The Last Resort: Civil Disobedience for Safe Energy

The Last Resort: Civil Disobedience for Safe Energy

By Howie Hawkins

On Monday, April 23, I am once again risking arrest as a nonviolent civil disobedient to protect the climate with safe energy.

The march, rally, and civil disobedience at the state capital in Albany is called “Cuomo: Walk the Talk on Climate!” Our three demands are stop all fracked-gas infrastructure projects, move to 100% clean renewable energy, and make corporate polluters pay.

Climate change is life-or-death issue. Global warming doesn't just mean more sweltering summer days and stronger storms due to increased moisture in the atmosphere. If we don't rapidly transition off of fossil fuels, the resulting climate catastrophe means mass extinctions, the collapse of ocean and land ecosystems, and flooding of the world's cities and bread-basket deltas. It will mean food shortages, epic migrations of environmental refugees, and wars for dwindling resources. U.S. Department of Defense security planners consider climate change a greater threat than terrorism or great power rivalries.

Nuclear power is not clean energy. Nuclear waste is highly dangerous for hundreds of thousands of years. Nuclear accidents at Chernobyl and Fukushima have rendered large areas uninhabitable for at least 20,000 years. Nukes are also an economic disaster, unable to compete with other sources without subsides like the $7.6 billion Governor Cuomo got from ratepayers for the three Exelon-owned nukes in Oswego. Cuomo's subsidy has regrettably become a model for nuclear subsides nationwide. Nukes are far more costly to build than the many forms of clean energy. That $7.6 billion should be invested in renewables.

Cuomo's energy plan fails to meet the climate emergency. It's built around fracked-gas pipelines and power plants, which not only release carbon dioxide to heat up the planet, but also leak methane, which is 86 times more potent over 20 years as a greenhouse gas. Cuomo's goals of 50% renewable energy by 2030 and an 80% reduction in greenhouse gases by 2050 are far too little and too late. The science indicates industrial states like New York must reach 100% clean energy and net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 if the world is to avert the catastrophe of runaway global warming.

I was 22 years old when I began organizing nonviolent direct action in 1974 for safe energy as the alternative to health- and climate-destroying nuclear and fossil fuels. We organized the People's Energy Project to oppose the Seabrook, New Hampshire nuclear power plants and to promote safe energy from renewable sun, wind, and water sources. We gave testimony in public hearings, lobbied the state legislature, got resolutions in adopted by town-meeting governments, and picketed the banks that were financing the Seabrook nukes.

When Nuclear Regulatory Commission gave final approval for construction, we undertook what we called " The Last Resort." We called upon environmental activists from across New England to join us in what we called the Clamshell Alliance to occupy the Seabrook nuclear power plant site to prevent its construction. We organized two occupations in 1976, first with 20 people from the immediate seacoast community in July and the second with 200 New Hampshire residents in August. The occupiers were arrested for trespassing.

Our next occupation aimed to bring 2000 occupiers from across New England on to the site on April 30, 1977. That occupation led to 1414 arrests for trespassing. We were locked up in National Guard armories for over a week, which put us on the cover of newspapers and newsmagazines across the country. The general public became aware of the demands of the anti-nuclear/safe energy movement.

Soon there were anti-nuclear alliances and nuclear site occupations all across the country. No new nuclear power plants were ordered by the industry until 2010 when he Obama administration provided $12.5 billion in loan guarantees for nuclear power plants in Georgia and South Carolina. Over the next decade, as the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl nuclear accidents confirmed our warnings, I participated in anti-nuclear civil disobedience many times at Seabrook nuke as well the Vermont Yankee and the Pilgrim nuke in Massachusetts.

In 1978, we did a "bank job" by sneaking into the 1st National Bank of Boston with reporters from the Boston Herald and Boston Globe, occupying the board room, and, before they could arrest us, passing a resolution pulling the bank's investments out of Seabrook. We followed that up in 1979 on the 50th anniversary of the October 29, 1929 Black Tuesday stock market crash with the Wall Street Action. We attempted to occupy and shut down the New York Stock Exchange with the demand that corporate America divest from nuclear power. We returned in 1990 for the Earth Day Wall Street Action, seeking again to shut down the exchange in protest of corporate "greenwashing" that was co-opting Earth Day celebrations and creating "astroturf" front groups to oppose the demands of the grassroots environmental movement.

The anti-nuclear/safe energy movement of the 1970s was already warning about global warming from the greenhouse effect of releasing carbon dioxide by burning fossil fuels. As we developed our program for a transition to safe energy in the 1980s, we allied with the members of the Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers union, who were suffering from the health effects of working in such toxic industries. We promoted their proposal for a Workers Superfund to go along with the Environmental Superfund that helps corporations pay for remediation of toxic pollution sites. The Superfund for Workers, which today we call the Just Transition, would pay the wages and benefits of workers who are displaced from the oil and atomic industries as they make their transition to comparable work in safe energy industries.

After I moved to Syracuse, New York in 1991, I remained a safe energy activist pushing for the closure of New York's nuclear power plants, stopping trash-burning power plants, preventing fracked-gas wells, pipelines, and power plants, and for a rapid transition to 100% clean energy. In 2011, I made a speaking tour against the proposed new nukes in Georgia and South Carolina organized by a friend who was a 1960s civil disobedient in the civil rights movement as a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). Due to years of delays and multibillion-dollar cost overruns, construction on the SC nukes has stopped, while the fight to stop the Georgia nukes for the same financial problems continues. I was arrested in 2016 at the proposed Crestwood gas storage facility by Seneca Lake for blockading its entrance with fellow military veterans.

I have also risked arrest or been arrested in nonviolent direct actions against nuclear weapons, weaponized drones, and too many unjust wars, from the 1967 Ban the Draft week against the Vietnam War to many actions against Afghanistan and Iraq wars in the 2000s. As a carpenter at the time, I helped prefabricate with old barn boards and erect the anti-apartheid shanty town for divestment at Dartmouth College in 1985, which instigated a wave of nonviolent direct actions around the country that culminated in U.S. sanctions against apartheid South Africa within a year. I was arrested in 2009 for a sit-in to support single-payer health care at a time when the President and the Democratic congressional leadership wouldn't even let House members from their own party testify on behalf of their Improved Medicare for All bill during the health care debate that year.

As an organizer in social movements engaged in public education, lobbying, and mass demonstrations, I have found repeatedly that civil disobedience is sometimes required to force a public or a government that is ignoring a crucial issue to pay attention and respond. I have also found that progressive social movements, including those engaged in nonviolent direct action tactics, are not enough by themselves. Without also their expressing demands in elections with candidates who are independent of the two-party system of corporate rule, the liberal face of that system, the Democratic Party, takes progressive votes for granted and responds more to their corporate paymasters than their voters. Independent candidates on the left force Democrats to compete for progressive votes by enacting more progressive policies.

That is why in addition to my movement activism, I have participated in independent progressive political parties since the anti-war, pro-civil rights Peace and Freedom Party of 1968 and its successor, the People's Party of 1972. I participated in the Citizens Party of 1980 that ran environmental scientist Barry Commoner for President. In 1984, I was one of the co-founders of the Green Party, which has carried the banner for independent progressive politics ever since.

As the Green Party candidate for Governor of New York in 2010, I called for a ban on fracking and a state plan to build a 100% clean energy system by 2030. I ran again in 2014 on those demands and we got the fracking ban two months after that election. I believe the 5% that the Green ticket received in 2014 reinforced the grassroots movement for a fracking ban that dogged Cuomo all over the state that year and Zephyr Teachout's strong challenge in the Democratic primary that featured the demand for a fracking ban. Cuomo was forced to adopt the fracking ban, and other progressive demands like paid family leave and the $15 minimum wage, in an attempt to recover those progressive votes he could no longer take for granted.

I am running again this year as a Green candidate for Governor. We are again calling for a Green New Deal, which centers around building out a 100% clean energy system by 2030 and creating full employment and 50% lower power costs in the process. A study of how to do that in New York by Stanford and Cornell scientists and engineers found that this project would create over 4 million jobs in construction and manufacturing. The Holyman-Colton bill for 100% clean energy by 2030 (A5105 / S5908 ) is pending in the state legislature that would require the state to plan such a transition. I also call for a progressive carbon tax to make corporate polluters pay for their damages and for a Just Transition to 100% clean energy that helps displaced workers, low-to-moderate income people, and communities on the frontlines of the damages and the costs of transition.

Now at age 65, I can look back and see that our civil disobedience and independent politics has made a difference. We defeated President Nixon's goal of 1000 new nukes by 2000 and his once "secret plan" to end the Vietnam War with tactical nuclear weapons. We defeated President Carter's massive "synfuel" coal-gasification program. We got Congress to override President Reagan's veto of sanctions against apartheid South Africa. We've brought the dangers of climate change from obscurity in the scientific literature to broad public concern. We got a fracking ban in New York State. We've got federal and many state government policies that promote energy efficiency and renewables, although they remain far short of what the science says we must do to avert climate catastrophe. Now our objective is to get New York to completely off of fossil and nuclear fuels and 100% on to safe energy by 2030.

I am encouraged after five decades years of civil disobedience for safe energy and other causes. In both the labor movement and nonviolent direct action movement, we have a saying of obscure origins. It is often incorrectly attributed to Ghandi, perhaps because it nicely sums up his theory of satyagraha (Sanskrit and Hindi for "holding onto truth"). The theory holds that a determined but nonviolent resistance to evil will win in the end. The saying goes, "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win."

Howie Hawkins, a recently retired Teamster from Syracuse, was the Green Party candidate for Governor of New York in 2010 and 2014 and is again seeking its nomination in 2018.

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