The wake-up call came at 4 a.m. Emerging from my tent in the still-dark morning hours in Green River, Utah, I joined the nearly 100 other people gathered that morning for a quick breakfast before loading into a caravan of cars. Among the group were climate justice organizers from Canyon Country Rising Tide, Tar Sands Blockade, Peaceful Uprising, the Salt Lake Dream Team, and the Lakota and Diné Nations, all of whom had spent the previous week together at the nation’s first action camp to stop commercial tar sands mining in the United States.
We drove three hours to a remote section of southeast Utah called PR Springs, where the Canadian company US Oil Sands is constructing the planned tar sands mine. Upon arrival, the group marched onto the test pit where three machines were shifting dirt and began chanting, “No Tar Sands! No Way! Not Ever! Not Today!” Forming a circle around the machines to halt construction, we performed a spiritual water ceremony led by Lakota and Diné tribe members. After about a half hour, the men waiting in their machines got out and left the work site.
Most of us then made our way farther into the site, where we could see the tar sands seeping up through the ground. From the plateau, where we stood, the mountainous landscape of Utah provided a sharp contrast to the mine’s stripped earth. Some stayed back to make sure the construction workers didn’t return, while the rest of us moved farther up the road to where machines were paving in anticipation of future construction. Along with another activist, I scaled a bulldozer and dropped a banner reading, “If you build it, we will come!” as younger members of the indigenous tribes balanced on another part of the bulldozer and raised their fists in the air.
The spectrum of the frontline
Returning to Utah after spending six months organizing in New York City, I had heard a lot of anticipation about July’s tar sands action camp. But the most important difference between this camp and other activist gatherings was its specific emphasis on approaching climate justice through the lens of indigenous and frontline-impacted communities. As Henia Belalia, the director of the national climate justice organization Peaceful Uprising and one of the lead organizers of the camp, explained, “We have been prioritizing frontline voices — either people from the frontline extraction communities, or people in the state of Utah who are already breathing the worst air in the nation.”
The rural and largely indigenous population of southeast Utah will face significant health problems if the commercial tar sands mines continue, such as rare forms of cancer — including leukemia, lymphoma and lupus, which is already showing a high presence in the Mikisew Cree First Nations and Athabasca Chipewyan.
The challenge is not new; these same communities have long been fighting the adverse health impacts, particularly poor air quality, imposed by the oil industry’s influence in the region. Historically, however, the national climate justice movement has largely marginalized these types of voices — a legacy that this camp sought to change through panels exploring the intersectionality of frontline communities, morning rituals led by tribal leaders and even an “Anti-Government Arts and Crafts” workshop held by a 10-year-old Lakota boy.
One of the primary reasons that socially and economically marginalized communities have been traditionally excluded from the climate justice movement is because of the mainstream environmental movement’s emphasis on the potential for green capitalism to solve the problem. Under this rationale, it is possible to achieve sustainability while still living comfortable, overly consumptive lives — a framework that doesn’t resonate with or include economically disenfranchised communities. In contrast, many at the recent tar sands action camp found that solidarity meant opposing not only climate change, but also capitalism.
“We need to be anti-capitalist for us to be climate justice activists,” said one trainer during a workshop. “We can’t just stop them from creating an institution [like tar sands mining] to continue something that they are compelled to continue. We need to stop the system in order to hit the root cause.”
Itza Duron, a migrant rights organizer with the Salt Lake Dream Team, further explained how the capitalist critique gradually took hold throughout the week-long camp.
“It just made sense,” she said. “All of our struggles are so intermingled that when you get down to the base of it, all of these problems are directly correlated with capitalism. By like the third day of the camp, everyone kind of understood that. It was really beautiful.”
However, even if solidarity made sense in macroeconomic theory, there were still challenges in implementing this unity during the camp itself. One of the problems faced was the question of whether or not to wear masks during the nonviolent, yet illegal, action to halt construction at the mine site.
Many camp participants who regularly experience different treatment by law enforcement because of the color of their skin — including members of the Lakota community, those lacking U.S. residency papers and women of color like myself — favored the idea of covering our faces. When the media and police come with cameras and handcuffs, we are the ones with the most to lose. Yet, others argued that masked protesters create an image too threatening for outside viewers. The concern was that the media would portray us as terrorists and no one would want to join the next action. However valid that may be, it ignores the fact that white activist communities have a choice to appear non-threatening — a privilege that is not always accessible for communities of color.
The debate over masks was ultimately resolved with the decision that they would remain down in front of the mainstream media. But it revealed a more fundamental difference in how communities frame the climate justice movement. During the camp, the young people of the Lakota nation were greeted and presented as warriors — both in accordance with the nation’s traditional social structure and in recognition of the global resource war against multinational oil corporations. This introduction reminded activists coming from less affected areas of society that the current climate justice movement is an extension of the battle for land and survival that indigenous communities have been fighting for centuries. We know that marginalized communities at all points of extraction, transportation and refining will suffer the most from climate change and dirty energy extraction. The level of solidarity established by the broader climate justice movement will be one of the central factors determining its success.
Scaring off investors
The morning after taking direct action against US Oil Sands, the group gathered in a circle to listen to organizer Leah Dale.
“We stopped construction for a day, and no matter what negative things happened yesterday, we won just a little more,” she said.
Fingers shot up in the air twinkling in agreement, a familiar scene from Occupy general assemblies. The debrief helped activists better understand how the action is only one part of a much longer campaign to shut down the construction of tar sands indefinitely.
According to camp organizers, US Oil Sands has about $10 million currently invested in the Utah tar sands mine and needs another $25 million before the project is fully funded. The day of the action, however, US Oil Sands’ stock dropped 13 percent, an indication, organizers say, that investors are skittish about the potential for disruption on this project. Similarly, delays to the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, caused in part by an intense direct action campaign over the last six months, have also inspired investors to cut their stakes in tar sands companies. This is yet another indication that these types of targeted actions affect economic markets more than corporations would like anyone to think.
“I would say the action did its job of showing investors that this project will face some push back,” said Duron.
As the banner drop made perfectly clear, even if they do manage to fund and build the tar sands mine, we will come.
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