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Joshua Kahn Russell reflects on Keystone XL, how alliances are like bicycles, and the transformative power of direct action

Joshua Kahn Russell reflects on Keystone XL, how alliances are like bicycles, and the transformative power of direct action photo by Josh Lopez

Many of us have been inspired by the strong organizing by environmentalists and environmental justice forces that succeeded in blocking the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.

To provide a little background on the Keystone XL campaign: The Keystone XL is a new oil pipeline that was proposed by the Canadian oil and gas company, TransCanada, that would carry tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to Texas. The extraction of tar sands is massively polluting. Tar sands extraction sites in Canada have devastated the surrounding environment and communities, in particular in Native communities. The potential pipeline would expand that damage; it would add new risks to the ecosystems and communities along the proposed pipeline. According to leading climate scientist, James Hansen, the building of the Keystone XL pipeline and the commitment of the United States to exploiting the rest of the remaining Canadian tar sands would be "game over" for the climate.

The campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline, which began last summer, was built on a long-term foundation of resistance by communities fighting against tar sands extraction. The campaign brought those communities together with climate activists and the broader environmental movement in the United States. The campaign - which was coordinated by Tar Sands Action, an ad-hoc group that came together for the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline - began last summer. The campaign kicked off with fourteen days of rolling direct action at the White House, during which 1,253 people were arrested. From there, the organizing carried forward into hundreds of local actions targeting President Obama, with a return to Washington DC for another action that circled the White House. In the end, the campaign succeeded in pressuring President Obama to delay, and later reject the transnational portion of the project (at least for now), blocking a proposal that seemed on its way to unimpeded implementation.

Joshua Kahn Russell is a trainer with the Ruckus Society, and he was an organizer for Tar Sands Action (now I got a chance to sit down with Joshua to ask him about how the campaign was organized, what lessons he takes from it, and what this campaign might mean for the movement. The following are excerpts from that interview.

On the flow of the campaign:

Tar Sands Action helped a broad alliance of groups coordinate two flash point actions in DC. There were fourteen days of sit-ins, and then 12,000 people encircled the White House. Those actions were really large and controlled. They were designed to feel accessible to "passive allies" - people who cared but had never taken action before. They were intended to be giant movement doorways. But in many ways they were not actually the bulk of the campaign. Those actions are what people think of when they think about the Keystone XL fight, but the strategic arc of the campaign was actually decentralized actions all over the country. Everywhere that Obama went, there were grassroots people bird-dogging him, people going to his events, storming Obama for America offices, people sneaking into his fundraisers and giving him hell about it. There were donors threatening to drop him. Activists uncovered and drew media attention to a State Department scanadal in which it was revealed a senior Hilary Clinton campaign advisor was a lobbyist for TransCanada (and later an Obama 2012 campaign official too). That broad action, I think, was the real engine of the campaign, even though the flash of it was, in particular, these two moments in DC.

On the role of the White House actions in the campaign:

The letter went out, and people were invited to come and participate in the sit-ins. Those sit-ins were organized to be a doorway into the campaign, and I think they really did serve as a point of entry. A lot of the people who we invited were those passive allies, people who had never done anything like this before.

The actions started with two weeks of rolling sit-ins. Many of those days had specific themes highlighting different issues, and communities that were impacted in different ways sent delegations on those days. There were people from the Gulf Coast who came who had already seen their communities devastated by oil and did not want the expansion of refineries, or the seizure of their homes through eminent domain. There were people from Nebraska that came, also defending their land from state seizure, as well as highlighting the potential damage to the Ogallala Aquifer, one of the largest fresh water aquifers on the planet. There were other folks along the pipeline route. There was a faith-based day in which religious leaders of all denominations talked about climate change and social justice. There was a student and youth day highlighting the future impact of dumping that much c02 into the atmosphere. There was a powerful Indigenous day, organizationally anchored by Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN). It included First Nations organizers who have spent many years fighting the tar sands in Canada, as well as powerful leadership from the U.S. such as Debra White Plume, who among other things, later organized a human blockade of Heavy Haul trucks trying to move extraction machinery across reservation land in South Dakota, and Tom Poor Bear, vice president of the Oglala Lakota Nation, who was the first person to ask Obama directly about the pipeline, interrupting a speech he gave in Colorado. One of the interesting things about it was seeing the nonprofit Environmental community acknowledge that they came to Tar Sands as an "issue" late in the game and that none of these actions would have been possible without the long-term work of frontline communities, particularly Native communities. The collaboration wasn't easy, and it didn't always translate to equitable participation at the strategy table. It remains to be seen how these experiences translate in the future, whether the Environmental groups will listen to the frontline groups at future strategy tables, but it was a definite step forward. I was very impressed with groups like the Sierra Club's willingness to genuinely offer what they could to the effort, be direct about their constrains, and work in a proactive way.

Every night before the action, we did a training that was about six hours long. A lot of those trainings were just nuts-and-bolts briefing for the next day, but there was also political education content that improved as time went on. There were a lot of good trainers who were a part of the process; members of the Ruckus Society were a particularly important piece of it, and people like Heather and Rob from Ruckus' Indigenous Peoples Power Project (IP3). There was some story-telling from Canadian struggles from IEN members like Gitz Crazyboy. It was really interesting to figure out how much political education we could do in such a short amount of time. But it ended up providing a pretty good space, within some constraints. We had a lot of people connecting, building and strategizing with each other, and then they would go and have this action experience together, which deepened the whole process. The training-and-action cycle was core to how Tar Sands Action organized across the country. The night prior to encircling the white house, we had a gathering of hundreds in a church for regional strategizing. I was blown away at the depth and sophistication of the community groups who had traveled to DC for the action, and the local work they had done in between the sit-ins at the end of August, and the mobilization in the beginning of November.

There were so many elders who were coming out of jail for their first time, and they were saying things like, "I feel like you designed this action to be 'training wheels.' That's great. Now I'm ready to ride the bike!" And another woman told me, "You know, when I saw you young people leading the training, I thought, 'Yes! The youth are going to save us.' But, then, as I sat in with all of the older people, I thought, 'No, we have to do it together!'"

On what generated the decentralized action:

There was a robust online organizing component where everyone who wanted to get involved in the sit-ins signed up. We suddenly had a huge email list that was full of active, fired-up people who were ready to do anything. We would send out ideas over that list, but most people would email us on their own. They would say "Hey, I've got a group of people in the middle of Washington State, and I heard that Obama is coming through. Could you support us?" A huge piece of the work was just responding to those asks.

It was actually really amazing. What it speaks to is that many people had a transformational experience at the White House sit-ins, and then they were really amped to keep going. There is a valid critique of those sit-ins, which is that they were so choreographed that they weren't "real direct action," that they were really media-driven theater. This campaign was really media-driven. I think, for grassroots folks, there is a real visceral reaction that we have to prioritizing the media. It rubs us the wrong way. I know that I had that reaction at first. But the flip side is that the choreography of it all made it really accessible to a wide range of people...The fact the action spread across the country after that showed that, in this case, it was the right choice to make the actions accessible and that they genuinely led to self-initiated action.

What are key lessons for organizers?

The lead up in this campaign really challenged my thinking about how we build coalitions. In many ways it wasn't a coalition a tall. The Keystone XL campaign had Tar Sands Action as an engine. Tar Sands Action had an approach of saying, "Hey, we are doing this. Join if you want to." We were able to align a lot of groups across the environmental spectrum - including many of the "big greens" who had been antagonistic to direct action - to get involved in any way that they can. If we had held a long series of consultation meetings with those groups beforehand, this campaign would never have happened. We needed the momentum of an action to align people. It's really hard to balance a bike when it's standing still, but the forward motion helps it stay upright.

What does "big-tent organizing" look like? This campaign is a good lesson in having a nimble core of organizers who can bring different groups to that table so that everyone can do what they do best. We talked about the Sierra Club earlier – they have by-laws against civil disobedience. They couldn't directly participate, but they had a rolodex of celebrities who then did little PSA spots for the campaign, organized parallel rallies, and then added a lot of direct support to the non-NVDA events and actions. So it wasn't "Get a coalition. Divide up the work, and then we each take on a chunk." It was, "Hey! Come, and bring what you have! Contribute what you do best!" And it really leaned on the best practices of each group. In many ways it was a race to the top, when a lot of coalition politics can be a race to the bottom.

A recent thing that happened is that Keystone XL was about to be attached to this bill in Congress, so there was a blitz of getting every progressive group possible to blanket the internet on one day. 800,000 people signed petitions in just 7 hours, which was just incredible! And it was enough to push it off the Congressional table (at least that time). It stiffened the spines of some of the Democrats that were wavering, which was really the goal of it. It was another example of a wide variety of groups going "all in" – and we've now seen it on this campaign in a grassroots actions arena, in a national direct action arena, in a media arena, a national rally context, and this time was in an online organizing context too.

Here in the Bay Area, Gopal Dayaneni often says that "We don't built a movement by talking about it, we build the movement by sharing work together." The Keystone campaign was not a genuine collaboration in the sense that it was all equal partners at the table, who were equally invested in a joint campaign. I also don't want to minimize the challenges of bringing together all these different groups. But it was a genuine example of a broad range of groups working together on a variety of levels. To me, that step of doing shared work together is part of the path towards genuine collaboration. We can think of the ongoing practice of "accountability" as a pathway toward equitable genuine collaboration. Campaigns like Tar Sands Action, full of their own contradictions and possibilities, are one step on that pathway, and I hope we take more like it soon.

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Jason Negrón-Gonzales

Jason Negrón-Gonzales has been active building the Left and the racial, economic, and ecological justice movements since 1997.  He got politicized around Puerto Rican community issues as a student, and worked against the elimination of affirmative action and cuts to ethnic studies.  His former work includes training, organizing, campaign and alliance-building work with People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER), serving as director of Movement Generation, and a co-founder of the MG Justice & Ecology Project.  He now works as a trauma nurse in a public hospital, and with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, supporting their Care Across Generations campaign.

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