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Sierra Club Canada Civil Disobedience Essay

After 121 years of lobbying, letter-writing campaigns and law-abiding protests, the Sierra Club is retooling itself for the flash-mob age — and showing an increasingly aggressive edge.

That edge was on display last week, when the Sierra Club’s two top leaders and 46 other climate activists zip-tied themselves to the White House gates to protest the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline. The organization called it the first time it had suspended its decades-long policy against club-sanctioned civil disobedience.

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( PHOTOS: The Keystone XL protests)

That protest followed a trend in which the 1.4 million-member organization has toughened its rhetoric against fossil fuels, pursued a campaign to phase out coal and willingly brought on a public relations headache by outing its hidden financial ties to the natural gas industry.

Sierra Club leaders and supporters say they’re not undergoing a radical makeover — and they stressed that the invitation-only White House arrests Feb. 13 were a “one-time” dalliance with civil disobedience.

But they also acknowledged increasing frustration with Washington’s paralysis in the face of what they call a global climate emergency. And some say new tactics are required in an era when mass protests can be organized via Twitter.

( Also on POLITICO: TransCanada ownplays Keysteon XL protests)

“Civil disobedience is the response of ordinary people to extraordinary injustices,” the group said in a statement before the protest, casting the climate debate as akin to previous struggles over “slavery, child labor, suffrage, segregation and inequality for gays and immigrant workers.”

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune and the other protesters wrote that they were also inspired by massive anti-Keystone sit-ins at the White House in late 2011, organized by the upstart climate group 350.org, that led to more than 1,200 people being hauled to jail.

The Sierra Club partnered with 350.org this month, both for the White House fence protest and a subsequent anti-Keystone rally on the National Mall that drew at least 35,000 people — what organizers billed as the largest climate demonstration in U.S. history.

Some Sierra activists say the group’s more in-your-face style is less a departure from the club’s roots than a sign of how times have changed.

“It’s a function of things changing outside the club than inside,” said Jack Darin, head of the Sierra Club’s Illinois chapter. “What’s changed is not Sierra’s willingness to speak our mind. It really is a deepening frustration with the inaction from Washington and the big energy companies to make any large-scale progress to address the climate crisis.”

It also reflects the stamp of Brune, who joined Sierra Club President Allison Chin, environmental lawyer Robert Kennedy Jr., actress Daryl Hannah and civil rights leader Julian Bond in subjecting themselves to arrest at the White House.

Brune came to the Sierra Club in 2010 after seven years as executive director of the Rainforest Action Network, a group whose activists have rappelled down office buildings and trespassed at corporate headquarters to get the attention of businesses like paper manufacturers, coal mining companies and banks. Brune, a former Greenpeace organizer, has gone to jail before.

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Sierra Club goes bolder


In an act of civil disobedience against the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry oil from the tar sands of Canada to refineries in Texas, 48 protesters were arrested Wednesday for blocking the sidewalk in front of the White House. Among those arrested were the actress Daryl Hannah, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his son, Conor Kennedy, civil rights leader Julian Bond, environmentalist Bill McKibben, and Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, whose participation marked the end of the organization’s 120-year prohibition against civil disobedience. At the protest, we spoke with Brune to find out why the pipeline pushed the group to break this long-standing tradition.

“This particular project — Keystone XL pipeline — is so horrendous, it’s so wrong, and it’s being proposed at such an important time that we don’t want to leave any tool on the table,” Brune told us shortly before his arrest, saying that the pipeline would “guarantee that we’re locked into the most carbon-intensive fuel source on the planet for the next half-century.”

Brune also explains the significance of the pipeline in this recent post on TomDispatch, as well as on his own Sierra Club blog post about the protest. A major rally for climate action, organized by the Sierra Club, 350.org and the Hip Hop Caucus, is planned for this Sunday at the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

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