Historically, the majority of Progressives have maintained faith in the ability of law and the democratic process to enact social and political change. In recent years, however, that faith has been sorely tested – and is fading fast.

This is not the first time in U.S. history that the forces of unbridled capitalism and the sheer power of virtually unlimited wealth has threatened our democracy. During the “Gilded Age” of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, greedy men with lust for power and too much money and influence ran rampant and political corruption was endemic. It happened again during the “Jazz Age” of the 1920s when powerful business interests were once again out of control, running roughshod over the economy while a series of corrupt, impotent Republican Administrations did virtually nothing to reign them in. The result was the infamous Crash of 1929 and more than a decade of a depression that followed.

Not that the rich and powerful who had deliberately caused it suffered all that much – any more than they did during the engineered Panics of 1893 and 1907.

There was a difference back in the day, however: citizens were far more engaged in the political process. Outraged (and informed) voters were able to elect leaders such as “Trustbuster” Theodore Roosevelt, and, a generation later, his distant cousin Frankin D. – who literally “saved capitalism from itself.”

The outlaw capitalists learned from those years, and realized that the sheer power of money was not enough to stand up to citizens in a democracy. For the past generation, their focus has been to discourage voters, to misinform, to destroy education – and once in control of a corrupt judiciary, disenfranchise. Today, there is virtually no regulation, and no help from elected leaders – even from the President who ran on “Hope and Change,” recently revealing his true colors.

At the same time, the outlaw capitalists have raised the stakes – to the point that it is no longer just a question of economics and inequality. It’s a question of our collective survival on the only habitable planet we know of and to which we have access.

Over two centuries of running industry and transportation with fossil fuels such as coal and petroleum has caused countless environmental disasters – polluted air, poisoned waters, fouled land and more. Of course, that isn’t all of it; the planet is literally running a fever, and it’s getting worse.

This isn’t news to most of our readers. Neither is the fact that the leaders who are supposed to be working for the greater good are now firmly under the control of an industry that is so rapacious and maddened by sheer greed and power that it refuses to see beyond next quarter’s profit & loss statement or next week’s stock prices. Some of these leaders are willfully ignorant, disregarding what scientists are telling us. Others are in denial, saying that the problem isn’t as serious as we think – or that it’s even a “good thing.” A few are even delusional, stating that it is our right and responsibility to wring every resource out of the planet and make as much money from it as possible before a magical Cloud Deity returns to “make all things new” or take them away to some “paradise” in the sky.

Increasingly, citizens are taking matters into their own hands – fully aware that consequences might entail the loss of their freedom.

Emily Johnston of Seattle, Washington is one of them.

In a poignant piece on Truthout.org, Ms. Johnston frankly states that, “if all goes well, I will probably commit a crime,” risking imprisonment.  Her crime would be to participate in the blockade of Shell Oil’s drilling rigs, preventing them from leaving Puget Sound for the Arctic (the protest is in progress as of this writing). The immediate strategy is to delay their departure long enough to cause Shell to miss the brief drilling season on Alaska’s north shore.

It won’t stop them, but it may buy some time. Hope is on the horizon: Bernie Sanders, the candidate that even this author didn’t believe could win the White House, has struck a chord among Americans of virtually all  stripes. His victory in 2016, while not a foregone conclusion, is increasingly a strong possibility.

It would of course depend upon Sanders having a Congress that will work with him – something that Obama has rarely enjoyed during his time as Executive. Nonetheless, history has shown that a strong Executive, while not having the same powers as Congress, can have a tremendous influence on the direction of the country.

In the meantime, however, the Earth cannot wait. The scientific community has repeatedly warned of dire consequences should Arctic drilling go forward – which continue to be ignored by those in power. Bernie may well be the next FDR who will bring us real hope and change, but in the meantime, we can’t wait.

Ms. Johnston phrases it eloquently:

“If ordinary people don’t force attention to this matter by making it very clear we’re willing to risk our own lives and liberty, we will all have failed the most important test humanity has ever been given.”

Somewhere, Thomas Jefferson is smiling down on Emily Johnston and her fellow “kayaktivists.”

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K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues.