April 28, 2011

Why Going to Jail for Climate Justice is More than a Responsibility: A Closer Look at Our Movement’s Tactics

Washington, D.C., for better or worse, always feels like a losing battle.  I am educated enough to know that our politics are polluted by corporate money.  I have lobbied enough to know that even congressional allies will say the political climate “isn’t right” for climate legislation.  I have even been arrested enough to know that 100 people committing civil disobedience in front of the White House isn’t enough to move leaders on a moral issue. So what gives?

Though I am often discouraged by my time in D.C., I still made the trek to Power Shift 2011 if only to meet with other youth equally confused about the direction of our movement.  It is clear to me, at least on the national political stage, that we are not winning.  The EPA is under attack, climate legislation is off the agenda until 2013, and mountaintop removal mining is still legal in the U.S. court of law.  So we have a lot to reflect on as a movement.  This time I went to Power Shift not with any definitive strategies or answers, but with many questions about what’s next for young people willing to dedicate their lives to confronting the climate crisis.  The main question that guided me throughout the weekend was this: In the face of all these challenges, how can I be most effective?

I spent some time in the Clean Economy Track, where I have a personal connection with Grand Aspirations, a youth-led organization that is building the clean economy from the ground up.  I am one of three Chicago Program Leaders for the Summer of Solutions, a Grand Aspirations leadership-training program running in 15 cities this summer.  Solution-based work like this is a major component of my answer to the question of how to be most effective. We need to draw the line in the sand as a movement and say “no” to the polluters, but we also need to offer our society the “yeses” that build the clean and just future we are demanding.  The Summer of Solutions is just one of several summer programs that are offering those “yeses”.

Still, there is a need to say “no”.  If the Summer of Solutions and other programs like it were to end U.S. consumption of fossil fuels today, we would still have the problem of dirty energy exports, which are growing in volume from U.S. extractors.  Even this is an ideal situation.  The fact of the matter is we continue to burn coal, natural gas, gasoline, and diesel fuels in power plants and vehicles all around this country and in alarming quantities. And everywhere these fuels burn, there are communities absorbing the negative effects of toxic pollution.

So, before our solution-based organizing gets to the point of displacing these dirty energy sources, there is a need for communities and solidarity organizers to stand up to the pollution wrought by the fossil fuel industry. If we don’t say “no” now, we accept the exploitation of people and whole communities in exchange for convenience and profit. Is this a world we would be proud to leave our grandchildren?

Not satisfied solely by solution-based work, I returned to Chicago to take action against two of the oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants in the United States. On April 20th, as a part of Rising Tide North America’s Day of Action Against Extraction, I joined five other Chicagoans in unfurling a banner on top of a coal pile at the Crawford Generation Station in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago.  We carried a message penned by the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, which read “Close Chicago’s Toxic Coal Plants”.  A rally of local residents and allies took place on the street side of the fence where another banner reading, “Si al pueblo, No al carbon”, was prominently displayed.  The English translation of the latter reads, “Yes to the people, no to coal.”



Six of us went to jail that day to draw attention to a local injustice.  We have put the company on notice and after packing the lobby of City Hall for a hearing on the issue the next day, it is clear that we won’t back down.  But what is next for our movement? Will we continue to push our tactics and speak LOUDER until we are heard? Or will we allow ourselves to be silenced by the corporate pollution of our politics and the fear of going to jail for speaking the truth?

This post is intentionally left open ended for greater discussion. What are the tactics that will allow us to win? We can’t raise billions of dollars to influence Capitol Hill, so how do we level the playing field? I think our movement needs to take a close look in the mirror and consider how we respond to a political process mired in inequitable access and influence. 

So I ask, in the face of all these challenges, how will YOU be most effective?


I think it's great that we all agree with this and think it's the right way for this "movement" to shift, but agreeing with it and actually doing it are two different things. How can we collectively create this tactic shift in our movement in order to be most effective and get the most accomplished/the most attention?

I could not agree more with this post. I think it's high time that this movement started showing some real leadership, and stopped shying away from the most effective, proven tactics of past social justice movements in our country. The American tradition of civil disobedience has been systematically vilified and rendered taboo by powerful vested interests. It's up to our generation to reverse and undo that trend, and return civil disobedience to its rightful place in the public forum and political discourse.

Great work Peter! I've seen that dirty coal plant and chocked on its polluted air. It's a disgusting sight. Glad that there are dedicated organizations like LVEJO and people like you who are launching into direct action after Power Shift.

The environmental and climate justice movement has been lobbying, sending written or online petitions, and asking nicely for decades now and where has it gotten us? There has been no meaningful climate legislation passed, millions of acres of land continue to be given away for coal mining, oil drilling, and natural gas drilling, and mega corporations are now allowed to contribute as much $$$ as they want into the political process. We can no longer be afraid of confronting the opposition head-on. Organizations like Rising Tide and Peaceful Uprising have got it right. Time to send our leaders a message that we will no longer be listening to their rules as long as they refuse to listen to us.

That's my Powershift roomie, everyone! Ain't he a champ?

It's time we take a real stand and stop wasting time asking for help and fixes from politicians. I think we have to do exactly what Tim DeChristopher said (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=81EZUkYzrxU), if we're not willing to make sacrifices how can we expect other people to change and/or make sacrifices? However, we cannot just tear down the system without offering an example of what our society should look like, which is why solutionary work like what GA does is so important.

Should we escalate our actions to the "feds" point that Tim DeChristopher spoke about? Seems like we're definitely at the point of "making" the president live up to our standards (in the way FDR once said "Make me" under pressure from the people).