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Beyond Single Issues: Why the Climate Movement Must Stand with Ferguson

Deirdre Smith Sep 12

It was not hard for me to make the connection between the tragedy in Ferguson, Missouri, and the catalyst for my work to stop the climate crisis.

It was all over the news in August: images of police pointing military-grade weapons at unarmed black people with their hands in the air. These scenes made my heart race in an all-too-familiar way. I was devastated for Michael Brown, his family and the people of Ferguson. Almost immediately, I closed my eyes and felt the fear I have for my own family.

In the wake of the climate disaster that was Hurricane Katrina almost 10 years ago, I saw the same images of police, pointing military weapons at unarmed black people with their hands in the air. In the name of “restoring order,” my family and their community were demonized as “looters” and “dangerous.” When crisis hits, the underlying racism in our society comes to the surface in very clear ways.

I was outraged by Mike Brown’s murder, and at the same time wondered why people were so surprised; this is sadly a common experience of black life in America. In 2012, an unarmed black man was killed by authorities at the rate of every 28 hours, and it has increased since then.

Climate change is bringing nothing if not clarity to the persistent and overlapping crises of our time. The connection between it, militarized state violence and racism is commonsense and intuitive. I grew up black in America, specifically in New Mexico, a place ravaged by climate impacts. New Mexico is, as Oscar Olivera noted, showing the early signs of what sparked the Cochabamba Water Wars in Bolivia, which were yet another example of how oppression and extreme weather combine to “incite” militarized violence.

The problems of Cochabamba and Katrina are not just about the hurricane or the drought — they’re about what happened after. It is the institutional neglect of vulnerable communities in crisis, the criminalization of our people met with state violence, the ongoing displacement of New Orleans’ black residents through the demolition of affordable housing to make room for high-rise condos. It all adds up to corporations exploiting our tragedy using the tools of racism, division and dehumanization — what Naomi Klein calls the shock doctrine. And the problems are also about what happened before: how black and brown communities had fossil fuel extraction imposed on them in the first place, in the form of gas wells and coal and tar sands refineries in their backyards.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, black and brown people were seen as “disposable,” and the powers-that-be painted the victims and heroes as villains. After Mike Brown’s killing, we saw much of the same. The hashtag #iftheygunnedmedown trended on Twitter in reaction to the media’s prejudiced portrayal of Mike Brown and countless other victims like him. Black folks asked: if I were killed by police, how would I be portrayed? It illustrated how central a racist and victim-blaming cultural narrative is to media response in such situations.

If extreme weather is about droughts, floods, hurricanes and wildfires, the way people get treated in the wake of disaster is about power. A discourse that dehumanizes and blames the victims makes black and brown communities even more vulnerable than they already are in the wake of climate disasters. If we hope to build anything together, we must deny that anyone is an “other.” Dismantling this pervasive cultural norm isn’t easy, but it’s a crucial challenge we must overcome.

Environmental Racism

Communities of color and poor communities are hit hardest by fossil fuel extraction, as well as neglected by the state in the wake of crisis. People of color also disproportionately live in climate-vulnerable areas. Similarly, state violence should concern us all, but the experience of young black men in particular in this country is unique. Those of us who are not young black men must step up to the challenge of understanding that we will likely never experience that level of demonization. That kind of solidarity is what it takes to build real people power — the kind of power that stands up unflinchingly to injustice, and helps us all win our battles by standing together.

This is difficult work. Some of it requires listening and working with racial justice organizations, and some of it requires introspection, questioning what we have been taught and healing from internal oppression. Part of that work involves climate organizers acknowledging and understanding that our fight is not simply with the carbon in the sky, but with the powers on the ground.

Many people have pointed out that the climate movement needs to understand our internal disparity of power too: between mainstream and grassroots organizations, between people of color and white folks, between the global north and the global south. We need to account for these things if we truly want to build the diverse movement leadership that we will need to win.

The events in Ferguson offer an important lesson if you’re a climate organizer, looking around the room, wondering where the “people of color” are. It’s a time to dig deep and ask yourself if you really care about why they aren’t there — and if you are committed to the deep work, solidarity and learning that it will take to bring more “diversity” to our movement. Personally, I think the climate movement is up to this necessary challenge.

Climate Change and State Repression

I can’t stress enough how important it is for me, as a black climate justice advocate, as well as for my people, to see the climate movement show solidarity with the people of Ferguson and with black communities around the country striving for justice. Other movements have stepped up to the plate: labor, LGBTQ and immigrant rights groups have all taken the firm stand that they have the backs of the black community. Solidarity and allyship is important in and of itself. The fossil fuel industry would love to see us siloed into believing that we can each win by ourselves on “single issues.” Now it’s time for the climate movement to show up — and show that we will not stand for the “othering” of the black community in America, or anyone else.

If we knew everything we needed to know about navigating the climate and ecological crises, we would have done it already. But as crisis escalates, as climate change gets worse, we had better get ready to see a whole lot more state violence and repression, unless we organize to change it. Now is the time to stand with and listen to the wisdom of our allies in other movements.

I could tell you all day about the brilliant and strategic analysis and leaders that exist in historically oppressed communities. I could tell you. But your path to understanding why solidarity is important is your own. Don’t miss this opportunity to dig in and show up. If we mitigate and adapt to the climate crisis, it will be because we understood our enemies and leveraged our collective power to take them down and let our vision spring up. Take a moment today to read the demands of the Dream Defenders, Freedomside and Organizing Black Struggle. Read about solidarity and white allyship, and identify anti-blackness showing up in your spaces. Take a moment today to really think about how we should confront the climate crisis and ask yourself if you’re willing to dive in for the long haul.

The more complex — and less comfortable — we allow ourselves to be, the more simple things actually become: We are in this together and our fights are connected. We don’t know everything by ourselves, but together we know enough.

Deirdre Smith is strategic partnership coordinator at 350.org, which published an earlier version of this piece.


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