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American Museum of Natural History targeted for relationship with right-wing climate denier

The Revolting Lesbians protest Rebekah Mercer outside of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City on Jan. 21. (WNV/Skanda Kadirgamar)

A new activist group launched its first direct action on Sunday, targeting climate change denier Rebekah Mercer and the American Museum of Natural History for retaining the New York City heiress as a trustee. The organizers say that Mercer’s presence is not only in conflict with an institution’s mission, but also represents an opportunistic ploy to legitimize fake science for which she should step down.

The protest was organized by a group called Revolting Lesbians, which showed up in front of the museum with costumes and props to depict Mercer’s nefarious influence on scientific discourse. Mercer’s $2.9 million in contributions to the museum are a pittance when compared to the amount she’s doled out to organizations like the Heartland Institute, which has claimed that “rising atmospheric carbon dioxide levels … will continue to help plants thrive,” and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change “should be disbanded as a threat to mankind.”

While Mercer plays no direct role in museum curation or curriculum, the action drove home the point that her presence on the board is nonetheless impactful when it comes to the wider environmental discourse. Among the signs the organizers brought to the action were several emblazoned with Hayden Planetarium Director Neil deGrasse Tyson’s observation that “When you have people who don’t know much about science standing in denial of it and rising to power, that is a recipe for the complete dismantling of our informed democracy.”

In a manner reminiscent of the Lesbian Avengers in the 1990s, Revolting Lesbians formed in late 2017 in opposition to the aggressive right-wing political turn in the country. They aim to challenge manifestations of this agenda on a local level. The group is interested in taking on voter suppression as an issue and plans to confront the organizations that have supported such initiatives, like the American Legislative Exchange Council. Mercer draws their ire in particular, however, not only for her climate denial but because her family bankrolled the Trump campaign.

Mercer and her family are nothing if not active and dedicated partisans of the far right. Her father, billionaire Robert Mercer, provides the funding for the Mercer Family Foundation, which she helms. The foundation coordinates with a network of think tanks and philanthropic organizations that work to demolish economic regulation and refute the scientific consensus on climate change.

Members of Revolting Lesbians have carefully parsed through the foundation’s tax forms and determined the total amount of money, $42.6 million, that has been directed into right-wing, anti-environmentalist organizations, like the Reason Foundation, which promotes fracking. Moreover, they discovered that Mercer sits on the boards of several of these organizations.

Mercer’s role on the far right extends beyond pushing fake science. As a Breitbart stakeholder, Mercer has also been involved with efforts to undermine municipal government. When she was on speaking terms with former White House aide Steve Bannon, the two collaborated and founded an organization named Reclaim New York, which claims to promote transparency and fight corruption at a grassroots level.

What Reclaim New York actually does is send right-wing activists to smaller cities and towns to hold community meetings, at which they encourage residents to zero in on school boards and municipal organizations with paranoid accounts of corruption. They encourage and train attendees to cripple these organizations with volleys of Freedom of Information Law requests and threats of litigation from Reclaim itself. This ultimately hampers the functioning of local government and has resonance with Bannon’s desire for the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”

Another beneficiary of Mercer family largesse is the Center for Defense of Free Enterprise, an arm of the Wise Use Movement. Both of these formations, which receive money from large energy interests and the gun lobby, have declared war on environmentalists and environmentalism in the name of the “right to own property and use natural resources.”

Mercer’s connection to the Wise Use movement reveals a dimension of her political activism that is fundamentally racist. With broad appeal among white nationalists, Wise Use is the fulcrum around which militia groups that have taken up arms against federal land management orbit. Scholars Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz and Alexander Reid Ross have documented the movement’s supremacist roots, including its promotion of a network of anti-immigration and “population control groups.” Given that the vast majority of people victimized by super storms, accelerated desertification, and other environmental transformations are black and brown people — mainly, though not exclusively, in the Global South — denying climate change has incredibly racist implications.

The American Museum of Natural History has been a home for settler colonialism, eugenics and other racist projects. Revolting Lesbians has revealed that Rebekah Mercer’s presence as a trustee is yet another objectionable tether that museum has failed to cut. That attachment is not going unchallenged, however, as they intend to launch a multipronged campaign “until Mercer is off the board.” This will entail holding public information sessions and conducting even more direct actions. Mercer may well be in for a rocky 2018 at the museum, as the Revolting Lesbians aim to also recruit scientists and other activists in their push for her ouster.