Well, black is always in style

“I can’t understand,” Al Gore said a while ago, “why there aren’t rings of young people blocking bulldozers and preventing them from constructing coal-fired power plants.”

Just wait, Al. The Capitol Climate Action, a coalition of activist groups, is organizing what will almost surely be the largest mass civil disobedience for climate in U.S. history. The target: The Capitol Power Plant, a 99-year-old coal-burning plant, situated blocks from Capitol Hill, which heats and cools the U.S. Capitol. (It hasn’t generated electricity since 1952.) Organizers say the plant “symbolizes the stranglehold coal has over our government and future” and the nation’s wrong-headed climate policy. They also say:

As with Ghandi’s walk for independence and Martin Luther King’s march for equal rights, history now calls on people of conscience to peacefully take a principled stand on global warming.

This event could attract thousands of people. It’s endorsed by Greenpeace, the Rainforest Action Network, Global Exchange, SDS (who knew they were still around?) and Tikkun. The writer and activist Bill McKibben, poet and activist Wendell Berry and climate scientist James Hansen all plan to attend. Here’s a link to letter from McKibben and Berry, well worth reading, explaining the thinking behind the event.

Now, there are a lot of controversial questions about coal. Can it be made clean? How else will we power the future? Will more expensive, low-carbon fuels create a drag on the economy? But I was amused to stumble upon a different question that’s sparking debate among the young people planning to attend the action: What should one wear to a protest against coal?

You’ve heard of dress for success? This is all about dress for arrest.

The organizers’ website says: “We will be there in our dress clothes, and ask the same of you.” This led to a “Strategy Note” on a website called It’s Getting Hot in Here, Dispatches From the Youth Climate Movement, headlined: “Dress to Impress at the Capitol Climate Action” noting that McKibben and Berry had asked participants to dress in their “Sunday best.” Blogger Joshua Kahn Russell included this photo from the civil rights movement:

He wrote:

We understand that we are the inheritors of this spirit and its tone of seriousness and respectability. Throughout the labor movement and various currents for racial justice people have chosen to wear suits as part of their message they send through these bold actions.

Debate ensued. One commenter wrote:

I think encouraging people to dress up is capitulating to established power, as though decision-makers won’t listen to us unless we dress up…. We should dress the way we feel comfortable, not to “impress.” Impress who?

Another shot back:

thinking like yours is exactly why progressive movements don’t get anywhere fast. …It may not be ideal or how you think things should be, but appearances matter, and they matter a lot in this country.

Which led to:

Business suits are part of the dominant/hegemonic cultural symbols of Wall Street.

And finally:

Honestly, shouldn’t we be wearing recycled clothing or something so that we don’t look like a bunch of hypocrites?

You gotta love the left. People can argue about anything.

Seriously, though–I’m excited to see the momentum gathering behind this protest. It could deliver a much-needed sense of urgency and a powerful grass-roots boost to ongoing efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions and stop the construction of conventional coal-fired power plants that contribute to global warming. The issue is certainly generating attention. The business section of today’s New York Times ran an otherwise unremarkable story with the arresting headline, Is America Ready to Quit Coal?. Environmental groups like the Sierra Club, NRDC and Environmental Defense have filed lawsuits to block coal plants and lobbied state legislatures and Congress. What’s been missing is grass-roots action.

Here’s an online ad featuring Susan Sarandon, urging people to attend the protest. Protesters are being urged to get training in nonviolent civil disobedience before the event.

I’m planning to cover the March 2 protest. Not sure yet how I’ll be dressed.

(Disclosures: my wife Karen Schneider of Greenpeace helped create the Susan Sarandon video, with The Concept Farm, a New York ad agency. I’m writing and consulting with NRDC and Environmental Defense Fund.)