This past week, I had the opportunity to participate in a couple days of the Backbone Campaign’s annual Localize This! Action Camp, culminating in an action at the Seattle Army Corps of Engineers office. The action was to protest their decision to limit their environmental review which is to be used in ruling on a permit to allow coal trains to pass through several Northwest states and for coal ports to be built to export that coal. Suffice it to say that this project will mean billions of dollars for coal producers, traders and transporters, a small number of union jobs, and a horrendous environmental and logistical nightmare.
What I really want to talk about is some insights I gained in helping put together and execute the Backbone action. Although I have participated in many protest marches and actions over the years, I have never worked on the planning and preparation stages. I expect that my experience with Backbone is fairly typical of the genre.
As you might expect, there was a high level of idealism and serious dedication to addressing social justice and climate issues. Most participants were young, but there was a fair number of middle agers, and a spattering of seniors like myself. As the week came to an end, the focus moved from the practical and theoretical aspects of direct action to the planning and execution of the action itself. The latter is the part that I was mostly involved with.
The "why" and the "where" were clearly and easily defined. We all knew that the coal had to stay in the ground instead being scattered all over the planet or sent into the atmosphere. We knew that the Army Corps of Engineers were the ones that needed more convincing and we knew they were down on E Marginal Way on the Duwamish. As to the "what," we had a good idea who of us would be there, and we knew what Backbone puppets and images were on hand, materials for making signs and banners, and vehicles of land and sea to transport same.
What turned out to be the most elusive and knuckle-whitening part for me was the "how."
On the day before the action, we all volunteered to be responsible for the many tasks that needed to be done and set off in every direction. There were facilitators like Bill, Lisa, Eric, and Carlo with vital information, a general idea of who was doing what, dealing with emergencies, and keeping an eye on the whole project. What I learned early on was that none of these tasks were rote or even close to completely planned out. We were all expected to think on our feet. As the day wore on, I began to become aware of the huge number of logistical problems that needed to be solved….before 6 am the next day. On the following morning at the site of the action, I realized that I was being too conservative. Problems continued to pop up and be dealt with right up to the very last minute. How Bill Moyer et al had developed the nerves to cope with this kind of thing from one action to the next was a mystery to me.
It got me to wondering how these actions continue to be successfully pulled off given the chaos of their creation. After a few days, it seemed to me that a lot had to do with consensus decision-making. Thorough discussion and participation insures that everybody understands what the goals are, what means are available for achieving those goals, and, since there are no leaders, a sense of responsibility to see that things get done. When there is a delegation of responsibilities but no chain of command, you have to keep an eye on everything and do what you see needs to be done rather than waiting for directions or for someone else to do it. I’m sure there are a lot of situations where a chain of command can mean the difference between life and death. But there is this other way that is valuable in highly fluid situations where a lot of what is happening just can’t be anticipated.
I think that we could all stand to realize that there is a lot that needs tending to around us and there often really isn’t anybody in charge. We live in a society that values experts and we often don’t have the confidence or the will to act on the basis of our own personal assessment of the situation. Think of a fire in a trashcan next to a wood building or someone getting mugged out in plain sight. Fortunately, there is usually someone with the presence of mind to act, but there are often a lot of spectators as well.
Sometimes it takes a measure of knowledge and common sense to size up a situation and to know whether you can or should step in. Most of the time, it is just a piece of garbage that needs to be picked up, something moved that somebody is likely to trip on, or some such. We don’t need to wait for the experts most of the time; we can do it ourselves.