Above: Climate protest by Shadia Fayne Wood.
A series of actions that took place this summer helped to shift the climate movement’s center of gravity.
In Richmond, Calif., over two hundred people sat down at a Chevron oil refinery and refused to leave. Outside Boston, Mass., they were handcuffed at the state’s largest coal plant. On Seneca Lake in New York, they paddled a flotilla of kayaks across the water to protest a natural gas storage facility. In Utah, and Texas, and West Virginia, and in other places across the country, they simply placed their bodies in front of the land they wanted to protect.
This has been a #FearlessSummer: three hot months of nonviolent resistance to the fossil fuel industry in all its incarnations, from coal plants in Appalachia to oil refineries in California and fracking wells in Pennsylvania. Born of a potent mix of hope and desperation, #FearlessSummer represents a larger shift in the climate movement’s tactics: away from big-name organizations and electoral politics and toward decentralized, high-stakes direct actions led by those most at risk.
Some of those most at risk live on reservations in the Northern Plains, where the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, they fear, will threaten not only their land and water supply, but that of the entire region. For them, #FearlessSummer has been a rigorous preparation for more overt action. In Montana on August 23, activists began the latest in a series of “Moccasins on the Ground” trainings in preparation for the pipeline’s construction. They have vowed, if necessary, to stand in its way. Debra White Plume, an Oglalla Lakota activist from the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, has been leading these trainings across the region.
“They’re going to have to run over us, or destroy us, or put us in jail to have their pipeline,” she says.
Her sentiments are echoed in actions across the country, where organizers are turning to more creative and confrontational means of protest, including civil disobedience. The stakes are rising, it seems, along with temperatures—and years of unprecedented heat, drought, floods, and storms. 2012 was the hottest year on record in the United States; that summer, fires raged and corn withered on the stalks. And then there was Hurricane Sandy, which flooded subways and shredded boardwalks. As more people sweated and evacuated and watched the news in disbelief, they took notice: This is climate change. This demands action.
The idea for #FearlessSummer was hatched last February during an “anti-extraction summit” in upstate New York that included representatives from a wide variety of environmental justice organizations. Social media expert and environmental activist Joe Solomon was in attendance, and is still one of a loose collective of de facto organizers who have helped facilitate, promote, and connect the summer’s actions.
The biggest questions, he says, were: “How can we collaborate, coordinate, and build more power beyond the sum of our parts? How can we show the world we’re the united and super huge movement that we really are?”
Solomon doesn’t know for sure how many actions, large or small, have taken place over the last three months, but there’s no doubt that there’s been an almost unprecedented surge. Now, having come to full fruition, the summer has been a turning point.
“For one of the first times,” he says, “we’ve seen a glimpse of a movement that is led by frontline communities.” He hopes that’s what the future of the movement will look like, and envisions leadership “by people who live in shale country, by young people, by indigenous people, by people of color, by people who were smashed up by Sandy.”
#FearlessSummer organizers look to previous movements as models: the movements for Civil Rights and against the Vietnam War in the U.S., and the movement to end Apartheid in South Africa. In their view, this history shows that real social change is often led by those most affected by injustice, and that movements can succeed only when the thousands of local struggles are connected—and strengthened—under a common banner.
The most important connections might be geographical; all up and down the Keystone XL pipeline route, for example, communities are coordinating with and aiding one another. Volunteer organizers from Tar Sands Blockade have several times traveled 1,200 miles from the pipeline terminus in East Texas to assist with Moccasins on the Ground trainings on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, as well as with other workshops and actions farther north. And the solidarity goes both ways.
A closer look
Kim Huynh is one of these East Texas activists who has spent the last year with Tar Sands Blockade, organizing with local residents against Keystone’s construction. In many ways, her story parallels the trend towards direct action on the front lines. She spent several years working for environmental organizations in Washington, D.C., most recently as a member of Friends of the Earth’s campaign to stop the extraction of tar sands.
In 2011, Huynh says, she shared the growing disenchantment with the Obama administration’s environmental agenda and experienced firsthand how mass civil disobedience—the largest in 30 years—brought the tar sands and Keystone to national attention. She “watched the entire center of gravity in D.C. shift”—from inside-beltway lobbying to grassroots, community-based organizing. Then President Obama reversed his position and approved Keystone’s southern segment. Despite the professed outrage of more mainstream environmental leaders, in her view, no one was actually doing anything to stop its construction.
At that point, Huynh says, she saw how “inward-looking and insular” the largest and wealthiest environmental groups were, how removed they were from the urgency of the pipeline fight in the places where it was already affecting people’s lives.
The following year, when she heard about a small group of activists that were planning to block the pipeline, she left D.C. for good. “I felt like the most useful thing I could possibly be doing was to be in Texas,” she said, to support the people suffering most from the effects of oil spills and toxins from tar sands.
She’s been working on everything from campaign strategy to civil disobedience trainings, and in the last few months has been helping organize Houston’s Manchester neighborhood, where residents battle health problems caused by pollution from nearby oil refineries. She hopes to help strengthen ties between indigenous groups, landowners, and those who live close to oil refineries, all connected by the same long pipeline.
A year later, she’s still there.
#FearlessSummer isn’t quite over; there are more actions planned before the heat subsides. These actions haven’t yet brought the movement to a tipping point, haven’t yet matched the scale of their history-making predecessors. But the fact that they are spreading and growing is a promising sign. Huynh wonders what comes next. After all, how do you escalate tactics that are already—in the U.S., at least—considered confrontational?
“FearlesKs Summer will pass,” Joe Solomon says. “But we’re close to seeing the birth of a movement that’s far more ferocious and emboldened in its yearnings for justice—precisely because it’s led by the people with the most on the line.
Kristin Moe wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media project that fuses powerful ideas and practical actions. Kristin writes about climate, grassroots movements, and social change. Follow her on Twitter @yo_Kmoe.