The coal industry, whose schemes for scores of dirty new power plants are being challenged in the courts by Earthjustice and other organizations, is also under siege by a new generation of protesters whose favored tactic is nonviolent direct action. Earlier this year, Al Gore issued a call to action—"I believe we’ve reached the stage where it’s time for civil disobedience to prevent the construction of new coal-fired power plants," he said—but activists across the country, many of them students in their 20s, were already at the barricades.
In September, a dozen protesters were arrested after locking themselves to barrels to form a human blockade at the construction site of a Virginia coal plant. In April, eight were arrested, and some reportedly shocked by police with stun guns, while protesting at a facility in North Carolina. TIME recently reported that "Similar protests pop up anywhere a new plant is being built."
"There are lots of young people who got engaged on the climate and energy issue during the election," 20-year-old Sara Tansey, who took a year off from the University of South Carolina to fight the industry, told the Charleston Post & Courier at a protest against a proposed plant expansion. "I think young people are really awakening to injustice of the whole life cycle of coal."
Do direct action and other kinds of protest matter, or is it smarter to fight in the courts and Congress? The truth is that the tactics complement each other: Research on the environmental movement since the 60s has found that street protests raise the chances that progressive legislation will be enacted. From the Boston Tea Party to the Civil Rights Movement, civil disobedience is in the best tradition of America.