Organized, tactical, nonviolent direct action
No Coal No Gas is planning a New England utility bill strike beginning September 1, 2020 with a campaign called Strike Down Coal. The environmental group No Coal No Gas is continuing their nonviolent direct action work against the fossil fuel industry in New England. They are asking rate payers to start pledging now to join in the strike.
According to their website, “We won’t pay our electric bills until the utilities stop subsidizing coal in New England. Right now, approximately 10% of every New Englander’s electric bill subsidizes fossil fuel plants.” These subsidies are government payments, in other words, welfare, to fossil fuel plants. The managing company for buyers of electricity throughout New England, ISO-New England (ISO-NE), will spend $188 million of people’s taxes on Merrimack Station to stay open through 2023.
The Merrimack Station in Bow, New Hampshire is the largest coal plant in New England without a shutdown date. Their carbon footprint for an hour equals that of an average American’s for 26 years of their life. It stays open primarily because of hundreds of millions of dollars in government handouts, money that comes from New England taxpayers, that are given to the plant to sit dormant for most of the year. The Station receives this money in addition to its earnings for the electricity they produce. This is money that could be spent to fund more sustainable, affordable energy sources. According to Forbes, keeping coal plants open is often more expensive than building new wind turbines and solar sites. No Coal No Gas is calling for a strike to end tax payers’ money subsidizing economically inefficient and environmentally disastrous fuel systems.
Leif Taranta, a No Coal No Gas organizer, explains how the strike will work. “Instead of mailing your electric bill payment, starting September 1st, you’ll instead mail a letter explaining why you’re on strike, and – this is the part I’m excited about – also a little bit of coal, and make a video of yourself doing it, which we’ll share online!” The “little bit of coal” will be mailed to you by No Coal No Gas when you sign onto the website and pledge to join the strike.
Another organizer, Emma Schoenberg, talks about the moral necessity of the New England Utility Strike. “With the COVID-19 emergency on top of climate and other crises, the most vulnerable people in our communities, especially indigenous, black, and other communities of color, are even more at risk. Burning coal and gas is a nonessential, immoral act that increases risk of respiratory illness and damages the planet. The fossil fuel industry is continuing to profit while we’re distracted by the pandemic. We have a long-range campaign to close Bow, and a pandemic is not going to stop us.”
Nonviolent direct action, such as a consumers’ strike, is a time-honored and necessary part of our American democratic history. While symbolic demonstrations, such as peaceful nonconfrontational street marches and rallies, letters to the editor, and social media posts are important to help change the narrative about what is good and right, and they help de-atomize people so they join the movement for change, by themselves, they do not create change. Nonviolent direct action is needed to show elected officials and corporate executives that their power depends entirely on the people’s willingness to cooperate with their systems, agendas, and policies. In other words, we must disrupt the system if we hope to change it. As Frederick Douglass stated, “Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning.” Agitation is more than proclaiming one’s indignation at an unjust policy or demanding a change; it is making it costlier for policy-makers to ignore activists than to adhere to their demands.
Corporate interests have far too much influence on our laws, policies, and even our regulations, and for too long, they have created the accepted socio-political and economic narratives by which we define “normal” and “common sense.” We’ve come to accept that corporations are the experts on economic well-being, that big business profits are good for all of us, and that continuous economic growth is necessary for everyone’s financial stability. We marginalize the views supported by a continuing amount of credible research that belies these corporate narratives and instead supports the views that local inhabitants are experts on what is best for their communities, corporate profits benefit workers when workers are majority owners, and economic growth based on need rather than greed serves everyone’s financial as well as political, personal, and societal interests.
For decades, the people have sought to address corporate self-interest through legislative lobbying, electoral politics, and corporate regulatory changes. Yet, little has changed. Those with significant political and economic power and resources do not give them up without being forced to do so. That is historical fact. Our efforts to address the climate crisis have earned us relatively
minor fixes that fail to disrupt or alter the existing harmful structures and systems that allow and maintain the corruption. What we need are radical shifts in power relations, which requires nonviolent, strategically organized, direct action campaigns. The Strike Down Coal utility strike is precisely this. It reveals who truly holds power in our society: the people.
Isaac talked about how this strike builds power and connection through community action. “There is a massive amount of suffering in the world, and I can get paralyzed with how much I wish I could just fix it all. That’s part of why volunteering with this campaign means so much to me: it reminds me that I don’t have to fix it all on my own. What’s in front of me becomes concrete, enough to handle, because I’m part of a community carrying the work together and sharing the vision of a world that can heal. That’s how strikes build power: through community.”
Founder of nonviolent struggle theory and history Gene Sharp argues that when power is decentralized, when there exists more loci of power throughout society, corporate and governing officials’ power will be “subjected to controls and limits because such bodies provide the capacity for resistance to [corporate and] government control.” No Coal No Gas has shown their strategic unwillingness to cooperate with unjust and immoral policies for nearly a year, beginning with a signal action on August 10, 2019, in which a dozen activists walked onto the Merrimack Station plant liberating several 5-gallon buckets of coal. This #BucketByBucket action signaled that the No Coal No Gas campaign had begun, and a coalition of affinity groups soon joined, creating a network of different groups working together to oppose our reliance on fossil fuels. A month later, on September 28, 2019, there was a mass action of protestors who attempted to liberate more coal from the plant, an action where 67 protesters were arrested by local police and state police in full riot gear, supported by the National Guard and the Sheriff’s department. That the state felt it necessary to send out a full para-military presence at a nonviolent action consisting of mostly middle-aged, older, and young adults singing songs of love, connection, and peace revealed the power the No Coal No Gas network had accrued. During the following months, there were 6 blockades on the railroad tracks, causing significant delays and disruptions to the coal trains on route to the Bow, NH plant. The last blockade stopped the train for nearly 17 hours in Harvard, Massachusetts with protesters setting up and occupying a 16’ scaffolding structure on the tracks.
With the onset of a global pandemic, activists have to be mindful of carrying out actions that are effective while not risking the spread of COVID. Strike Down Coal allows everyone to join in a powerful action without putting themselves or loved ones in jeopardy of contracting the virus. Jeff Gang spoke about the strike and asks others to join. “We're on strike because it's really messed up that about 10% of our electric bills is being used in such a backward, dirty, exploitative way -- especially while so many folks in our region are suffering from ongoing crises. And we're drawing on the age-old history of strikes and boycotts, where lots of us collectively withhold consent or participation, demanding more from whoever is in power. How can we actually win this? We need more people to join the strike. You can help by reaching out to people you know, explaining why you're moved to take part in this strike, and asking them to join us. You can also help in a lot of other ways -- this is a volunteer-run campaign!”
Volunteer Alissandra says that she joined the campaign because the “strike is about doing what must be done to build the world we want to live in.” She outlined ways people can support and join the strike. “Faced with this emergency, we are taking action in solidarity with those most impacted. Everyone in New England can take part in this utility strike. If you cannot afford to pay your electric bill right now, sign up to officially join the strike! Let’s have each others’ backs. If you can afford to pay your electric bill right now, join the strike! And if you're able to, consider redistributing the money you would've spent on your bill toward liberation for Black, Indigenous or other communities of color, or direct COVID-19 relief. Still want to learn more? One of the best ways is to join our weekly virtual orientation sessions. They're every Wednesday at 7pm. Learn more and sign up here. And you can always check out our website and FAQ.”
Strike Down Coal is an opportunity to show the corporate fossil fuel industry, and their government lackeys, who really holds the power. When the people organize and engage in strategically disruptive, nonviolent action from a place of united community, we see that it is the people who have the power; it is the people who have always had the power but only come to this realization when they learn how to wield it.
Gandhi reminds us that “the future depends on what you do today.” We have the ability to create the kind of society that cares for all of us and pays particular attention to those most marginalized. Nonviolent direction action targets the source of the injustice rather than appealing to others for a solution. The New England Utility Strike is directed at the money propping up fossil fuel industries. By withholding our money, we show companies such as ISO-NE that they are dependent on us for their operation. Joining Strike Down Coal is a strong and effective way to empower the people and force corporate and government leaders to act in the interests of all who inhabitant Earth for a sustainable, equitable, and just life.
By: Barbara Peterson, PhD
Founder/Lead Scholar & Educator for Nonviolent Citizen Action