Grassroots climate justice groups ‘rise together’ in week of actions

Four protesters delayed a coal train on its way through Missoula in a peaceful act of civil disobedience on August 16, while around 50 others cheered them on from the sidelines. (Blue Skies Campaign)

Four protesters delayed a coal train on its way through Missoula, Mont., in a peaceful act of civil disobedience on August 16, while around 50 others cheered them on from the sidelines. (Blue Skies Campaign)

As many climate activists and mainstream environmental organizations begin planning their trips to New York City for the People’s Climate March in September, a widespread network of over 30 grassroots climate justice groups is already busy with the Rise Together Mobilization, a week of actions that began Saturday. According to organizers, the actions are “aimed at shifting the power away from the destructive industries and back into the hands of the people.” Perhaps most importantly, the mobilization is intended to put frontline resistance at the forefront, something that many involved in grassroots climate justice organizing feel the mainstream environmental movement has so far failed to do.

“There are a lot of groups across the country that are working within this movement that don’t get a lot of media attention, and that don’t get taken very seriously,” said Abby Stoner from Blue Skies Campaign. “Groups like 350, and the whole rally in New York, are really great, but it’s unrealistic to think that people are going to be able to participate in that, and highlighting the small things that many groups are doing across the country is a way to combat the more oppressive tendencies within the climate justice movement.”

Blue Skies Campaign, which has already held several direct actions to stop coal trains from coming through Helena and Missoula, Mont., held a rally and an act of civil disobedience on Saturday to protest coal exports in their region.

The mobilization is not strictly a call for acts of civil disobedience across the country. “Last year with Fearless Summer, there was a lot of emphasis on arrestable nonviolent direct action, which is awesome, but which I think also scares some people away from participating in environmental groups,” explained Sherrie Andre, a member of Fighting Against Natural Gas, or FANG, and a co-organizer of the mobilization. The emphasis on these arrestable actions also tends to overshadow the on-the-ground organizing that many environmental groups do, Andre added.

“We were hoping that this mobilization would bring together a bunch of people who maybe would not have participated in nonviolent direct action, but are now re-envisioning what activism means to them,” Andre said. “That could be door-knocking; it could be training; it could be hosting a community picnic. It could be anything that boosts their campaign but also boosts them to want to continue doing this type of work.”

Tabitha Tripp of Shawnee Forest Sentinels and the Southern Illinoisans Against Fracturing Our Environment, or SAFE, sees the mobilization as a chance to build on the resistance to industrialized fracking that the Sentinels and other groups have already begun in Illinois, including recent banner drops at the Springfield State Fair and an action outside of a fundraising event for Gov. Pat Quinn. During the upcoming week of action, the Sentinels plan to hold a screening of “Dear Governor Hickenlooper,” a documentary about fracking in Colorado that Tripp hopes will mobilize more people in her area.

For Kathy Martley of Burrillville Against Spectra Expansion, or BASE, the mobilization is an opportunity to continue the outreach and education that her group has been doing in Burrillville, R.I. Groups like FANG and the Better Future Project, whose Climate Summer riders recently visited the town, have supported BASE in their efforts to raise awareness about Spectra Energy’s plan to expand the “Algonquin” natural gas pipeline.

“A lot of people don’t even know the pipeline exists; it’s in the woods,” Martley said. “Awareness is the first thing, and trying to talk about the dangers of it.”

BASE held a march in Burrillville on Saturday to raise awareness about Spectra’s proposed pipeline expansion and its impacts on towns like Burrillville, where Spectra plans to increase the capacity of a compressor station despite significant health and public safety risks and concern from the community.

Justice on all fronts

In addition to highlighting the diverse and often uncelebrated climate justice organizing happening around the country, the Rise Together Mobilization is also an opportunity for environmental groups to build cross-issue solidarity with other grassroots social justice groups.

Kelly Canavan is a member of FANG and the director of the AMP Creeks Council organizing around Dominion Energy’s Cove Point LNG project, which would create the first natural gas export facility on the East Coast and drive demand for fracked gas. “Once you start really getting involved in these movements and getting involved in communities where energy extraction and export projects are taking place, you can’t miss the fact that communities are targeted much more often when they’re powerless in some way, whether they’re communities of color or they’re economically depressed or some other way marginalized,” Canavan said. “So if we’re going to work with communities who are affected by these issues most immediately we have to address the other issues affecting them.”

For many of the activists and organizers involved with the Mobilization, this solidarity is not only strategically crucial to the success of the climate justice movement. It is also rooted in lived experiences that make the intersections of various kinds of oppression impossible to ignore.

Tripp explains the ways in which she’s seen issues of class intersect with her work around fracking in rural Illinois. She remembers meeting a man over two years ago at a free water-testing while volunteering for the local Sierra Club chapter. “We were doing conductivity testing, and I thought the meter was broken,” she explained. “He said, ‘No, my water’s been bad and I can’t get any help.’ This man by no means has any money to speak of. He lives in a small, old trailer. His water well went bad, and he couldn’t afford to test his water sooner. You can’t get any justice for the guy. And I’m constantly reminded that once it’s fracked, you can’t unfrack an aquifer. I keep going because I can’t say I didn’t try to stop this.”

Andre’s experience working with women who have experienced trauma has motivated her to highlight the effects of the fossil fuel industry on women — such as impacts on breast milk, increased rates of cervical cancer, and the prevalence of sexual assault after natural disasters and around extraction sites — that many climate activists ignore “because they’re just focusing on what’s happening to the environment rather than what’s happening to the community.”

Andre recounts a story of a sexual assault call she received while working on the Yankton Sioux Reservation in South Dakota. “We went to the hospital, and seeing this woman in such a painful state,” she said. “Knowing that she wouldn’t have a home to go back to, knowing that she fought for her life, is really what returns to my mind. But also when she told us that when she tried to reach out to her neighbors for help, they sent her away.”

This experience, which echoes the story of Andre’s mother, a Thai woman who experienced similar trauma, continues to inform Andre’s activism. “That is really scary to me,” she said, “and it just says to me that we really need to work on building community, and really need to understand how these traumas affect different communities in different ways.”

A magnificent wall of resistance

Despite their different backgrounds, experiences and local struggles, the activists involved in the Rise Together Mobilization stress the power of recognizing the similarities that unite them.

“It’s really important that we all reach out as a support network,” Tripp said, “because especially in rural America, you really feel alone sometimes. You feel like this is just a solitary battle. ‘Rise together’ is exactly what needs to happen. It shows we aren’t alone, we’re not fighting by ourselves. We’re all going through the same thing because of the corporatocracy that’s ruining our way of life.”

These activists also share a common vision of the world they’re fighting for. “Winning at this point would be changing where the power is in our country and our world,” Stoner said, “and to take the power from the few wealthy people who have and it give it back to those who are really being affected by the injustice that those people cause and perpetuate.”

For Martley, and many other activists like her, the world she’s fighting for starts in her own backyard. “I want to give this land to my granddaughter like my grandfather and my father gave it to me, and I don’t want it to be a mess,” she explained. “I want her to have a nice place to live.”

As out of reach as these goals may sometimes feel, many activists involved in the mobilization see signs of hope. Canavan describes the day she picked up her 11-year-old son from camp with the good news of a major court victory against the Cove Point LNG export project. When they got home, her son called a few friends to invite them over to play video games, but the conversation quickly shifted to the news of the victory against Cove Point. “He said ‘We just won this court case.’ He said we,” she said. “He took ownership of that, because he was a part of it, he was helping, he was invested in it. He gave them all the details, and they wanted to hear about it. These 11-year-olds are coming up and they’re already on the right track, and it just made me feel so hopeful that things are going to keep going in a better and better way.”

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