“How to Blow Up a Pipeline” is a book written by a Swedish climate activist and writer, Andres Malm. It was published earlier this year by Verso. A friend who read my Burglar for Peace book and knew about my belief in strategic nonviolent direct action recommended it to me.
The book is a call for greater seriousness in action by those of us who get it on how urgent the climate emergency is. By greater seriousness, Malm means one thing: sabotage.
I have some experience with what could be called “sabotage.” In the winter of 1972 I spent weeks working with a team casing an AMF factory in York, Pa. that made bomb casings for seeing-eye bombs to be dropped in Indochina. In late March several of us entered a railroad box car loaded with hundreds of these casings and proceeded to use a powerful bolt cutter to make a gash in the threads at the top, permanently putting these planned bombs out of commission.
The action happened right at the beginning of the trial of the Harrisburg 7, indicted for a supposed conspiracy to kidnap Henry Kissinger and blow up heating tunnels under Washington, D.C. I was the eighth defendant indicted but I was severed from the trial of the other seven right before trial because I insisted on my right to defend myself.
There was no plan to kidnap anyone or blow up anything, though Phil Berrigan, Catholic priest and founder and leader of this ultra-resistance network, had given serious thought to the idea of shutting down government buildings on a winter day by puncturing steam pipes providing heat to government buildings. After consideration and some exploration, the idea was dropped in part because of concern that if the action was successful and steam was released, it could burn or kill homeless people who slept on the warm grates.
This sabotage idea, and the actual sabotage action in York, were undertaken by activists in the Catholic Left. For years a series of raids on draft boards, war corporation offices and FBI offices did both political damage and, in the case of the hundreds of thousands of draft files destroyed, practical damage to the government’s war machine. I was part of all of this for about three years, including 11 months in prison.
Malm’s book brought back these memories. I thoroughly identify with his feeling that the climate emergency is so serious and the response of the world’s governments so weak, given the continued growth in greenhouse gas emissions and the very serious threat it poses to human society, that some of us need to consider much stronger action. Like what? Here’s what Malm writes at one point:
“So here is what this movement of millions should do, for a start. . . Damage and destroy new CO2-emitting devices. Put them out of commission, pick them apart, demolish them, burn them, blow them up. Let the capitalists who keep investing in the fire know that their properties will be trashed. If we can’t get a prohibition [of all new CO2-emitting devices], we can impose a de facto one with our bodies and any other means necessary.” (p. 67)
Elsewhere Malm writes approvingly of stone throwing and “revolutionary violence as an integral component.” He reviews the history of pipeline sabotage in various popular struggles against repressive governments. He attacks pacifism on strategic grounds and writes of the fact that mass struggles for major change often involve use of both nonviolence and people who are armed or who take violent action. He writes of focusing property destruction on the property of the rich, on “luxury emissions.” He tells about being involved years ago in organized vandalizing of SUV cars in rich neighborhoods.
And yet, he then seems to have second thoughts.
He writes that “strict selectivity would need to be observed. There was a randomness to the property destruction undertaken by the suffragettes [in England in the 1910’s], which wouldn’t do now.” (p. 69) We need to recognize, he says, that “it will be states that ram through the transition or no one will. . . [With] “a Green New Deal or some similar policy package, property destruction would appear superfluous to many.” (p. 118)
And violence carries political risks: “In the eyes of the public, in the early twentieth-first century and particularly in the global North, property destruction does tend to come off as violent.” (p. 101) “Because of the magnitude of the stakes in the climate crisis, negative effects could be unusually ruinous here.” (p. 121)
He spends a number of pages addressing the issue of property destruction as it compares to tactics which can hurt or kill people. He gets it that there is a difference.
Back during the Vietnam War, those who initiated the Catholic Left actions to destroy draft files—doing so in ways that insured the only people who might get hurt would be those doing the actions, no one else—experienced criticism from more than a few people in the peace movement. There was concern that such actions would help the government paint the movement as violent.
Over time, however, as participants in the first actions openly revealed their identity, explained why they were moved to risk years in prison, and argued that destroying pieces of paper sending young men to Vietnam to kill and die was in no way violence, the political dynamics in the country changed. By 1972, people arrested inside the Camden, NJ federal building about to break into draft boards were acquitted of all felony charges by a jury.
As far as I know, there has been one major act of property destruction related to climate in the US. In 2016 and 2017 two young women, Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya, members of the Des Moines, Ia. Catholic Worker movement, burned pieces of heavy equipment at construction sites of the Dakota Access Pipeline. They eventually decided to make themselves known so that they could explain why they did what they did. Malm quotes them saying, “We are speaking publicly to empower others to act boldly, with purity of heart, to dismantle the infrastructure which deny us our rights to water, land and liberty. We never at all threatened human life. Nothing was ever done by Ruby or me outside of peaceful, deliberate and steady loving hands.” (p. 98)
Three weeks ago Reznicek was sentenced to eight years in prison, and Montoya will be sentenced at the end of this month.
50+ years ago I don’t remember once talking with others in the Catholic Left about “sabotage.” I think I know why. Those older and wiser leaders of this wing of the peace movement, like Phil and Dan Berrigan, wanted to keep the focus of what we were doing on the WHY, on the war victims, the draft-age young men, the threat of wider and wider war. I am sure that they felt that to talk or write about what we were doing as “sabotage” was, in essence, playing into the hands of our militaristic and imperialist enemies.
Ultimately, it is not the words we use but the actions we take which are important: actions appropriate to the urgency of our situation—actions which do not lead to serious injury or death of others—actions which cannot be painted as mindless, reckless violence—actions which educate and motivate others, build the movement—and ultimately, actions which help to build so much political pressure on government leaders that they finally must do the right thing.
As Albert Camus said, “Real generosity toward the future lies in giving all to the present.”
Ted Glick is a volunteer organizer with Beyond Extreme Energy and author of Burglar for Peace: Lessons Learned in the Catholic Left’s Resistance to the Vietnam War, published last year. Past writings and other information can be found at https://tedglick.com, and he can be followed on Twitter at https://jtglick.com.