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Blocking The Bulldozer: When Direct Action Works (VIDEO)

When lobbying fails, the opposition outspends us 50 to 1, and appeals to CEOs’ humanity are met with the odious rumblings of business as usual, sometimes we decide to put our bodies on the line. “Blocking the bulldozer.” (Or excavator, in this case!)

Facing the development of the first tar sands extraction site on U.S. soil, members of Peaceful Uprising (PeaceUp) decided to take that risk: blockading and locking themselves to heavy equipment, and shutting down adjacent highway construction for the whole day.

They also claim a victory in a 13% drop in the US Oil Sands company’s stock prices that same day — and while the normal vicissitudes in the company’s stock history make us question whether the dip was causal or coincidental, we love where PeaceUp’s mind is headed.

Turning Wheel Media caught up Jesse, with one of PeaceUp’s “spokesfolks,” to find out more about the philosophy and strategy behind the Blockade and Prayer Ceremony that peacefully halted construction on Seep Ridge Road, around the tar sands mine in the Book Cliffs range of southeastern Utah.

[Note: Want to see more Buddhists block bulldozers? Contribute to BPF’s indiegogo campaign by October 30th and help us turn engaged Buddhist study into action!]

Photo by Max Wilbert.

Turning Wheel Media: Why does PU feel direct action is important within a larger strategy?

All around us, every day, we experience institutional failures — from Congress, to legislatures, to judges, to the Supreme Court. We see these institutions setting us on a road to catastrophe, a road to hell on earth.

It’s not okay for people to absolve themselves of responsibility for stopping climate catastrophe. At Peaceful Uprising we feel a moral duty to stop directly the industries that are destroying any chance of a livable future.

TWM: What effect do your actions have on the local community? Is it polarizing at times, or does it bring together in coalition people who wouldn’t otherwise work together?

It’s interesting because that has changed over time. There is a growing sense of urgency. Not just in terms of climate catastrophe on the horizon, but a more facist-like government also appears to be on the horizon. Particularly here in Utah, I think just a few years ago direct action was a lot less likely to attract a coalition of all different kinds of people.

But since the action [at Pine Ridge], we’ve gotten a lot of phone calls from all kinds of people who have never engaged in direct action, but they’re calling because they care about water. Or they care about air. And they see that there are people who are willing to get very serious about defending those things.

And I think the closer to a person’s soul that you can get — and their soul is made up of the things they love, and the things they need — the closer you get to those things, the more likely they are to get turned on by direct action. And I think people are beginning to get that sense.

TWM: Definitely. I was intrigued by the video of your action because I recently attended an action locally, here in the Bay Area, where there was a civil disobedience component, but it was very scripted, very safe. Which is great for raising awareness, but is below the level of escalation of what you all are doing: directly stopping the thing we want to see stopped. Do you think direct action is special in that way? What seems inspiring or magnetizing about it?

Direct action is special because it really reveals the precarity of the system.

I think people realize when they actually set about to, for example, shut down operations in a mine or construction on a road, that it is far easier than they imagined. They put so much time into jail support and logistics and emergency food and all these things, and then realize, Wow, we could have done this with half the people! What have we been waiting for?? And I think once the entire system is toppled, people will also wonder, Why didn’t we do this earlier? That’s not to disparage people who are out there every day, fighting, discouraged, feeling hopeless: I know why people feel that way. But it’s especially the people who are upset and concerned but not yet acting — it’s those people who may feel, It was easier than I thought it was going to be.

TWM: Have you all seen any negative consequences since the action? People detained, held, any other repercussions?

We have not! I can only speculate as to why… That action turned out to be quite popular. I think that the law enforcement was so outnumbered on the scene that they couldn’t really do much, and to come after us after the fact might have looked petty to the public. But that’s just my speculation.

TWM: Tell me a little more about Peaceful Uprising. Why do you feel it’s important to have an uprising that is peaceful?

There actually is no organizational answer to that question. There’s no PeaceUp response that we’ve consensed to — we’re a consensus-based organization.

But speaking only for myself, just myself, my sense is that peaceful, nonviolent action for political change is a privilege that not everyone on this planet has. Entire communities are being annihilated by corporations or states, and don’t have the privilege of peaceful action. They can sit and die or take arms and defend themselves. However, some of us do have the privilege of following the moral compass that’s inside of us. That as long as we have the privilege to make change in the world in peaceful ways, we have an obligation to do so.

I think on top of that, it’s a practical and strategic choice. In this country, most people realize (though they may not have articulated it to themselves in quite this way) that to resort to armed struggle is really something you have to earn through tragedy. Many Americans have not experienced that personal tragedy. So peaceful actions are rather popular.

TWM: What do you see as the next steps for fighting tar sands? Because this is really serious — you’re not just doing this to make yourselves feel better or to make yourselves feel righteous. You actually have goals about protecting water and air and land. And not just in your particular location, but all over these interconnected ecosystems, social systems. How do you avoid NIMBY-ism (“Not In My BackYard”) in earth-based movements like this?

There are so many tentacles to the beast that we’re all fighting. Tar sands in Alberta versus tar sands on the Colorado plateau, you’re dealing with related tentacles but different ones. But they go back to the same beast that is oppressing and affecting all of us and squandering our future. And that’s an economic system — that’s capitalism! That’s a resource-based system in which a few hoard most of power or most of the wealth while the many deal with the consequences of climate change. And Peaceful Uprising is committed to a climate justice that entails overthrowing capitalism.

It’s sometimes very difficult, perhaps, to conceive how stopping a series of tar sands developments in the Colorado Plateau eventually leads to replacing capitalism with something more humane. But I think that’s also a failure of our imagination only now. I feel very confident that we can win this struggle for the Colorado Plateau, to save it from the particularly dirty, particularly destructive tar sands and oil shale lines. And when we do that it’s important to us to, as you say, avoid the NIMBY-ism, but I think that we’re not fighting to eliminate capitalism only in our community. We’re trying to chip away at the machine that upholds capitalism, from the place where we live.

A lot of people ask, if President Obama denies the Keystone XL Pipeline — which, by the way, my personal opinion is that is highly unlikely, though only time will tell — but if he did that, where would organizations like go? Would they just stop? Move on to some other campaign? Or are they in it to win it, for the people of Athabasca? And I think those are good questions that we all need to ask ourselves.

And even to say somehow that we’ve defeated tar sands, I think it would be incumbent upon us to help our allies and neighbors in their struggles against this phosphate line coming in. And not just campaigning, but building long-term relationships that make collaboration an obvious choice, a natural continuation.

TWM: Backing up a bit: so it’s a point of unity for the entire group that capitalism must be overthrown and replaced? That’s quite an agreement for a coalition!

Yeah, I mean, it’s obvious that anyone who claims to be in favor of climate justice must be anti-capitalist. In fact this was a point of discussion in the action camp that preceded the action. Some things are up for debate, some things we disagree about, but it’s one of our foundational principles for what it means to be an advocate for climate justice. What’s weird, actually, is that if you go to social justice activist circles, hearing that you have to defeat capitalism, which strangles the poor, is not uncommon. No one really bats an eye. But in environmental circles, which at least traditionally have been much more white, more privileged, and maybe more politically mainstream, that isn’t common. So those of us who share the view that capitalism is dangerous for children and other living things, it’s important that we say so. And join a global conversation about what we might imagine coming next.

TWM: How about a spiritual perspective? Does anyone in PeaceUp approach the work from a religious or spiritual angle? Is that’s something that’s openly talked about at all?

I think that for many people who may have been born into a religion that seems corrupt, or not right for them, it can be easy to turn away from spirituality altogether. But in PeaceUp there certainly are elements of spirituality, a wide variety of them. We have a lot of overlap with people from the Unitarian Environmental Ministry and the Unitarian Church. We’ve also had the good sense and good fortune to build strong alliances with indigenous people and indigenous groups. And for folks wary of religion, these relationships can turn that wariness on its head very quickly. Now all of a sudden you’re talking to someone who credits their religion with keeping their people alive.

TWM: Absolutely. Thank you for your time and your work, Jesse!

Thank you!

To learn more about Peaceful Uprising, visit or



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Comments (6)

  • Murray Reiss

    So where does property damage/destruction fit on the non-violent/peaceful spectrum? I’m asking because as I watched the video I found myself wishing they would go on to topple the bulldozer (I know, it’s really heavy) but just somehow push it over on its side.

  • Jeff

    Good question. Like most tools, bulldozers can be used to build good things or destroy them. On Seep Ridge Road, they are being deployed as weapons against the earth and its inhabitants, and as such are not entitled to some sacred protection as private property. They should be stopped, but sabotage will only slow things down temporarily (until the big crane turns the dozer right-side up again). We will need the ongoing presence of committed activists on site and many more supporters prepared to resist as US Oil Sands begins the actual excavations next year. Our lasting strength will be in numbers.

  • Katie Loncke

    The property destruction question is interesting to me, too, Murray — I’ve read that it has become a sticking point in certain coalitions, including anti-nuclear work that was gathering steam until part of the group wanted to hop a fence to enter an energy site, and others put their foot down, even over trespassing.

    It makes me think about the Second Precept — not taking what is not freely given — and how, as we’ve discussed this year, in a society grounded in stolen land and exploitation, it is actually a very difficult guideline to follow in good conscience. Re-appropriating or disabling property seems to me to be necessary in many resistance struggles. But as you say, Jeff, one-time hits won’t do it, either: mass movements need to build the stamina to outlast corporate spending, which is no small feat, especially in a globalized economy where many companies can simply focus on other operations for a time.

    Anyone have any recommendations for good essays, videos, podcasts, etc. that discuss spirituality and ethics when it comes to physically interrupting someone else’s “property”?

  • Murray Reiss

    Thanks Kate — I’d like to see some more informed discussion of this issue too. I think the “one-time hit” concern is a bit of a red herring, though. Wouldn’t it apply just as well to locking oneself down to the bulldozer? A decade ago here on Salt Spring Island, a large developer bought about 10% of the island in the south end from a German princess (a whole other story there) and as we mobilized tactics included blocking the road in front of logging trucks and then someone (once a middle-aged woman in a wheelchair) chaining themselves to the truck; tree sits in logging sites; campaigns trying to spotlight and shame the developers’ main institutional lenders; and on and on. Each action seemed to develop its own dynamic which fed into the larger whole of what became in the end a largely successful campaign that saw most of the land saved from strip and flip development. There was no central control; anyone could pursue any tactic they could get enough people to rally behind to pull it off. I wrote a poem to commemorate our community victory that tried to encompass the great diversity of tactics and I’d be happy to send it to you to post if you like.

  • Katie Loncke

    That sounds wonderful — yes, please do send! Does it have specifically Buddhist language, or just coming from your perspective as a practitioner?

    You can send all rolling submissions here:

    And yes, I was trying to say that the “one-time hit” can also apply to locking oneself to bulldozers or excavators; really a lot of tactics that I see are “one-time hits” that hope to accumulate in might over time (add one more drop to the bucket), but oftentimes do not. Even extended campaigns or occupations to protect land, once they’re over, are vulnerable to continuing counter-attacks. (Anicca — change — nothing is static..) A few years ago there was an indigenous-led encampment to block the bulldozing of one of the few remaining sacred shellmounds in the Bay Area, precious to Ohlone, Miwok, and other peoples. The courageous encampment lasted over three months, I believe, and they finally reached an agreement with GVRD, the development company. But once they disbanded and left the site, the developers went ahead and did (most) of their thing, anyway. It’s a shame. Eternal vigilance is so difficult.

    All the more reason to celebrate your successful campaign, though! Looking forward to reading your poem; thank you for sharing.

  • Anon

    Ah well America was founded on property destruction, “The Boston Tea Party” although I doubt if the governement agents who get payed to monitor websites like this one would agree with the my assessment. From my perspective as a Buddhist and non violent person I think property destruciton is kind of unpleasant and scares a lot of people.

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