Auden Schendler: People power can still make democracy work
Writers on the Range
If you parade several hundred thousand people through New York and coordinate simultaneous marches globally, the truth is … it might not matter all that much. Such was the lesson of the 2014 climate march in New York City, and probably of the Jan. 21 women’s marches, exhilarating as they were. It’s likely, too, to be the response to the upcoming People’s Climate March on Saturday.
I don’t mean to be a downer. I attended the 2014 event myself and hoped it would change the world. But it did not. These gentle strolls don’t rise to the scale of the problem. What might? If marchers blocked Trump Tower for six months, caused commerce to stop, got arrested, then did it again and again, you might just get somewhere. Such has been the lesson of the battle over the Dakota Access Pipeline.
After this year’s remarkable women’s march, President Donald Trump tweeted: “Peaceful protests are a hallmark of our democracy.” The event allowed Trump to preside over a society that tolerates dissent while ignoring that dissent. Indeed, just two days later, Trump signed an executive order reinstating Reagan-era restrictions on abortion.
My wife and daughter participated in the women’s march, traveling to Denver with friends. They had a memorable experience in democracy and civic action. But compare their experience with a real revolution. In 1789, the Women’s March on Versailles broke into Louis XVI’s palace, killed two guards and forced the king to walk with some 60,000 protesters. Or compare my pleasant experience in New York with that of the protesters at Standing Rock in North Dakota.
There, officers destroyed a camp and fired tear gas, rubber bullets, Tasers and water cannons in sub-zero temperatures. But the protesters are using more than their bodies: Two Sioux tribes have filed lawsuits arguing that the Army Corps of Engineers violated environmental, historic preservation and religious freedom laws. Those cases are pending.
I have never been shot with a rubber bullet. But we might have to endure some level of pain in the course of peaceful protest, more than the footsore feeling of a long walk down a wide avenue, if we want the kind of action we need on any number of pressing issues, from climate and clean energy to health care and immigration reform. We’re beginning to see that level of difficulty embraced by citizens beyond Standing Rock, with constituents mobbing local town hall meetings held by their congressional representatives —at least those legislators who aren’t terrified to hold such meetings. For citizens, that kind of face-to-face work takes great courage, too, and is hugely stressful, but quite effective.
After young people took to the streets in the risky and charged city of Birmingham, Alabama, in May 1963, President John F. Kennedy announced his intention to introduce civil rights legislation. He made his famous civil rights speech a month later in Washington, D.C., but it was effectively written on the streets of Birmingham. Photographs on the front page of national newspapers showing African-Americans like John Lewis being savagely beaten and attacked by dogs in Selma, Alabama, ultimately gave President Lyndon Johnson the push he needed to pass the Civil Rights Act.
The Dakota Access Pipeline is the modern progeny of civic actions that made a difference. If that fight seems lost now, think again. Along with continued opposition to the pipeline close to the Standing Rock Sioux, other conflicts rage, like the one that killed the Pinon pipeline in New Mexico, or the fight over fracking near Chaco Canyon, where the Bureau of Land Management recently approved drilling leases.
This nascent protest movement, started in North Dakota by Indigenous youth, explodes a subtle American myth — the one that contends that revolutions just happen. Schoolchildren have learned that Rosa Parks was a seamstress who got tired of it all, so she sat in the front of the bus. But Parks spent years training as a revolutionary, studying under Myles Horton, along with Martin Luther King Jr., at the Highlander School in Tennessee. She knew what she was doing when she put her life on the line.
The gritty work of revolution may be the most difficult of all human tasks because the path forward is always experimental and full of risk. It’s an open question whether we’ll choose to exchange our comfortable lives for the difficult acts of protest required to change the path of government. But one thing is certain: Any progress will be directly proportional to our suffering. The writer Cormac McCarthy said it best: “All things of grace and beauty such that one holds them to one’s heart have a common provenance in pain.”
Auden Schendler is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org). He serves on the boards of Conservation Colorado and Protect Our Winters, and is a vice president at Aspen Skiing Co.
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