Seeing through the wall

When Terry Tempest Williams came out with her book Finding Beauty in a Broken World a few years ago, I was pretty sure she’d made it just for me. For as long as I can remember, that title has more or less been my life philosophy. I was raised hiking and backpacking in a loving family that showed me how many amazing things the world has to offer, and I’ve been fortunate to have friends throughout my life who have been supportive. But much of my life has also been spent looking for problems in the world, reading about war and starvation and violence and systematic inequalities.

It was with this in mind that I went to a concert on the border wall yesterday afternoon. Some churches in Douglas and Agua Prieta had organized a binational chorus to perform on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border wall, just outside of town. Wearing orange shirts with the trickster god Kokopelli on them, a group of singers stood on each side of the wall. They traded verses back and forth, sometimes in English and sometimes in Spanish. People gathered on both sides to listen and watch. There were white people and Latin@s on both sides of the wall, Mexicans and Americans, and people of all races and nationalities speaking English, Spanish, and everything in between.

Chorus on the U.S. side of the wall.

My initial reaction upon seeing the border wall has always been a combination of rage and sadness. It’s monumental, terrifying in its scale, awesome in its cruelty. It’s a scar on the landscape, bisecting habitat, casting some as “other,” reminding the world of American military might. The scale of the wall compared to the assembled singers had its usual effect on me. I saw people sticking hands through the wall to take pictures, friends shaking hands through the fence posts. I reflected on the fact that, while I could freely move between the two sides, at least half of the people present didn’t have that privilege.

Looking down the border wall in Douglas, AZ.

In spite of the way injustice is written on the dusty ground, the people singing did so in celebration. The songs were sometimes somber, but the atmosphere was happy, almost celebratory. Friends smiled at each other. Every time the chorus on the U.S. side stopped singing, a man on the Mexican side would spin a giant homemade noisemaker, the crackle carrying far beyond our party. Border Patrol vans circled in the distance, but left us alone.

A woman on the U.S. side of the border.
Chorus on the Mexican side, as seen through the wall.

Realizing this, I thought back to my last time traveling through the deserts of the American West, almost two years ago. I recalled how no matter where we were, almost every night I could watch the sun set through a barbed wire fence Contemplating that scene, my mind would freeze the frame and see the aesthetic beauty, cattle grazing, beavers driven to extinction, disappearing sage grouse, American tradition, a struggling family and climate change captured together in a single image. And in spite of the imperfections writ large on the landscape, I always found beauty in the complications of that scene. I always found a way to appreciate the place while seeing its scars.

For as long as I’ve been seriously thinking about it, I’ve seen our border and immigration policies as evil, and the wall as the clearest manifestation of that. I still feel this way—there’s no amount of beautiful singing in the world that could make me feel differently. But yesterday’s concert was a good reminder that we can be happy in the midst of evil, celebrate even in the fact of injustice.

Now, my mind freezes the frame on the assembled orange t-shirts, the people singing their hearts out in the U.S. and Mexico. Looking at them, it’s clear they represent a single community. There’s resiliency in their insistence on ignoring the wall to the best of their ability, in their efforts to continue with life as normal in spite of the monstrous demonstration of military might standing in their way.

But more than that, their celebration is a parody. In choosing to be happy in spite of the fence, in choosing to play music no matter how impractical it may be, they’re showing the fence for what it really is. The electronic keyboards and bongo drums and prayer flags hung on the metal stakes make the wall look absurdly, ridiculously out of place. In the act of bringing something beautiful to this broken place, they’ve made the wound that much more visible. And they’ve reminded me that we can fight for things we care about without forgetting to smile, that we can hold love and rage in our hearts simultaneously. Because all over the world, in places where violence has taken hold, places the state sees strategically while everyone else forgets to look, there are people who will keep fighting and keep playing music, never forgetting that walls, turned on their side, are bridges.*

*This was a piece of graffiti on the border wall near Nogales, though it’s since been painted over. Written in Spanish, it said las paredes vueltas de lado son puentes.

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Humanitarian aid as an atheist

Out here on the border, social change and spirituality seem to be closely linked. Almost all of the migrant aid centers on both sides of the line are organized by churches, and while the group I’m with, No More Deaths, is secular, it has its roots in Tucson’s Unitarian Church and Catholic liberation theology. This is nothing odd—there’s a long history of religion inspiring social work and activism. Jesus was pretty clear about that whole “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” thing, and there have been no shortage of church-organized homeless shelters, Catholic orphanages and some pretty radical priests talking shit about capitalism since then. Worldwide, it’s not all Christians, either, and if I were better informed about other religion, I’m sure I could come up with dozens of other examples from all over. The desire to help the less fortunate in the world is often seen as a key part of a deep spiritual calling.

My companions for these two weeks are all Christian. I’m with one other No More Deaths volunteer—a Unitarian minister from Georgia named Jeff—and the shelter we’re working with is run by a guy named Phil who lives here in Agua Prieta and is Episcopalian. I asked Phil yesterday about the preponderance of faith-based aid out here, and told me that in his experience, people who don’t come from a faith tradition tend to burn out doing this work faster.

“Why?” I asked him.

“I think it’s hard to deal with the suffering out here without some way to make sense of it,” he said.

He’s not wrong. Last time I was on the border, I was out in the desert putting out water and food for migrants crossing. I went out there expecting to find tragedy, a misguided series of policies which united in a particularly deadly way in the Altar Valley of southern Arizona. What I found instead was deliberate cruelty, overt racism and a series of policies which were explicitly designed to funnel people into the desert, knowing they would die there. Many No More Deaths facilitators describe the Arizona borderlands as a low-intensity war zone, and that’s how I felt during the brief time I was there.

When I went home, it was hard to process all of this. I withdrew from my friends and spent a lot of time drinking while trying to write about what I’d seen. I had days where I couldn’t fathom the thought of being happy, because it seemed so wrong, knowing what I’d seen, knowing that what I had seen was such a small chunk of the whole picture. And I absolutely had nights where, lying in bed with tears running down my face, I thought, “I really wish I believed in God right now. I wish I had some way to convince myself that this would all be okay.”

That’s the thing about being an atheist. Because I don’t believe in God, I also don’t believe in absolute justice. I believe all kinds of evil people die and get away with the evil things they did. I don’t think Ted Bundy and Adolf Hitler are spending eternity in hell being punished for the lives they took—they’re just dead. I don’t think those who have been made to suffer in this life have any greater reward waiting for them, and I don’t think the scales balance in the end. The suffering I see on the border isn’t part of God’s plan or the result of our sin. It’s just awfully, cruelly wrong.

For me, knowing there’s nothing after death makes fighting for this world all the more important. Religion was used in the Middle Ages (and still is by some people today) to justify poverty, to keep the poor from rebelling by telling them that if they just stayed quiet and accepted their fate, they’d be rewarded beyond their wildest dreams once they got to heaven. I would argue that religion still fulfills that function in many parts of the world, at least for some people. For me, this world is all we have, so we’d better make damn sure it’s a good one for everyone. We’re not going to get a second chance. There’s no heaven waiting for us, nothing perfect after we die, so it’s that much more important to keep working towards a better earth.

It’s this thought that keeps me going, and it’s that thought that’s going to make these weeks a challenge. I think partially because of their belief in the afterlife, a lot of Christian work is centered around aid and charity. Feed the poor. House the homeless. Minimize suffering. Run a shelter. Here in Agua Prieta, I’m going to be working in a shelter which provides services to migrants who have just been deported. It’s important work, and I’m grateful that people are doing it. Putting water in the desert is important, life-saving work, too. But none of it gets at the structural, the systems that make these things necessary in the first place. Food banks are awesome, but anyone who thinks they’re solving hunger or poverty is naive at best.

This is the challenge of activism in the world today, and it’s all the more stark for those of us who think that death is just death. We need to make sure people have food today and migrants have a place to get medical care today. But if that’s all we do, we’re not making any progress. We have to find some way to make life better, measurably, systematically. I don’t know what that looks like yet, and I don’t know if the next two weeks will give me many ideas. What I do know is that as long as this wall is here, as long as we build our nation on racism, exclusion and the backs of poor people the world over, what we’re doing is absolutely, unequivocally wrong. It’s because of, not in spite of, my atheism that I feel called to work for as long as I need to to change that.

Building a border wall

My alarm on Monday went off at 3:40 a.m. After a cursory attempt to get dressed and put my contacts in, I walked out the door fifteen minutes later with a mug of green tea. My heart was racing as I walked to the library. Starting at four, a group began to assemble on the front steps. All told, there were about ten of us. We carried wooden pallets and metal stakes from cars, busted out the hammers and nails, and got to work. Our task was simple: to build a border wall.

After two hours of work, we’d driven stakes into the grass, put the pallets on top, and stapled cardboard to the whole thing. Our wall stretched from the library to the tennis courts, blocking off a funnel pathway for students walking to and from class.

We spray-painted the side facing the library with graffiti in a variety of languages—German, Arabic, Spanish, English—and made references to the U.S.-Mexico border, the Berlin Wall and the Israeli occupation.  This side was the “occupied” side of the border, the side that traditionally has graffiti on it.

I added my favorite piece of graffiti from the U.S.-Mexico border wall, though it’s since been painted over: Las parades vueltas de lado son puentes. Walls turned on their sides are bridges.

The other side was blank, except for a large proclamation: International Border. Please have documents ready.

It wasn’t a serious impediment to travel—people could easily go around the library or through the tennis courts—but it was big enough that people had to stop and look at it, think about how they could navigate around.

I won’t speak for the other members of the group, but I was motivated to participate in this project because of my experiences on the U.S.-Mexico border over spring break. Spending a week in the Arizona borderlands made it abundantly clear to me just how much is broken about our immigration policies, their enforcement, and the very notion of a border in the first place.

The wait to get a legal visa for Mexican nationals is currently about twenty years if you already have a close relative living in the U.S., and the U.S. government has yet to recognize the drug-related violence in Mexico as a legitimate conflict, which means people threatened with death can’t apply to get asylum. U.S. policies, including free-trade agreements like NAFTA, the continued criminalization of drugs and the unwillingness to stop weapons from being smuggled into Mexico, account for many of the problems pushing people north—realities that our immigration laws largely refuse to consider.

Border fence from Arizona, near Nogales.

The U.S. enforces its immigration laws through a physical border in the Southwest, which pushes migrants into the desert, where many die of dehydration and other injuries in the attempt to cross into the United States. Still, to focus only on that physical border fence would be disingenuous. The U.S.-Mexico border has worked its way into communities across the country, and the line separating us from them is redrawn constantly in day-to-day interactions between citizens, migrants, law enforcement, government officials and the mixed-status families affected by immigration policy.

In short, U.S. border and immigration policies have combined to make movement a privilege, something accorded based on citizenship and skin color. As a U.S. citizen, I can enter 90 countries around the world with no visa, including virtually every Latin American nation. If I want to walk into Nogales for a day of shopping, I’m free to do so. Driving through the American Southwest, I can sail through Border Patrol checkpoints without having to show ID—my whiteness is enough to tell the uniformed men that I “belong” in this country.

Border Patrol checkpoint near Tucson, AZ

Perhaps most insidiously, these things are simply part of my life. Part of having these privileges is not having to think about them. When I flash my passport coming back to the U.S. from Mexico, I don’t have to consider that the blind luck of being born in the States has given me the ability to move freely from country to country. I don’t have to think about the fact that there are people moving through the desert around me who might die in the attempt to simply make it into my country, even without any guarantee of legal status in the future. My family will never be split by deportation, unable to reunite on either side of the border because it’s too risky.

For me, this is the value in building a border wall on campus. Whitman students as a group are largely privileged. Virtually all of us are U.S. citizens, and international students are generally here with documentation and visas. There are fewer than a dozen undocumented students on campus. For most of us, movement is not a privilege we have to think about. Most of us will never encounter a border that we are not legally allowed to cross. Most of us will never have to consider the possibility of being deported.

When we first put the wall up, students reacted to it. It made crossing the path impossible, so people were forced to interact with it. Some students were frustrated by the boundary. I overheard several comments such as, “I don’t get the point of this,” “This is ridiculous, it’s in a public space,” and “It’s not fair; they’re blocking the path.” A lot of people stopped to read the graffiti. But every single person, no matter their thoughts on the project, had to think about it. At the very least, they had to consider their own movement—how can I get around this wall?

I was tired after our 4a.m. construction call, so after breakfast with the construction team, I went back to sleep from 8 to 10:30. After my nap, I went back to look at the wall. Apparently, we’d frustrated some people enough that they felt compelled to knock down two pallets in the middle of the wall. It was a small gap, but it changed the wall completely. With the hole there, students no longer had to think about their movement. Some still stopped to look at the graffiti, but far more walked by talking with friends or texting.

If there’s one lesson I got out of this, it’s that reconceiving the ability to move as privilege is a challenge. I think it’s important for people to recognize the things they take for granted, and important to push people to think about what those things are. I had a ton of fun building the wall, and I hope that we were able to get at least a few Whitties thinking about all the borders in the world, visible and invisible, that have much more serious implications than just being a minute late to class.

Selling out to investment banks

Most of the students I know at Whitman want to go save the world. We’re a liberal arts college made up of idealists, future Peace Corps volunteers and academics. I’ve always sort of pictured Whitman as a place to train the next generation of college-educated small organic farmers, but there’s something to be said for health insurance and being able to pay off student loans. I’ve spent the last week in New York City talking to Whitman College alums working in tons of different careers—law, media, finance—and it’s been fascinating to see how people explain their career choices to us, and to see so many Whitties living and working in a city that’s about as different from Walla Walla as you could reasonably get.

One of our first appointments was with an alum who does private baking for Merrill Lynch. He deals exclusively with clients who have at least $25 million in assets. He came to the U.S. and to Whitman as an immigrant on a full scholarship, so he’s been incredibly happy to be so successful in his professional life.

We asked him what he thought about his job. He leaned back in his chair, arm angled against his side, and thought for a minute.

“We don’t really produce anything. We’re capital allocators,” he told us. “I struggled with it for a few years—what am I really accomplishing here? Making rich people richer?”

Ultimately, he goes back to the fact that he has a dynamic, rewarding career. He also said that the wealth earned by the rich often goes back to philanthropy efforts, so in a sense, he’s making the world a better place by allowing more charity to take place. Still, I got the sense that he struggles to reconcile his beliefs with his work.

“I do love my profession, but if I didn’t have to do it, I wouldn’t do it,” he told us. He said he had to do it to pay the bills, which there are a lot of.

Our Goldman Sachs guy was much less apologetic. He’s a vice president in merchant banking—not the division that was responsible for the collapse of capitalism, as he told us several times. He said he loves the challenges he faces at work and the culture at Goldman. He downplayed our concerns about the long hours, acknowledging that sometimes he has to stay late (until 2 or 3 a.m.), but he’s usually out of the office by 8 or 9 at night. I thought about that for a while. I’ve always told myself that I would never get a job where 60 hour work weeks are the norm and 18-hour days are sometimes a necessity, but I don’t think that’s really true. I can’t imagine loving banking enough to do it for most of my waking hours, but I would spend that time on writing or reporting in a heartbeat.

I asked him if there are any social or environmental responsibility guidelines that Goldman uses to screen potential investments. He said that the firm takes those things very seriously, and that they wouldn’t invest in a company causing serious environmental damage. I asked him to what extent that’s really true.

“You’d invest in Exxon-Mobil or Apple or Nike, right?”

He paused for a second, then acknowledged that yes, they would. But he added that there had been investment deals which had been stopped because of environmental concerns. The cynic in me says that any efforts to avoid environmental damages stem purely from a profit motive. If your company is dumping toxic waste everywhere and is eventually forced to pay for clean-up, the value of your assets goes down. I don’t fault him for this, really. I was trying to get at something I struggle with a lot. I understand that investing allocates capital in a supposedly “efficient” way and allows for business creation, economic growth and jobs, but I think there’s a fundamental tension between profit-motivated investing and environmental/social responsibility. A conservative or moderate (and really, most liberals I know as well) would say that the problem is externalities, and that if we figure out a way to make environmental liabilities show up on a P&L, we’ll make that investment machine a vehicle for environmental good. But I’m not convinced it’s a reconcilable problem.

The point of the trip is to network with alums and get a sense of what careers are out there in the world. We’re able to ask them questions about their work, ostensibly to figure out if we might be interested in working in a similar position. Since most of us are bleeding heart liberals with no desire to be in investment banking, we asked them their thoughts on the Occupy movement instead.

Both of our guys said they absolutely supported the movement’s goal of reducing income inequality. I found this interesting, since the original Occupy contingent wasn’t really about that at all. The 99% rhetoric is so ingrained in our national consciousness now that it’s easy to forget Occupy’s birth was with the Adbusters folks—a contingent of anti-capitalist anarchists who wanted to criticize the most obvious and extreme example of soulless capitalism: investment banking. Income inequality is a symptom of what they see as a much larger problem, but they’re not really into reform, because the whole system is rotten.

Our Merrill Lynch guy was more strident in his support of the protests, talking about the importance of equal opportunity and how much he believes in the American Dream, even though he knows it’s gotten harder to move up since he did it. Still, he thinks Occupy hasn’t accomplished much.

“It has high hopes. I don’t think it accomplished anything,” he said. “I think it sort of failed to do what it was going to do, which was create a more urgent environment for our country to rally around. . .”

He also said that he thought the movement was too fragmented and disjointed to do much that was practical. Our Goldman guy echoed this sentiment, saying that he agreed with the goal of more equal income distribution, but thought the movement was too theatrical in ways that detracted from the point.

Most interestingly for me, Merrill Lynch guy said that he absolutely considers himself to be part of the 99%. I’ve thought about this a lot as well—can you affiliate with others across class lines effectively? Whether or not he’s technically part of the wealthiest 1% of Americans, I have no doubt that his life is much more closely aligned with that crowd than it is with the single mother working two minimum wage jobs to try to put food on the table for her kids. Still, I’d rather have a fabulously rich guy who cares about those below him than one who’s indifferent. He said most of his colleagues aren’t like this, and that politics isn’t something you discuss at the office. We asked him if he would ever consider bringing it up, but he said it wouldn’t be possible.

These meetings reminded me how easy it is to become complacent, how easy it is to convince yourself that the work you’re doing is enough. I’m not criticizing these guys’ individual career choices, though they’re not choices I would make. But talking to them reminded me that whatever I end up doing with my life—journalism, activism, food policy—I need to keep the end goal in mind. Another Whittie we met with—a lawyer at a global firm that represents banks, sovereign nations and a bunch of other important actors—said that he didn’t think the work he was doing was actively making the world worse, but that there’s a huge difference between that and actively improving things. There are a ton of things I want to do with my life, but while I navigate that, I need to make sure that I’m true to the values that got me there in the first place. I’m sure I’ll become less radical as I age and settle down (though I’m still hoping not), but I want to check in with myself about why I’m doing the work I’m doing regularly. Because if whatever it is isn’t working to fix something that’s wrong with the world, I’m in the wrong profession.

NOW AVAILABLE: Mining and democracy in Intag, Ecuador

For those of you who’ve been waiting for it (probably no one), I’ve finally translated my final study abroad paper into English. You can view and download the entire thing as a PDF here.

It’s a thrilling tale of mining companies, small-scale farmers turned activists, betrayal, lies, possible illegal cyanide dumping, long speeches at regional assemblies, journalism and constitutional law, and all for the low, low price of FREE!

Rachel’s official Occupy Wall Street roundup

I’ve been following the Occupy Wall Street protests as much as I can from Ecuador, and I’m completely in love. So I thought I’d take a minute to share my favorite articles, photos, etc. from the various occupations going on around the country:

Steve Fake sums up the origins of Occupy Wall Street and the issues that have led to many people to protest.

The official declaration of the occupation of New York City.

The Nation takes on OWS’s refusal to align itself with the Democrats and the White House, and why that’s crucially important for the movement. And another article speaks about female protesters and how OWS culture has evolved to encourage diverse voices to speak up.

Slovakian philosopher and leftist intellectual Slavoj Zizek makes an awesome speech at Zucotti Park.

Literally the best protest sign I’ve ever seen, anywhere.

Average Americans share their stories over at We Are the 99%, and n+1 explains what we should make of this self-identification.

Over at Feministing, an awesome piece on how OWS has taught average white Americans something people of color have known for a long time: the police aren’t there to keep you safe.

One of the best arrest photos I’ve seen. Great photography, great storytelling, and absolutely heartwrenching.

Feminist and activist Naomi Wolf describes getting arrested in New York.

Mother Jones calls for Occupy Earth, in solidarity with the planet the 1% are destroying.

Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed, on why homelessness is becoming an OWS issue.

The New York Times on what Wall Street thinks of the protesters in private.

Some reflections on the role violence has played in protests in the US, and how this might apply to OWS.

And the deep green crowd calls for escalation to literally, not metaphorically, stop the 1%.

Happy reading, everyone!

Occupy Wall Street, cynicism, and power

Wall Street has been occupied for over three weeks now. (If you’ve been living in a cave and are unaware of the existence of Occupy Wall Street, you can read up on it here.) That sense of rage, the slow-burning knowledge that things are not ok, has finally come to the surface. I’ve been praying for this for almost a year. Watching the Arab Spring unfold, seeing the protests rippling across Europe in the wake of austerity measures, I asked again and again, “What will it take for us to wake up? What will it take for Americans to take to the streets?” I wanted our moment of revolution, the rejection of existing methods of expression, a truly grassroots expression of uncompromised anti-establishment action, desde abajo y a la izquierda.
I want to believe so much that this movement can accomplish something, that there are policy changes which would meaningfully address the growing wealth gap. I want to let this be the re-growth of my idealism, my faith that a group of committed citizens can spur lasting changes in the power structure of the state. I want to believe that the state is not irredeemable. Even President Obama said that the protesters were expressing legitimate grievances, that growing inequality is an unfortunate fact of our society. And for a split second, I thought that might mean things would change.
But there’s always reality, and power. Or more accurately, the reality of power. And the reality of power is that the United States government, regardless of the party the president happens to belong to, exists primarily to defend the interests of business and capital. The government does not exist to protect your family, or ensure access to health care, or protect your grandchildren from the accumulation of toxic chemicals in their food. The government exists to defend existing power structures.
In this case, that means setting forth new trade agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea. Specifically, the agreements submitted by the Obama administration to Congress yesterday would allow foreign companies to be bailed out by the US government if changes our environmental and labor laws cause them to lose money. These agreements are literally the antithesis of everything that Occupy Wall Street stands for, and their timing seems like cruel irony. In the wake of the State Department’s approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, these things have ceased to shock me. But my lack of shock is in itself, surprising to me. Every time Obama does one more thing I disagree with, every time I shake my head and say, “It figures”, I can’t help but wonder—when did I become this cynical? And more disturbing than my cynicism—which has reached levels more appropriate for a 70-year old man than a young college student—is the fact that it exists in spite of my best efforts to the contrary. In spite of spending months trying to find reasons for hope, trying to believe that the abuses of those in power were not systematic and deliberate, that government could be redeemed—I can’t help but feel that the deep level of cynicism I’ve sunk to is nothing more than an accurate assessment of reality.
Even Ecuador has failed to provide a safe haven from the cruel reality of power. My host dad just returned from the Amazon, where he works as a petroleum engineer (he spends twenty days in the field, then ten days back home in Quito). Upon his return, he told me that he had talked to some indigenous people who live in Yasuní National Park. Yasuní sits on top of ample reserves of tar sands oil, which President Correa says he’s willing to leave in the ground if the international community pays Ecuador half the value of the oil—$3.5 billion over a ten year period. German delegates just visited Ecuador to see Yasuní, and have committed millions to the proposal. Correa went to the UN to raise support, and has $55 million pledged (he needs $100 million by the end of the year, or else he says he’ll open Yasuní).
I asked my dad about the Yasuní initiative. He said the indigenous people he talked to told him that there are already wells in the ground in the park, that the oil sitting underground has already been sold to China. He said that Correa’s efforts to raise money for the proposal amounted to nothing more than political theater, that he will be shocked if Yasuní doesn’t open for oil extraction eventually. I wish I could say I was surprised, but after everything I’ve heard about the Ecuadorian government, this seemed inevitable. Of course we’re going to take the most biodiverse place on earth and extract oil from it. Correa may succeed in painting himself and his country as victims of capitalism at the hands of Western neo-imperialist powers. “We wanted to save Yasuní,” he’ll tell the cameras, “but we needed money, and since the rich countries wouldn’t pay us to not destroy the rainforest, we had no choice.” I’ve never met the man; I can’t say whether he truly cares about conservation or just pays lip service when he knows it’s politically expedient to do so. But given that oil accounts for at least 50% of Ecuador’s export earnings, 15-20% of GDP and 30-40% of the government’s total revenues, the Ecuadorian government is logically going to defend extraction. Correa, unlike Obama, at least has the justification that the revenues are going to finance social programs to benefit the poor (at least in theory).
Knowing all this, I’m paralyzed by inaction. I know the Keystone pipeline cannot be built; I also know that I’m powerless to stop it. Even the group that’s organized to defeat it, Tar Sands Action, doesn’t seem to have a plan B. I asked them on Twitter, “Do you have a plan besides asking Obama nicely not to kill our planet?” Their response: “Yes, two weeks of sit-ins [at the White House] in August”. Then they linked to their action proposal, which included demands that the pipeline not be built, but no tactics beyond asking those in power to act against their own perceived self-interest. I tweeted back, “Sit-ins seem like a slightly more militant form of asking nicely.” I never received a response.
Putting faith in the state is an ineffective strategy for activism. If your entire plan consists of getting Congress to pass some piece of carefully-crafted legislation, what do you do when they refuse? If Obama’s State Department can say with a straight face that the construction of a major oil pipeline from Canada to the Gulf Coast will have “no significant adverse impacts” on the environment, how can any reasonable strategy for action rely on asking them to change their mind based on rational argument? Sure, you could tie a project up for years with lawsuits, but if you make it all the way to the Supreme Court and lose, what recourse do you have? Yet even knowing this, I can’t come up with plan B. We need the same critical mass that was willing to get arrested sitting peacefully in front of the White House to go sit in front of the bulldozers that break ground for the pipeline. We need a steady stream of cynics and idealists who care about the living planet to put themselves between power and the things it seeks to destroy. We need people willing to sabotage the pipeline. But as much as I believe in defending our earth, I have to wonder if we can win at all, even if we’re willing to break the law. Stand in front of bulldozers, and you will be arrested. Fight back, and you will get shot. Attack the pipeline, and you’ll shut down production for a little while, causing an oil spill in the process. And then it will be fixed. You’ll have to attack it again, and again. You will be caught and arrested. You’ll get a life sentence for domestic terrorism, if you’re lucky. In Ecuador, they don’t always bother with sentencing you. Assassins can be hired in Coca, an oil town in the Amazon, for less than $50. Naturally, oil companies have made use of this fact get rid of problematic activists. One way or another, you will be silenced, and maybe someone will follow in your footsteps, but the overwhelming odds are in favor of power. They always are.
I have to believe that some of the people who are occupying Wall Street know this. And perhaps that’s why they’re out there, day after day, without a cohesive platform or leader or proposal for action. If I were home right now, I’d be in the streets too. I’m angry and cynical and exhausted just trying to keep track of the latest abuses and casualties of those in power. But I don’t have a plan for fixing it all. There are reforms that would help, that would put sufficiently large Band-Aids over the gaping holes in our social structure to make the lives of average people better. I’m in favor of anything that marginally improves the lives of average Americans, that helps to close the gaping wealth gap. I’m in favor of job creation programs and more progressive taxation and the whole laundry list of liberal reform goals. But it won’t be enough. It never is. And knowing that scares me unspeakably. It makes me terrified for the future, not so much for myself, but for indigenous communities and the working poor and the rare species of amphibians that live in Yasuní. It makes me want to do something, anything. It makes me want to take to the streets, placard in hand, chanting about democracy and wealth distribution and power, because I don’t know what else to do. I’m hoping that someone will figure that out before it’s too late, and I say that knowing that hope, just like putting faith in the state, is the antithesis of meaningful activism.