From the Trenches: Direct Action (Not POTUS) Defeated KXL


“From the Trenches” is a battle cry. In a globalized world that criminalizes the rebellious in spirit, it’s easy to forget that change-minded activists and organizers are tallying up tiny victories against sociocultural and economic oppression on the regular. The column will serve as a weekly reminder that we not only can win, but we do, often. So hasta la victoria siempre and all that.

Have you checked the news today? Well, go ahead. Take a look. On every front page, you’ll see it: the Us vs. Them narrative that pits the change-making power of the elite against that of the so-called dangerous classes (lumpen included). The powerful are always finding ways to criminalize, or else outright erase, the ways “The People” (you know, the majority of the world’s population) can change the texture and shape of our collective society.

For example, in the New York Times: “Citing Climate Change, Obama Rejects Construction of Keystone XL Pipeline.”

Ding, dong, the Keystone XL Pipeline is dead! The XL Pipeline—a project that would have connected two already existing points of the Keystone system, cutting through indigenous lands and creating greater potential for environmental havoc in the process—got a stake in its black-tarry heart on Friday, when it was rejected by President Obama.

But that headline should really read: “Citing Pissed Off Activists, Obama Rejects KXL Pipeline.” Because what was left of the Keystone XL project (bits of it were built over the course of Obama’s presidency) was sent to its grave by the thousands of activists across North America, especially indigenous peoples, environmental activists and their allies, who put their bodies on the line to prevent humanity from killing itself off sooner than expected. So as a resident of earth, thank you!

You may be thinking: “But if POTUS hadn’t rejected Keystone XL, all that organizing energy would have amounted to zero change! We need the government to act on our behalves in these cases, to ke—”

Imma let you finish, but let’s take a second to look at this argument critically.

Politicians (and authority in general) like to take credit for the things we do for ourselves—like planting community gardens, school breakfast programs, labor organizing—institutionalize them, and then convince us that the project was their idea in the first place. On the other hand, when movements make demands “civilly,” governments prefer to ignore them until it’s politically convenient, until they can claim to have come to a decision to ally themselves with the aims of a social movement not because of political pressure, but because of their own good conscience.


But the movement around the XL Pipeline, like the Civil Rights movement and many others before it, didn’t play nice. Instead, it made use of a variety of tactics–including direct action–to prevent the realization of the project. When it comes to Obama’s KO of KXL, the decision was not a random act of goodwill (he has hemmed and hawed over the project’s fate for years). Politicians do not like caving to the demands of a bunch of lumpen, believe it or not, especially when there’s money to be made. The president’s hand was forced by people on the ground, people who didn’t rely on leaflets or Facebook groups to get their point across, but instead built their campaign around inclusion and direct action. In his aptly headlined article, “When We Fight, We Fuck Shit Up,” CounterPunch’s Scott Parkin writes:

[D]irect action groups in Texas, Oklahoma and in locales across the continent waged sustained direct action campaigns against the pipeline. It created a crisis in the business as usual models of oil companies and politicians. It works. [Direct action] gets the goods. … The Tar Sands Blockade brought together conservative landowners and radical environmental groups like Rising Tide and Earth First! … The campaign against the northern leg worked with a diverse coalition that included Indigenous communities in South Dakota and Montana, ranchers in Nebraska, students, scientists, families along the pipeline route and white middle class environmentalists from all over the country. While there was often disagreement in putting together such a diverse set of voices, there was one unifying message: NO KXL.

Today, we’re working within a system that requires us to ask, take, demand concessions from people in power. But that dynamic does not mean that we’re unable to achieve victories on our own, or that support from (especially mainstream) politicians is anything more than them waving their white flag of surrender.

Hopefully one day, the framework for creating change will be different, and we’ll be able to work around traditional politics, as people around the world are already doing. But the fight to defeat KXL provides a compelling model of how to organize in the meantime.


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