Audiences made up of community activists and college students were treated to one-night-only showings of two important new documentaries: Invisible Hand on October 21st at Lehigh University and Unfractured on October 23rd at Northampton Community College. Both films focused on significant examples of efforts to protect communities and ecosystems from industrial intrusions. Both showed strategies that were aggressive and smart, strategies that avoided the usual regulatory channels that waylay citizens. Both films were excellent. And, importantly for audience understanding of what was at stake and the strategies used, filmmakers and major protagonists in the films were present for post-screening Q & As.
For the Invisible Hand screening, present were filmmaker Melissa Troutman and Chad Nicholson of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund (CELDF), who, in the film and in person, articulated CELDF’s approach. CELDF is spearheading a democracy movement, one whose goal is to establish rights for people and nature over the systems that control them. CELDF’s role is to help communities, states, countries, rivers, lakes, coral reefs, you name it, create supporting legal frameworks for those rights.
Invisible Hand shows this approach in action. A couple of major examples. First off, the stand being taken by small, rural Grant Township in PA using a rights-based approach to fight against Pennsylvania General Electric’s (PGE) attempt to put a fracking wastewater injection well within the township. The tiny township, in saying no to the injection of toxic waste water in their community, has been engaged in ongoing battle against PGE, state preemption, a decision by a federal judge, a Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) suit, and other state and federal bodies’ efforts to crush the township’s rights-based claims. For its part, the people of Grant Township built its legal bulwark. They created a Community Bill of Rights containing Rights of Nature provisions, used Home Rule to work around the federal judge’s ruling, created an ordinance that legalized nonviolent civil disobedience, and more.
A second example, on a national scale. In the film we see CELDF’s rights-based approach, particularly its work on the Rights of Nature, becoming part of Ecuador’s new constitution. And we see the constitutional guarantees in practice, protecting the right of a river, being threatened by development, to exist and thrive.
Also in the Q&A panel with Troutman and Nicholson:Tara Zrinski, Northampton County Councilwoman, and Rachel Rosenfeld, Community Outreach Coordinator of the Sierra Club Pennsylvania Chapter – Lehigh Valley. They talked of their deeply felt connections to the natural world and of the importance of adding a rights-based approach to the protective arsenal available to communities.
Sixty-five or so people attended this program, which was co-ordinated by the Alliance for Sustainable Communities- Lehigh Valley and co-sponsored by thirteen organizations, including:Green Action Club at Lehigh University, the campus host; Sierra Club, Lehigh Valley Chapter, which provided additional services; and the LEPOCO Peace Center.
For the Unfractured screening, present were filmmaker Chanda Chevannes and Sandra Steingraber, a major leader in the fight against fracking in New York State. The film was an intimate portrait of Steingraber’s total commitment to the anti-fracking fight while being mother to two children and wife to a husband dealing with the disabling consequences of a stroke.
The film’s anti-fracking efforts ended on a positive note with Governor Cuomo’s ban of fracking as a health menace. But Sandra Steingraber’s post-screening elaboration was crucial in understanding the New York campaign:none of the strategic matters she talked about in person made it into the film.
She described a campaign that was rather like a military operation in its leadership, organizational discipline, and focus.
For example, an act of civil disobedience, blocking truck entry to sites, was shown in the film; the strategic planning involved was not shown. Steingraber, in the Q&A, elaborated on the process. The decision the leadership (some five people constantly in touch with one another) made was that:blocking entry to the sites would be done in a way that would not result in criminal charges – even though some went to jail for fifteen days – so no one getting arrested would get a career-endangering criminal record; activists who wanted to be more aggressive, like chaining themselves to equipment, were excluded from the action; the arrests were orchestrated with the local sheriff so that people who did not want to be arrested could simply leave.
The entire campaign was solely about stopping fracking, first with the goal of continuing the moratorium a previous governor had declared, then as a ban on fracking. There was no talk of community rights or the rights of nature. Or of democracy. Their well thought out, creative, and community-engaging, single-minded campaign was incisive:publicize their efforts with events featuring high profile allies and judicious use of nonviolent civil disobedience; use the bureaucratic regulatory process against itself so as to paralyze it; marshal the science growing out of the disastrous health consequences of fracking in Pennsylvania; find ways to engage and empower the community. All of these came together in a Steingraber-conceived thirty-day Advent 2012 assault on a draft of the latest proposed New York State fracking regulations.
The plan: every day for thirty days, she would write a critique of some aspect of the proposed regulations, send them out to 100 people as a basis for their comments. They would send them back to her so she could, at the end of the thirty days, deliver 3,000 letters on the last day for submitting public comment, thereby overloading the bureaucracy that would need to copy all of these comments. The idea snowballed, with her critiques being passed along to all kinds of community groups, so by the end of the thirty days, she had amassed over 200,000 written comments, the first box of which was carried into the state capitol in Albany by Yoko Ono and which led to a New York Daily News January 13, 2013 story: “‘Fracking kills’: Yoko Ono joins star-studded cast fighting against hydraulic natural gas drilling in upstate New York.” Steingraber’s 16-hour days during that intense thirty-day period paid off big time. Again, none of this made it into the film. It was indeed important to hear about such strategizing in Steingraber’s post-screening comments.
Thirty-five or so people attended the Unfractured program, which is part of a six-city Pennsylvania tour organized by Better Path Coalition. The Lehigh Valley screening was co-hosted by Berks Gas Truth and two local partners:The Climate Reality Project: Lehigh Valley Chapter and Northampton Community College Climate Action Network.
Community and ecosystem protection: two films, two approaches to consider in our deliberations
Martin Boksenbaum is a founding member of the Alliance for Sustainable Communities – Lehigh Valley. Email:firstname.lastname@example.org