I keep meaning to write something about the Tar Sands Action protests that had been going on by the White House and then I keep forgetting. And that on its own really sums up the only point I have to make, which is simply that even though these protests have a civil disobedience element to them — a number of celebrities have gotten themselves arrested — they’re not really having the impact of civil disobedience.
My office is maybe three or four blocks from the White House and the only sign of these actions that I’ve noticed has been on Twitter or in my RSS reader (admittedly, this is my main form of interaction with the world so it’s not nothing). Nothing about life in the nation’s capital is actually being disrupted or inconvenienced here.
And that, as I understand it, has traditionally been the point of civil disobedience. It’s one thing to have a sign posted saying your lunch counter is segregated. It’s another thing to have your police department and jails and courts constantly tied up with efforts to enforce segregation. A brave and determined minority of people can, with sufficient commitment, make the price of continuing the status quo much higher than it was pre-disobedience. And that can change things. At this point, I think it’s pretty clear that if a serious climate measure is ever going to get back on the agenda, it’s going to take something like that. Not people holding signs or doing mock arrests, but real disruption and disorder that creates a sense of crisis. A relatively small group of people willing to get themselves arrested could, for example, grind the rush hour traffic of a major city (Washington, DC even!) to a halt. We’ve seen various small steps in that direction, of which these Keystone XL protests are the latest example, but I think nothing will change until we go several paces further down that road.