“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” – Judy Bonds
Pay attention: A critical learning moment for the climate and environmental movements is unfolding before us in cities across Egypt.
Egyptians are taking their country back. Hundreds of thousands are sick of the strong-armed, 30-year bullshit rule of faux pharaoh Hosni Mubarak and the Egyptian ruling class. Sparked by the Tunisian revolt which ended a 23 year-old, US-backed authoritarian regime weeks ago, the youth-led protests have taken over the streets of Egypt and are close to toppling Mubarak.
The majority of the secular, pro-democracy demos have been mostly peaceful with relatively low numbers of casualties after less than a week of revolt. (Note: It appears that Egyptian government forces are beginning to use deadly force more often.) They have not taken offensive action against police and military forces that are mostly comprised of poor conscripts. Most of the clashes have happened when police attempted to disperse the crowds or force them from bridges and spaces they are determined to hold. But the crowds only have grown larger and more defiant. In fact, in some cases, the opposite is happening: In scenes reminiscent of the film V for Vendetta, police officers have been seen laying down their batons, stripping off their uniforms and joining the protesters. Soldiers are joining hands with protesters saying “The army and the people will purify the country.”
The rising tide of a people’s movement, like in Egypt, seeking justice and democracy is not an uncommon global phenomenon in the past 20-plus years. But the question for those of us seeking climate justice and climate action: How do we build North American People Power to dismantle the fossil fuel economy like the Egyptians are dismantling Mubarak’s dictatorship? How do we organize a hundred Capitol Climate Actions democratically, from the bottom up, with effective mass direct action and sustained momentum like our Egyptian comrades are doing today?
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A few quick lessons from Egypt come to mind:
- Be Realistic, Demand the Impossible. Egyptians are demanding an end to Mubarak’s rule. Nothing less. A pretty big demand for a strong man who has ruled for 30 years and gets $1.5 billion annually in U.S. military aid. Yet, they seem to be on track to getting it. Why isn’t the climate movement organizing masses into the streets with strong demands for action on coal and oil, and an end to the corporate rule that protects them? Demand the abolition of mountaintop removal, not increased regulation of it. Don’t just regulate greenhouse gas emissions: demand the dismantling of the existing coal plant infrastructure. Demand a corporate “death sentence” for criminal companies like Massey Energy and BP. Demand a reallocation of resources from fossil fuel companies to communities poisoned and destroyed by fossil fuel extraction and combustion.
- If People Power leads, then the “leaders” will follow. Political parties and non-profits are NOT driving the Egyptian uprising, it’s People Power. Youth, elders, middle class, poor, religious and secular. The established opposition groups only joined in after the masses took over the streets in Cairo, Alexandria and Suez calling for Mubarak’s ouster. In North America, Corporate America, the political establishment and the media has convinced us that national politicians and well paid non-profit staff are the change agents we’ve been waiting for. They aren’t. Thus far, they’ve only delivered epic failures in Copenhagen and Washington D.C. Don’t let the priorities of big, well-resourced institutions trump planetary or community survival.
- Make direct action the organizing strategy, not just a tool in the toolbox. I’m pretty sick of hearing how direct action is just a “tool in our toolbox.” It’s quite apparent that Egyptian youth have taken on an organizing strategy of “mass confrontational non-violence.” Now hundreds of thousands are involved. Similar to other mass movements in Serbia (ousted Milosevic), El Alto, Bolivia (booted out Bechtel), and the WTO in Seattle (shut them down and sent them into a tailspin), mass sustained direct action is a strategy we use to build real movements, change power dynamics, shift societies and remove governments. Today, direct action groups on the ground in West Virginia, Alberta, Idaho and Montana are waging sustained direct action campaigns against coal and oil. They are the building blocks for a massive direct action movement on climate justice. Let’s help them build power.
- Let the internet be the means, not the end. Egyptian organizers initially used Facebook and Twitter as tools to turn people out until the government shut down large portions of the internet nationwide. Now they are using old fashioned face to face organizing, flyers and zine-style direct action handbooks. Regardless of the tool, the story of an oppressive regime was widely known and resonated with millions; at that point people just need to know where to show up whether it is via the internet, phone call or carrier pigeon.
- And finally, tell us a story. Grassroots movements tell their best stories through action. Egypt has told the story of a corrupt, repressive, U.S.-backed regime through the actions of hundreds of thousands. My friend David Solnit writes: “The Zapatista uprising of 1994 was an incredible and contagious story that re-defined the post-Cold War reality. The Seattle direct action shut down was another powerful story whose significance is constantly under attack from The New York Times and the forces of corporate reality.” Anti-mountaintop removal activists tell their stories through tree-sits on strip-mined mountains and climbing on top of Earth-destroying draglines. A people-powered climate movement will tell a story of dismantling fossil fuel infrastructures and seeking justice for frontline communities.
We’re racing against time. Big Oil and King Coal are waging war on our planet and its people without mercy and without quarter. In contrast to Mubarak, they are the global oppressors holding back our future and it’s time to rise up against these corporate megalomaniacs. A global movement of climate justice organizers and direct actionistas has been building People Power against the root causes of climate change.
Let’s take Egypt’s struggle global. Who’s with us?