Why Direct Action, Why Now
Emily Johnston

You’re here because our current reality is radically unreasonable.

You may have heard of the “Overton window”, which refers to the fact that political change tends to happen within a narrow window around the status quo. That’s how most people are wired–we tend to think that where we are is reasonable, even if it’s not, and therefore only small changes are also reasonable. Dramatic outside events, like a pandemic or war, can shift that window, and open it up much wider, so that people suddenly see, for example, that it’s perfectly reasonable to spend a trillion dollars on new infrastructure. 

One of the main functions of direct action is to dramatically shift the Overton window, because by acting on a situation directly in ways that are outside of normal behavior, we can change how people understand that situation. When we sit in front of a bulldozer, we may be jamming the schedule of whatever destruction it was going to enable that day—but even more, we’re jamming the gears of one or more stories that have become normalized, including the story of our own powerlessness.

If people are rightly afraid of a dictator, you can’t just overthrow the dictator, you have to embolden the people, and thus change the assumptions about his rule.

If racism has resulted in segregated lunch counters and lynchings, you have to disturb and uncover the racism itself, by acting in ways that reveal undeniably the humanity of those who have been othered and oppressed.

If fossil fuel companies have made climate change accountability seem like an individual matter within a normal and essential system….you have to creatively underline their manipulations, and the devastating and utterly unnecessary consequences of the projects they want us to see as inevitable.

Once you’ve undermined an existing narrative—frequently one that depends heavily on questionable values disguised as reality, then you can swoop in and make the necessary political change. 

Another function of direct action is that it makes it harder for people to dismiss us. They may still think we’re wrong, or crazy, or just seeking attention, but the fact that we’re willing to put ourselves on the line resonates differently than other forms of protest. Because most people feel paralyzed by the thought of breaking out of daily habit and trying to change something big, they tend to have at least a grudging respect for those who try….this is one of the ways we change narratives and thus shift power, by catching people’s attention for a moment as a result of doing something that surprises them. Once we have their attention, we have a few precious moments to possibly change their minds—or at least to put a kind of bookmark in their thinking, that they can go back to later. 

Another function of direct action is that it aligns our actions with our values, which is good for our souls, and helps to alleviate despair. 

All three of these things are essential: a shifted frame, a public at least somewhat less likely to dismiss us as people just making noise, and the deep satisfaction of aligning our actions with our values.

We are careening towards thousands of years of climate catastrophe.  

If we don’t radically shift the frame of the political situation that’s allowing that, the world will get wildly more intolerable, for exponentially more living beings, for an unthinkably long period of time. It’s the simple truth: everything is at stake.

When I went to DC ten years ago to take part in civil disobedience over KXL, I had no faith at all that it could help fight climate change in any meaningful way. But I knew that there was little else I could do that week that would do so, and I was willing to trust the folks who were organizing the action enough to spend the time and money and considerable emotional energy to join them. As you likely know, that fight was a classic example of something going from inevitable to impossible in just a few years because of people across the country who engaged in both civil disobedience and direct action. They shifted the frame by challenging KXL’s so-called necessity; they put themselves on the line; and they aligned their values (and fears) with their actions. 

And yet we still have to fight Line 3, and Trans Mountain, and Tacoma LNG, and a host of other projects. By stopping them, we stave off a fraction of a degree, perhaps—but even more importantly, we present people with a newly obvious understanding of the world: a world of unprecedented heatwaves, wildfire, extreme weather, and sea level rise is not a world in which we can be using fossil fuels anymore. We can and will argue about dates and decarbonization paths, but new projects are clearly and simply forbidden by our hope of a livable world.

We engage in direct action now because what we have to lose—our freedom, usually briefly, and/or a modest amount of money—is radically lesser than what we have to gain, which is a world beginning to come back into balance, rather than spinning out of control.

The world needs us to radically change the story in which political decisions are being made—right now. Thank you for coming, and being willing to step up to this moment


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Direct action: what we’re here to change
Luke Henkel

First, of all, a huge shout out of gratitude to all those who helped put tonight together and make this upcoming series possible! Renaissance, Valerie, Alice, our cooks and their amazing tacos, and of course our speakers we just heard from! What amazing inspiring stories of committment, courage, solidarity, and through it all, love .

I want to reiterate something they’ve all said; I couldn’t say it any better myself than Bex just now, but the importance of song and of doing this work TOGETHER is absolutely impossible to overstate. It’s everything. They’ve each brilliantly captured the spirit of direct action, which is that none of this is even remotely doable alone. We are in this fight with each other, and that’s the only way forward.

So I’ll talk a bit about my own direct action, and then of course what it’s all for. After all, we all talk about taking action, and at the beginning of tonight Renaissance had us shout out why we do this work right? And we came up with some really brilliant ideas. Now let’s see in a minute if we can get to the bottom of why we’re REALLY here.

So first for my direct action against Enbridge’s Pipeline 3. This was my first time ever arrested, at Treaty People’s Gathering in June, along with over 200 others apprehended that day and upwards of 4000 people protesting that week. We were successful in holding off the pumping station from doing its thing for an entire week with people locked down for days! whoooo. We were arrested, and were directly targeted/sandblasted by a USCBP helicopter.  Police came about 5pm (after about 9 hours of us occupying the station, and  shortly after we had been told by our TPG leaders to start thinking about how long we ourselves planned to stay inside the pumping station – it looked like this could go on for quite some time). 15-18 people on the front line, including me, and yes there was fear when the police came RIGHT the fuck up to us with all their gear and guns and macho aggression and scare tactics. But strangely enough I don’t even remember primarily feeling fear even though the cops were inches from my face.  I remember feeling oddly calm, like, there was this crystal clarity that this moment couldn’t have been any more necessary, this was exactly where I needed to be, and then someone started singing. Softly and timidly at first – We Shall Overcome – but it didn’t take long for the song to swell and grow much, much stronger. And so we sang and we chanted while others screamed to bring in backup, and it’s like, it wasn’t even me getting arrested. it happened to me, sure, but that’s the power of song and of being together. You’re doing this work but it’s not even YOU, it’s all so much bigger than you or your body, and what happens to ME is incidental because the fight goes on.

That brings me to WHY direct action. Earlier y’all shouted out some fabulous ideas about why we do DA – there was just one reason that I didn’t hear. Let’s see if we can get it now. Shout out ideas. What do we want to accomplish?…

Yes, great, and what do we want to change?… [more answers] yes, yes, all that! Closer…WHO do we want to change? Hearts and souls and minds? Whose hearts and souls and minds?

YES! Someone said it. OURS.

We are here not just to change the system, or the corporations or the government or the horrible oppressive rules and laws and structures that try and hold so many people down. We’re here not just to be angry at climate change and demand that big things happen to heal our world and end the devastation. All of that, yes, but not JUST that. Because that, alone, won’t work. It’s not just THEY that can do things about climate change (ok, admittedly, Enbridge can do a lot on that one). It’s not just THEY that have all the responsibility to change the system, to fight climate change, to stop the oppression. If we don’t pay attention to our OWN  climate, to our own atorms and bad weather, or to our own violent systems and oppressive notions inside of us, then all of this, my friends, is fairly for nought.  We are also here to change ourselves – to grow and adapt and respond in the ways that will lead to our ultimate redemption from suffering – as well as to ” fuck the system” and fight it all at every step of the way. Inward-looking direct action is as important as being on the front lines and jail time.

Because…Speaking of suffering! Climate change is not going to stop just because of the one direct action you go to. Oppression and violence won’t be over the next, or the five hundredth time you get arrested. Sadly, the bad stuff will probably keep going on and the suffering won’t stop. But Buddha said, it’s not about the fact that suffering exists. It’s not just that you experience suffering. We all do, and that’s one of the tenets of life and a foundational truth of Buddhism. So…what then? What is this all about?

It’s about what you do with that suffering and those experiences. It’s how you turn that suffering, which you don’t want, into redemptive love and strength, which it’s safe to say you do want. You want that, right?

You get it….now, go live it!


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