On Protesting Killer Coal

The cooling towers were the first thing we saw, clearly visible from the Little League field in Somerset, Mass., where I had joined several hundred people to call for the closing of Brayton Point Power Plant, one of the largest remaining coal-fired plants in the Northeast, and the only one in Massachusetts not already scheduled to go off line.

I always associated huge cooling towers like that with nuclear plants, but a coal plant needs a cooling water system too, apparently, and there they were, impossibly large, sending clouds of sinister-looking but perfectly innocent steam into the air. The real smokestacks, and the also mind-bogglingly large stacks of coal, would be out of sight until we marched respectfully and slowly two by two down the narrow blacktop sidewalks to the plant itself, carrying props of PVC-pipe windmills and foil solar panels, wielded by 44 people intending to risk arrest to make their point.

(I’m going to figure that as a Metroland reader, you probably know the data about why we need to leave coal and oil in the ground if we’re not going to consign future generations to a miserable, chaotic death. If not, go here. And if you need reminding about the fact that there are practical alternatives, and that natural gas is not one of them, see my recent column on that here.)

I can still feel excited by what seems to be possibly a movement moment—different groups around the country, and really the world, taking on different parts of the climate problem from different angles—pipelines, fracking, coal, tar sands, renewables, divestment, transition economies, native nations’ rights—at the same time, with some building momentum. It’s no small feat to get 500 people to a small side street in the middle of an out of the way town in far Eastern Massachusetts on a summer Sunday.

That said, it was disappointing to see how white those 500 or so people were. Yes, it was New England, but I have looked at the census data for the two nearest cities, Fall River and New Bedford, and I assure you they, along with Boston and Providence, are not lily white.

No majority white movement can take on something as big as climate change. Period. End of story.

Unlike some other things I’ve gone to where some of the failing on that front was clear in the message, or what was missing from the message, I was really pretty heartened by how much the organizers seemed to get it. They emphasized two key things: first, disparate impact, as in the effects of coal mining, coal burning, and climate change in general come down first and hardest on poor communities and communities of color, from health to not-so-natural disasters. And second, a just transition, making sure that those working in the fossil fuel industry are retrained for green jobs and that the green jobs are high-quality jobs.

The north-south solidarity between the West Virginians fighting mountaintop removable and the locals fighting a cancer-spewing power plant was also moving—sometimes north-south solidarity in this country feels more elusive than solidarity across national borders.

The organizers made these justice and equity issues and analyses central, not tacked on.

That’s a great and necessary step. But somehow it didn’t by itself bring out a diverse crowd.

Let me tell you one thing that was not at fault: It’s not that people of color need to be “educated” about this stuff and recruited in. Thinking like that is one of the primary reasons events like this stay white. There is an active climate justice movement, grown out of the environmental justice movement, in which people of color are leading. Voters of color are actually more concerned about and willing to support measures to address climate change than white voters, and it was a movement led by organizers of color that beat back an oil-company sponsored referendum in California a few years ago.

Native nations, through the Idle No More movement and events like the Two Row Wampum Renewal journey that launched here in the Capital Region last weekend, are taking a powerful leadership role in the climate fight.

Along with analysis of the issues has to come relationship building and power sharing. Mostly white climate organizing groups clearly need to form relationships with organizations with more diverse leadership and constituencies in which they are recognized as peers and equal partners at the least. If state and local and university organizations working on this weekend’s events had, for example, partnered with groups like the Worcester Roots Project and the Northeast Environmental Justice Network, to name a couple, this protest could have looked much different—and incidentally, much bigger.

(This column was originally published in Metroland, the Capital Region of New York’s former alt-weekly, on Aug. 1, 2013.)


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