongest evidence — a move that could have isolated those still facing prosecution. In May, while the second group of defendants went to trial, prosecutors revealed that they had withheld a large amount of evidence from the defense. That trial ended without convictions, and by July prosecutors dropped all charges against the remaining defendants.
In the end, the only protesters who were convicted of crimes relating to the protests of Trump’s inauguration were the 21 people who plead guilty in exchange for reduced charges and lighter sentences in the initial weeks and months following their arrest. While some of the defendants that accepted plea deals may have done so regardless of what support had been available, it is certainly possible that some of these defendants may have continued to fight their charges along with the other defendants if a more robust legal support system had been in place immediately following the action.
In their call to action, DisruptJ20 organizers declared, “from day one, the Trump presidency will be a disaster. #Disrupt J20 will be the start of the resistance.” They took advantage of the two months of lead time to use the mobilization not only as an opportunity to mount a bold protest but also to build capacity and develop new organizers. On January 20th, Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States in front of an embarrassingly small crowd while protests raged on the streets outside. Images broken windows and a burning limousine appeared in newspapers around the world making it clear that there would be a militant opposition to Trump’s presidency. When hundreds of protesters were arrested a sluggish process of developing a legal support apparatus that was up to the challenge created a difficult and emotionally taxing time for the defendants. But with months the organizational infrastructure came together to support arrestees through their trials and secure complete acquittals for all of the defendants who stood together through the process.
Infrastructure for an Uprising
The availability of social movement infrastructure can play a role in strengthening social movements during episodes of contention and failure to mobilize resources to provide the movements basic infrastructural needs can prevent uprisings from taking off, but infrastructure alone cannot create the political conditions that lead to uprisings. Infrastructural resources, then, are mobilized in the context of existing political conditions, social formations and grievances that give rise to moments of social movement uprising. These local conditions inform the ways that individuals and institutions with specific capacities in providing social movement infrastructure are mobilized in different circumstances.
Some of the key factors determining the way that infrastructure institutions are mobilized include the degree of spontaneity of the uprisings; the infrastructural capabilities of social movements organizations engaged in mobilizations and their openness to outside support; the degree to which local movement actors engaged in these mobilizations are networked with other social movements and the availability of well-known individuals and institutions with these infrastructural capabilities to deploy in new settings. Interestingly, in recent years we have seen examples of many of the same individuals and institutions providing movement infrastructure being mobilized in support of dramatically different social movements in different geographies in support of different types of mobilizations, so it seems the specific grievances being raised matters less to the mobilization of movement infrastructure.
The degree of spontaneity of uprisings plays a major role in the way that infrastructure is mobilized and organized. Mobilizations at summits, conventions and other events allow organizers to plan ahead of time to develop the infrastructural tools that they need to support themselves. This advance notice also enables individuals and institutions with the capacities to provide infrastructure to make connections with local organizers and prepare to travel to the sites of the actions. Uprisings that arise rapidly in response to externally imposed grievances give organizers little time to develop infrastructure locally or within their movement organizations. These spontaneous uprisings are more likely to embrace external support leverage support of individuals and institutions outside of their immediate movement ecosystems. But because of the spontaneous nature of these mobilizations, the individuals and institutions that can be mobilized to provide infrastructure are likely to be those with significant organizational flexibility.
Although organizational relationships between social movement organizations and social movement infrastructure organizations and networks can facilitate mobilization of infrastructural resources, these infrastructural resources are most frequently mobilized through informal networks based on personal relationships and shared experiences. Organizers who are well-networked across social movements at regional, national and international levels can play an important role in building bridges across movements and geographies to recruit individuals and institutions with the capacity to provide support. These well-networked organizers can also play an important role in vetting the capabilities of individuals and institutions offering infrastructural support. Additionally, the availability of well-known institutions can remove barriers for local organizers who are not strongly networked in recruiting the infrastructural support they need.
Finally, the internal availability of infrastructural resources can reduce the need for social movements to mobilize infrastructural assets across social movements and spaces. Well-resourced organizations like labor unions and large NGO’s are unlikely to solicit, or even welcome, support from grassroots social movement infrastructure institutions. Additionally, communities with robust local infrastructure are less likely to rely on support from other geographic regions. While the availability of this local infrastructure can be a valuable asset for movements and uprisings, the fact that these organizations and communities are less likely to rely on outside support can play an isolating role by reducing the involvement of individuals and institutions from different movement spaces and geographies.
 Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (Chicago, Illinois: Haymarket Books, 2016).
 In the Matter of a Petition to Permit Temporary Provision of Legal Services by Qualified Attorneys From Outside North Dakota, ?20160436 (Supreme Court of the State of North Dakota January 18, 2017).