People vs Fossil Fuels

In October of 2021, I had the opportunity to participate in the People vs Fossil Fuel Protest in Washington DC. I was sponsored to be able to attend People vs Fossil Fuels by the climate and environment outreach team at my church, Act for the Earth. These are my thoughts and reflections during that experience. Being that I was reporting back to my church I intentionally related many of my reflections back to my faith. However, regardless of your religious faith or lack thereof, I think that the experiences I share and the topics I cover here can be insightful to anyone interested in or curious about the climate justice movement, especially white folks (as that is the perspective I am writing from here). People vs Fossil Fuels is still an ongoing movement and you can check out the movement's demands / goals here

Originally completed: 1/14/2022

Last Edited: 2/11/2022

Delegate Introduction 

We are two delegates (Claire Cooke and Jean Hammink) from Unity Church Unitarians Act for the Earth outreach team journeying from St. Paul Minnesota to Washington DC to answer the call of frontline leaders to participate in the People vs Fossil Fuels action (taking place in the shadow of line 3 and in anticipation of the Glasgow climate talks), and to put our bodies on the line to fight for a fossil fuel free future for all people. 

Jean Hammink (she/her)

Jean is a member of Unity Church and leader of the Act for the Earth's Ensure Justice team. When she retired 3 years ago she decided to dedicate her time to climate justice work, joining Act for the Earth and the board of MNIPL

Claire Cooke (she/her)

Claire is a member of Unity Church and an active member of Act for the Earth's Ensure Justice team. She was engaged in environmental issues and climate change from a young age and studied environmental policy at the University of Minnesota. 

Originally completed: 10/12/2021

Last Edited: 2/11/2022

Reflection 1 - On the Frontline

On Monday 500 people participated in the People vs Fossil Fuels protest, marching from Freedom Plaza to the White House, calling on President Biden and his administration to end the fossil fuel era. 135 people then participated in direct action and were arrested.

Being that it was Indigenous Peoples' Day, the action was focused on indigenous leadership and how the fossil fuel industry has impacted these and other frontline, BIPOC communities. We were called to action by these same leaders to put our bodies on the line and to stand up with those on the frontline (you can hear their words through their written and video call to action). The fossil fuels industry puts many communities in harm's way through both the destruction and pollution brought on by the extractive process, as well as through the crisis brought on by a changing climate. These impacted areas are made into sacrifice zones and the communities that reside there, the people that reside there become sacrifices as well. Most often those sacrificed people are people of color. This is environmental racism (check out Hop Hopkins - Racism is Killing the Planet for more on this). In this way, the use of fossil fuels both does harm to the interconnected web of life and systematically devalues the worth of some people. If our goal as Unitarian Universalists is truly as our 6th principle says, "The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all", then we must act. I am not saying that you must be here in DC on the front lines. But your faith does call you to act, to act today and to continue to act in an ever more present and impactful manner.

I think today I will leave you with my favorite quote, by W.E.B. Du Bois:

"The prayer of our souls is a petition for persistence: not for the one good deed, or single thought, but deed on deed, and thought on thought, until day calling unto day shall make a life worth living."

Together, our small but strong persistence, deed on deed can, and I have to believe will, create the world we envision in our 7 principles.

Originally completed: 10/12/2021

Last Edited: 2/11/2022

Reflection 2 - 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 them 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 significantly 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 to their elected officials, attended public hearings, pursued 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 are 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 (meaning privilege has dissipated), utilize and leverage that privilege to make that corrupt system more just.

Originally completed: 10/15/2021

Last Edited: 2/11/2022

Reflection 3 - President Joe Biden, do you choose people or fossil fuels?

As has been pointed out by many frontline leaders (see Wednesday's live stream to hear their testimony) President Biden has broken his promise to be a climate leader.

Biden claims to have goals of reducing US GHG emissions by 50% from 2005 levels by 2030, and reaching net 0 by 2050 (April 2021 White House press brief). On the campaign trail, Biden also claimed in his climate plan that he would "ensure the U.S. achieves a 100% clean energy economy and reaches net-zero emissions no later than 2050," and that he will "stand up to the abuse of power by polluters who disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities" (see the Biden plan for a clean energy revolution and environmental justice).

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. (See testimony from Kevin Cramer 4:55 and Anthony Lorenzo Green 21:30 in the live linked stream below)

We heard about the impacts of Enbridge pipeline projects including Line 3, and Line 5, as well as other pipeline projects across the country. Leaders also described the impacts created by natural gas fracking in their neighborhoods.

(testimonies not filmed)

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 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 who has cancer themselves. (Sharon Lavigne 29:05, other speakers not filmed).

Frontline leaders want Biden to take action now. Biden has redirected the rhetoric away from himself claiming that his hands are tied when in reality both of the demands made by the People vs Fossil Fuels campaign do not require congressional action and can be taken by the president at any moment. This is especially frustrating when in his campaign ads ( min 4:05) claimed, "I will use every authority available to me to drive progress and I will not accept half measures". In essence, he claimed he would use not just the passage of bills through congress but also his executive powers as president to take action on climate.

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.

Live Stream Link:

Originally completed: 10/15/2021

Last Edited: 2/11/2022

Reflection 4 - False Solutions

On Thursday the theme for our action was no false solutions. To be totally honest I was not sure what these false solutions were, but I figured that since this topic had been chosen as a theme for People vs Fossil Fuels it was important and I would surely find out what these false solutions were.

These false solutions include nuclear, carbon capture, carbon offsets, and natural gas fracking. Previously, I may have considered some of these to be viable options in the transition away from fossil fuels. Fortunately, through the testimony given by frontline leaders, I was able to learn about how many of these "solutions" duly hurt frontline communities through direct destruction and pollution as well as by enabling fossil fuel companies to continue their current practices.

Yet, still in the back of my mind, there was this nagging sense of don’t we need some of these? Aren’t they necessary for us to transition? Then we heard from Ph.D. biologist Sandra Steingraber. She spoke of the same false solutions, representing that the scientific community also deemed them unfit and a distraction from fighting the climate crisis. She pointed to a letter she and her colleagues had sent to Biden that past week that had been signed by 330 of the nation's leading climate scientists, denouncing these solutions. She then went on to say that these false solutions would not be necessary if we simply kept fossil fuels in the ground.

That, after hearing frontline leaders' sentiments echoed by a white scientist, is when it clicked for me. Many transitional solutions are not solutions for the climate crisis but solutions for the fossil fuel industry. The general publics' realization that climate change is a crisis requiring immediate and drastic actions is in fact a business crisis for them. Their solution to this problem: if we can't stop the transition we can slow it down. We can extend our time by creating false solutions that send people on the wrong path. Further, we will put these solutions in marginalized communities because their voices, their requests, and their warnings are already ignored.

Having gone to school for environmental policy I have heard much debate on what needs to be done in terms of climate, what technologies we should invest in, and what strategies are best. Technological maturity, cost, ability to scale, resources, timetables, political feasibility, and magnitude of impact are all aspects of climate solutions that are commonly taken into account. Rarely, however, are impacts on the lives of people in frontline communities discussed. Most often, the cost to them is not considered as a factor to weigh, but as an obstacle to overcome once a solution has already been given the green light.

When I look at this I realize that I played right into how the fossil fuel companies want me to think as a white person with privilege. The thinking that these solutions are necessary for a transition pits me against those in marginalized communities. When we think this way, attention is moved away from the real problem and our people-power becomes divided.

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 (believe and value the testimony of frontline communities without the prior corroboration of white western science), to see more clearly, and refuse to accept these false solutions.

Originally completed: 10/17/2021

Last Edited: 2/11/2022

Reflection 5 - 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 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 led 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.

Here, I have put together what I learned over the course of this week from Kevin and other frontline leaders about what it means to be a co-conspirator. This is by no means an exhaustive list - as I still have much to learn and this is not something that perfectly fits every situation. But it is a good start.

Amplify voices - If you are hearing an important message from a frontline or BIPOC leader, amplify it. This can be done face to face or via social media (ideally both). When you do this, in order to amplify rather than taking another's words, be sure to attribute by name. You can also share their words directly by linking to an article they wrote, or a video of them speaking. If you do take the route, it is always good to give a little bit of context as well (don't just share a link, write something with it about why you are sharing). If they are part of an organization or have a website sharing that is also good.

There is no power like the power of the people and that power starts with you - this may seem pretty basic but it is important and oftentimes we do not do enough of it. That is, connect with one another. When we go to events for different environmental and justice issues we need to network. To utilize the people power that exists out there, to mobilize it, we need to know one another, we need to build relationship with one another. This means talking to people we don’t know and exchanging contact information. That means keeping in contact and letting others know when there are issues that need attention or actions that are occurring. The relationships you build create people power!

The meaning of discomfort - If we are truly to be co-conspirators we have to give up the idea that we always have the right to be comfortable. We do have the right of cores to be safe but safety is not the same as comfort. Discomfort, I believe is necessary. If we find out that we are wronging someone or participating in a system that does so, and we decide to ignore or do not feel discomfort then there is something wrong. Discomfort is a necessary indicator that allows us to know when something is not in line with our values. Without it, we would go on continuing to act in ways that are harmful to others totally oblivious of our actions. We must learn to look out for discomfort and hone our ability to understand it. Then, rather than thinking of discomfort as negative, we can be thankful for its guidance, helping us become people more in line with our values.

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 is 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.

If you are taking action don't talk to the police - This may seem rude but there are several reasons for this. 1) Talking to the police can put your BIPOC comrades in danger. If you are white, police may use the tactic of buddying up to you or even lying to get information. Information that could potentially be harmful to those around you. 2) Many BIPOC and frontline communities have been targeted and brutalized by the police. If you are there with them to stand on an issue it can be pretty disrespectful to be chatting casually with a group that has harmed their community (you don't need to yell at or taunt the police but you do need to be mindful of the communities you say you are showing up for).

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 de-escalate a situation and will likely make it safer for those involved.

The difference between blue and indigo - The difference between blue and indigo is how we perceive them. How we define what they are based on our perspective. One of the things that we need to do as co-conspirators is reexamine the perspective from which we view the world and then redefine what we are seeing. Capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy culture are systems that have shaped how we view the world whether we like it or not. We need to be able to recognize that we view the world through this influenced perspective that has been ingrained in us by society, realize that this perspective is limiting, and then learn to see from a new perspective.

Cultivating imagination - one of the things we need to have to see the world through a new perspective is imagination. To be able to envision not only how another might see the world but how the world might be if it was fair, just, equitable, compassionate, and loving. This means not just naming those concepts but really envisioning how systems would function and how people would interact in that new better world.

The definition of abolition - I think abolition gets a bad rap. Somehow it seems it has come to be associated with anarchism, lawlessness, and absence. So, let's define abolition. Abolition is when you completely scrap or end something. Now, I want you to take the concept of abolition and think of it in these non-conventional scenarios. Abolishing a decrepit house so you can build a new beautiful home, abolishing the fossil fuel industry, and replacing it with a nonpolluting, clean energy sector. Abolishing your consumption of fast foods in favor of healthier, more inexpensive home-cooked meals. In all of these cases the thing we don't want is "abolished", and here is where I think we are tripping up, that thing is then replaced with something that performs the same function but without all the negative side effects. So in the future, when you hear the word abolish used I am asking you to pause and use your imagination to think about what positive alternative might come about as a result.

The importance of mutual aid - this is another term that was so kindly defined for us during our training. Mutual aid is a voluntary reciprocal exchange where community members share what they have, be that time, money, food, etc, with one another to ensure that the needs of all community members are met. I think many of us often participate in some form of aid. However, I think where we often fall short is thinking that we must venture outside of our communities to find people who would benefit from our support. Of course, giving outside of our own community is important but we can't forget to look inward and make sure that those around us in our cities, in our schools, and in our churches are taken care of.

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.

Long-term commitment - None of this work happens overnight and I know this is a lot of information. Even so, I really hope that it can be helpful to someone. My best suggestion is to read it, take it in, discuss it, and then come back to it again later. This is a process that takes time and thought and practice, but it is something well worth the effort.

The Palm Collective:

Originally completed: 10/18/2021

Last Edited: 2/11/2022

Reflection 6 - Imagining Indigo

If you read my last post you will understand that there is an important distinction between blue and indigo. Specifically, that difference is our perception, how we choose to see, define, and think about our world.

When I hear about the future, the future that you will live, that I will live, and that the generations after us will live, it is almost always bleak. In one story, I hear of a world that somehow presses on. Where we are sustained in our capitalist consumption lifestyles. In this future, with the exception of the implementation of new technologies that somehow prevent the climate crisis, not much has changed. Often it is believed, if it were possible, this would be ideal. This scenario, which I do not even believe to be possible, completely fails to acknowledge the inequity, environmental injustice, and ecological harm created by our current system, upholding today's society as an ideal. Alternatively, I also often hear of a future in which the world plunges into global devastation, famine, water crisis, and natural disaster. A recounting of the endless destruction we will bring upon ourselves. A world that will even more greatly exaggerate our current inequity.

If you are someone who cares about the planet, the natural world, people, human rights, and justice, some form of the futures described above likely feel both devastating and inescapable. To care can mean being constantly bombarded by these possible outcomes and living in their shadow can be crushing. Climate grief, stress, anxiety, sadness, it is real and made ever worse by our imagined future. I have to tell you though, this summer I heard of a different future.

While searching for a job in the environmental field, I came across a group called the Sunrise Movement. A youth movement dedicated to working the climate crisis and promoting the Green New Deal. I then discovered that one of their founders had written a book called the Green New Deal and it was there I heard this vision of the future. It was beautiful. Yes, a beautiful, equitable, compassionate, hope-filled future in the midst of a climate crisis, and I cried.

We do not have to imagine those first two futures I laid out above. In fact, let me just say it now. Those futures are fiction. 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.

In addition, here is a short poem that I wrote in relation to this reflection. Enjoy!

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

Originally completed: 10/23/2021

Last Edited: 2/11/2022