Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Environmental activist faces 10 years in jail for civil disobedience

An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
I think the opportunity that's here is to build a real resistance movement -- not just a lobby movement, but a resistance movement, that says this path that we're on is absolutely unacceptable, and we're going to use our power as citizens and as a movement to shut this system. I think that's where we need to be right now, recognizing that this is not a matter of lobbying for trivial reforms, but we're at a point where we need to make the path we're on absolutely impossible to continue. Hopefully that's the lesson that people are taking out of this.
Tim DeChristopher
Student and activist Tim DeChristopher found a way to resist corporate power and fight against the damage caused by US oil and gas corporations. But it may cost him a long prison term.

On June 23 the environmental activist and campaigner  will find out whether he will spend the next ten years in a US Federal Prison for an act of civil disobedience against the oil and gas industry.

His case is being seen as yet another example of the serious assault on public protest and dissent that is occurring around the world, whereby governments and corporations are increasingly using whatever means possible, such as anti- terrorist legislation, increased police powers, direct restrictions on public protest, SLAPP suits and arbitrary detention, to prevent and limit the right to protest.

In December 2008 DeChristopher participated in an oil and gas auction of 150,000 acres of public land in Southern Utah. Sale of the land had been fast tracked in the last days of the Bush administration to benefit the fossil fuel industry. It was a last minute land grab authorized in the last days of the Bush administration.

DeChristopher was outraged by the illegality of the land grab and the fact that leases were being handed out in an irregular way. He was also outraged about the ways that the oil and gas companies privatized all their profits and externalized all their costs. His argument was that the oil and gas companies had no intention to pay the full costs of their operations which are offloaded to the public :
"Well, I saw this auction as, first off, a fraud against the American people, that the government wasn’t following their own rules and was locking the public out of the decision-making process for public property. I also saw it as a real threat to my future, because of the impact on climate change that this kind of “drill now, think later” mentality was having, and an attack on our public lands, on our natural heritage, in pretty pristine and irreplaceable areas in southern Utah".
DeChristopher successfully bought (without any money or intention to pay) 22,000 acres of the land in order to save it from fossil fuel extraction. De Christopher had originally attended the auction to protest without any intention of bidding for the land. However, upon entry to the auction he was asked if he intended to be a bidder to which he replied "yes" and he became Bidder No 70. DeChristopher then proceeded to bid and successfully secured 13 leases, thereby disrupting the sale.

De Christopher actually raised the money to buy the land but he was still charged with fraud because at the time of the auction he had no intention to pay. However, that fact and many other issues were not allowed to be introduced into the trial.

In March 2011 he was convicted of fraud and faces a 10 year jail term and $750,000 fine imposed by the Obama administration.

As Tim De Christopher points out his case was prosecuted to scare off others who might consider civil disobedience.
"I was born the year that Ronald Reagan took office. The reality throughout my lifetime has been, corporations and governments are powerful, and people are weak, and there is nothing you can do to change that. Now that paradigm is starting to shift, and all of a sudden, the world is starting to believe in people power again"
Various web sites have been set up to publicize DeChristopher's case (Bidder 70) and  The Trial of Tim DeChristopher and a Facebook site allows you to follow the case. Interviews and stories about DeChristopher can be read here, here, here, here, here and here.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The history of civil society in WA: PhD on the history of the WA forest protest movement

Reading a PhD thesis is not something you do for fun.

But Ron Chapman's PhD Fighting for the Forests: A History of the WA Forest Protest Movement 1895-2001 is an important document of WA  history.

I have long argued that  protest action by ordinary West Australian citizens, in the form of social movements and civil society action, has been at the forefront of most significant social, political, economic and environmental change in this state. This is not reflected in traditional narratives about Western Australian history which largely marginalize or trivialize the action taken by WA citizens fighting for social, economic, racial and environmental justice.

So I was excited to read Chapman's thesis which shows that forest protest has been a major force for environmental and political reform throughout WA history.

Chapman shows how over time small scale protest activity by citizens was transformed into a social movement that had a significant influence on forest policy and practice, culminating in the defeat of the Court Government in 2001 and the adoption of policy by the Gallop Government to protect WA forests

Chapman describes the diversity of protest activities used by WA civil society groups to focus public attention on forest issues and pressure the WA Government to change its forest policies and practices. He shows how protest groups had to constantly adapt organization and strategies to the changing social and political conditions.

Chapman's analyses the campaigns and strategies used by West Australian citizens and civil society groups from 1995 to 2001. He distinguishes a number of distinct periods, firstly from the late 19th century to 1950, and then a second period from 1950 to 2001, characterized by 5 distinct phases:
  1. Formative phase from the 1950's-60's which saved urban bushland.
  2. Transitional phase during the 1970's which adopted assertive forms of protest.
  3. Collaborative phase during the 1980's when campaigners began to collaborate with and influence political parties.
  4. Expansionary phase during the 1990's which saw the spread of local protest groups in the South west.
  5. Confrontational phase which involved an intensive campaign of confrontational and direct action.
Chapman's research demonstrate the importance of "localism" as an activist and organizing strategy. Chapman shows how the WA native forest protest movement established a network of urban and south-west activist groups which encouraged broad public support.

The eventual success of the forest protest movement resulted from the rise of these organized and effective local groups and campaigns focused on public education, media exposure and local action. The transformation of local action into an influential social movement played a significant role in bringing down a government and protecting  WA forests.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

"Counterfeit" communties and the commodification of community

The adverts appear everywhere. Developers adverting their ritzy housing estates claiming that they don't build houses, they build communities. And property developers employ community development specialists to create "communities" in order to sell more houses at higher prices.

And then there are the Government departments and NGO's who describe their top down efforts to impose solutions on people to achieve already defined outcomes  as "community development".

Frankly it is all an illusion.

It is as Australian blogger and writer Bruce Watson rightly points out the commodification of community-  the turning of a complex human and social institution into a commodity that can be exploited for profit and political gain. Watson reminds us that most of what takes place under the banner of "community" has become clouded and easily manipulated for commodification and marketing.

John Freie and  Bruce Watson call it "counterfeit communities" and it is a good description. In counterfeit communities it is less important that communities exist in reality. It is the appearance of community that is important. People are encouraged to see the manifestations and spirit of community without accepting the complex interactions that must occur for it to be realized. As Wilson writes:
"Community has regrettably become a product to be advertised, marketed and sold. It makes no difference whether genuine community exists or not. As long as it appears to exist. Consequently, we are subjected to planned communities that are advertised as “truly a special place”, “we’ve made the dream a reality” and “the tasteful community you deserve” with a “neighbourhood bar and grill” (in the multi-story shopping centre complex)"
As Watson points counterfeit communities, despite all the glossy brochures, promises and hyperbole, are inherently hollow and exploitative. They are never fully satisfying.

And Wilson gets to the nub of counterfeit community:
"Counterfeit community extends the power and expands the wealth of those who create it".