Fire Drill Fridays sounds the alarm in California

Joined by a thousand activists, Jane Fonda took her Fire Drill Fridays protests to Los Angeles to force action for climate change.
Jane Fonda (C, wearing a red hat) and activists participate in a Fire Drill Friday rally on February 7 in Los Angeles, California. (Greenpeace/David McNew)

On Feb. 7, the temperature in Antartica reached 65 degrees. That’s never happened before.

Yes, the sick, corrupt president was impeached and acquitted by sick, corrupt Republican senators, but Antartica reached 65 degrees.

This is yet another unimaginable wake up call.

We’re also hearing reports now that possibly one billion animals died in the catastrophic fires in Australia.

Catastrophic climate change is not coming in 50 or 100 years. It’s upon us now.

Greta Thunberg is right: “Our house is on fire. We better respond to that.” This is “the biggest crisis humanity has ever faced,” she said. “First we have to realize this and then as fast as possible do something to stop the emissions and try to save what we can save.”

(Pace e Bene/John Dear)

“I want you to act as if the house is on fire, because it is,” she said last month in Davos. Inaction, she said, is “fueling the flames by the hour … Act as if you loved your children above all else.” She called upon everyone to end investment in fossil fuel exploration, extraction and subsidies.

That’s why on Friday, a thousand of us gathered at the Los Angeles City Hall for another Fire Drill Fridays rally, march and action, led by 82-year-old Jane Fonda. I was arrested just before Christmas with Jane and 140 others in Washington, D.C. for sitting in at the Hart Senate Office Building.

Now, we’ve moved west. We gathered on a sunny afternoon amidst the L.A. palm trees on a green lawn beside City Hall. We sang and chanted, and held a wild variety of homemade signs (“Weather to be or not to be,” “Diet Change for Climate Change,” “Stop Denying the earth is dying,” “I’m with her,” followed by an arrow pointing to Mother Earth, and so forth.)

Jane Fonda was fabulous. She took the makeshift stage in her red coat and hat and launched into a brilliant, clear speech calling upon California, and the rest of the nation and the world, to stop all new oil wells. The key, she said, was fossil fuel drilling.

We only have ten years, she said, quoting a recent statement by thousands of scientists, so we have to stop the drilling, and gradually, close all our wells, and end all our drilling. That, she said, is the key.

Some places like California have begun the journey toward alternative solar and wind energy, which she praised. But that is only half the task, she insisted. We have to stop the drilling for fossil fuels within ten years, or we are doomed. She explained how few leaders have dared to challenge the oil companies much less prevent them from drilling, yet that’s the critical task at hand.

(Pace e Bene/John Dear)

For now, she said, California and the nation should not approve one new drilling site. But at the moment, the California governor has thousands of requests to start new drillings on his desk. He must not sign one of them, she said.

“This is the front lines of the climate crisis,” she said, referring to the West Coast. “The wildfires and the long droughts and … the horrible diseases —cancer and asthma and birth defects — suffered by the people who live in the shadow of the oil drilling … this is the fifth-largest economy on the planet — literally what happens here can affect the rest of the country and the rest of the world!” 

Then she welcomed 97-year-old television producer Norman Lear, who got out of his wheel chair, climbed up to the podium and said he couldn’t miss this day no matter what. He was here, he said, for his children and grandchildren and future generations, like the rest of us.

Then Jane brought up nearly two dozen celebrities. I’m too old to know who they were, but I recognized Joaquin Phoenix and one of the Harry Potter stars. They were all gracious, and proceeded to take turns introducing local frontline activists who have been laboring for climate justice their entire lives, wonderful activists like Nalleli Cobo, Cesar Aguirre and Don Martin. 

“We’re here to demand California’s leaders put a stop to fossil fuel expansion,” Annie Leonard, the great director of Greenpeace told the press. “We have the solutions to climate change right now — a Green New Deal, no new fossil fuels, and a just transition to 100 percent renewables — we just need leaders with the political will to enact them. Our house is on fire. It’s time our leaders started acting like it.” 

(Pace e Bene/John Dear)

Greenpeace USA and Fire Drill Fridays partnered with environmental justice coalition STAND-L.A. to co-organize this first Friday Drill Friday in Los Angeles, home to the largest urban oil field in the nation. A coalition of frontline communities impacted by urban oil drilling and public health and environmental justice organizations, STAND-L.A.’s campaign urges the Los Angeles City Council to establish a 2,500-foot health and safety buffer separating oil extraction from homes, schools, parks and other sensitive land uses. In the South Coast Air Basin, over 620,000 people — primarily low-income communities and communities of color — live within a half mile of an active oil well, exposed to health risks such as asthma and other respiratory illness.

“This Fire Drill Friday should come as a red alert to the Los Angeles City Council and our governor: we will keep speaking our truth to power until you act,” 19-year-old activist Nalleli Cobo said. “My own health has been sacrificed too many times to stay quiet. My neighbors have been sacrificed too many times to stay quiet. The oil industry has sacrificed our climate future for too long to stay quiet. We need our city and state leaders to stop staying quiet when it comes to public health and our future.”

Cobo has been an advocate with STAND-L.A. since age nine, when she was sent to the hospital with health complications from exposure to emissions from the oil wells operating near her home. “The oil industry has no place in our neighborhoods — and no place in Los Angeles’ future,” she said.

After the rally, we marched several blocks to Pershing Square for another brief rally, while Jane and a few young folk marched on to the building which houses “Maverick Natural Resources,” which operate oil and gas wells throughout South California and the Central Valley. They sat in but weren’t arrested.

“Civil disobedience has to become the new normal,” Jane said as we left City Hall. “We have marched, we have petitioned, we have written, we have lobbied — and they haven’t listened. So we’re going to have to become bigger and bigger and become an army that shuts the government down if needed.”

That sounds like an appropriate response given the reality that Antartica is melting.

Check out John’s recent books They Will Inherit the Earth: Peace and Nonviolence in a time of Climate Change and Praise Be Peace: The Psalms of Peace in a time of War and Climate Change.

This story was produced by Campaign Nonviolence

Campaign Nonviolence, a project of Pace e Bene Nonviolence Service, is working for a new culture of nonviolence by connecting the issues to end war, poverty, racism and environmental destruction. We organize The Nonviolent Cities Project and the annual Campaign Nonviolence Week of Actions.

Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.