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Breaking the Climate Mold: Fighting for the Planet and Justice

In the past two years, the way the climate movement talks about itself has changed dramatically. Seemingly overnight, there are no more ‘climate activists’, and everyone is a ‘Climate Justice’ campaigner. Mainstream environmental groups issued statements of solidarity with Ferguson and Baltimore and the blogosphere is filled with articles patiently explaining how global warming connects to struggles for racial, economic and migrant justice.

As a South Asian organizer who has called the environmental movement home for a decade, I’m happy to see this shift. Fifteen years ago the idea of Climate Justice was posed as a challenge to the corporate solutions pushed by ‘big green’ groups in international negotiations. The fact that those same groups are adopting our language and analysis shows real progress.

But rhetoric and analysis is not enough. While the speakers and rally photo-ops have changed, I still find myself and other people of color in the movement speaking to nearly all-white crowds. Big green groups that have “Climate Justice” campaigns can be found pushing cap and trade and other corporate policies that the Climate Justice movement was birthed to oppose. I still find myself in meetings where people go around in circles asking “how do we make this movement/event/group more diverse” or “where are all the brown people?”

The answer to that question is simple if you look around. People of color in the United States are engaged in some of the boldest, most aggressive movements for survival and liberation in recent memory. Black people are rising up against systemic oppression and a violent police state in Ferguson, Baltimore and elsewhere; Indigenous peoples are blocking trains and freeways under the banner of Idle No More; low-income people of color are leading the fight for a just economy; and undocumented people are putting themselves at extreme risk blocking deportation buses, occupying offices and even publicly crossing the border.

More than ever we need a thriving climate justice movement. But it can’t be committed to justice in name only. Enough statements of solidarity have been written. It’s time for us to get into the streets, take action and make real sacrifices for these struggles.

Last May, Rising Tide North America issued a challenge to the movement. We called for people to ‘Flood the System’ with blockades, occupations and mass civil disobedience. We challenged groups to move beyond the narrow frame of organizing against fossil fuel infrastructure, and engage in direct action at police stations, prisons, I.C.E. offices, detention centers and banks. We asked climate activists to find the intersections of our struggles–focusing on the logic of white supremacy, colonialism, patriarchy and extractive economies that creates all our crises–instead of merely inviting our allies into the climate fight.

It’s our belief that one of the best ways to show our commitment to the intersection of struggles is by putting our bodies into the gears that drive oppression.

We still need to push our analysis, but we also need to respectfully understand the conditions of other struggles. It shouldn’t be surprising that threat of being killed by the police, having a loved one deported, or seeing your homeland occupied by a foreign military, feels more urgent than the possibility of a climate related disaster down the road. Yet I still regularly encounter people who don’t understand why some choose to work on these issues instead of the existential threat of climate chaos.

Many of the attempts to broaden or diversify the climate movement focus on simply courting people of color. We say “To Change Everything, It Takes Everyone,” and hope that the overwhelming threat we all face will serve to focus everyone, regardless of what they already face daily. I still sit in coalition meetings where people spend hours trying to come up with just the right message that will lure out Brown, Red and Black activists–as though the right, welcoming phrase will be enough.

Yes, the consequences of a destabilized climate will be unlike anything we’ve seen before.  How can we be relevant, let alone successful, if we ignore the crises we already have? The logic of colonialism and white supremacy –and the extractive economies that flow from that logic–created present-day crises for people of color and Indigenous communities long before it created the climate crisis: we cannot simply ignore the former in our attempt to moderate the latter. We cannot say “this first–everything else later”. If we truly believe, as we say we do, that our struggles are connected, then there is no solution to the climate crisis that ignores these connections.

Deirdre Smith from 350.org put this best, saying that we need to “[acknowledge] and [understand] that our fight is not simply with the carbon in the sky, but with the powers on the ground.”

In the wake of uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore, much ink has been spilled encouraging climate activists to care about and engage in the fights for racial justice. To date most of these calls spoke to individual activists and their actions. With Flood the System, we hope to speak to what we can and should do as a movement. Yes, individuals should find ways to act in real solidarity with local struggles for justice, but so should environmental organizations, collectives and affinity groups at a local and national level.

Though solidarity strengthens us all, climate organizers must to demonstrate ours first if we want to build the trust to make it work. We have a lot to overcome. The last few years of inviting others to the ‘climate tent’ without offering much in return has built up skepticism about the motivations and intentions of many in our fight. Coupled with the environmental movement’s unfortunate history of casual racism and class elitism, it’s no surprise that many organizers are hesitant to work deeply with environmentalists even if they personally believe in the urgency of our struggle.

This could mean climate blocs joining marches in the street or flooding hearings or green organizations contributing resources to these fights in tangible ways. If we do this with more regularity and articulate how climate justice links to these fights, then can we can begin to build the trust that mutual solidarity is based on.

Of course, there are some notable attempts at this. This month’s Our Generation, Our Choice actions in Washington D.C. brought together racial-, migrant- and climate justice organizers. Activists with 350.org and Rising Tide travelled to Ferguson and were deeply involved in Black Lives Matter work in their hometowns.. Earlier this year a group of environmentalists and prison abolitionists launched the Prison Ecology Project to use environmental regulations to challenge new prison construction and leverage our skills for racial justice.

This is a great start, but we need to step it up, both in scale and pace. The urgency and aggressiveness of the movements around us deserve a commensurate response. For many of us this will mean showing our solidarity through bold civil disobedience and direct action.

Last September a group of climate activists in Seattle responded to the call to ‘Flood the System’. We mobilized members of our community to participate in a blockade of deportation buses from the Northwest Detention Center alongside the migrant rights group Northwest Detention Center Resistance. Some of us locked ourselves to drums filled with concrete, others stood in the road with a banner that read Climate Justice = Ending Deportation. On the other side of the Center two-dozen migrant and gender justice activists blocked the other two gates collectively stopping deportations that week. We released a statement explaining our actions, linking climate change to the current migrant crisis and imagining a future with dramatically more displaced people. But our central call was for others in the climate movement to follow our example and put their bodies on the line for racial and migrant justice. We believed the images of us risking our bodies would speak more powerfully than the words we had borrowed from a dozen previous ‘solidarity statements’.

Real solidarity means matching courage. It means doing more than writing a statement or putting people of color at the front of the march. If thousands can risk arrest blockading mine sites and occupying corporate and political offices, surely some can occupy the police stations and I.C.E. offices. If we truly believe that the struggles for racial, migrant, economic and climate justice are linked we should be prepared to put our bodies on the line for all of them. There is certainly no dearth of opportunities.

Civil disobedience is just one piece of the puzzle and engaging in a single action doesn’t equate to building long term relationships of solidarity. Our allies are risking their freedom and safety every day, both in the struggle and in their lives. Civil disobedience provides one small direct way for us to show we are willing to share that burden with them.

The urgency of our situation is an opportunity to do things differently. We can’t solve the climate crisis without building a new world. One where we replace dystopian border militarization with compassion and care for displaced people while respecting Indigenous sovereignty and tradition. Where we dismantle systems of white supremacy and patriarchy and stop sacrificing Black, Brown and Indigenous communities for profit. And, finally, where we replace capitalism’s endless exploitation of Earth and people with stewardship and community care.

The only way we can build this world is together. It’s going to be difficult and sometimes frustrating or dangerous work but we have to get into the streets and take this chance now.

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Ahmed Gaya is an organizer with Rising Tide Seattle, Rising Tide North America, a founder of the sHellNo! Action Council, and a member of the steering committee of the Prison Ecology Project. Follow him on Twitter at @adgaya.

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