Turning to Civil Disobedience: An Interview With Dave Karpf

keystone pipeline protestorsEarlier this month over 40 members of the Sierra Club were arrested after tying themselves to the White House fence in an act of civil disobedience protesting the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. This was the first sanctioned act of civil disobedience in the entire 120-year history of the Sierra Club. Dave Karpf, Assistant Professor of Media and Public Affairs at The George Washington University, was a Sierra Club board member for six years and an active member for even longer. During that time he was an outspoken advocate for changing club policy to allow civil disobedience.

For 120 years now, Sierra Club’s been going – they’ve refused civil disobedience the entire time… it’s right in there in the bylaws, codified. What was the genesis of this “no civil disobedience” policy?

I actually don’t know the exact genesis of it but generally it’s a response to the Greenpeaces and the other organizations getting founded in the 1970s and taking these harder stances. In particular in the 1980s you have the founding of Earth First, the radical environmental movement, which is not just doing civil disobedience protests but is actually like tree-spiking. And so leaders in the Sierra Club during that time period felt it was really important for us to differentiate ourselves from the more radical sides of the environmental movement and make it clear that, you know, we are an organization that tries to influence government but there’s a sharp limit on what we’ll do. We’re not gonna break the law. Now, that doesn’t mean Sierra Club leaders have never engaged in civil disobedience – and so they haven’t been able to under the Sierra Club’s name.

Right. Now, did you in your time see a lot of people going on their own and committing acts of civil disobedience?

Not a lot. I knew it was pretty rare – In general civil disobedience is a tactic, and it is a tactic that can be well done or poorly done. I saw a few cases of people engaging outside of their Sierra Club life in civil disobedience because they felt that it was the right time and place. Usually I agreed with them when they did that. But most people who are drawn to the Sierra Club are less drawn to that brand of tactics – if you’re really drawn to that brand of tactics you’ll probably go to one of the other environmental groups out there. So it’s been a rare thing and I – it’s certainly not become commonplace now, I don’t think.

So it just sounds like, to me, from what you’re saying Sierra Club has got a – I don’t want to say “more responsible” membership but perhaps a more socially acceptable membership, would you say?

More mainstream.

More mainstream?


Alright. So, when you were a board member, you… advocated pretty heavily for this not being a policy.

I was frustrated as all hell.

Why do you think it should not be part of their policy?

I don’t think it should be part of their policy because civil disobedience – It’s one thing to have a policy against physical violence. Of course we’re not gonna commit physical violence, cause I can’t think of a single case in which that is tactically acceptable, and there are lines that you need to draw. But Sierra Club has been working now for almost as long as I’ve been in the organization on these energy issues. In West Virginia coal country we’re talking entire communities that are gonna get, you know, bulldozed – major, major environmental justice issues – and for all the years that I was on the board we had allies that were choosing civil disobedience as a tactic because it was the only way to make the Governor of West Virginia pay any attention to his own citizens and what they were saying. And that was the right tactic and all of us knew that it was the right tactic, and so my colleagues in West Virginia had to take off their Sierra Club buttons and make it clear “this is no longer a Sierra Club thing” so they can go and take action with their partners. That was silly, and what’s more it was silly because of some belief that if Sierra Club ever allowed its members to engage in a sit-in then that would make us too radical for politics. That’s not the political world that I live in. I’m pretty sure, you know that – We had some long standing people in our volunteer community who felt that if we did that it would be you know like partner organizations would no longer be able to work with us because we would have gotten so radical. There’s just nothing all that radical about engaging in a sit-in. Sometimes it’s a silly sit-in, and I don’t think that the organization should do silly sit-ins, but if the cause is just and the tactic leverages power in a way that one ought to leverage power, why the hell are we taking our name off it?

Do you think the Sierra Club has missed out on some opportunities because of this?

Time and again, yeah. Not major opportunities, but there have been times where our unwillingness to cross a line that I think is porous and, you know, you can cross it without there being much repercussions have occasionally limited our tactical repertoire in a way that makes us less effective.

Now, when you were making your argument on the board, what was the other side saying to you?

Usually they were saying, you know, “we have this history and we have these lawyers who are telling us we shouldn’t.” And then I would say “okay, let’s talk to those lawyers” and then they would say “why don’t we do that at the next meeting?” and I would say “(sighs)… okay.” And then we would get busy with other things.

Do you think that’s changed recently? Cause what I’m seeing as I’m reading through the press releases, the emails that were sent out to the membership, I’m seeing it very specifically pointed out this is a one-time policy exception, this is not our new policy. They go to great lengths to specify that. So, knowing what you know about the board, do you think there’s been a big shift of opinion or is this something special?

I think this is something special, but I hope that it’s going to lead to a broader policy shift. I think this is the board recognizing that the climate crisis is severe enough, and the Keystone XL pipeline is an important enough line in the sand, that they have to take this step. That said, the climate crisis isn’t going away and it’s going to get more severe which means there are going to be more moments where this is the right thing, I imagine, to do. So they took the baby step now, my guess is that the genuine belief on the board of directors is that this is not going to become something that we do regularly, but I hope that they surprise themselves and decide “you know what? Actually given the stakes involved here this is a tactic that we occasionally need to employ and we can make that okay.”

Do you think if this really works, if Keystone XL gets stopped by the rally, the civil disobedience, do you think that’s somewhat likely or – how likely are we talking?

I would make it 70/30 against us. I think that the movement threw its best punch and that the theory of change with the rally and the civil disobedience was President Obama would like part of this legacy to be climate stewardship. He has not put in the legwork to make that a reality, and we want to make it abundantly clear to him that he does not get to both have his legacy and approve the Keystone XL pipeline just cause he doesn’t want that fight. I think that the – both the rally and the civil disobedience went as well as they could go, and so I think that improves our chances, but I also am pessimistic cause I don’t think that- I think President Obama stands with progressive organizations on a lot of things but occasionally lets them down. On climate he has let us down. I would enjoy being pleasantly surprised and seeing him not let us down this time, but I give maybe a 30 percent chance that he doesn’t let us down.

I’ve got to say, I was – I covered the rally this past Sunday, and this is an opinion I heard a lot of. I’m noticing there seems to be a more vehement opposition here than there was under the Bush years, and that’s interesting to me because here we have a president that’s actually willing to talk about climate, whereas it was – they just pretended it simply wasn’t an issue during the Bush administration. Why do you think, now that we’ve got a president that’s sort of sympathetic, we’re pushing back so hard?

Oh, well there’s a few reasons. During the Bush administration it was very clear that on the national level we weren’t going to get anywhere, and so we moved our focus to the state level and economic changes. We found other work to do cause there was no chance here. And then when Obama came into office there was an opportunity and so we responded to the opportunity. We took the best shot we could at a climate bill – we missed. It was a shot worth taking but we missed. And so a) that leads to disappointment. But b) Obama himself has said to his progressive allies many times “make me do it,” you know, “go ahead and push and make me a leader.” And we’ve seen our allies in other social movements, in the gay rights movement spend several years of the first Obama administration deeply disappointed in the man, and speaking out loudly. And now they’ve started having some victories. So we also do believe that as progressive allies, speaking out and calling him out on things is pretty much the only way to get traction, and some organizations have seen real traction happen there. So that’s another piece of it. And the third piece of it is, again, we have a ticking clock. In the last decade we knew that we did not have a lot of time to stop the climate crisis. We now know that we can’t stop the climate crisis, we can just – we’re now playing in different gradients of the apocalypse, so it is now urgent enough that we don’t have a lot of time for niceties.

Do you see the average Sierra Club member ever participating in acts of civil disobedience?

Amongst the most active ones, the ones who turn out to meetings, yeah. I think the climate crisis is- if nothing else it is going to get more dire, and unless we start massively winning – which would be wonderful but I ain’t crossing my fingers for that – as the climate crisis gets more dire the people who are most active and engaged in Sierra Club are also the ones who are aware of how dire it is, yeah I expect that they’re going to stand up and take sharper and sharper actions demanding that our government show a damn spine.

How about you personally? If it comes to that, are you willing to tie yourself to the White House fence?

So the civil disobedience that they did last week was 100 people and it was invitation only. I would have done it last week but nobody invited me. Yeah, I’ve never engaged in civil disobedience, but for the right cause with the right tactic at the right moment I absolutely would, and I would be surprised- I would be happily surprised if in the next five years we do not reach a moment in which the crisis is so great and the moment so right that I need to take that step.

Alright – one last question. Say you’re back on the board today. What would you say to them about this?

What I actually said when the board president called me up, told me they made the decision was “it’s about damn time.”

How do you move the Planet Forward? Tweet us @planet_forward or contribute to the conversation with your own story.