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“Energy Without Injury”: From Redwood Summer to Break Free via Occupy Wall Street

On Sunday, May 15, more than a hundred climate change kayaktivists took to the waters of Padilla Bay in Anacortes, Washington, risking arrest to land on the banks of the Tesoro oil refinery. In the shadow of the refinery smoke stacks, they unfurled banners calling attention to the potentially lethal risks that fossil fuel workers confront each day on the job. “Seven Dead, No More Casualties, Tesoro Explosion April 2, 2010” read one banner focused on Tesoro’s checkered workplace safety record. “Solidarity is Strength, We are all workers,” read another banner. Yet another called for a “Just Transition,” as kayaktivists knelt on the ground, paddles in hand, in what organizers described as a demonstration of respect for the workers killed at the refinery, and for those still working in the refinery. The messaging on the banks of the refinery signaled the central challenge that climate change activists confront in trying to find common ground—if not common cause–with refinery workers.

The Anacortes actions were part of a global two-week wave of activism spanning six continents under the shared rallying cry to “Break Free” from fossil fuels. As actions unfolded in the U.S. from Albany, NY and Washington, D.C. to Chicago, Denver and Los Angeles, more than a thousand activists converged on Anacortes, just south of the Canadian border. The aim of activists was to confront, by land and sea, the role of big oil in rising global temperatures and sea levels–and to disrupt the flow of oil to the Shell and Tesoro refineries.

In the face of activists’ resolve to blockade the oil shipments to the port, both Shell and Tesoro suspended tanker and rail transport for the duration of the three-day action. Nonetheless, an estimated 150 activists camped out on the rails for two nights before the police moved in in the early hours of Sunday, May 15, arresting 52 activists and charging them with criminal trespassing.

In a phone interview, Eric Ross, organizing director of the Backbone Campaign out of Vashon, Island, WA, which handled much of the logistical planning and coordination for the water-based Break Free events in Anacortes, indicated that the workers at Tesoro, who daily face toxic exposure on the job, are among the many “casualties of extractive industries” and the byproduct of the “reckless endangerment” that defines the behavior of multinational corporations, whose main focus is on “extracting money.” “They’ve chosen to make their billions by extracting resources from communities that don’t consent to that reckless endangerment of our children, our communities and our climate,” Ross observed. Ross heralded the three-day cessation of oil transportation as a victory for Break Free: “I think it’s a really impressive show of the power of our movements and just how afraid these extractive industries are of organized people.”

Zarna Joshi, an activist with the grassroots group Women of Color Speak Out, was one of several speakers who addressed kayaktivists on the banks of Fidalgo Bay before they struck out for the banks of the Tesoro refinery. In a phone interview, Joshi described the Break Free action as the culmination of “a real building of momentum” over the past two years. She indicated that in the Pacific Northwest, climate activists have been “building relationships with people in labor, building relationship with people in the First Nations—particularly Salish Sea First Nations—building community and building trust.”

In fact, an entire day of the three-day event was devoted to a Native-led march and ceremonies at March Point in the shadow of the Shell refinery. While the 1855 Point Elliott Treaty included March Point within the boundaries of the Swinomish Reservation, an executive order by President Ulysses S. Grant in the 1870s redrew the boundaries of the reservation to exclude March Point, ultimately opening it up for development by Shell and Tesoro. Last year, Shell was “fined $77,000 by the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries for an uncontrolled release of toxins that sickened residents and sent at least two people to the hospital.”

Skagit County, Joshi observed, “has one of the highest levels of cancer in the entire state, and those levels of cancer are linked to the pollution coming from the refineries.” Activists, Joshi said, “were standing in solidarity with workers, and not just with workers at these refineries, but with workers around the whole region whose jobs are being threatened by the fossil fuel empire, by climate change, by health crises.”

Among the participants in the Anacortes actions was Laurie King, former long term organizer with Portland Jobs with Justice, now retired, who planned to attend one of a number of workshops focused on effecting a “just transition” for workers currently employed in the fossil fuel industry. “I’m a union activist, so I’ve been asking a lot of questions about what do the workers think and what kind of jobs do people think of fighting for for the workers. I think that this whole movement has to be a two-pronged movement and that the same energy that goes into the desire to save the planet for everyone also has to be into a just transition with the same fervor, the same degree of planning and we have to figure out really concrete ways to have a just transition.” Over her decades of union organizing, King observed, “I’ve talked to many, many workers, and if they had a choice, of course they’d rather be doing things that are not hurting themselves or the planet. The thing is that it isn’t easy to find another well paying job, and we environmentalists have to deal with that in the most deep way and not just slough it off.” King went on to observe, “I think we have to be just as fervent about fighting for jobs for the workers who are in the fossil fuel industries at the same time that we’re fighting against fossil fuel structures.”

A number of activists at the Anacortes action, like Michael Carrigan, Program Director for the Community Alliance of Lane County in Eugene, Oregon, cut their organizing teeth in the forest defense movement in the 1980s and 1990s. Back in the day, Carrigan worked with Oregon Natural Resources Council (ONRC), now known as Oregon Wild, and with a group called Witness Against Lawless Logging. One of the common elements of the two movements, Carrigan observed, is confronting corporate power: “It’s about exploiting the earth to make money. Whether it’s cutting down the trees or taking all the oil out of the ground, it’s corporations saying, ‘Hey, our profits are more important than the planet…. So what we learned in the forest defense work applies here.”

A veteran also of the Nevada Test Site protests, Carrigan invoked the links between climate change and militarism. “One of the biggest users of oil and gas in the world is the Pentagon…. The military needs oil to keep up their military industrial complex—not just the oil in the Middle East, but the fracking here and the oil from Canada. It’s so important that we make the connections–militarism and corporate greed are so strongly connected. So those movements have to stay connected, we have to stay together.”

Clearly one of the important lessons learned—or relearned—in the forest defense movement in particular, is the importance of overcoming inevitable attempts by corporations to pit workers and environmental organizers against each other. And perhaps no single individual did more to overcome the divide between environmentalists and labor than environmentalist and labor organizer Judi Bari, who died in 1997 at the age of 47. The kick off of global Break Free events this summer, with the promise of more confrontations to come over the summer with fossil fuel companies, brings to mind the Redwood Summer of 1990, with May 24th marking the twenty-sixth anniversary of the car bombing that nearly killed Judi Bari and injured her partner Darryl Cherney. The bombing was followed by an FBI witch-hunt that haunted the final years of Bari’s life. In 2002, a jury verdict awarded $4.4 million dollars to Bari’s family and to Darryl Cherney in recognition of attempts by FBI agents and Oakland police officers to frame Bari and Cherney for the bombing that nearly took their lives. The bombing and subsequent smear campaign were, in a sense, tributes to Bari’s effectiveness in forging alliances between workers and environmentalists and mobilizing them together to confront corporate power.

King spoke to the attempts by logging companies to drive a wedge between workers and environmentalists. “The whole idea that it was environmentalists who were killing the forest jobs was not true. It was overlogging; it was shipping logs to Japan, which is still happening, and industry was blaming it on environmentalists when really there are sustainable ways to deal with forests.” One of the challenges of climate change organizing, King noted, will be to “keep that wedge from happening. It’s there, and I think we have to really deal with it.”

Tim Norgren, a member of Laborers’ Local 320, who went out with the Break Free kayaktivist flotilla, spoke to the disconnect that often exists between union leadership and rank and file members. “There’s a conflict between what you’re told from the top down by the people who supposedly support you and make things happen and what the real big picture is, what’s really going to hurt you vs. keep you alive.” Almost a year ago to the date, during Obama’s May 2015 visit to Portland to promote the Transpacific Partnership (TPP), Norgren, together with support from other Portland Rising Tide activists, locked down on the railroad tracks at a Northwest fuel terminal, his arm set in concrete, to protest the climate impacts of the TPP. While a coalition of unions came out against the TPP, his union leadership threw support behind it. The goal of the action, Norgren said, was to put his own union on notice and to send the message to Obama “that his talk about climate change is noticeably in conflict with his talk about free trade… He was there with Nike and others trying to promote the TPP, which is a farce. I mean, if you’re going to ship every material out of the country and then back and forth across the globe before it’s sold somewhere, you’re not doing anything about climate change. Especially when a lot of that raw material is being mined here and shipped over to factories without regulations.”

Norgren participated in the July 2015 Shell No! protests in Portland in which kayaktivists and Greenpeace climbers managed to delay for days the exit of Shell’s Fennica icebreaker bound for the Arctic to begin exploratory drilling. Norgren, headed into the river in a “kicked down kayak” he got in a work exchange and patched up to make it sea worthy. In what he described as “probably [his] third day ever in a kayak,” he described the experience of “see[ing] this gargantuan thing coming at this little tiny kayak,” and “facing the beast with exhilaration” with the recognition that “lives are on the line,” given the very real dangers that kayaktivists confronted on the water, as well as the very real threat that climate change poses to frontline communities and to planetary survival. The Portland action, which capped off similar actions in Seattle and Bellingham, generated international media coverage. Two months later, at the end of September, Shell announced its intent to suspend Arctic drilling for the “foreseeable future”.

Norgren was one of a number of activists at Break Free who cited participation in the Occupy movement as a catalyst to their climate change activism. Repeated mic checks on both the land and water were one of the more obvious indications of the influence of Occupy on Break Free organizing. But the connections, it seems, run deeper. Jade Summers, a Portland-based kayaktivist and organizer with “the Mosquito Fleet,” attributes her “radical awakening” to the Occupy Movement. In their organizing materials, the Mosquito fleet is described as a “A rapid response network of sailors, kayaktivists, artists, veterans and hackers engaging in direct action to halt the export of oil, gas, and coal through the Pacific Northwest.”

During nearly two years of involvement in Occupy New York, Summers was part of a work group called “Occupy Farms.” Activists lent a hand on two farms in upstate New York with a goal of community building while also helping to supply food to Occupy activists in New York City. In 2013, Summers struck out for the Tar Sands Blockade in Texas, and soon realized she wasn’t the only activist from Occupy in NYC to have headed out to the blockade. “[T]here were quite a few people out there” from Occupy. “The circles overlap tremendously….Fighting these resource corporations that are destroying our only home…I realized how all these things are connected—the crimes that are being committed on Wall Street, capitalism, social justice issues, the environment, and everything in between, and that my time was best spent trying to protect the places that we have left, that corporations haven’t destroyed completely yet.”

Norgren similarly credited Occupy with deepening his understanding of the connections between Wall Street, trade deals and climate change. As part of an Occupy affinity group, Norgren and other activists donned “hazmat suits” to protest in front of businesses affiliated with the American Legislative Exchange Council or ALEC. An estimated “98% of ALEC’s funding comes from corporations like Exxon Mobil, corporate ‘foundations’ like the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation, or trade associations like the pharmaceutical industry’s PhRMA and sources other than ‘legislative dues.’”

Portland substitute teacher Greg Sortir, a kayaktivist who participated in earlier Shell No! actions in both Seattle and Portland, also invoked ALEC as a driving force that links climate change and assaults on labor. “Organizations like ALEC,” Sortir observed, “have basically tried to game the system to destroy regulatory systems at the state level across the country and also attack teachers’ unions.”

Among the 52 people arrested in the railroad blockade in Anacortes was Jan Zuckerman, a retired Portland middle school teacher, and co-founder of Portland’s Sunnyside Environmental School. The school was founded in 1995, and Zuckerman and other teachers at the school have found ample opportunities for students to learn firsthand about environment direct actions unfolding in the Pacific Northwest. In the late 1990s, field trips took students out to observe and support tree sitters who put their lives on the line to protect the ancient forest in Eagle Creek. The protracted tree sit, accompanied by relentless lobbying and legal appeals succeeded in saving the stand from being included as part of a “salvage rider sale.”

More recently, Zuckerman, who continues to volunteer at the school has brought students down to witness court proceedings in Eugene, Oregon, where 21 youth plaintiffs, along with climate scientist Dr. James Hanson acting as a guardian for “future generations and his granddaughter” have brought suit against the federal government. The suit, which is being spearheaded by Our Children’s Trust, an Oregon NGO, contends that in “promoting the development and use of fossil fuels” with their attending climate impacts, “the federal government has violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources.”

On Tuesday, May 17, just back from Anacortes, and facing a June 2 arraignment on charges of criminal trespass later this month, Zuckerman was among six people to testify at a Portland School Board hearing in support of what is quite possibly the first “climate justice resolution” of its kind in the country, and a model for other school districts.

“I’m working with kids on climate issues and activism,” Zuckerman told me, “and trying to teach kids that it’s important to walk your talk, and so I just had to walk my talk.”

The resolution mandates that the school district “abandon the use of any adopted text material that is found to express doubt about the severity of the climate crisis or its roots in human activity” and that coursework be developed to “address climate change and climate justice in all Portland Public Schools.” It further mandates that “All Portland Public Schools students should … come to see themselves as activists and leaders for social and environmental justice—especially through seeing the diversity of people around the world who are fighting the root causes of climate change; and it is vital that students reflect on local impacts of the climate crisis, and recognize how their own communities and lives are implicated…”

Five of the six individuals testifying in favor of the legislation—Zuckerman; Bill Bigelow, a retired Portland high school teacher and curriculum editor of Rethinking Schools magazine; seventeen-year-old Gabrielle Lemieux; Harriet Cooke, a retired medical doctor; and Cheryl Lohrmann, director of the environmental nonprofit Create Plenty–had just returned from the Anacortes action. The resolution passed unanimously drawing a standing ovation from the crowd.

“The resolution is an acknowledgment,” said Zuckerman, “that we have to give students the opportunity to be climate justice warriors. They’re going to have to be.”

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Desiree Hellegers is a co-founder and affiliated faculty of the Collective for Social and Environmental Justice at Washington State University Vancouver, and author of No Room of Her Own: Women’s Stories of Homelessness, Life, Death and Resistance (Palgrave, 2011).

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