John Passacantando

Could There Be A Rosa Parks After 9/11?

Last month, in a packed Miami courtroom, a federal judge threw out criminal charges against Greenpeace in mid-trial. It was a dramatic ending to a legal battle that began in April 2002, when two Greenpeace activists tried to hang a banner on a commercial ship off the Florida coast. Whether the case ends up a curious footnote or a turning point depends on what happens next. After 9/11, is peaceful protest, or civil disobedience, a luxury America can no longer afford? Or is it, instead, an essential component of our political life that we must defend? The Miami case was widely noted for several reasons, but none of them led to the judge's dismissal. First, the Justice Department had charged Greenpeace under an obscure "sailormongering" law whose last known use was in the 19th Century. The law was aimed at deterring unscrupulous boardinghouse touts who jumped aboard arriving ships to ply gullible sailors with cheap liquor and comely prostitutes. But the bizarre "Pirates of the Caribbean" background of the law was not the reason for acquittal. Nor was the judge's dismissal related to the fact that Greenpeace was protesting against immoral and illegal activity. The ship, the APL Jade, was carrying 70 tons of mahogany wood illegally cut from Brazil's Amazon rainforest. Mahogany logging has been the key to the rapid destruction of the Amazon by ruthless criminal enterprises. This destruction threatens thousands of plant and animal species, the 20 million people who inhabit the Amazon, and the global environment.

Greenpeace had used multiple means to halt Amazon destruction - research, media work, political pressure. Brazil's environmental agency responded with a total moratorium on mahogany exports. But illegal shipments continued to arrive in the United States - a criminal violation of our Endangered Species Act. Greenpeace devised its protest to shine a spotlight on this continuing criminal activity and to press governments to provide stronger protection for mahogany. The two Greenpeace activists, after climbing up the ship's ladder, tried to hang a banner reading, "President Bush: Stop Illegal Logging."

Judge Jordan's decision to acquit Greenpeace was not even related to the most significant aspect of the case: This was the first time in U.S. history that the Government prosecuted an entire organization for the free speech-related activities of its supporters. This unprecedented legal assault -- on a group that has been a persistent critic of the Bush Administration -- drew criticism from national civil rights and environmental groups and many others. Former Vice President Al Gore called the prosecution "highly disturbing."

Judge Jordan's decision rested instead on the most mundane of factors: The vaguely-worded old law prohibited boarding a ship "about to arrive at her place of destination"; the Greenpeace boarding occurred some six miles and about an hour's travel time from the Jade's assigned berth at the Port of Miami. If not for this circumstance, which the judge called "fortuitous" for Greenpeace, there would have been no acquittal by the judge, and the twelve-member jury might have rendered a guilty verdict. Greenpeace might not be so lucky the next time. Sometimes its protests involve clear violations of the law - such as trespassing - with no wiggle room. So the real question is whether the Government will again prosecute Greenpeace or another organization that sponsors a peaceful, but illegal, protest.

If our historical traditions and values are to be respected, there should be no more prosecutions like the one in Miami. A galvanizing event in the birth of our country was, in fact, an unauthorized ship boarding in protest against objectionable cargo -- the Boston Tea Party. Ever since, peaceful demonstrations in violation of the law have helped transform debate and bring meaningful change: from the right of women to vote to the right of workers to organize, from civil rights for African Americans to equal rights for gays and lesbians. And throughout this history, individuals have been willing to accept responsibility and punishment for protests against immoral laws and policies. The two Greenpeace protestors on the Jade were no exception. They and four colleagues pled guilty to the ship-boarding charges soon after the 2002 incident, and it appeared the matter was closed. The Government's subsequent, unprecedented indictment of Greenpeace itself - fifteen months after the boarding of the Jade - was the legal equivalent of a sucker punch.

Greenpeace never denied that it sponsored the boarding. But the Greenpeace activists who accepted guilty pleas joined many others in denouncing the indictment of the organization. Julian Bond, chair of the NAACP, said, "If John Ashcroft had done this in the 1960s, black Americans would not be voting today, eating at formerly all-white lunch counters or sitting on bus front seats. This is a government assault on time-honored nonviolent civil disobedience as practiced by Martin Luther King and thousands of other Americans."

The reason is clear. As the ACLU of Florida and People for the American Way Foundation wrote to Judge Jordan, "For two hundred years the United States has honored the place of civil disobedience in American political life by prosecuting individuals who engage in civil disobedience while simultaneously respecting the advocacy groups who sponsor it." Brave protestors arise in every generation. But if prosecutors brand as criminals the groups that organize protest - if they treat protest as one more crime to be followed up the chain of culpability - that could undermine the institutional support that makes dissent effective - and peaceful. During the 1980's, hundreds in the liberal elite volunteered to be arrested at the South African embassy in Washington to protest apartheid. The Reagan Justice Department did not prosecute Randall Robinson's TransAfrica as a criminal enterprise. Just a day after Judge Jordan dismissed the Greenpeace case, 98 people protesting AIDS policies were arrested at the Capitol. Should ActUp and other groups connected to the protest expect criminal charges?

If convicted, Greenpeace could have been put on probation, with court monitoring and stiff penalties for subsequent breaking of the law. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), in a letter to Attorney General John Ashcroft, warned of the broader First Amendment implications: "Prosecuting public interest organizations sends a strong message that the actions of their members could jeopardize their tax-exempt status and lead to government oversight of their activities, which could have a chilling effect on free speech and activism of all kinds."

The prosecution's case was peppered with references to 9/11 and terrorism, even though the Greenpeace protestors approached the ship in a tiny open boat, identified themselves clearly as Greenpeace, and halted efforts to hang the banner when stopped by the ship's crew. (The prosecution planned to decorate its opening statement with a blow-up exhibit, supposedly to illustrate the length of the 965-foot ship: A drawing of a similar ship, sandwiched between a skyscraper and an airplane. Our defense team thought of suggesting that the prosecutor sketch in a six foot five Osama Bin Laden, but instead our skilled lead trial counsel, Jane Moscowitz, simply asked the judge to exclude the picture.)

If an action like Greenpeace's is banned, what is next? Authorities may argue it is too dangerous to protest at a shopping mall, a federal building or embassy, or a hotel where an Administration official is speaking.

In fact, there are all kinds of non-essential activities that we accept today, despite the security risks. UPS drivers - or people dressed like them -- gain easy access to offices. Large SUVs are permitted in underground garages. Freedom of expression is no less important than convenient package delivery and parking.

Prosecutors asked why Greenpeace did not simply alert authorities to the incoming contraband. But sometimes, when other means have failed, it has taken an iconic protest to capture attention and bring change. If Rosa Parks had simply picketed the bus stop, civil rights might have been much slower in coming. Do today's risks of transit terrorism mean that the Government would not tolerate a Rosa Parks now? In the post-9/11 world, there are tough challenges in balancing concerns of order and concerns of freedom. The only way to meet these challenges appropriately is to take seriously both sets of concerns. George Bush and John Ashcroft seem remarkably unconcerned about wholesale restrictions on freedom - when it comes to surveillance and detention, as well as to protest. They choose order every time.

There are, of course, countries where order is always valued over freedom, and peaceful protest is treated harshly. The list begins with North Korea. After 9/11 we must all be more security conscious. Protestors should communicate their aims clearly, minimize risks, and guard against violence. But our country's values will be undermined if the Government destroys peaceful protest by criminalizing organizations that sponsor it.

Tough Questions from One Father to Another

Dear President Bush:

Recently your administration released a report entitled “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” which proposes shifting the strategic priorities of the United States from deterrence to dominance. As a result, many of us are struggling to understand what this strategy might mean for our country, our soldiers, our jobs and our safety at home and abroad.

We are trying to understand why you are pushing for a war with Iraq. We are trying to understand how to raise our families if the American values of compassion, humility and understanding are to be displaced by domination, arrogance and stubborn holding forth of American needs and way of life first and foremost, despite the consequences.

Like you, I have two daughters. At some point in our lives you and I both will be held accountable to them regarding how we have fulfilled our roles as parents as well as how we have engaged and changed the world that they will inherit. I am certain that we can both agree on one thing -- if we leave behind a polluted, damaged world with a legacy of conflict and suffering, we will be deeply ashamed. So I would like to focus today on the environment and the prospect of war.

I work for Greenpeace, a 30-year old organization that is committed to non-violent direct action in order to secure a green and peaceful world. We oppose the use of violence by all nations and believe that each and every one must abide by international law if we are to avoid the massive human carnage seen in the 20th century. Sadly, both Iraq and the United States have flouted international law, and it is the infractions by the U.S. that set the negative example for other nations that we trust and respect. The result is the undermining of collaborative efforts to isolate nations like Iraq that have threatened the use of weapons of mass destruction.

Regarding the environment, I am frustrated that your administration has ignored pleas from across the country to protect our environment. Yet I am grateful to live in a country where the president must face the voting public in democratic elections. Corporate lobbyists may make many walks down the West Wing of the White House, but we the people still get to walk into that voting booth every four years to make our voices heard.

Until then, there are a number of key questions that must be asked if we Americans, as activists, parents and engaged citizens, are to understand our collective role in the world.

I want to know why you opposed making our automobile fleet more energy efficient when doing so would give us far more energy independence from the Middle East. I want to know about the profits that Vice President Cheney’s former employer, Haliburton, made during the 1990s providing oil services to Iraq. I want to know about your campaign contributors like ExxonMobil and exactly how much business they conducted with Saddam Hussein’s regime in the years since the last Gulf war.

I want to know how you plan to divvy up the windfall that you expect Haliburton and the U.S. oil companies to receive if you are able to put a friendly regime in Iraq. According to Lawrence Lindsey, one of your own top economic policy advisors, such a regime change would double or triple the amount of oil produced daily in Iraq, adding up to five million barrels a day. With profits of approximately $5 per barrel, U.S. companies currently precluded from operating in Iraq could make up to $9 billion per year. This figure does not include profits to oil services giants like Haliburton, which would benefit greatly from the rebuilding of oil wells, pipelines and storage and shipping infrastructure in the region.

With this much money at stake, it is hard not to ask some disturbing questions. Should you decide to declare war, and Iraqi citizens and American soldiers die in the effort, will these oil profits be repatriated to the families of the victims? Will the dollars be used to develop the renewable energy and energy efficient technologies so that we will never have to fight another war for oil? If the answers to these questions are negative, then would we not be sending in troops simply to benefit the oil industry?

I want to know if you will be willing to support weapons inspections, backed by the force of the United Nations, for both Iraq and the United States. Given our own anthrax attacks at home, there seem to be worrisome quantities of biological weapons agents, and even pharmacological weapons, being created in the United States, far in excess of the quantities agreed to internationally.

But the most difficult question of all is what to tell our daughters about U.S. dependence upon oil and your reluctance to help us kick this deadly habit. I had a conversation in my kitchen with my two daughters -- Sophie, age 7, and Mollie, age 4 -- the day after the one-year anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. They wanted to know why people would want to kill us.

When my daughters were born, I thought the toughest conversation I would ever have with them would be about boys. Now that conversation is lower on the list of difficult subjects. This war on terrorism is a very challenging one. It is about fanaticism and people so angry and desperate that they resort to suicide attacks. But even those topics I can handle.

What I don’t know how to explain is why the United States is simultaneously so admired and so hated by people the world over.

We live in a country that prides itself on the ingenuity of its people, on our ability to create whole new industries overnight with speed, flexibility and confidence. And yet the Bush administration chooses to keep our military stationed around the world to protect oil supply lines back to the United States. We choose to drive gas guzzling cars and SUVs and to anger much of the world in the process. We choose to cede the future of super efficient vehicle manufacturing to competitors around the world. We choose to live the way we have grown accustomed to living, rather than to adapt and get smarter. And we choose to indignantly stand our ground as our 4.6 percent of the world’s population emit 25 percent of the global warming pollution. These are not easy facts to explain to today’s younger generation.

So in the end it comes down to hope. My daughters still believe that any situation, no matter how bad or difficult, can be fixed by an adult. As a result, I keep slogging away, keeping hope alive, believing that someday we will break through and redirect our world onto a far more peaceful path.

So, Mr. President, the crux of the issue is this. When all the pollsters, advisors and consultants have gone home, you will have to speak from your own heart and explain the mistakes of the past. What, sir, are you going to tell your daughters?

John Passacantando is the executive director of Greenpeace USA.

Fuel For the Anti-Bush Fire

Bravo to the corporate public relations folks who have turned the summer media doldrums into an opportunity to spread lies about environmental threats. To take just one example, Time magazine has done a wonderful job taking piles of cash for full-page ads from some of the biggest polluters on the planet. While many of us enjoy blissful vacation days at the beach, we're being bombarded by messaging from technology and other big corporations claiming not only that they have the means to eradicate global warming and other problems, but also that these problems would have been resolved long ago if not for the extreme environmentalists.

Supporting quotes can be found from environmentalists who are raising money from these same companies, with a woe is us, we were too extreme approach, or from ex-Clinton administration bureaucrats who are happy to corroborate, yes, the environmentalists were too extreme, why do you think we were such failures?

Even The New York Times ran an unusually fat op-ed last week by Bjorn Lomborg, the Dane who has been trying to make a living by distorting facts and statistics and pitching his book about how the planet is as healthy as ever. Yet it's pulp fiction, with more errors than an afternoon of Little League baseball (and all refuted by the most respected scientists at

I have been fighting against global warming for almost a decade. With a pretty grim record, to be sure. But citizens the world over know we have a huge problem -- one caused by the burning of fossil fuels, with solutions being blocked by the largest corporations in the U.S. These corporations -- including ExxonMobil, General Motors, coal companies, power companies like the Southern Company and many others -- have run with the strategy of "Let them eat cake" to anyone worried about stopping global warming.

Here is my prediction. Corporate America has won this round and just about every round that has preceded this one on global warming. But just as global warming traps too much of the sun's heat (energy) in the lower atmosphere, supercharging our climate system --hence the storms, droughts, and assorted extremes of our once calmer climactic system -- the Marie Antoinette approach is also trapping extreme political pressure in a cauldron that will not be able to hold it. The anti-globalization protesters are not disappearing, just regrouping. Moderate mainstream environmentalists are furious about the state of the planet in a way that I have never seen before in my career.

And George W. Bush has put a face to all that we find wrong: Political corruption. Corrupt influence from big business. A deaf ear to science. Deaf to the will of the people. The only thing green that matters is the buck.

Trust me on this, the center cannot hold. You cannot treat nature this way without it snapping back, and you cannot treat a democratic populace this way without it snapping back. The anger I am finding out there toward Bush -- from rank-and-file environmentalists, but also from firemen, cops, those coveted soccer moms, surfers, cabbies, anarchists and Republicans -- is unlike anything we have seen in modern times. You have to go back to the dark days of Richard Nixon to find such widespread fury toward a U.S. leader.

And yet compared to our sitting president, Nixon was a smarter and more agile politician who gave the people what they wanted: an end to the Vietnam war, once he politically had no alternative, and good environmental laws, once he saw the mandate from the people. Instead, Bush is out in front running the agenda of the dirtiest and most corrupt corporations in America, full speed ahead. I think the day is not far off when the inner circle of puppeteers working around Bush will envy the problems that Nixon had once his Watergate Plumbers got caught.

So, I will tip my hat to Bush's success so far. He has bested all of us who care about the environment. But I will also toast his rocky future and the eventual victory of the environmentalists. For Bush is a leader without a base, without a following, with only the dirty campaign contributions of America's most retrograde companies to his name.

John Passacantando is executive director of Greenpeace USA.


Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.