Blunting the Wedge: Fighting the Politics of Division in the Sierra Club

Author(s): Brad Erickson and China Brotsky
Date Published: July 22, 2006
Source: Political Environments #6, Fall 1998

Conservative Christian groups and the Republican Right have had great success politically in the US over the last decade using wedge strategies to divide potential allies, while moving forward their own agenda. The organizing for the anti affirmative action Proposition 209 in California successfully divided white women from people of color. Nationally, African-American churches are being organized to oppose gay rights. In the Pacific Northwest and beyond, mining and logging corporations have funded pseudo-populist groups to organize timber workers and miners to view environmental regulation rather than economic globalization as the source of their job instability.

Appealing to valid fears about declining job security, education or environmental quality, wedge strategies use scapegoating to direct fears and frustration towards immigrants, people of color, unions, and environmentalists and away from the corporations and political structures which actually bear primary responsibility fr these problems.

Organizing around the greening of hate, and in particular the anti-immigrant initiative in the Sierra Club, constitutes a clear case of wedge politics. (See "A Defeat for the Greening of Hate" ) This attempt to scapegoat immigrants in the name of environmental protection was opposed in the end by Sierra Club paid staff, the Board of Directors, and many grassroots activists in the Club. But many club activists credited the Political Ecology Group (PEG) and its ongoing Immigration and the Environment Campaign for having provided both the political context and the direction for their success.

Wedge politics were dealt a strong defeat in the Sierra Club. But the anti-immigration forces are definitely not giving up. In fact, they have pledged to try again in 1999. A review of PEG's winning strategies can help us fight these divisive tactics here and in other movements:

1. First, we took a long view of the trend we call the greening of hate and identified it as a wedge strategy. We knew we could not take it on all at once, but we could map out a multi-year plan that would build on each year's accomplishments. We began our campaign in 1995, a few months before Proposition 187 passed in California. We knew that Prop. 187 was just the beginning and that scapegoating immigrants was going to be part of the political landscape for years into the foreseeable future.

We defined a problem: that immigrants and environmentalists were being pitted against one another, while the laws that protect both human rights and the environment were on the chopping block. So, we defined a positive mission: to bring environmentalists and immigrant rights movements together to reframe the debate and to organize to protect the environment as well as the health, human rights and livelihoods of all our communities.

2. Second, we studied and learned about the issue. Our members got together for study groups. We became a grassroots think tank. We forged our own analysis and developed a position that discredited the right and put forth our own positive vision. Our position was rooted in our politics: confronting environmental destruction, racism, sexism, homophobia and corporate power. We studied our opponents, their history and politics. We developed a Position Statement for the Immigration and Environment Campaign (reprinted in Political Environments #3 Winter/Spring 1996) which took an environmental justice approach to the issues, targeted corporate greed and overconsumption as the true source of environmental degradation, condemned scapegoating and identified immigrants as essential allies and leaders of the movement for environmental protection. We sought endorsements for the Position Statement from allies in the environmental, environmental justice and immigrant rights communities and thus laid the basis for continuing action with them against the advocates of the greening of hate. When the debate began in the Sierra Club, we were prepared.

3. Third, we directly addressed the underlying concern. We said "We need to protect the environment but restricting immigration will not save one tree. We need to stop logging companies from clear cutting ancient forests and stop corporate polluters from fouling our air and water." We addressed the same concerns as our opponents but directed action at the real causes and away from scapegoating.

4. Fourth, we appealed to people's moral sense. We said "Scapegoating immigrants is wrong. Blaming immigrants for our problems is mean-spirited." We took the moral high ground.

5. Fifth, we developed a winning message and we did professional media work. We did not cede the terms of debate to our opponents. We never accepted their assertion that immigrants are bad for the environment. We never got into debates about what the appropriate level of immigration should be. We had a consistent message, we stayed with the message, and we were able to keep our allies focused on that message. We forced our opposition to respond to our message. We publicized the fact that many of the anti-immigration groups lobbying the Sierra Club explicitly appealed to white supremacy and white nationalism in their materials. When our opponents responded to these negative disclosures, it was a losing message for them.

6. Sixth, we educated the constituencies targeted by our opposition. One of the lessons from Prop 187 was the need for constituent education. Our friends in the immigrant rights movement who fought 187 told us that although they got the leadership of a wide range of organizations to oppose 187, in the end, many of the members of those same groups ended up voting with the general public. The constituents needed to hear from their organizations. They needed to know why their leaders opposed 187. But for the most part, they only heard from 187's supporters who took constituent education very seriously. This constituent education is a key aspect of right-wing wedge organizing. As early as 1995 we saw that environmentalists were being systematically targeted by the anti-immigration lobby. They got on the agenda at environmental conferences. They wrote articles for environmental publications. They did media work to promote their message. They published and distributed materials. We followed suit. It was essential that the audience targeted by our opponents also got to hear our side.

7. Seventh, we fought racism but we didn't call our constituents, the folks we were trying to organize, racist. When the Sierra Club debate on immigration arose, some people were quick to call the Sierra Club racist. We made it clear that racist, anti-immigrant groups outside the Sierra Club had targeted the Club and were trying to co-opt environmentalists to endorse a racist agenda that had nothing to do with protecting the environment. Members of the Club could reject racism by voting ("No") on Alternative.

8. Eighth, we exploited the weaknesses of our opponents. Despite superior financial resources, our opponents had several weaknesses. Their main weakness was their own far right politics, which made many environmentalists uneasy. We discredited our opposition by exposing their nastier side. In doing so, we always quoted their materials and statements. While our long-term goal was to discredit the message and reframe the debate, in the short-term, discrediting the messenger also raised doubts and weakened their support. (See "Documenting Racism" box or go to our website at www.igc.org/peg). Additionally, as single-issue groups, these organizations had not been engaged in solving environmental problems nor had they worked to form broad coalitions. PEG, on the other hand, had a long history of doing environmental organizing. We had successfully fought to speed up the international phase-out of methyl bromide, a pesticide which poisons immigrant farm workers and destroys the ozone layer. We had worked with the immigrant community in Kettleman City to stop a giant hazardous waste incinerator from being built in California. When the Alternative A proponents denounced us as social justice advocates masquerading as environmentalists, and even as a corporate front, their attacks had little credence.

9. Finally, we strengthened our alliances to counter the funds they raised. The participation and support of our allies in the environmental, environmental justice and immigrant rights movements were a critical component of success. Our allies were united around a common message and helped communicate that message broadly. They threw their support behind the progressive Sierra Club members who opposed the anti-immigration position. Many included us and our message in their conferences and newsletters and they integrated our analysis into their own work. This didn't happen overnight. We built many of these relationships through years of collaboration and coalition work on common goals. And it was not one-way: we learned about the campaigns our allies were working on and supported them as much as we could. We built and strengthened strategic alliances based on shared politics and made sure our message had a lot of messengers. Starting with organizational and individual endorsers of our original Position Statement, as various events came up, we could ask the same groups for their support on specific demands or actions, each of which acted on the original statement and reinforced our central message. Other organizations also felt that the outcome of the Sierra Club vote was politically important as a strand against the right's wedge campaigns. They organized and carried out their own activities against the greening of hate in Oregon, Washington, Texas and Massachusetts.

Anti-immigrant attacks are alive and well in the US. But the failure of anti-immigrant forces to line up the Sierra Club on their side was a clear defeat for them. We believe fighting the right is an essential component of organizing constituencies targeted by the right. We hope our victory will inspire others by showing that it can be done and the lessons we learned in the process.

Brad Erickson and China Brotsky are members of the Political Ecology Group. For more information on PEG, visit their web site at www.igc.org/peg.