Land and Water Defender Beginnings
In 2011, as a 20 year old activist new to the environmental movement I joined up with other like-minded people for a retreat in rural Wisconsin to plan and strategize our next steps. As a Black woman, it was painfully obvious that amongst the scores of people in attendance that there were very few people of color present. However, what was even more jarring than the racial disproportionality of the retreat was the attitudes of the white activists.
We were hanging out late at night in the living room of a retreat after a long day of workshops and trainings.
The overwhelming number of white activists and their views on race and the environment came to a head for me when I was asked,
“Damn, how do we get black people to care about the environment?”
This is what a white environmentalist (with dreads no less) asked me years ago. Being new to environmental spaces, I was dumbfounded by this comment. I took a long deep sigh, and thought, aren't I Black? Didn't I spend countless hours turning people out for direct actions? It was at this moment I began to realize that I was scoring points for the organization with frontline folks while within the organization I was in a sea of white people who saw me as a token.
Yet I knew that Black people care about the environment - about lead paint in housing, parks in the neighborhood, clean water and clean air. We have to care because we are disproportionately affected by the processes of capitalist environmental degradation.
Historically “environmentalism” was not the modality through which Black people explicitly addressed these issues. It was only later that I realized the lack of orientation that white-dominated environmental groups had toward people of color, and Black people in particular, helped to reinforce the alienation of marginalized communities from the wider environmental movement.
It is no wonder that so many of our people see environmental issues as largely the concern of privileged white people. Far too often we hear more about the protection of wild places we have little access to and not about the incinerators, refineries and mines that pollute our air and water. Anti police brutality movements such as Black Lives Matter struggles have focused attention on deaths of Black people through police terror, however, it is only recently that cases like Flint, Michigan and Newark, New Jersey, majority Black cities with no access to clean water, have gotten notice.
Because of racist housing practices like redlining, Black people have been forced to live near refineries and incinerators at higher rates compared to white people. According to a recent study from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, white people bear the burden of 17 percent less air pollution than is generated by their own consumption. Meanwhile, Blacks and Latinos experience 56 percent and 63 percent more exposure, respectively, than is caused by their consumption. Even still, it is not the consumption habits of workers that is causing this crisis. It is a political and economic system based on the accumulation of profits and ever expanding markets that is pushing the earth over the edge. Individual actions such as taking shorter showers or passing on plastic straws is not going to change that.
The Environmental Non-Profit Industrial Complex
There is an indisputable failure to respond to the needs of those in the midst of climate destruction. We saw this during Hurricane Katrina and more recently in Puerto Rico and in the Bahamas. People fleeing the devastation in the Bahamas are being turned away from asylum in the U.S. Migrants from south of the border fleeing in part from environmental chaos are being detained and separated from their children.
Thousands of people have been displaced without real care and are left to be exploited by non governmental agencies that promise funds yet withhold many of the donations that people are giving. The Red Cross, for example, withheld hundreds of millions of dollars of aid that was meant to go to Haiti after its earthquake in 2010.The Red Cross was also getting huge donations during Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Occupy Sandy, a multiracial grassroots formation, lacked the funds of big NGOs, yet was able to do imperative disaster relief work such as providing food, removing mold in houses, and delivering medications to cancer and HIV patients. The same can be said of anarchist disaster relief collective Common Ground and the aid they gave following Hurricane Katrina.
Groups like Occupy Sandy and Common Ground have a much more limited supplies compared to big environmental and disaster relief NGOs. If funds were instead given to grassroots formations the work would be greatly improved.
Big Green NGO’S hurt the movement by co-opting the struggles of frontline communities. The documentary End Civ gives and account of an incident that took place in Canada. The very grassroots direct action that sparks struggles is too often co-opted by large non profits.
In the 1990s the Nuxalk Nation fought in a direct action campaign to stop logging on their traditional land known as the Great Bear Rainforest. Indigenous people started the fight and big green organizations like the Sierra Club and Greenpeace co-opted the struggle. Without the consent of the indigenous people, they cut a deal with the logging company for only 20% conservation of the forest .
In the end, we in the environmental justice movement have demonstrated time and time again that we are better able to protect our communities ourselves, even without proper funding or support from individuals and institutions that have the most resources.
Colonialism and Imperialism
In and outside of the imperial centers, the working people in oppressed communities contribute the least to pollution yet face the brunt of the consequences. Without a firm commitment to climate justice our people are going to be left to die by the imperial powers and a white dominated environmental movement more concerned with not alienating white society than addressing the suffering of marginalized communities.
Through the IMF and World Bank, third world countries are forced to destroy their environment to pay off costly “development” loans. Imperialism drives the destruction and the failure of the U.S mainstream (white) environmental movement to address it is nothing short of a complete failure to address the root causes that puts the human race at risk of extinction.
The exploitation of colonized people’s land globally has resulted in irreparable damage. Desertification from the destruction of the forests that act as carbon sinks is the result of neocolonialism. We are seeing it right now with the destruction of the Amazon. The fascist Bolsonaro government in tandem with Western corporations are profiting off of the destruction of the Amazon. The Amazon is considered the lungs of the planet with 20% of our oxygen being released from it. If the Amazon disappears there is no going back. On the home front, due to high profile environmental justice struggles such as Standing Rock and the Flint water crisis, the reality of the impact of pollution for colonized people in the U.S. is being acknowledged more. Still, our communities have not been given the attention and resources they deserve. Acknowledgment is not the same as transformative action and material support rooted in decolonization and reparations. Also, even if the disproportionate impact on us is acknowledged, the lack of an anticolonial framework holds back our work in the U.S and across the globe to address the climate crisis.
I made the decision we all have to make at some point: embrace hopelessness and quit or stand up and fight. I have found that the best place for me to fight back is with Extinction Rebellion U.S. (XR US). Extinction Rebellion is a global movement with thousands of people with the strategy to employ coordinated city and government shutdowns to win our demands:
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1. That the Government must tell the truth about the climate and wider ecological emergency, it must reverse all policies not in alignment with that position and must work alongside the media to communicate the urgency for change including what individuals, communities and businesses need to do.
2. The Government must enact legally-binding policies to reduce carbon emissions to net zero by 2025 and take further action to remove the excess of atmospheric greenhouse gases. It must cooperate internationally so that the global economy runs on no more than half a planet’s worth of resources per year.
3. We do not trust our Government to make the bold, swift and long-term changes necessary to achieve these changes and we do not intend to hand further power to our politicians. Instead we demand a Citizens’ Assembly to oversee the changes, as we rise from the wreckage, creating a democracy fit for purpose.
It is my understanding that we support and contribute to single issue fights out of our obligation to love and support one another as well as to build capacity for large scale disruptions that cause economic and political damage. We know single issue fights are not and haven't been enough to bring about the sweeping changes we need in the little time we have left.
It would be a lie to say that I have not faced negative racial dynamics within XR. XR was created by white middle class academics and it is still a white dominated organization (with mostly indigenous leadership in the US however). I deal with all the challenges that come with these dynamics. That said, XR US is committed to a just transition for colonized and poor communities. We see that ignoring racial and economic injustice is a great moral and strategic mistake that would significantly water down our rebellion.
Still, there is more to be done. Alycee Lane, an African American XR US member had this to say:
"I joined up with XR because it is committed to the kind of nonviolent direct action we need to address our climate crisis. Our economic and political elites are driving us off the climate cliff and they don't give a damn. So we need to answer this with radical nonviolent direct action and noncooperation. XR understands this.
What XR doesn't yet understand fully but I believe it will is that noncooperation means we must actually do the difficult work of both decolonizing the world in which we live, and the way we live our daily lives. As I've argued in my book (The Wretched of Mother Earth), we are facing this crisis because we are attached to a “world system” that constitutes “the continuity of colonial forms of domination,” which of course includes capitalism itself. That world system is driving mass extinction, and it is truly creating the conditions for human extinction. And so we cannot cooperate with it under any circumstances.
No, XR is not perfect and it is not going to be. But at least it is rising to the danger we are facing."
We also stand by just transition for workers forced to make a living through destructive jobs because they currently have no other choice. For too long environmentalists have failed to address labor’s concerns about unemployment and making sure green technology is done through union contracts. The Just Transition framework was created to address these concerns.
The Climate Justice Alliance gives a succinct explanation of Just Transition’s roots:
“Just Transition strategies were first forged by labor unions and environmental justice groups, rooted in low-income communities of color, who saw the need to phase out the industries that were harming workers, community health and the planet; and at the same time provide just pathways for workers to transition to other jobs. It was rooted in workers defining transition away from polluting industries in alliance with fence line and frontline communities. Its roots are in the civil rights movement and are in sharp contrast to the mainstream environmental movement, which has failed to understand or address this injustice. The EJ movement emphasizes bottom up organizing, centering the voices of those most impacted, and shared community leadership.
Just Transition means the ability of workers, POC and Indigenous people to survive and thrive in ecologically based communities that are resilient and democratic.
XR US realizes we are on stolen land with stolen hands and that it is absolutely necessary to address that past and the current reality if we aim to win. Imperialism and class society are the foundational global systems that are destroying communities and destroying the earth. Marginalized communities globally are the hardest hit by climate change/environmental devastation and sacrifice the most to stop ongoing destruction. According to National Geographic's piece “Indigenous people defend the Earth’s Biodiversity- but they’re in danger”, Indigenous people make up 5% of the earth's population and protect 80% of the remaining biodiversity. These efforts are not without risk. According to NGO Global Witness 164 environmentalists were killed in 2018.The majority of environmental activists killed lived in pre-dominantly non-white and economically struggling nations.
It is for all of these reasons and others that Extinction Rebellion US adopted the fourth demand:
“We demand a just transition that prioritizes the most vulnerable people and indigenous sovereignty; establishes reparations and remediation led by and for Black people, Indigenous people, people of color and poor communities for years of environmental injustice, establishes legal rights for ecosystems to thrive and regenerate in perpetuity, and repairs the effects of ongoing ecocide to prevent extinction of human and all species, in order to maintain a livable, just planet for all.”
There has been controversy that such a stand could alienate people, white people specifically. To that I say this: Our goal is to get 3.5% of the population mobilized. It’s time to stop thinking about our target audience as middle class white people. Those who are already fighting are the most likely to join us in mass. Whether it be social pollutions such as police terrorism, or environmental threats such as tar sands and pipelines, the truth remains the same: poor Black and indiginous people who are on the frontlines of the struggle are the most likely to throw down.
People should support the strategy of Extinction Rebellion to coordinate nationwide disruption of business as usual. Fighting individual infrastructure fights can only take us so far. It will take US cities nationally coming to a standstill in order to make pivotal changes around climate justice. Given our dire situation nothing short of mass scale rebellion is necessary to meet this crisis head on. Still, the movement also would do well to fund and materially support these frontline groups doing direct action. Far too often frontline defenders are running on shoestring budgets while white dominated liberal nonprofits rake in millions. People with resources serious about the climate crisis should also consider sponsoring frontline land and water defenders. Too often I have seen those risking the most for the earth and their communities struggle to pay their rent and take care of their children. The money and resources are there but its not reaching the frontline.
I saw this during the Dakota Access Pipeline Struggle first hand. We in Mississippi Stand fought the pipeline on the Iowa front. We executed a number of lockdowns and blockades in efforts to stop the pipeline. Our work cost the operating company, Energy Transfer, millions of dollars yet we were often functioning without legal representation and pushing our own personal vehicles to the brink while traveling all across the Midwest. This, however, is nothing new for those committed to grassroots direct action. Those engaged in frontline direct action MUST be better supported going forward.
To other black and brown folks reading this i cant promise you it will be easy. I will say this: this is a rare and golden opportunity. A movement of this magnitude calls for our participation. We have a chance to shape XR US to be the truly liberatory movement it must become.
Without us leading the climate movement and having our struggles supported we are guaranteed to fail. The rate of destruction is not even slowing down, let alone stopping. We have a world to save and there is no saving it without destroying settler colonialism and capitalism. That is the bottom line of any real rebellion to save ourselves from extinction. Is the white middle class environmental movement going to abandon the very oppressive system destroying the earth which provides them comfort? Black, Indiginous, and other frontline communities will be fighting regardless. For there is no liberation on a dead planet.