Environmentalists win on Keystone XL. Don’t forget what went into that.

By now, many of you have seen the news that President Obama rejected a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. While TransCanada is reviewing its options to keep the project alive, but experts are dubious. This is a major victory for environmentalists – as a friend commented upon hearing the news, five years ago it seemed like there was no chance this thing would be stopped. It’s also a testament to the idea that working outside the system with protests and other resistance, as well as inside the system, can produce results. Marches, rallies, blockades, civil disobedience, these are all tactics, just as negotiation with elected officials, voter registration, courtroom options, public education, are all tactics. Over at the blog Lawyers Guns & Money, labor and environmental historian Erik Loomis talks some about this, and the ways in which the “respectable left” sometimes mischaracterizes protests and protesters.

It’s probably either a reflection of my recent mood or the somewhat weird and occasionally grimdark perspective on protests that being a street medic can bring (or both), but after “Oh wow, that’s great,” my first reaction to the news was “I’m so glad that the activists who really took it in the teeth on this one didn’t do so in vain.”

I’m talking about all the people, and especially those singled out by name, affected by TransCanada’s briefs to law enforcement on how terrorism statutes could be applied to anti-KXL protesters, or affected by the local fusion center’s involvement.

I’m talking about the people who were pepper sprayed, hit by a truck, and in some cases charged with felonies for nonviolent civil disobedience.

I’m talking about the two protesters who police handcuffed to a backhoe and tortured for hours with a Taser, chokeholds, stress positions, and pepper spray to open cuts (you can read a graphic first-person account here).

I’m talking about the different set of two protesters in Oklahoma who were charged with a “terrorism hoax” because they spilled glitter while hanging a banner. Does anyone know what happened to those two, by the way? I couldn’t find the outcome of their case anywhere.

Like Loomis, when I hear criticism of leftist protesters on the left (and on the right, for that matter), it’s often that they’re playing a role, or only in it for the glamor, or unwilling to do “real work.” It’s worth keeping in mind what activists actually go through sometimes for victories. I will defend, say, Occupy, pretty hard if pressed, not only because I think that, while flawed, it accomplished a great deal, but because I know a number of people personally who were seriously affected – people who were injured badly enough that they had to change career fields or had long-term disability, people with PTSD. They are few as a total percentage of people who were active, but when you’re a medic, you tend to hear about these things. It hurts to think that those people could hear or read derisive comments and believe that it was all for nothing, a punchline, a joke about hippies, when I believe that they contributed to a movement that did a lot. I’m glad that the Keystone XL protesters and support people who drew the short straws in the weird lottery of protest experiences will have a very conspicuous, very concrete thing they can point to as tangible evidence of what they got done.

Anyway, this is sort of a glum post for talking about a major left-activist victory! The victory should be celebrated! But don’t forget what goes into it.

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