Rob Horowitz: Important Lessons for Occupy Movement
Tuesday, November 15, 2011
Last week's hard-won victory by environmental activist and noted author Bill McKibben blocking TransCanada's Keystone Pipeline provides some important lessons for the fledgling Occupy Movement.
Just a few short months ago, this 1,700-mile pipeline project, with the prospect of creating thousands of construction jobs and a new source of oil outside the dangerous Middle East, seemed on a smooth glide path to approval. But, McKibben’s smart, focused campaign succeeded in persuading the Obama Administration to postpone the decision for at least a year and to seek environmentally- sensitive alterations to the project, which would transport crude oil from sand formations in Alberta to refineries in Oklahoma and the Gulf Coast.
McKibben's campaign was a classic grassroots effort and included organizing well-attended demonstrations in front of the White House; fostering persistent and effective efforts to make the case through the media; producing thousands of letters to Obama; energizing activists and politicians in states like Nebraska where the proposed pipeline presents real environmental threats; and orchestrating well-thought-out acts of civil disobedience.
These grassroots efforts bore tremendous fruit even in the face of a high-priced lobbying campaign by the project’s supporters. This victory is even more impressive when one considers that jobs, the issue currently of most concern to voters, is the main argument for the project, while the much-less salient issue of climate change, is the main argument against it. According to McKibben and other project opponents, the method of removing the oil from sand formations would produce a tremendous amount of greenhouse gases. As McKibben pithily puts it: “Game over for the climate.”
Civil disobedience was used strategically to create media attention and spur further activism. Scientists such as James Hansen and celebrities such as Daryl Hannah set themselves up to be purposefully arrested in front of the White House -- the home of the decision-maker. The arrests served to dramatize and raise awareness about the pipeline decision and its consequences.
Contrast this with the Occupy Movement's various and mounting clashes with police. The police are not the target of the Occupy Movement, and no matter who is at fault in any individual case, the repeated incidents in cities throughout the nation will not create a favorable impression in the broader public. Further, being arrested for refusing to leave City Parks fails to communicate any broader issue point.
This is especially true because the Occupy Movement has been reluctant to designate spokespeople. This means the goals of the movement are not included in the media coverage of civil disobedience acts. The result is that the impression is one of casual lawlessness—decidedly not a recipe for winning people over.
The recent success of the opponents of the Keystone Pipeline provides a road map for the Occupy Movement. Here’s hoping they follow it—before its too late..
Rob Horowitz is a strategic and communications consultant who provides general consulting, public relations, direct mail services and polling for national and state issue organizations, various non-profits and elected officials and candidates. He is an Adjunct Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island.
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