People vs Fossil Fuels: MNIPL in DC

During the week of October 11, 2021, hundreds of Indigenous and Native people, environmental and climate activists, and more than 150 people of faith converged in Washington DC for People vs Fossil Fuels. They joined in solidarity, and risked arrest, to build pressure on President Biden to stop fossil fuel projects and declare a climate emergency.

Hundreds marched daily to the White House, with anywhere from 90-155 people engaging in nonviolent civil disobedience and many others supporting them through song, speakers, and chants. All in all, over 650 people were arrested throughout the week. During the week, participants met and heard stories from people fighting fossil fuels in their communities from across the country, as we learned how our struggles are united.

Even as Congress inches toward a federal bill with historic investments in climate action, we know it won’t be enough to limit warming to 1.5 Celsius. To do this, we need to keep fossil fuels in the ground—and President Biden has the executive power to do so! (You can also contact your Congresspeople to pass the Build Back Better framework.)

Below are photos from the week of action. Find many more on social media using #PeoplevsFossilFuels. Special thanks to Minnesota’s Multi-Faith Delegation: Charissa Verdoorn, Sam Benson, Clairece Cooke, Nancy Dennis, Donna and Bob Goodlaxson, Jean Hammink, Onryu Kennedy, and Ann Schulman!

We are also honored to included excerpts of reflections written by Clairece Cooke, a member of Unity Church-Unitarian in St. Paul, MN.

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Excerpts of Reflections from Clairece Cooke

Clairece Cooke outside the White House

Clairece, along with Jean Hammink, are members of Unity Church-Unitarian’s “Act for the Earth” delegation. To read the full text of Clairece’s reflections, click here for a Google Doc.

Privilege & Protest

This week both Jean and I risked arrest. Me on Tuesday and Jean on Wednesday. Each day, all of those who chose to risk arrest would stand along the north gate of the White House while those supporting would stand across the street behind a barrier in Lafayette Square. Across this divide we listened to the testimonies from frontline leaders, chanted, cheered, sang, and raised our fists in solidarity.

As we made our way to the White House on those days we felt anticipation, anxiety, and fear. But, we also felt courage, support from those around us, and the steadfast resolution that comes with standing up for something you believe in. Once lined up against the fence, breaking the law by gathering with one another on that sidewalk, the police created a police line with tape around the protesters. They then began to give warnings, informing us that what we were doing (obstructing the view for tourists) was unlawful, and were told we would be arrested if we did not disperse. This process continued with two additional warnings before arrests started.

Protesters were led away two or three at a time to be processed. We were taken to a tent that had been set up onsite, asked to show our IDs, and checked in a system for open warrants. Then, we were asked by another officer if we wanted a $50 ticket or if we wanted to walk away with no further repercussions. Yes, walk away. No handcuffs, no zip ties, no fine, no court date, and no jail time.

Now, we didn’t come to this protest to be able to boast about our arrest, glorify civil disobedience, or portray ourselves as saviors making a huge sacrifice. So, I am not sad that I was given a favorable option. However, I write about this to point out that this is not everyone’s experience. Often these same actions have much more severe consequences for BIPOC people. For example, on Monday when the group arrested more largely consisted of native leaders, those arrested were not offered the option to walk away. They were all given $50 tickets. Similarly, indigenous protesters in Minnesota participating in nonviolent civil disobedience consistently faced harsher treatment and greater consequences. DC natives arrested for any other reason spend their night in the DC’s central cellblock. Which has been described to me as spending a night sleeping on a cold metal slab with roaches and eating moldy bologna sandwiches.

Oftentimes disobedience, breaking the law, is the only option left to frontline groups. They have petitioned, voted, called, and written their elected officials, attended public hearings, perused lawsuits, rallied, and submitted formal requests, yet they still face atrocities in their communities. Circumstances that make their cities and homes unlivable, yet they are ignored. As was echoed in one of the chants used throughout the week, “when the people occupied, resistance is justified”.

In our justice system, different aspects of my physical appearance and identity arbitrarily give me immense privilege and mean that I am treated as though I have more worth than those who are different from me. Knowing this I do not believe it is useful to feel guilty about that privilege. Do not mistake me, those of us with it must absolutely recognize our privilege. However, the next step is not to feel guilt, but to, until we reside in a society where every person is fully valued, utilize and leverage that privilege to make that corrupt system more just.

President Joe Biden, do you choose people or fossil fuels?

Leaders in frontline communities have been asking Biden to do just that all week. These are communities that voted for Biden in the hopes that their voices would be heard, but thus far in his presidency, Biden has only succeeded in ignoring them. A silence that for them directly results in the violent destruction of their communities by fossil fuel companies.

Frontline leaders spoke to the devastating impacts of flooding and hurricanes in DC and Delaware, the frequency and intensity of which have only been increased due to climate change. There many BIPOC communities find themselves living in areas prone to flooding and equipped with inadequate infrastructure. In both DC and Delaware minimum wage is less than $10 an hour preventing many low-income citizens from purchasing flood insurance making it almost impossible to rebuild after a disaster.

Other leaders from Texas and Louisiana shared their experiences with Formosa plastic and other chemical plants being built in their communities. These plants contaminate water and make the air hard to breathe. They often have chemical spills, leaks, and explosions that force residents to shelter in place, seal their doors and windows, shut off their air-conditioning (even in the sweltering summers) and leave them hoping that they have enough supplies to last until they are able to leave again. The most devastating of the impact of these plastic plants being the sheer number of people in these communities with cancer. All of these speakers told of the weekly occurrence of funerals, and the fact that you would not find a single person in their communities that did not know someone who had cancer or have cancer themselves.

As a UU knowing we strive to build a world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all, hearing from these frontline leaders about the impacts on their communities, and seeing the inaction at the White House, I am also compelled to ask Biden that he take action. These communities should not have to suffer at the hands of the fossil fuel industry and Biden has the ability to make that happen.

False Solutions

When it comes down to it, I care about climate change because I care about people. In the end, I believe even if we are whipped off the face of the planet by the crisis we have created, nature will rebound and flourish again. Don’t get it twisted, I’m not excited to see the planet destroyed or to see species go extinct, but sometimes because we have been systematically taught to devalue the struggle of some, we need to be reminded that this fight is for them too. We are not just fighting for ourselves, for nature, for the people we know, or the generations that will come after us, but all people. That whole gosh dang interdependent web of life and that includes those who are already facing the devastation of this crisis on our world’s frontlines. For them, for all of us, we must learn to listen better, to see more clearly, and refuse to accept these false solutions.

Becoming a Co-Conspirator

While at People vs Fossil Fuels, in addition to our daily protests and smaller sub-actions, we also gathered at Freedom Plaza from 6 to 8 pm every evening to get training for the next day. These trainings included learning songs, reviewing the plan for our action, and receiving a legal training. During this time we also often got to hear from speakers who did what I would consider to be mini-workshops on different topics.

My favorites, or maybe the most impactful for me, were the mini-workshops lead by Kevin Cramer. Kevin is a local DC organizer and a co-founder of the Palm Collective a black-led organization fighting systematic racism in DC. Kevin talked to us about many things but the one I want to touch on here is the idea of being a co-conspirator. A co-conspirator is someone who, rather than simply being an ally who says that your fight is important, is someone out there doing the work both within themselves and on the frontlines, fighting with those who are suffering injustice.

Who we center – Often we find that frontline voices are minimized. This happens in decision-making processes where the voices of impact communities are either not consulted altogether or, even if they are heard, given no power in the decision-making process. Just like how a group of men does not adequately understand how to legislate when it comes to a woman’s body we do not know the best solutions for the problems facing frontline communities, they do. This failure to listen to BIPOC leaders also occurs when we (white people) center ourselves in discussions. This happens especially when we are being told how we can do better. Jumping in and cutting someone off to apologize or tell someone about how you didn’t mean to do something (especially if not just you but a group being addressed) is not the move. This centers the conversation on you and not on what that person (that you have already affronted) is trying to tell you. It will be hard and uncomfortable but that is the time to listen.

The safety of presence – It is just a fact that whatever you do if you are white, (and even more so if you are a cis, straight, able body, male) from sleeping, to standing on the street, to nonviolent civil disobedience you are less likely then a person of color to receive a consequence, be a victim of violence, or die at the hands of the police. Therefore, if you are participating in an action and police become involved this is not the time to walk away from the BIPOC people you are allying with. Your presence, you stepping forward and not back can act to deescalate a situation and will likely make it safer for those involved.

Our duty to teach – We can’t rely on marginalized groups to teach everyone everything there is to know about what it means to be a true co-conspirator. That is a huge burden to put on communities that already face so many hurdles. Those of us in the dominant culture must bear some of that burden. Specifically, when we are so blessed as to be given this knowledge it is our job not to hold on to it for ourselves, but to share this with our community – exactly why I am writing this right now.

Imagining Indigo

Do not give in to the story of the future that has been imposed upon you. Have the courage to dream boldly of that indigo world. Our dreams are powerful visions of the future that allow us to walk towards the world we wish to live in and our imaginations are the tools that allow that vision to take shape. Let us make that indigo dream so, amen.

Our future was blue and we felt it hard to go on
We mourned what had not yet even come to pass
We were devastated for what those people would experience
For the fate of our future
And then we realized that it was not yet here
it was our imaginations, not the future that had been set in stone, encased in concrete, sealed away
so we unlocked the cages and let our imagination run free
with courage, we dreamed of a whole new future
and then with that clear vision leading us forward, we walked steadfastly
many feet treading to make well worn that path, once unknown
laboring together to bring about the birth of our indigo world.