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Direct Action Protest: It Works

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The following characterization does not by any means describe all LGM commenters, or even a majority. But there is certainly a strong group of people around here who look down on direct action protest as a mode of political action, arguing that political organizing needs to primarily happen within the electoral system and that getting out the vote, finding strong Democratic Party candidates, and the like are a better form of political action. I certainly do not deny the importance of doing these things and working within the political system, but there are many types of political action that work toward justice and we need activism both inside and outside the political system in order to make that happen.

One critical example of why protest is needed is on pipeline issues during the Obama administration. Obama is an example of the farthest left candidate Democrats have elected since at least 1964 but who still is between disappointing and outright awful on a number of issues. His administration has been inclined to support pipeline construction that has received the ire of both environmentalists and the people living near it. In two cases now, government plans to build pipelines have been defeated by direct action. The first was the Keystone XL Pipeline, organized by Bill McKibben and his 350.org movement. And now we have a second example of protest changing pipeline construction, with months of action in North Dakota finally getting the Army Corps of Engineers to deny the path for the pipeline near the Standing Rock reservation.

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said Sunday that it won’t grant an easement for the Dakota Access oil pipeline in southern North Dakota.

The decision is a victory for the several thousand camped near the construction site, who’ve said for months that the four-state, $3.8 billion project would threaten a water source and cultural sites.

The pipeline is largely complete except for the now-blocked segment underneath Lake Oahe, a Missouri River reservoir. According to a news release, Assistant Secretary for Civil Works Jo-Ellen Darcy said her decision was based on the need to “explore alternate routes” for the pipeline’s crossing.

“Although we have had continuing discussion and exchanges of new information with the Standing Rock Sioux and Dakota Access, it’s clear that there’s more work to do,” Darcy said. “The best way to complete that work responsibly and expeditiously is to explore alternate routes for the pipeline crossing.”

This is a great example of cross-racial organizing making a huge difference. This was members of the Standing Rock Sioux taking the lead in demanding their rights on the land that should rightfully belong to them combined with hundreds of largely white protestors serving to bring more publicity and media attention to the protests. This was not without tension between the indigenous and white activists on the ground, but with tensions also rising between the activists and the government, the latter caved. There is no room within traditional political organizing to stop this sort of project from being constructed. It requires people putting their bodies on the line. After January 20, those sorts of actions are going to require even more of this type of activism, because a Trump administration Corps of Engineers is far less likely to respect the human rights of protestors.

So, yes, channeling activism within the electoral system is critically important. So is supporting direct action around whatever struggles pop up at a given moment. We need both. Both work. We need more of both, especially during the next 4 years.

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