It’s being called the largest act of global disobedience, with organizers across the Northwest throwing down together in just one of many actions across the world collectively known as Break Free. The moment is definitely worth celebrating and is revered for many reasons, a few of which 350.org, the instigators of Break Free, reflected on recently with lessons including: we’re more powerful together, we can be serious and joyful at the same time, make a place for everyone, and seize every moment and never give up. No doubt, these lessons are important to learn and Break Free overall was a positive experience for many. However, nothing is perfect and as young organizers building a powerful movement, analyzing the ways we can improve our strategy is an important use of our time.
WHY WE MUST ALWAYS GET BETTER
Limited Resources: Any time, money, and energy spent somewhere isn’t being spent somewhere else, and organizing is a field of scarcity
Recreating Systems of Oppression: If we aren’t careful, we can exclude people from our movement and build solutions that aren’t for everyone. We do this work from inside a system that taught us to be like it, and it’s our responsibility to continually unlearn that or risk hurting those we want to be fighting for.
“Those who love peace must learn to organize as effectively as those who love war.” -- Martin Luther King Jr.
QUALITIES OF A GOOD DIRECT ACTION
Whenever I am planning a direct action, I think back to an impactful presentation I was once given about direct action from folks at National People’s Action. Some presumptions of this presentation is the understanding that direct action is only one a many different tactics we can use as organizers. Direct action is good for:
delivering a message;
escalating when a target is ignoring you;
exposing a target for its bad actions or inaction in order to turn them toxic;
placing responsibility on an individual, specific person;
taking your target out of their comfort zone;
costing them money; and
getting movement on a specific demand.
Break Free PNW did a good job of accomplishing most of these, attributed mostly to its sheer scale. Centering on laying the groundwork for a Just Transition, Break Free PNW’s main goals were named as “ratcheting up the pressure on the fossil fuel industry and politicians, and beginning a serious discussion about [the just transition],” and “shutting down plants that currently supply us with the fossil fuels we depend on,” according to the info shared on its website. Break Free PNW disrupted business as usual with its rail blockades and delivered a big message that got politicians and the industry to respond in some regions. Curtis Mraz, a NW divestment organizer who was arrested at Break Free felt the goal was to “exemplify how people will not stand for corporate global destruction,” a goal accomplished through the various ways folks could plug into the action and its large, multifaceted mission.
WHERE BREAK FREE FELL SHORT
While it served many purposes, there are two bad reasons for doing direct action that Break Free fell victim to: highlighting a problem without a demand + just getting press. A good demand requires a specific individual who has the ability to answer your demand (the target), a timeline/deadline, and a specific ask. Break Free missed the mark because:
The closest thing they had to a target was the “industry and politicians,” or the plants they blocked trains from, but no specific people were named who could answer to any demands
The demand was a vague push for the Just Transition, but decision makers are willfully ignorant, dragging their feet, and outright oppositional so a broad stroke works better for publicity than actual results. Publicity alone does not work in a long term fight like ours because people want to see results and vague messaging only gets us part of the way there.
HOW TO DO BETTER + BE BETTER
Tie the action to a specific demand. Just because decision makers should know what steps they have the power to take towards the Just Transition, does not mean that they do. If we aren’t the leaders making the path towards a new economy, I don’t know how else will be. A good demand takes a lot of research to determine the best timing, the best targets, and whether the ask is bold but attainable vs unrealistic and not going to build momentum or even not big enough. Without doing that research, some quick examples to get the brain juices flowing could be: asking a politician for a moratorium on new fossil fuel infrastructure at an upcoming meeting; or the same demand of a the CEO of one of the companies pushing for development; or for specific politicians to take action on a powerful bill.
Craft a strong narrative focussing on a single specific demand. By singling in on a specific demand, we are able to tell the many reasons that people think the demand is a good one and the diverse places they come from, physically and mentally. This creates a way for people to resonate in a lot of different ways and get on board with the movement.
Use the action to build more power in the long-term. Break Free created a shared movement moment, and everyone can go back to their local campaigns and build off of an action like Break Free to say, “But wait, there’s more!” Because the Just Transition is not one size fits all, and though we may share values, the specifics of each solution are exactly that: specific.
I BELIEVE THAT WE WILL WIN
Overall, I would call Break Free and Break Free PNW a success. It is no small feat to pull that many people together, especially in the complex and intentional way that it was done. Curtis said his reason for attending was for the community building that happened across campaigns and tactics, and the main outcome he's proud of is the solidarity he felt throughout the weekend, especially while being arrested. I applaud everyone who did set the strategy for the action, all those who managed logistics, and everyone who took part in the weekend of action. The momentum we have built and continue building through individual campaigns and through collective actions like Break Free are exactly the reason we have to keep reflecting, learning, growing, and getting better. Going up against the fossil fuel industry is not easy and transitioning the economy is even more difficult; but the power we are building is a force to be reckoned with and I believe that we will win.