N.Y. Quakers hold non-violent direct action training on ‘fracking’

Acting to end hydrofracturing in natural gas development

By Angela Manno
15th Street (N.Y.) Friends Meeting
Quaker Earthcare Witness
January-February 2012

The room filled up slowly on Saturday morning, November 12, 2011, at Brooklyn (N.Y.) Friends Meetinghouse. These were seasoned activists and newcomers to hydraulic fracturing, the newest form of extreme fossil fuel extraction, taking its place alongside deep-water oil drilling, mountaintop removal coal mining, and tar sands extraction.

I had been anticipating this day for many months, having realized that efforts over many months to maintain a ban on hydraulic fracturing—a serious threat to the groundwater in New York State—have fallen on legislators' deaf ears. Petitions, phone calls, and the clear majority of state residents against fracking had not made an impression. Recently New Yorkers learned that permitting is underway to bring fracked (and most likely radioactive) gas into New York City through a high-pressure gas pipeline for the purposes of converting New York to natural gas.

The time had come to explore new ideas and approaches. The Friends in Unity with Nature committee of the New York Quarter and the Peace Committees of 15th Street Friends Meeting agreed to co-sponsor a non-violent direct action training (NVDA) program.

There was a great diversity in the group of 22 participants--Quakers, Buddhists, psychologists, artists, and seasoned activists--people I had worshipped with, campaigned with, meditated with, and socialized with. Some of the most experienced activists in New York City were present.

Training for Change trainer Daniel Hunter, who has been facilitating trainings in NVDA campaigning and actions for Quakers in Pennsylvania on stopping mountaintop removal and hydraulic fracturing, opened the morning with introductions.

With the first introductions, I knew this was going to be interesting:

"I have no one at home, my kids are grown. I don't have anybody around to embarrass anymore," exclaimed the first participant. The person next to her said, "I've got a wife and children, and it's about time I embarrassed them!"

As I heard Friends speak, I recalled Friend and activist George Lakey's words to me:

"No amount of consciousness-raising or discussion can ever take the place for Quakers of getting their bodies out of the chair and in motion, outside their comfort zone, taking a stand. One reason why a vigil is a waste of time for Quakers these days is that it is a ritualthe kind of ritual that early Friends scorned when they saw Anglicans doing it. Friends need to act, in situations of uncertainty, where they are slightly out of control, where nicely phrased locution is not the currency."

These Friends and non-Friends were more than ready to act!

One of the first exercises was to create a Fracking Timeline to see how far the movement has come in three years. People came up to the board in front of the room and wrote down the dozens of milestones that have given the movement its shape. We were amazed at the progress, which consisted mostly of generating awareness. These included: the release of the Academy Award-nominated documentary Gasland and later with the New York Times' ongoing investigative series, "Drilling Down," that exposed this issue to the world; the conference on fracking and its health impacts at Mount Sinai Hospital; various lawsuits; and the upcoming November 21st meeting of the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC).

Though there was a great depth of knowledge of people in the room, non-violent direct action was new to most all of us.

Concepts were introduced, including the need to designate a "target," someone who is able to give you what you want. Once you have determined your target, you can apply one of several of NVDA tactics (which one you use depends in part on where you are in your story line, since they escalate in pressure):

  1. Symbolic acts (marches, rallies, street theater, mock elections)
  2. Non-cooperation (student strike, consumers' boycott, tax withholding)
  3. Alternative cooperation (citizens' document search, non-violent land seizure, citizens' arrest)

At times we broke into smaller groups, to dream up new tactics and designate immediate and long-term targets and goals. All agreed that the ultimate goal was to ban fracking, and at the very least to close the "Halliburton loophole," which allows fracking to go on unhampered by the Clean Water Act, Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Air Act, Superfund Act, Resource Conversation & Recovery Act (hazardous waste act), and Environmental Policy Act. Without these exemptions, it was noted, fracking would come to an end because it would be too expensive.  

It was also noted that beyond prohibition of fracking, the true goal was to get off fossil fuels and nuclear energy altogether and for the entire world to be powered by sustainable energy, aka "WWS" Wind, Water & Solar. Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi outlined and quantified this and showed it to be completely feasible in their 2009 study, "A Path to Renewable Energy by 2030," published in the November 2009 issue of Scientific American.

The immediate goal was to focus on the upcoming Delaware River Basic Commission meeting in Trenton on November 21.

The training participants were not a coherent group, however. We were unable to form one action/ decision-making group to take up one of the actions, so I gathered the ideas from the brainstorming sessions and sent them out to people so that they could form action groups around the issue(s) that most spoke to them. Only one person responded. Some others were happy just to have come to educate themselves, another felt they needed an action to be within a more coherent campaign strategy.

Others were planning to work with and United for Action on one action that was generated. We called it the "Obama Phone Bank Action": The plan was to go into Obama re-election offices as groups of volunteers, make calls to his constituents, and do a survey. We would ask, "The Delaware River Basin is about to get fracked. Would you support Obama to put pressure on the DRBC to say no and on Congress to close the Halliburton loophole?" We would ask them to call the White House, reminding them, "You voted for him." We would record the answers in writing, record the calls on I-Phones, and put them up on YouTube.

As it turned out, the DRBC meeting was cancelled, due in part to the wavering of Governor Markell of Delaware (one of the five votes on the Commission), along with the first threat of mass civil disobedience that was to take place at that meeting. Too badthe action plan was brilliant, but it can be used again in another form.

People expressed the sense that we were dealing simultaneously with a human rights issue, a nature's rights issue and, as Daniel pointed out, a democracy issue, since we the people were not able to gain access to information that we needed to make an informed decision, such as the chemicals contained in the fracking fluid and the Army Corps of Engineers' study on the effects of fracking.

Other features that are part of a successful campaign that we discussed include transparency, identifying "pillars of support"those people who allow your opponents to do what they do, escalating pressure, presenting ultimatums, putting your opponent into a position in which he/ she must choose, and a consideration of timing (whether to use surprise or threaten with an action over a long period to build tension). An example of the latter is Gandhi's Salt March in British-occupied India.

Feedback on the program was highly positive, from: "One of the best training / organizing programs I've attended" to "Inspiring" to "I enjoyed the training immensely, the wisdom of the trainer, and the opportunity to meet the other people in attendance."

My sense is that this event enriched people's understanding of the new direction that the movement to end fracking will take. Everyone came away with a sense of new possibilities, from the veteran "fractivists" to newcomers.