Chapter 14 The Art of Protest

The Art of Protest

The Right to Protest
– Fossil Fuel Industry Seeks to Curtail Protests

– Organizing a Successful Protest
– Creative Protests
– Art and Climate Activism
– Civil Disobedience
– How-to Resources for Civil Disobedience

– Some Successful Climate Action Campaigns

– Ban on Fracking in NY
– Keystone XL Pipeline
– The DAPL Fight
– Line 3 Pipeline


The Art of Protest

“A protest is an event or action where people gather with others to publicly express their opinions about something that is happening in society. There are a variety of potential goals for a protest: influence public opinion, draw attention to and share information about a perceived injustice, gain a wide audience for the cause, push public policy or legislation forward, learn more about an issue, connect with others who feel passionate about the issue, speak one’s truth and bear witness. Protests can also provide inspiration and a sense of being part of a larger movement. The overarching purpose of protests is to demand change.”[1]

As with all advocacy, protests should be part of a campaign plan that has a clear goal. How does the protest fit in with the rest of the plan? Organizing plans can utilize escalating confrontational tactics as your initial efforts fail to provide the desired results. Traditionally, groups have moved to using civil disobedience only after other pressure activities failed to produce the needed response.

Pulling together any event can make organizers nervous about how well it will go, how many people will show up, etc. Be willing to step outside your comfort zone to challenge yourself and your organization, while making sure you do the organizing steps to make the event successful. My experience has been that climate protests usually draw more people than expected if they are well publicized and the reason for them are clear.

Some ways to protest include: organize a picket line; hold a rally or march; organize a sit-in or die-in; block the traffic; disrupt a meeting or public hearing (e.g., have people stand up and speak, hold a banner); hold signs at events; engage in performance art; hang a banner from a building or overpass; organize a call-in; leaflet; hunger strike; blocking an entrance to building or work site; dressing up as polar bears and other animals threatened by climate change; music; sing; organize a festive; vigils; readings; put up posters; banging pots and pans; sidewalk chalking; etc.

Protests are normally nonviolent. Be clear with participants ahead of time as to whether the event is committed to nonviolence (which also requires them to commit to this if they are participating).

This book focuses on nonviolent protests. Violent protests can involve destruction of property (disabling a bulldozer) or even harm to individuals. Some dispute whether destruction of property is inherently violent. Some believe that movements can be effective when they combine elements of both.[2] In The Ministry for the Future, a well-regarded 2020 climate fiction novel by Kim Stanley Robinson, the author envisions a world where climate activists employ terrorist acts, including assassinations of fossil fuel executives and shooting down airliners.[3] The use of violence is often more acceptable to the public when it is in response to systemic oppression by the government.[4]

Also be clear with participants about whether there is a chance of arrest. In most cases, police officers are not interested in arresting nonviolent protestors (partially due to the paperwork) and usually will provide several warnings before arrests are made. The police however can be more aggressive and confrontational when dealing with people of color or if they have a close relationship to a local business being protected. (See section on civil disobedience)

The COVID crisis and the need to isolate was a major impediment to climate protests[5], especially during the first few years, leading to the need to think of new creative ways to protest and organize.[6]

The Right to protest

The right to protest is one of the fundamental guarantees in the U.S. constitution. That is not true however in any country and can be met with violent repression. And people of color and other marginalized people in the U.S. can face physical and other repercussions from protests.

The American Civil Liberty Union states: “Your rights are strongest in what are known as “traditional public forums,” such as streets, sidewalks, and parks. You also likely have the right to speak out on other public property, like plazas in front of government buildings, as long as you are not blocking access to the government building or interfering with other purposes the property was designed for… You do not need a permit to march in the streets or on sidewalks, as long as marchers do not obstruct car or pedestrian traffic.” [7]

The courts have allowed governments to impose “reasonable” time, place, and manner restrictions on protests, especially when sound amplification is used. Large rallies and marches with lots of people and a sound system normally require a permit.[8]

Your local National Lawyers Guild or Civil Liberties Union group can help provide you with information about protesting in your community. They may also provide a legal observer to monitor the behavior of the police. For larger events, recruit some experienced people to act as liaisons with the police to negotiate what you can do or not do during the protest. There may also be prior local court rulings that detail how the police and government are to respond to protests.

Fossil Fuel Industry Seeks to Curtail Protests

Many states are seeking to crack down on protests in response to climate and Black Lives Matter activists. This tends to be aimed at larger direct action and civil disobedience events.

As of 2021, 8 states had passed laws cracking down on protests and twenty-one had pending laws. New Arkansas, Kansas and Montana laws increase penalties for protesting near oil and gas pipelines and other infrastructure. Republican bill sponsors and police groups say increasing penalties for crimes committed during a protest (e.g., blocking traffic) claiming it will help prevent violence and protect law enforcement officers. [9]

In 2019, the National Lawyers Guild reported that in the prior two years, twelve states had considered bills to designate fossil fuels as critical infrastructure and allow greater latitude in prosecuting those who protest them. Lawsuits are also routinely brought against protestors by private companies with the goal of tying protestors up in long and expensive lawsuits. [10]

Mother Jones reports that many states are considering anti-protest “legislation…based on a model bill that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a right-wing policy shop funded by corporations and conservative billionaires, drafted, and began promoting to Republican state lawmakers in the wake of the fight over the Dakota Access pipeline project. State disclosure records routinely show lobbyists for companies such as Enbridge, Exxon Mobil Corp., Koch Industries and Marathon Petroleum consulting lawmakers on the legislation.” Louisiana’s Republican-controlled legislature passed a bill in May 2022 that would have imposed mandatory three-year prison sentences for trespassing on fossil fuel sites, but it was vetoed by the Democratic Governor. [11]

In 2016, Jessica Reznicek, a member of the Des Moines Catholic Worker Movement, sought to stop the construction of Dakota Access Pipeline. Jessica attended public comment hearings, gathered signatures, and participated in civil disobedience, hunger strikes, marches and rallies, boycotts, and encampments. When all of that failed to stop the pipeline, she began dismantling construction equipment and pipeline valves. In 2021 she was sentenced to 8 years in prison with a “domestic terrorism enhancement” that more than doubled her sentence.[12]

The treatment of protestors in other countries, especially those with authoritarian governments, can be far more brutal, with beatings, assaults, long jail terms, or even killings. For instance, more than 320 land and environmental defenders have been killed in Columbia over the last decade. [13] Certainly, many countries suppress dissent. The United States only ranks 15th in world rankings for human rights. [14] China, the world’s largest greenhouse emitter, ranks 150, though it has become a little more tolerant of environmental protests in recent years. [15]

Countries globally are cracking down on protests. A letter signed by more than four hundred scientists, including more than a dozen with the IPCC, stated “around the world today, those who put their voices and bodies on the line to raise the alarm are being threatened and silenced by the very countries they seek to protect. We are gravely concerned about the increasing criminalization and targeting of climate protestors around the world.”[16]

In June 2022, Human Rights Watch said the Australian state of New South Wales were disproportionately punishing climate protesters in violation of their basic rights to peaceful protest. Proposed anti-protest laws in the states of Victoria and Tasmania would also invoke harsh penalties for non-violent protest.[17] The courts threw out a 2019 police ban in London to protests by Extinction Rebellion. [18] In 2017, Poland, the host of COP24, passed a law to curtail the rights of environmental activists to protest at the UN climate talks and subjected them to government surveillance. During the climate talks in Paris, protestors were placed under house arrest and had to report to police three times a day.[19]

Organizing a Successful Protest

The short-term focus of most protests is to draw media and public attention to an issue. Optics matter. A photo (or short video) is worth a thousand words. Protests that utilize humor are often effective.

The long-term focus of any protest should be to win a particular demand or action, usually as part of a larger campaign. A direct-action protest (discussed later) is when you directly confront the decision maker seeking agreement.

There are many good organizing guides for protests.[20] Different types of protests have different needs. Some, such as civil disobedience (covered separately), require a high level of commitment among the participants.

While some protests are spontaneous, most involve planning. Be inclusive in the planning process. The most successful protests have a number of people who agree to help with the coordination. Committees can be established for the various tasks (e.g., speakers, banners, media). Draw up a timeline for the event and assign various people to coordinate the various aspects. Develop an outreach strategy for the event; set goals for the number of participants. If you ask other groups to co-sponsor (a good idea), ask them to help mobilize (e.g., send notices to their members).

Be mindful of diversity. Recruit speakers that are dynamic, inspirational, and can help impact upon the decision makers you are targeting. You want speakers to represent both important constituencies and who can tell the personal stories of average people most impacted by the issue. Develop a “run of the show” (outline) for the event and be clear who is doing what when. For major events, you want to at least have a few people to do a walk through / scout the site beforehand to identify possible problems (or opportunities).

If it is a march, assign peacekeepers to help with traffic safety (have some form of marking like an armband to make them visible to the organizers and participants). Agree how sudden decisions will be made (the police say we cannot go on this block, what should we do?) Be mindful of time (people begin to drift away if it goes on too long, speakers may not be heard if the first few drone on forever). For marches and rallies, have chants (written is good to distribute to participants) as well as designated chant leaders.

Large events require sound systems, which can require a permit (especially if you want to plug into electricity). Find a local musician who can donate the use of their sound system. How many microphones will you need (more if you have music). There are battery-operated sound systems these days that work for a crowd of a few hundred. If using bullhorns (good for chants not great for speeches), check the batteries ahead of time.

Like other advocacy, protests must communicate clearly about why you are protesting and what changes you desire. Demands can be spelled out on your signs. Have a press release explaining the issues and the demands to hand out to the media. Have people assigned to deal with the media (though others made be designated to speak to the press). It is often helpful to have leaflets to hand out to passersby who are curious as to what you are doing.

Have digital ways to publicize your protests. You can livestream your event on Facebook, twitter, and other social media. Have participants take pictures (or videos) and post them to their social media feeds (twitter, Instagram, snapshot, TikTok, Facebook, etc.) Develop a hashtag to identify your event / cause on social media. Make sure someone takes responsibility to get photos.

Call-ins to a target (e.g., governor) is a common tactic. Some large groups set up toll-free numbers that people can call to hear a short message and then get connected to the target; this enables you to keep track of the number of calls. Some campaigns have different groups take responsibility for different days of the week, so the target gets calls throughout the week. Others have people sign up for the time slot they will call, plus ask them to text the next person on the list once the call is completed. Such call-ins provide the caller with a sample message as well as some short background. (And possibly a link for more info.)

Petitions are not an effective means of protest, because politicians know it requires a low-level of commitment to do it. Petitions this days are mainly a way to generate names for future contacts.

Groups can have stamped and pre-address postcards that they asked supporters (say at a table at a farmers’ market) to write a short message to the target.

Creative Protests

Be creative in your protests. Interesting events, especially ones that incorporate humor, tend to draw more media coverage and interest by the general public. Many climate groups incorporate colorful images and performance art (e.g., mini plays) into their protests.

In May 2015, 500 climate activists took to kayaks, canoes, paddleboards, and even a solar-powered party barge in Seattle harbor to swarm around a huge drilling rig that Shell had brought to the port. Shell planned to use the port as a staging ground for oil drilling operations in the Arctic over the next two years. [21] Many other climate groups were inspired to state similar local protests against climate targets.

The civil rights movement utilized creative protests to highlight the unfairness and brutality of segregation. Sit-ins at lunch counters brought national attention to the movement.[22] The South American tradition of protesters taking to the streets banging pots and pans, dates back to the early 1970s in Chile, when food shortages led people to turn their empty utensils instruments of mass mobilization. [23]

When I was working for Iowa ACORN, one of our neighborhoods had a noxious meat rendering plant. We discovered that the publisher of the local paper, the Des Moines Register and Tribune, was on the board of the company. For Valentine’s Day, we brought to his office a four-foot valentine that said, “Roses are Red / Violets are Blue / We are Sure Tired / Of Smelling You.” The head of the company was outside our office at 8 AM the next morning.

When cotton farmers were spraying their cotton fields near a low-income Mexican American neighborhood in south Phoenix and killing animals and making people sick, on Halloween we brought some children and their parents to the neighborhood of the Chair of the State Pesticide Control who was ignoring us. Going door to door trick or treating, they handed out onions (which is what the pesticide smelled like) to his neighbors and said if you do not like smelling this, please call him. Which they did (mainly to say I do not know what this is about but deal with it, so they do not come back).

When we were protesting high utility bills, we would have people bring bags of pennies to the utility office to pay their bills. When the park superintendent was slow in cleaning up a neighborhood park, the residents presented him with the Slow Turtle award. He was such a slow turtle that it took him a few minutes to realize what was going on. The park crew was out however the next day finally cleaning it up.

For April Fool’s Day a few years ago, I played Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson in a press conference 350NYC held outside of their publicist office announcing that Exxon was stopping the use of fossil fuels.[24] All of this of course with the media in tow (and these days, livestreaming). Groups go into the offices of banks financing fossil fuels and perform plays and musical skits until they are thrown out.

In Europe in November 2022, young climate activists began throwing soup on the glass coverings to famous artwork[25]. It generated a lot of attention and eventually a fair number of people took the time to figure out why they were doing it. Others disrupted major sporting events.

Art and Climate Activism

A picture is worth a thousand words. Protestors have always used creative signs and props to illustrate their concerns about climate change – and hopefully to get their sign in the media. Art is multi-media and includes songs and music, posters, and plays / skits.

Climate change has inspired artists to create works that express anything from people’s fears to the scientific consensus around the issue. Art provides a way for people to connect with these emotional and personal aspects of climate change. Studies have found climate change art is capable of changing people’s opinions, especially if the message is hopeful, and gives people ideas for change. One role of art is to make scientific data more accessible. Art is also participatory, giving people more ownership of the event. There is an increasing trend for scientists and artists to co-create work to help communicate climate change research. [26]

Art and culture “provoke and encourage us to think bigger and beyond ourselves, it strengthens community and empathy, and, most critically, it connects us to our common humanity. In all its diverse expressions, culture belongs to everyone, and it is a tool for social change. As Bertolt Brecht wrote: “Art is not a mirror to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” [27]

Many climate groups and coalitions establish art committees and organize “art build” volunteer gatherings to generate signs, banners, puppets, and props for major events. Sane Energy, a leader in the art build community in New York, explains that “Art speaks faster than words. Art is a way to quickly explain an often complicated story: what the issues and solutions are. It starts conversations, engages the public, and changes consensus. Art builds community.” They added, ‘we know getting the word OUT is a big part of all of our work. More people will read our message if it is designed with an attractive, eye-catching image.’  [28]

Art build was a major component of the 400,000 person People’s Climate March in 2014 in NYC. Their toolkit explains that making art is a way to bring people, spread the word about the event, and make clear why your community is organizing. Bringing people together to create art provides the opportunity to: Invite coalition partners and potential allies to a fun event to deepen relationships; Bolster interest in the event; Recruit volunteers to support your outreach and longer-term work; and Tell your community’s stories through powerful and inspiring images. They suggest that the best way to ensure that your art communicates the full power of the people you are organizing with is to have a planning meeting first to vision together (see their Telling Your Story page for suggestions on how to lead a “Visioning Session” to plan your art.) [29]

Performance art is designed to be acted out in front of an audience. It can encourage the viewers to become participants. It seeks to touch people emotionally. It is very visual and usually provocative, thought provoking, urging viewers to think about the issue being addressed. It includes plays, often short humorous ones designed for public places (e.g., in front of a fossil fuel company office); musical skits; and dancing. Some performance art may seek to provide viewers with the information needed to take political action; others focus directly on mobilizing the audience to take specific advocacy steps.

The Red Rebel Brigade, which grew out of the Extinction Rebellion protest in London in the spring of 2019, is “an international performance artivist troupe dedicated to illuminating the global environmental crisis and supporting groups and organizations fighting to save humanity and all species from mass extinction…. These ethereal otherworldly beings came from a slow-motion mime show called Blanco that Invisible Circus toured for many years as a street show in the 90’s. Red Rebel Brigade is an evolution of these ghostly all white characters that first processed for the Anti-Iraq war demonstrations in 2003. This show had a very powerful mesmerizing effect on audiences with slow motion movements synchronized and performed in static tableaux, utilizing existing architecture and reclaiming public spaces.” [30] They are an example of how political art often transcends the barrier of language.

Civil Disobedience

Civil disobedience means breaking the law to protest injustice. Such acts can be intended to protest the overall lack of effective action to curtail climate change, or it can be directed at a specific action or target, such as the construction of fossil fuel infrastructure.

The use of civil obedience by climate groups was significantly curtailed during the Covid crisis as a precautionary health measure.

As outlined earlier, Extinction Rebellion relies upon historical research that shows that nonviolent revolutions are more successful than those that utilize violence and that the critical mass is participation by 3.5% of the population. “Civil disobedience is the active, non-violent refusal to accept the dictates of governments. It informs them that unjust actions will be opposed, and the people will act illegally if pushed to do so. Civil disobedience causes disruption and focuses attention, while forcing debate with the aim of bringing about fundamental and progressive changes within our societies and our world.”[31]

Just Stop Oil is another UK-based group that takes direct action (CD) to get the government to halt fossil fuel production. While this has included various blockades, occupation, and stunts like climbing bridges to halt traffic, they received international media attention in October 2022 when two of its members threw soup on the glass protecting a Van Gogh painting. [32]

In Civil Disobedience, Henry David Thoreau wrote that there is a higher law than civil law which compels the obedience of the individual. In cases where there is conflict, the individual must follow his conscience and, if necessary, disregard human law.[33]

Civil disobedience, also called passive resistance, is the refusal to obey the dictates of a government or ruling power, without resorting to violence; its usual purpose is to force concessions from those power. Civil disobedience has been a major tactic and philosophy of nationalist movements in Africa and India, in the American civil rights movement, and of labor, anti-war, and other social movements in many countries. Civil disobedience is usually a symbolic or ritualistic violation of the law. The protestor, finding legal avenues of change blocked, ineffective or nonexistent, feels obligated by a higher, extralegal principle to break the law.[34]

Famous successful acts of civil disobedience include Rosa Park’s bus boycott; the civil right sit ins at lunch counters; Gandhi’s salt march in India; the women’s suffrage movement in the U.S.; and the Singing Revolution Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania to win independence from the Soviet Union. [35] The ongoing civil disobedience arrests at the South African embassy in DC and NYC played a role in the overthrow of that country’s apartheid system.[36]

Climate change threatens the quality of life on this planet, even threatening the extinction of humans and other species. Saving life on the planet is viewed by many as a greater need than accepting decisions by governments and corporations to continue to allow the burning of fossil fuels.

Some advocate that the threat from climate change is so great that it justifies uncivil disobedience. There is debate however whether the targeted destruction of property (e.g., destroying equipment that is laying down a fossil fuel pipeline) qualifies as violence if no one is hurt. Many protestors argue that damaging property should not be considered violence, saving that label for harm to individuals.[37]

Civil disobedience is normally an intensification of an ongoing campaign, after other activities and protests have failed to achieve the desired goal. There are numerous books and how-to-guides on the use of civil disobedience. It normally requires participants to undergo training prior to the event to make sure there are agreed upon standards of behavior for such events (e.g., a commitment to nonviolence), including whether participants will resist (go limp) on the arrest, how to react to the (mis)behavior of the police, and how decisions will be made during the course of the event if needed. Protests with a lot of potential arrestees usually divide into smaller affinity groups to provide mutual support. People need to understand what is likely /possible to happen at such an event, which can be quite stressful, especially for those who have not done CD before.

Some CD protests inform the authorities beforehand about the event and negotiate how it will unfold, including how individuals will be arrested and what charges they will face. Such events can be tightly scripted. Other CD actions take place without prior notice to the authorities, especially if the intent of the event is to shut down the operations of the government or fossil fuel project, at least temporarily. Lawyers need to be lined up to represent the protestors, particularly when they appear in court. Jail support is usually organized assist arrestees after they are released, including helping with transportation and food.

Since many CD arrestees in the U.S. avoid jail time, with the “arrest” stricken if they stay out of trouble for a few months, the police can make the actual arrest and time in the “holding pen” a fairly unpleasant experience. Groups have responded to such down time as an opportunity to hold training sessions and sing a longs while waiting to be released.

How-to Resources for civil disobedience

There are many books and manuals on the theory and practice of civil disobedience. One of the best know theoreticians is Gene Sharp, who has been called the “dictator slayer,” and the “Machiavelli of nonviolence.” Sharp sought to “correct common misconceptions about nonviolent action: that people have to be pacifists or saints to undertake it, that strategic nonviolence somehow involves avoiding conflict, and that it can only be used in democracies. He set out to show that nonviolent action is “a technique of struggle involving the use of psychological, social, economic, and political power,” and that it can be used even against viciously repressive regimes.”[38] “How to Start a Revolution” is a 2011 documentary about his theories.[39]

ACT UP, which used civil disobedience to force an adequate public health response to the AIDS crisis, has a manual for CD, which it developed from the Handbook for NonViolent Action by the War Resisters League. “The purpose of training is for participants to form a common understanding of the use of nonviolence. It provides a forum to share ideas about nonviolence, oppression, fears, and feelings. It allows people to meet and build solidarity with each other and provides an opportunity to form affinity groups. It helps people to decide whether they will participate in an action. Through role playing, people learn what to expect from police, officials, other people in the action and themselves.”[40]

The Climate Disobedience Center was organized to provide logistical, legal, and spiritual resources, on the ground assistance, and advice to climate activists engaged in civil disobedience. “Our trainings go well beyond skills and tactics to help your community identify the principles that ground you and help you think through how to use those principle to guide your efforts.  Unlike other direct action trainings that assume an action ends at the point of arrest, our trainings are designed from the beginning to help activists strategize actions that extend into successful courtroom confrontation and long-term campaigns.”[41]

The Center embraces the climate necessity defense, which asserts that protestors are acting in the public interest, which the law protects. Defendants using the climate necessity defense admit their criminal conduct but argue that it was necessary to avoid greater harm. The impacts of climate change are so serious that breaking the law is necessary to avert them. The defense allows activists to call attention to and explain the reasons behind their actions. By presenting a necessity defense — describing the dangers of climate change, the lack of effective legal remedies, and the importance of individual action — activists seek to put the government on trial. The necessity defense also seeks to empower juries. To date, there have been a few climate cases where a judge has allowed the defense, with a few leading to acquittals (though not directly on the defense). In the past, activists have been found not guilty by reason of necessity for protesting issues like nuclear weapons, CIA recruitment, and apartheid.[42]

One of the Center’s cofounders is Tim DeCristopher. As Bidder 70, he disrupted a federal Bureau of Land Management oil and gas auction in December of 2008, by outbidding oil companies for parcels around Arches and Canyonlands National Parks in Utah. He received national attention for the action, He spent 21 months in prison. Claiming they had been rushed into auction with insufficient environmental and scientific review, the Interior Department canceled many of the leases shortly after the auction and a subsequent court injunction.[43]

The Fierce Vulnerability Network, a “constellation of direct action teams positioned at the intersection of racial healing and climate justice,” also has published an organizing manual which has a large section on civil disobedience / direct action.[44]

The treatment of civil disobedient protestors in the U.S. has been relatively restrained in recent decades, especially when compared to the response to the civil rights movements in the 60s and 70s and before that to labor organizing. In the U.S., people of color and low-income individuals find civil disobedience more threatening than whites, with a higher likelihood of negative consequences. The police have long been an instrument of racism. [45]

Some Successful Climate Action Campaigns

There have been many inspiring climate action campaigns and protests.[46] Several campaigns in the U.S. are outlined below: the successful effort to ban the hydrofracking on natural gas in NY, led by grassroots activists who challenged the leadership of the big green groups; and the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which highlighted the leadership role of frontline indigenous communities. The Keystone XL Pipeline was one of the most visible and longest campaigns.

Those this book primarily covers the U.S.; similar protests are happening worldwide. Students in recent years have emerged as major leaders in the climate movement as they realize that adults are failing in their effort to ensure a future for them. The September 2019 Global Climate Strikes, inspired by Swedish youth climate activist Greta Thunberg, attracted an estimate four million people, the largest climate protest ever.[47] In India in 2021, millions of farmers and their allies protested new laws that benefit large agribusiness at the expense of small family farmers. The government responded by cracking down on climate activists who joined the farmer-led protests.[48] In Sydney Australia, climate activists in June 2022 blocked streets and the harbor tunnel.[49] Extinction Rebellion has repeatedly disrupted life in the UK.

Ban on Fracking in NY

The fight against fracking in NYS was a multiyear campaign that used a diverse mixture of tactics to win a ban on fracking.

Fracking is short for hydraulic fracturing, a method that uses high pressure water and chemical cocktails (often toxic) to break up deep shale formations in order to extract gas. The U.S. has become a leader in fracking. Many politicians of both parties, including some major environmental groups, have promoted gas as a cheap bridge fuel to a clean energy future. While the burning natural gas does produce carbon dioxide, it produces about 30 percent less than oil and 45 percent less than coal, and natural gas does not produce ash particles like coal and oil do, which adds to air pollution.

However, natural gas is primarily methane, which is more than eighty times more potent short-term (20 years) as a greenhouse gas than carbon. The proponents of natural gas have largely ignored or downplayed the problems created by the leakage of methane in the process of producing and distributing gas.

Fracking presents a host of other environmental problems, far too many to detail here. Fracking involves blasting huge volumes of water mixed with toxic chemicals and sand deep into the earth to fracture rock formations. About 25 percent of fracking chemicals could cause cancer, scientists say. Others harm the skin or reproductive system. The need for wastewater disposal and shrinking water supplies are major problems. Each well consumes a median of 1.5 million gallons, according to the EPA, adding up to billions of gallons nationwide every year. The International Energy Agency estimates that the U.S. oil and gas industry emits 16.9 million metric tons of methane every year, though some scientists believe that is a significant underestimation. Fracking can lead to the rapid industrialization of rural landscapes, with significant increases in noise from the fracking operation and truck levels.[50]

Grassroot community groups, particularly in the Southern Tier and Central NY, where most of the fracking would take place, from the start called for a ban on fracking since it was their communities that were directly threatened. They were joined by the most progressive climate groups, such as the statewide Green Party, which understood that natural gas was just another fossil fuel contributing to global warming and therefore should have no role in a clean energy future.

The larger, more mainstream climate groups with funding and staff initially tended only to support a moratorium on fracking, arguing that the state should take the time to study the issue and evaluate the potential impacts on water and public health. Some of the larger groups like the Sierra Club were supportive of gas as a replacement for coal plants they were trying to shut down. Ling Tsou, co-founder of United for Action, a New York City-based grassroots group that fought for a ban, noted, “The mainstream environmental organizations thought the best we could get were good regulations and thought we were crazy.”

In 2008, Governor Spitzer’s lead environmental staff person, Judith Enck (my wife) persuaded him to impose a defacto short-term moratorium on fracking to give the state Department of Environmental Conservation complete a generic environmental impact study even though the rest of the Governor’s staff and the DEC opposed a halt. That initial moratorium was extended for several years. In December 2010, his successor David Paterson, issued an Executive Office shortly before he left office imposing a six-month moratorium instead of signing a moratorium bill that had passed the legislature.[51] The grassroots pressure was sufficient to keep having the moratorium extended until finally the next Governor, Andrew Cuomo, 2014 decided to halt fracking permanently in December 2014 following his re-election.

The grassroot groups employed a wide range of pressure tactics – petitioning, picket lines, phone in, rallies, press conferences. A key decision was to get local governments to pass laws – not just resolutions – that prohibited fracking within their jurisdiction. While many questioned the legality of such an approach, the state’s highest court in 2014 ruled 5 to 2 ruled that towns could indeed such an action.[52]

The legislative strategy, including the push for a moratorium, kept the issue in front of lawmakers while also providing opportunities such as testifying at public hearings. Hundreds also turned out to speak at public hearings, such as the one in the fall of 2010 that the federal EPA held on fracking in Binghamton. EPA’s region 2 also submitted strong anti-fracking comments to DEC’s environmental review.[53]

Due to the sustained efforts and passion of the grassroots, eventually most of the larger environmental groups came around to support a ban. The groups eventually in 2012 joined together to form New Yorkers Against Fracking (NYAFF) to support the ban. More than 250 groups eventually joined.[54]

NYAF was able to put organizers on the ground from Long Island to Buffalo, who helped mobilize people for actions, such as bus trips to Albany for rallies at the Capitol. The rallies in conjunction with the Governor’s annual State of the State address in January were especially massive, with thousands of people participating.[55] NYAF also organized create networks of key fracking opponents – health professionals, businesses, local elected officials, chefs, and faith leaders – that lent additional visibility and credibility to the effort.

The groups heavily focused on “bird dogging[56]” the Governor, turning out fracking opponents to picket, chant, hold signs, etc. wherever he showed up. They also targeted the Governor outside of the state, such as placing an ad during his appearance at the Democratic national nominating convention[57] in May 2013 as he tested the water for a possible future presidential run. They showed up when he went to vote.[58] Finding the public schedule of such public officials is generally not an easy task and requires a lot of monitoring of news articles, announcement by sponsoring groups, tips from friendly media, etc.

Another key factor was Gasland by Josh Fox,[59] a documentary film about the fracking fight. Fox had received an offer of $100,000, which he rejected, to allow drilling on his property in Pennsylvania just south of the NY border. This led him to visit residents in two dozen states to discuss their experiences with fracking. One key visual was of homeowners living near fracked wells lighting a flame as water came out of their faucet due to the presence of methane. The film was a great tool to show at local organizing events.

Electoral politics also played a role. Cuomo in his 2014 re-election was looking to surpass the vote total his father, Mario Cuomo, had received in his own re-election effort. In addition to fracking, many liberal voters were not happy with the Governor’s push to expand standardized testing and curriculum in schools as well as his negative comments about public employees, particularly teachers. A relatively unknown law professor and public campaign finance expert, Zephyr Teachout, pulled an unexpectedly high vote total in the democratic party primary.

In the general election, the Green Party candidate for Governor, Howie Hawkins, who had been campaigning both for a ban on fracking and a Green New Deal since his 2010 campaign, pulled 5% of the vote, the highest total for a progressive third-party candidate for Governor in NY in a century. Hawkins pulled in the double digits in the Capital District, which had the largest concentration of public employees, as well as in parts of Central NY where the opposition to fracking was strongest.[60]

The disappointing 2014 election, the realization that the strategy of passing local laws banning fracking had already removed most of the best potential fracking sites from development, and the constant birddogging and protests, led Cuomo to have the Department of Health finally released its long-awaited health study on fracking. A month after the election, Cuomo said that the documentation of the health problems required him to ban fracking. The NY Times noted that his action was likely a way to help repair his position with the Democrat’s left wing, especially after the one-third vote that Teachout received.[61]

Keystone XL Pipeline

The decade long campaign to defeat the Keystone XL (KXL) tar sands pipeline was a not only a monumental climate victory but a turning point in climate movement strategy. It was the first national pipeline fight with high visibility both among activists and the mainstream media. Inspired by the Indigenous-led resistance against the Canadian tar sands and growing opposition along the pipeline route, the national climate movement led by 350.org and Sierra Club in 2011 seized on Keystone XL as the place to up the ante in opposing President Obama’s all-of-the-above energy policy.

The campaign had powerful protests nationwide, 1,200 arrests outside the White House, legal battles, tens of thousands rallying in DC shortly after the 2012 election, and putting up solar panels and doing tree occupations along the pipeline route. In April 2014, farmers, ranchers, and Indigenous leaders formed the Cowboy and Indian Alliance and assembled tepees and a Conestoga wagon on the National Mall for “Reject and Protect.”  It has repeated major twists and turns, with flip-flopping executive orders over three presidential administrations.

Canadian TC Energy abandoned the project in June 2021 following President Biden’s denial of a key permit on his first day in office. The fact that the pipeline crossed international boundaries gave the President more unilateral power to halt it than otherwise is normally the case. Expanding an existing pipeline, it planned to transport 830,000 barrels of Alberta tar sands oil per day to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas.[62]

The DAPL Fight[63].

The Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) fight thrust the role of frontline opposition from indigenous communities into the leadership of the climate fight and the national limelight.

Grassroots protests began in 2014 to the construction of Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners’ 1,172-mile-long underground oil pipeline. The pipeline runs from the Bakken oil fields in western North Dakota to southern Illinois, crossing beneath the Missouri and Mississippi rivers, as well as under Lake Oahe near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation.

The protests were led by the Indigenous community, which has increasingly become an important factor in fights against pipelines. In North Dakota, the pipeline route was diverted by the Army Corps of Engineer away from the more developed Bismarck area toward Standing Rock, partially to track an existing pipeline. Members of the Standing Rock tribe and other local residents view the pipeline as a serious threat to the region’s water, including the Missouri River which is the tribe’s main water source. The construction also threatened ancient burial grounds and cultural sites of historic importance.

The struggle led to the largest gathering of Indigenous tribes in over a century. It garnered international attention and raised awareness of the dangers of pipelines and the continuing mistreatment by the government of Indigenous nations. The #NoDAPL movement was one of the most inspiring environmental events of the last few decades and a critical moment for Indigenous sovereignty.[64]

Protests against the pipeline route began in 2014 in Iowa, including by local Native American groups. In April 2016, youth from Standing Rock and surrounding Native American communities began organizing to stop the pipeline. Sacred Stone Camp was founded by the local tribe historian as a center for cultural preservation and spiritual resistance to the pipeline. The water protectors’ camp became a center for direct action, with a strong social media presence. By September, members of more than 300 federally recognized Native American tribes were residing in the three main camps, alongside a4,000 additional pipeline resistance demonstrators.

ReZpect Our Water is an indigenous youth group that formed to oppose the pipeline. In April 2016, ReZpect Our Water organized a 2,000-mile cross-country “spiritual run” from North Dakota to Washington, D.C., to protest the construction of the pipeline. Upon the groups arrival they delivered a petition with 160,000 signatures to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

As an independent nation, the protestors sought support from the UN. On September 20, Standing Rock Chairman David Archambault II addressed the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva, Switzerland, urging them to support the protests and support their land rights. The following April, Standing Rock member Brenda White Bull spoke at the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues.

In September 2016, construction workers bulldozed a section of privately owned land which the tribe claimed as sacred ground. The protestors responded by establishing a Winter camp, with Native Americans asserting that the land rightly belonged to them under the 1851 Treaty of Fort Laramie. When protesters moved into the area, security workers used attack dogs. In October 2016, police cleared an encampment which was situated on the proposed path of the pipeline. As of mid-October, there had been over 140 arrests. Some protesters who were arrested for misdemeanors and taken to the Morton County jail reported what they considered harsh and unusual treatment.

In late October 2016, police from several agencies, including North Dakota state troopers, the National Guard, and other law enforcement agencies from nearby states, began to clear out a protest camp and blockades along the state highway. In November 2016, police used water cannons on protesters in freezing weather, generating significant media attention.

Amnesty International spoke out against the use of strip searches of arrestees. Protesters were blasted with high-pitched sound cannons and were held in cages that “appeared to be” dog kennels. Dakota Access LLC hired the firm TigerSwan to provide security during the protest. In May 2017, internal TigerSwan documents revealed a close collaboration between the pipeline company and local, state, and federal law enforcement as they carried out “military-style counterterrorism measures” to suppress the protesters.

Continued conflicts and resulting attention on social media led to increasing national and global support for the protests. High profile activists, celebrities, and politicians spoke out in support of the tribe.

Demonstrations were held in numerous cities to show support for the DAPL protests. In November, a group called Veterans Stand for Standing Rock formed to participate in nonviolent intervention to defend the demonstrators from what the group has called “assault and intimidation at the hands of the militarized police force.”  On November 15, hundreds of cities held protests against the pipeline in a coordinated protest which organizers called a “National Day of Action.” Thousands joined the protests in North Dakota over Thanksgiving,

One way Energy Transfer Partners fought back against the protests was with a lawsuit against Greenpeace, the Netherlands-based international NGO support group BankTrack, and surprisingly, Earth First! (which was far more active several decades ago.) The company, belittling the leadership of the indigenous community, made the wild unsubstantiated charge that every group opposed to the pipeline were “terrorists” involved in a “secret underground enterprise” that purposefully misleads the public about the dangers of pipelines and other environmentally dangerous projects in order to profit from the panic that ensues.”[65]

In December 2016, at the end of President Obama’s administration, the Corps of Engineers denied an easement for construction of the pipeline under the Missouri River. This decision however was reversed the following month by the administration of President Donald Trump.

In March 2017, the Standing Rock Sioux tribe led a four-day protest in Washington D.C., culminating in the Native Nations Rise march on March 10. The protesters marched through the capital, pausing to erect a tipi at Trump International Hotel, and rallied in front of the White House.

The pipeline was completed by April 2017 and operations began shortly afterwards.

In March 2020, a U.S. District Judge ruled that the government had not adequately studied the pipeline’s “effects on the quality of the human environment,” and ordered the Army Corps of Engineers to conduct a new environmental impact review. In July 2020, a District Court judge ordered the pipeline to be shut down and emptied of oil pending a new environmental review. The temporary shutdown order was overturned by a U.S. appeals court on August 5, though the environmental review was ordered to continue. In February 2022, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the review must continue, which leaves open the possibility that that the pipeline could be forced to close.[66]

Legal fights also continue over the right of the public to see documents related to the security firm hired by Energy Transfer, following a $175,000 fine paid by TigerSwan to resolve an investigation by state officials as to whether they were illegally operating in the state.[67]

Line 3 Pipeline

Sustained, continued protests employing a multitude of tactics are taking place against many other pipelines, building upon lessons from DAPL, Keystone and elsewhere.

The Line 3 replacement project received considerable national attention as the major pipeline fight following DAPL, with opposition from Native American and climate justice groups. It first began operation in 1968 and has been the source of millions of gallons of oil spills, including a 1991 oil spill in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, that was the worst inland oil spill in U.S. history.[68]

The expansion will bring nearly a million barrels of tar sands per day from Alberta, Canada to Superior, Wisconsin. Proposed in 2014 by Enbridge, a Canadian pipeline company, it sought to build a new pipeline corridor through untouched wetlands and the treaty territory of Ojibwe and Anishinaabe peoples, through the Mississippi River headwaters to the shore of Lake Superior.

“We are holding events in our homes, community centers, churches, schools, and online. We are talking to our politicians, speaking up at hearings, marching in protests, taking nonviolent direct action together, and reporting Enbridge’s activity along the proposed route.,, Hundreds of water protectors are currently facing criminal charges in Minnesota for standing in defense of the water, the climate, and the treaty rights of the Anishinaabeg people… Police forces – directly funded by Enbridge – have responded to this massive movement with surveillance, harassment, physical torture (“pain compliance”), and trumped-up charges, including felonies.”[69]

Court challenges continued after its completion.[70] In October 2022, Enbridge announced that it had reached an agreement to pay $11 million in penalties to various Minnesota regulators and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, including to fund multiple environmental and resource enhancement projec

[1] https://www.adl.org/education/resources/tools-and-strategies/the-purpose-and-power-of-protest

[2] https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2118990119

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ministry_for_the_Future

[4] https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/how-violent-protests-change-politics

[5] https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/19/climate/coronavirus-online-climate-protests.html; https://www.dw.com/en/coronavirus-fridays-for-future-fff-covid-19-pandemic-climate-strike/a-56911641

[6] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/06/04/civil-society-creativity-around-the-world-can-sustain-protests-in-the-coronavirus-era/

[7] https://www.aclu.org/know-your-rights/protesters-rights

[8] https://www.law.cornell.edu/supreme_court_of_the_united_states_2013%E2%80%932014_term_in_review/first_amendment_freedom_of_speech

[9] https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/blogs/stateline/2021/06/21/eight-states-enact-anti-protest-laws

[10] https://www.earth.com/news/crack-down-environmental-protests/

[11] https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2021/02/four-states-propose-harsh-new-penalties-for-fossil-fuel-protesters/

[12] http://supportjessicareznicek.com/about

[13] https://www.globalwitness.org/en/press-releases/global-witness-welcomes-colombia-ratifying-key-agreement-protection-land-and-environment-defenders-after-322-killed-colombia-last-decade/?utm_source=hootsuite&utm_medium=twitter_

[14] https://worldpopulationreview.com/country-rankings/freedom-index-by-country

[15] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/sep/18/china-young-climate-heroes-fight-apathy-party-line; https://lithub.com/can-environmental-activism-succeed-in-china/

[16] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2021/apr/19/environment-protest-being-criminalised-around-world-say-experts

[17] https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/06/22/australia-climate-protesters-rights-violated

[18] https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-50316561

[19] https://www.earth.com/news/crack-down-environmental-protests/

[20] https://www.activisthandbook.org/en/organising/protest; https://streetcivics.com/an-organizers-guide-to-protests-and-political-change/

[21] https://grist.org/climate-energy/you-have-to-see-these-pictures-of-seattles-kayaking-climate-protesters/

[22] https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/creative-protest

[23] https://www.globalcitizen.org/es/content/11-crazy-protests-that-really-made-a-statement/

[24] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PJ4NmBeRd7o

[25] https://www.theneweuropean.co.uk/the-art-of-protest-just-stop-oil-climate/

[26] https://www.forbes.com/sites/evaamsen/2019/09/30/climate-change-art-helps-people-connect-with-a-challenging-topic/?sh=19a4345375d0; https://www.un.org/en/academic-impact/new-virtual-magazine-art-climate-action

[27] https://artistsandclimatechange.com/2019/04/23/the-creative-climate-movement/

[28] https://www.saneenergy.org/art

[29] https://peoplesclimate.org/resources/; https://docs.google.com/document/d/1ET9VWa84MfmuT3lbUbYV5OZ639G49kCBUAfKQ4GVZ9s/edit

[30] http://redrebelbrigade.com/

[31] https://rebellion.global/blog/2020/11/03/civil-disobedience-examples/

[32] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2022/oct/18/just-stop-oil-van-gogh-national-portrait-gallery-climate-emergency-fund; https://juststopoil.org/

[33] https://www.cliffsnotes.com/literature/t/thoreau-emerson-and-transcendentalism/thoreaus-civil-disobedience/major-themes

[34] https://www.britannica.com/topic/civil-disobedience

[35] https://examples.yourdictionary.com/famous-examples-of-civil-disobedience-in-history.html

[36] https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1985/01/04/more-than-30-arrests-made-at-south-african-embassy/7bcacbc4-1b15-422a-945d-fe8620996b9f/

[37] https://www.currentaffairs.org/2020/06/why-property-destruction-isnt-violence

[38] https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/the-machiavelli-of-nonviolence-gene-sharp-and-the-battle-against-corporate-rul

[39] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_to_Start_a_Revolution

[40] https://actupny.org/documents/CDdocuments/ACTUP_CivilDisobedience.pdf

[41] https://www.climatedisobedience.org/about

[42] https://cldc.org/climate-necessity-defense/

[43] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_DeChristopher

[44] https://thefvn.org/

[45] https://www.aclu.org/news/criminal-law-reform/how-do-we-end-racism-in-policing; https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2020/06/07/black-lives-matters-police-departments-have-long-history-racism/3128167001/

[46] https://www.panmacmillan.com/blogs/literary/environmental-protests-losing-earth-nathaniel-rich; https://www.treehugger.com/historic-climate-change-protests-and-their-impact-5185501

[47] https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2019/9/20/20876143/climate-strike-2019-september-20-crowd-estimate

[48] https://theworld.org/stories/2021-03-05/india-cracks-down-climate-activists-supporting-farmer-protests

[49] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-61947201

[50] https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/fracking/index.html; https://news.cornell.edu/stories/2019/08/study-fracking-prompts-global-spike-atmospheric-methane; https://www.investopedia.com/ask/answers/011915/what-are-effects-fracking-environment.asp

[51] http://www.cnn.com/2010/US/12/13/new.york.fracking.moratorium/index.html

[52] https://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/01/nyregion/towns-may-ban-fracking-new-york-state-high-court-rules.html

[53] https://www.nrdc.org/experts/kate-sinding/lively-crowds-turn-out-epa-fracking-hearing-binghamton; https://www.epa.gov/sites/default/files/documents/hfsummarybinghampton2.pdf

[54] https://www.frackaction.com/coalitions/

[55] https://tworowtimes.com/news/regional/new-yorkers-gather-anti-fracking-protest/

[56] https://indivisible.org/resource/bird-dogging-guide-get-them-record

[57] https://www.democratandchronicle.com/story/news/politics/blogs/vote-up/2012/09/05/fracking-opponent-targets-cuomo-in-charlotte-ad/2187001/

[58] https://www.pressconnects.com/story/news/local/new-york/2014/09/09/new-york-fracking-cuomo-protest/15351419/

[59] https://www.npr.org/2011/02/24/134031183/Gasland-Takes-On-Natural-Gas-Drilling-Industry

[60] https://nypost.com/2014/11/05/green-party-on-the-map-as-hawkins-grabs-5-of-gov-vote/

[61] https://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/18/nyregion/cuomo-to-ban-fracking-in-new-york-state-citing-health-risks.html

[62] https://www.nrdc.org/stories/what-keystone-pipeline; https://www.politico.com/story/2013/02/thousands-rally-in-washington-to-protest-keystone-pipeline-087745; https://www.politico.com/story/2013/02/thousands-rally-in-washington-to-protest-keystone-pipeline-087745

[63] Much of the overview of the DAPL fight is from Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dakota_Access_Pipeline_protests

[64] https://ccrjustice.org/home/blog/2018/02/21/nodapl-movement-was-powerful-factual-and-indigenous-led-lawsuit-lies-can-t

[65] https://ccrjustice.org/home/blog/2018/02/21/nodapl-movement-was-powerful-factual-and-indigenous-led-lawsuit-lies-can-t

[66] https://www.reuters.com/business/energy/us-supreme-court-turns-away-dakota-pipeline-operators-appeal-2022-02-22/

[67] https://apnews.com/article/dakota-access-pipeline-north-c7f3935c3cb185bddac45d0ff2ab2e64

[68] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Line_3_pipeline

[69] https://www.stopline3.org/#intro; https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2021/jun/20/line-3-pipeline-indigenous-environmental-justice

[70] https://www.mprnews.org/story/2021/03/23/mn-appeals-court-hears-arguments-in-line-3-challenge