Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Bus Boycott and Pipeline Protest
distributed 11/13/15 - ©2015

A week ago, when President Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline, millions of us celebrated, and millions of other folk were angry. It has been a polarized battle for years, so it isn't surprising that this final step also stirred strong feelings.

Over the weekend, though, I heard a comment that was strangely lacking in passion, and which dismissed the whole thing as relatively unimportant. Pondering that news story made me think of another historic event which, by the same standards, might be labeled as insignificant -- the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

There are some interesting similarities between Montgomery and Keystone. The future is never predictable, but I can see possibilities for the Keystone struggle to maintain an influence and prominence like that of the famous bus boycott.

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On Saturday, November 7 -- the day after the Keystone decision was announced -- NPR ran a short story on "What The Keystone XL Pipeline Decision Actually Means". It mentioned NPR's Friday interview with Bill McKibben, but mostly it was a conversation with Bruce Huber, a professor of energy law at the University of Notre Dame.

Here are some of the things Huber said that seemed odd to me:

Well, in my view, it's not really a very big decision at all. I don't think it would even make my top 10 list of the most significant events for the environment. It's not a decision that has much of an impact on our domestic energy infrastructure. And it's, frankly, not a decision that is going to have that much of an impact on the environment either. ... Well, it simply was one of a whole mass of pipeline projects that are out there that are either underway or in the inaugural stages.

Well, indeed. Keystone was just one pipeline, one part of a much larger system. If we only measure the importance of this decision by how many barrels of oil get refined, then maybe last Friday's announcement isn't a big deal. But is that the appropriate measure?

That's what led me to think about Montgomery. For just over a year in the mid-1950s, there was a local protest about a single bus line. The victory was a fairly narrow court decision about segregated transportation. It didn't have the scope of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, or of massive legislation like the Voting Rights Act in 1965. So was the outcome of the boycott "not really a very big decision at all"? Yet Montgomery is a prominent marker in the story of the civil rights movement.

The resonance between Montgomery and Keystone shows that some functionally minor events can have profound and lasting impacts. Let me suggest just a few factors.

(My thinking on this comes from a quick re-read of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s book about the boycott, Stride Toward Freedom. There's also an interesting set of documents on the website, based on the book They Walked to Freedom, which seems to give far more attention to the role of women in the Montgomery protest.)

One event among many:
Huber dismisses Keystone as "one of a whole mass of pipeline projects" -- but that is precisely what gave the protests power. Keystone was seen as the best opportunity to challenge a spreading crisis. The drive to fight Keystone was empowered by every oil spill and every expansion of tar sands exploitation.

So, too, as King wrote, "Mrs. Park's arrest was the precipitating factor rather than the cause of the protest. The cause lay deep in the record of similar injustices. Almost everybody could point to an unfortunate episode that he himself had experienced or seen."

If either protest were dealing with a genuinely isolated event, just one distasteful episode in an otherwise pleasant world, then their outcome would be insignificant. But both have significance because they are icons of much larger and ongoing struggles.

Long and public protests:
Keystone and Montgomery are important because they dragged on and on, watched by communities far removed from the immediate impacts, and attracting support from distant allies.

King reflected that the city fathers and bus officials felt that the protest in Montgomery "would fizzle out in a few days." But for over a year, the black folk of the city stayed off the busses, and worked around every legal and practical intimidation. The persistence of the protesters, even in the face of bombed homes and churches, attracted financial and moral support from across the country and internationally.

Similarly, Keystone spread from the local base of those most immediately impacted -- of Native people in Canada and the Dakotas, and ranchers in Nebraska -- and was taken up by a far larger constituency. The persistence of the protests -- seven years from the start, and four years from when it became better known -- drove wide-spread interest and debate about the larger cause. If Keystone had been approved (or rejected) in 2011, the decision would have had far less impact on energy policy and the environmental movement.

The emergence of leaders:
Both Montgomery and Keystone have a lasting impact because they trained new and prominent leaders, and developed intentional strategies for non-violent social change.

Martin Luther King was an unknown student when he moved to Alabama in 1954. By the end of the boycott in 1956, he was the best-known voice of a growing movement for racial justice. Countless other figures gained skills, experience and recognition through their roles in the protest. Powerful organizations, including the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) [], grew out of the boycott.

Keystone, too, has spawned leadership and tactics far beyond what would be expected from a permit application. Idle No More and Bold Nebraska polished techniques in media work, legal challenges, and creative protests. Days of arrests at the White House, the presence of sign-carrying KXL protesters at every public appearance of Obama, and relentless organizing through email and Facebook renewed the belief that grassroots organizing can make a difference.

A long and difficult struggle generated tough, focused, well-connected networks of passionate leaders. Those folk would not have emerged without the protests.

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Yes, both Montgomery and Keystone were decisions about relatively small, local cases that -- in and of themselves -- did not require systemic change. But the shape of a long, highly-visible struggle defines larger realms of conflict, of right and wrong, that carry far larger meaning. These two "unimportant" protests are dramatic turning points in much broader struggles.

A win against insurmountable odds in cases like these is not just local or symbolic -- it is empowering and definitional. I give thanks for those have invested so deeply of themselves in this good and important work for racial and climate justice.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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