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Grassroots Activists Say Climate Change Demands System Change

Cindy Wiesner and Gopal Dayaneni of Climate Justice Alliance. (Screen grab via GRITtv)

It’s remembered as the global march for climate justice, but how did that word “justice” get into the title of the huge rallies that took place in New York and other cities this September?

Money media typically do such a bad job of covering social movements that you’d be forgiven for thinking the title came about by magic or chance, but far from it – the broader justice framework represented months of concentrated work by experienced organizers.

“The global justice movement, the antiwar movement, the climate movement: We are now part of a much larger, more systemic movement that really sees the interrelationships between all these systems and climate destruction.”

Movement veterans, Gopal Dayaneni and Cindy Wiesner are two of those organizers. With the Climate Justice Alliance, their vision of change is broader and more systemic than that of the traditional Big Green environmental organizations.

What has it taken to change the language of the movement? Is the rhetorical change more than branding? Are there costs to grassroots radicals for collaborating with the Big Greens?

As the debates around the climate justice march swirled, I sat down with Wiesner and Dayaneni in late September. What follows is a gently edited transcript of that conversation.

Laura Flanders: You put global justice first. It was a global justicemovement. Yet in a lot of the press it was called the “Climate March.” What’s the distinction, Gopal?

Gopal Dayaneni: I think that’s a really good observation. There has been what I think is a really important transition in the discussion about climate to recognize the economic, social, political, racial and gender-justice dimensions as central to the crisis. We are now at a place where, not just issue silos are getting broken down, but entire “movement mythologies” are getting broken down. The global justice movement, the antiwar movement, the climate movement: We are now part of a much larger, more systemic movement that really sees the interrelationships between all these systems and climate destruction.

Cindy Wiesner: We see this as a growing movement around systems change – not climate change – and trying to build the political perspective of our alliances, our networks and our agenda.

“Grassroots organizing has kept more industrial carbon out of the atmosphere than any state or federal policy to date in the United States.”

We’re very clear about what we’re saying “no” to, but we’re also beginning to lift up what we’re saying “yes” to. What’s very exciting is these paradigm shifts are the actual examples of local living economies from our work here in the US around Just Transition, to what’s happening in the Andean region around Buen Vivir to what’s happening in Europe around the Great Transition and the Commons movement and deglobalization.

That’s an exciting moment. As we fight against these agendas, we’re also very clear about what we need to build, and the social movements are having more attention than they’ve had in a while.

How would you describe the differences between the groups in your alliance and the groups that people are familiar with in the money media – Sierra Club, Green Peace, even

Wiesner: Our groups are embedded in communities that we say are “frontline” or “fenceline” communities. People who have been organizing around [issues] like the Peabody Coal Company in Black Mesa, Arizona, or the communities like APEN (Asian Pacifica Environmental Network) and Communities for a Better Environment in Richmond fighting against the Chevron refinery; here folks fighting against the incinerator in Detroit. Also, EMEAC (Eastern Michigan Environmental Action Council) fighting against the incinerator and the food deserts that exist there.

It’s usually led by people of color; it’s usually led by working-class folks; it usually does work. We do a lot with not too many resources, but I think what we do is make the interconnections around the fights against the toxics and the dumping that happens, to police brutality, to issues at the workplace, because I think people really see it as integrated.

So how does that change the demands that come out of a mobilization like this? People said there were no demands: I saw a lot actually on the streets of New York.

Dayaneni: Yeah, that’s right. I think there are a few very key things that are different. For one thing, there is a growing public sense of urgency around climate, but that urgency has been with folks on the front lines of this fight for a very long time. In fact, the kinds of struggles that people have been engaged in and the victories that folks have been having are the sorts of solutions that we need. Grassroots organizing has kept more industrial carbon out of the atmosphere than any state or federal policy to date in the United States.

So, for example, there hasn’t been a coal-based incinerator built in the United States in over 15 years. We’re shutting down coal-fired power plants on a regular basis. Communities across rural parts of [the United States] are stopping fracking by taking local action and passing rights of nature ordinances that are asserting their right to be free of these impacts.

“The center of gravity of the movement was grassroots organizing, frontline communities, alliances between communities of color, indigenous communities, working-class white folks.”

And at the same time, folks are building an economy in their communities that can sustain them as the solution. What was really different about this mobilization is that it wasn’t just a mobilization about being against something: It was a mobilization about being for something. Being for an economy that works for people and the planet. We can point to the communities across this country who have been building – not just new social movement relationships – but new economic power and political power in their communities.

Whether it’s folks who are taking on the food systems’ transformation as a struggle against the extractive industries [or] communities who are advocating for community-controlled public power as an antidote to the investor-owned utilities, these are the kinds of solutions that are coming from grassroots organizations and their allies across this country.

And yet there were criticisms and criticisms from the left from Chris Hedges, Arun Gupta – who said that kind of movement mission for radical social transformation is incompatible with a PR-driven, corporate-friendly grass-top, if you will, march like the climate march in New York.

Dayaneni: Well, I think social movements are so much more complicated than people want to admit, for one thing. And I actually think there are some really important values that come out of something like the mobilization and the role of the Climate Justice Alliance and Grassroots Global Justice Alliance – which brought together a lot of the international folks who participated. It’s a snapshot of where the social movement is, and where the center of gravity is in the climate movement right now.

Copenhagen [the Copenhagen Climate Summit of 2009] was probably our last major mobilization around climate and the center of gravity of the movement was a minefield of false solutions. Folks were advocating anything. “Anything is better than nothing,” which of course, you know, almost always leads to nothing.

This time, the center of gravity of the movement was grassroots organizing, frontline communities, alliances between communities of color, indigenous communities, working-class white folks. You saw a different face of the movement, and you saw cooperation between folks like the Climate Justice Alliance, and Grassroots Global Justice Alliance and others working with the folks at Flood Wall Street in a relationship that was one of accountability, of shared messaging. That’s something that we didn’t see before.

So both the peaceful march and rally and the planned civil disobedience street-blocking down at Wall Street.

Dayaneni: Which was also peaceful.

Wiesner: I think that was significant. I feel like part of what ended up happening was that the Climate Justice Alliance put out a call, because for us it’s never just been about the mobilization. It is as important how we build the road to the mobilization, and actually more importantly what happens afterward.

“We’re not going to influence those forces by not engaging them. We’re going to influence those forces by coming into it with our own power.”

If there’s going to be any resources that are going to be raised, how are we building up our bases in the process? How are we building our power? How are we building in a qualitatively different way to do that? I think that was very important. The second thing is that we made a call to action that people took up. It was the former brothers and sisters from Occupy that said, “We want to be accountable, and in relationship in a different way.” That direct action community really struggled.

“We just want to disrupt business as usual,” which is absolutely what we agree with, but then a lot of the folks there struggled internally to say, “but we want to be in relationship to folks and we want to name capitalism as the bigger issue that we’re facing, but how do we also build with frontline communities?”

International social movement activists, [and] local and national organizers helped shape that action and what happened on the streets.

So that’s the relationship with the people, in broad strokes, to the “left” of you. What about the people to the right of you? How do you protect yourselves and your organizations from [being window dressing] in a march that at the end of the day is going to get behind corporate-endorsed solutions whether it’s carbon trading or creating a market or some other corporate-approved solution? How do you make sure you’re not just getting used?

Dayaneni: I think there are two kinds of big tent politics. There’s one kind of big tent politics, which is kind of the least common denominator politics, and that’s dangerous. That’s the idea that in order for us to all come together, we all have to agree to the thing that is, you know – everyone can agree to.

The other kind of big tent politic is: I am prepared to play with anyone. We are prepared to engage with anyone, but we are going to bring our full politics. We’re going to be very clear about what we’re about, what we’re demanding, what the solutions are and we’re going to navigate that and struggle with you in that. In the end, we’re going to stand together and see how this plays out in the movement.

Again, this idea of what’s the center of gravity that emerges. And you will find that folks are more open than we think. And we’re not going to get everybody. There are some mainstream environmental groups that are actually just corporate front groups and then there are groups like that are ready to think about what that bigger alliance is that we’re trying to build.

What’s the common ground that we can move forward?

“How do you build a new kind of economy from the bottom up in communities that is both about economic muscle and political muscle?”

I think one of the follow-ons to the People’s Climate March and then Flood Wall Street and then the tribunals, was also delivering our demands as a global social movement to the [United Nations]. And saying this is what needs to happen: You either do it, or get out of the way, kind of approach. We don’t need the permission of everybody else to assert the solutions that we know we need.

Again, it’s not an either/or. We’re not going to influence those forces by not engaging them. We’re going to influence those forces by coming into it with our own power. That’s what’s really happening now. And that’s what you’re seeing.

There were contingents at the People’s Climate March that were about prison abolition, that were connecting policing and prisons to climate disruption, that were connecting banks and housing foreclosures to climate disruption, that were connecting homelessness to climate disruption.

People are making the connections. If you have the systemic view, then you can see how the pieces fit together. And people were making that connection, and we haven’t seen that in a mainstream climate mobilization before. And that, I think, is really important and we shouldn’t, as the left, always jump to the easy critique. We should actually look for what it tells us about where we are as a movement right now and build on that assessment.

“Our Power” is also the name of a campaign. Do you want to tell us about it, Gopal?

Dayaneni: Yeah, sure. So, we are the Climate Justice Alliance. We are both part of Grassroots Global Justice Movement Generation along with 40 other organizations, mostly grassroots organizations here in this country. We’re engaged in a campaign around this notion of just transition. How do you build a new kind of economy from the bottom up in communities that is both about economic muscle and political muscle?

We can actually model the better way forward and it’s called the Our Power campaign. And when we say power, we mean energy, work, democracy. All the different kinds of power that matter in a community.

The ongoing work that we are building on at this moment has been going on for many years – the important work of grassroots organizing. Folks are engaged, not just in a campaign that’s about fighting against what you don’t like, but actually building what you know is needed in such a way that actually creates a visionary and oppositional economy.

That’s visionary in that it’s an economy from life – that people want to participate [in] and it’s oppositional, not in the sense that it talks about what’s bad, but that it actually contests for resources. Everything from our actual labor, to governance, to headspace to heart space.

That’s the kind of power we’re trying to build across all those different domains. You have these local strategies but [they] are connected across communities through a unified vision, shared strategies and common frames.

Can you give us one example?

Dayaneni: Sure. In Black Mesa, Arizona, the Black Mesa Water Coalition, which is one of our core partners, is indigenous organizing on the Navajo nation. They’ve been fighting Peabody Coal and a coal-fired power plant called the Navajo Generating Station.

Instead of just constantly fighting against those industries, they’re actually engaged in a campaign to build a solar transition for the Navajo Generating Station that would be owned by the Navajo people, and that would then generate the resources for them to advance their traditional lifeways economy. At the same time, they’re bringing back their traditional lifeways around the wool economy, which is a traditional economy for them, [and] their dryland farming systems. All of these things that actually make meaning are part of how they as a community make meaning of the world in which they live.

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