#DrawTheLine Protests Show Power of Grassroots Activism

by Randy Shaw on September 23, 2013

On September 21, 350.org activists across the nation held events whose collective message was clear: it is time to “draw the line” against the Keystone XL Pipeline and other proposals to worsen climate change. I detail 350.org’s strategic savvy in opposing Keystone in my new book, The Activist’s Handbook, Second Edition, and the group’s protests last Saturday demonstrated its skill at framing issues and gaining public notice. Two factors stood out.

First, 350.org and its prominent spokesperson Bill McKibben used a powerful image—the drawing of a line in the sand—to further raise the stakes around Keystone for President Obama. Activists had already framed Keystone as “make or break” for Obama on climate change, and “drawing a line” makes this even more explicit. Second, activists did what all grassroots groups should do to get the public’s attention: use social media (#drawtheline) from the start rather than wait for traditional media coverage. By promoting the scope of their protests via tweets, instagram and other new media tools, the New York Times failure to cover the protests in their Sunday edition (and the overall lack of traditional media coverage) failed to reduce the events’ impact.

It is not easy to mount a successful national grassroots campaign. History is littered with failures, and efforts starting with a bang often fail to be sustained.

That’s why activists in all fields should be paying close attention (and joining if possible) to the national campaign to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline. Environmental groups have gone from failing to hold President Bill Clinton accountable in his first term to holding President Obama’s feet to the fire over Keystone—undermining the popular claims that green groups are too willing to give in to Democrats.

The Power of Nationwide Protests

As we saw from the 2006 immigrant rights protests, nationwide protests can send a powerful message. And they are most powerful when they have a specific goal, from ending a war to passing immigration reform to stopping a tar sands pipeline.

Anti-Keystone activists face a particular challenge, which is why the “draw the line” metaphor was so brilliant.

This challenge is the sheer number of proposals, both good and bad, for impacting climate change. When Obama talks about reducing pollutants for existing power plants or taking similar actions it can lead some to feel that its not fair to make Keystone the litmus test for the president. Conversely, so many bad projects are proposed around the world that some can feel that stopping Keystone will not make much difference.

But as protesters have argued, it is with Keystone that the line must be drawn. If a toxic tar sand project not primarily benefiting the United States can be approved by a Democratic President and a longtime environmentalist Secretary of State (John Kerry), then no claims by future Democrats to address climate change can be believed.

350.org activists “drew the line” at Obama’s Kailua beach house and in such cities as Seattle, Tucson, Durham, Houston, Chicago, Appleton, Wisconsin and Lancaster, PA. Overall, there were 215 events in 47 states, a remarkable participation level for a nearly all volunteer activist base (and a base that largely lacks the labor and church support that fueled the massive immigrant rights turnouts).

The Power of Social Media

In the pre-Internet days, the Draw The Line protests could have been unknown to nearly all outside the protesters, as reportage was dependent on traditional media outlets. Today, new media enables protesters in all cities to find out what was happening elsewhere, and to send photos and updates to friends and fellow activists.

Instead of activists feeling depleted because “the media didn’t cover our great event,” they covered it themselves on Twitter and Facebook. Having read so many tweets from #DrawTheLine on the day of the protests, I realized that until writing this story I had not even bothered to check whether the events were covered in the Sunday New York Times (and I was not surprised that they were not, or disappointed that this reduced the protests’ impact—it did not).

The AFL-CIO’s recent convention talked about connecting environmental groups to the labor movement. There is a lot labor and all activist groups can learn from the DrawTheLine protests, which could benefit all national grassroots campaigns.

In addition to Randy Shaw’s new book, The Activist’s Handbook, Second Edition: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, he analyzes national campaigns in his previous, Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century

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