Climate Disobedience Center Provides Support to Activists Engaged in Direct Action

Posted Oct. 7, 2015

MP3 Interview with Marla Marcum, co-founder at Climate Disobedience Center, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

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Four activists who have carried out creative acts of non-violent direct action have banded together to form a new organization called the Climate Disobedience Center. Acting from their deeply held faith perspectives, these four individuals – Tim DeChristopher, Jay O'Hara, Ken Ward and Marla Marcum – are launching the Center to inspire activists to take similar risks for climate justice and generate support for those who do. That would include pursuit of a necessity defense in court, in which activists charged with a violation of the law claim their actions were necessary to prevent a greater harm, like runaway climate chaos.

Tim DeChristopher served 21 months in prison after being convicted of fraudulently bidding on gas and oil leases offered in Utah at the end of the George W. Bush administration. Even though the auction for those parcels was declared illegal by the incoming Obama administration, Obama's Justice Department still chose to prosecute DeChristopher. O'Hara and Ward piloted a lobster boat to block a 40,000-ton coal shipment to a Massachusetts power plant in 2013 and faced trial the following year. Marcum is a long-time climate activist who has organized a number of protest actions.

Between The Lines' Melinda Tuhus spoke with Marcum during a recent New England climate activists/organizers' retreat. She explains the rationale of their new group and what they hope to accomplish.

MARLA MARCUM: One thing that happened over the course of working together and especially seen through Ken and Jay's action to trial was a recognition that if we do our actions in ways that don't demonize people but really focus on trying to shift systems and recognizing we're all stuck in the same system and trying to give people the opportunity to use whatever power they have to access the movement, then we can bring new people into the work. So, for example, on the day of Ken and Jay's trial in Fall River, Massachusetts, we had turned out about 140 supporters, 47 of them clergy wearing their collars, and we had a lot of contingency plans for the day. We didn't know what would happen. In fact, we had bought another boat and there was a boat parked – moored – down at the pier ready to go. We assumed the DA (district attorney) was going to drop the charges and we were going to pay whatever fines and go get in the boat and do it again. So we had a plan for that. We had a plan for if we went all the way through the trial and they were convicted and taken straight to jail, which was unlikely, but we had a plan for that. The only thing we didn't plan for was the DA being on our side, and that's the thing that happened.

So, we began to recognize when we thought about it afterward that what we had done was given him the opportunity to use the power that he has to be part of making some change in the movement; normally he doesn’t have any access with his institutional power to the movement at all, and when we put him in a position where he had to think about what he was going to do and what was right and wrong and what he could do from his position, he made a choice that we had forgotten to expect of our elected leaders. I like to say that one of the gifts that Sam Sutter gave us as the district attorney of Bristol County was that he reminded us that we need to ask more of our elected leaders. We had forgotten to ask them to lead; we had forgotten to even expect that they might think to do it.

So we decided we wanted to keep working together to try to support people to take actions that really give more and more people the opportunity to make a choice. So we're trying to support actions that create moral tension, that's really public and really simple, and that we see all the way through to trial, so we can use the necessity defense.

BETWEEN THE LINES: And I just want to back up a little. Say a little more about what the DA actually said, and what he did right after he dropped the charges.

MARLA MARCUM: So, when Sam Sutter started talking he said something like climate change is the most pressing threat of our time, or something. He went on to say that the decision he had made to drop the charges and ask us to pay for the overtime spent by the police was taken with the taxpayers of Bristol County in mind, but also with the future of their children and their children's children in mind. And then he went on to say that he was going to march with us in the People’s Climate March about two weeks later, and he did. He marched pretty much the whole People's Climate March with us.

BETWEEN THE LINES: That's pretty extraordinary.

MARLA MARCUM: And then another extraordinary thing that happened is that the mayor of Fall River was recalled shortly after that, and Sam decided to run for mayor, and he’s now the mayor of Fall River.

BETWEEN THE LINES: The name is kind of interesting, Climate Disobedience Center. How did you come up with that, and explain how that fits into what you explained is the goal of the organization.

MARLA MARCUM: We really want to be building a culture of resistance because the powers that keep us stuck in the systems we're all stuck in aren't going to change because it's the right thing to do. They're only going to change with the application of some real resistance and power from regular folks like us, and we have to build a culture of resistance. And so, we were talking about wanting to prioritize civil disobedience actions and we know we want to focus on climate, so we just landed on Climate Disobedience as a phrase and decided we would be the Climate Disobedience Center. We think it's really important for people who want to take higher legal risk actions and see them through to trial and risk, perhaps, as Tim did, prison time for their cause, that we think it's really important for those people to have their resources to support that effort, to be able to have folks who help them build a support team around them, to have folks who help their lawyers understand the necessit defense and how these folks want their cases to be part of a movement action and they just don't want to get off as quickly as they can; they actually want to use it as part of their action. So we hope to help build support teams, to help people prepare sort of emotionally and spiritually for the long work of uncertainty that comes with putting yourself in that position, and to make sure that they have people around them to bring more and more people to support them.

For more information, visit Climate Disobedience Center at climatedisobedience.org; climatedisobedience.org/founders and on Facebook at facebook.com/ClimateDisobedience.

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