For 73 nights, young people from Ferguson and St. Louis have led nightly protests demanding justice for the killing of Mike Brown. A local tragedy had re-ignited the movement to fight systemic racism, and as the world was watching Ferguson, Hands Up United, Organization for Black Struggle, Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment, Millennial Activists United, Lost Voices and many local groups invited people to join them in St. Louis for a “Weekend of Resistance”.
I went to Ferguson as part of a contingent of climate activists. I’m convinced that if we’re going to create the kind of change we want to see in the world, the climate movement needs to be firmly and outspokenly anti-racist.
The story of Mike Brown, a black teenager shot and killed by a police officer, is not unique. The experiences of police violence and racial profiling have led to countless deaths of Black and Brown people, and racism is systematically reinforced through incarceration.
As an Asian American and daughter of immigrants, fighting institutional racism and white supremacy is necessary for my own liberation. As a climate activist, first inspired to organize because of urban environmental health issues, the connection between racism and climate injustice is obvious.
On August 14th, a few days after Mike Brown’s death, cities around the country held vigils to remember the victims of police violence. I joined thousands of New Yorkers at Union Square and marched through the streets with our arms raised chanting “hands up, don’t shoot”. I was hesitant to raise my arms and the first moment I did, I was challenged to realize that I never had to fear the police for my or my family’s safety based on the color our skin. If I were Mike Brown, it’s unlikely that Darren Wilson would’ve shot me.
My decision to go to St Louis for #FergusonOctober was easy; I felt compelled to go. Ferguson October was powerful, emotional and inspiring. I felt grateful to listen to stories of local organizers, meet others who travelled to participate in the weekend of action and to support the climate contingent.
It became clear to me that the climate movement has a long way to go. Yet, with the People’s Climate March in our recent memory and increasing intentionality throughout the movement to elevate voices of frontline communities, I think we’re headed in the right direction.
I felt a lot of hope on Sunday night, starting at the Mass Meeting where more than a dozen faith leaders (plus Cornel West) were scheduled to speak. Everyone talked about the courage of the young people who’ve been putting their bodies on the line every night for over 60 days. Every night, they are met by riot police and have been tear gassed, hit with rubber bullets and arrested. However, there wasn’t space for them to speak for themselves. Eventually the hundreds of people in the crowd began chanting, “let them speak!”
The invited speakers sat silently, people in the crowd were having side conversations and the MCs temporarily left the stand to meet with local organizers. It definitely did not go ‘according to plan.’ A small group took the stage and movement elders welcomed them by giving up their seats. We chanted, “This is what democracy looks like.” There was a lot of tension and frustration in the room, but there was also accountability. When others in the audience interrupted with irrelevant and offensive comments, the crowd checked each other and escorted those individuals out. It was beautiful.
The power of that meeting was realized when later that night, one of the largest evening acts of civil disobedience related to Mike Brown and Vonderrick Myers took place. The same energy being carried into the next morning where hundreds of people stood in solidarity in cold, drenching rain with faith leaders and others who were risking arrest at the Ferguson police department and other locations throughout the city.
Tensions will exist not only within, but amongst movements. Solidarity organizing is hard. We must wrestle with and confront privilege, (continue to) provide political education to our base and share resources. But, if we are willing to listen, trust each other and admit when we’re wrong, our individual campaign work will become stronger and we’ll build more power necessary to fight the same systems of oppression.
We know the time for action on climate is now. 2014 has broken records for the warmest May, August, and September ever. With rising sea levels, severe droughts, superstorms, food shortages, extinction of species, large-scale health problems, and more — fighting the climate crisis is urgent. And that can only be done by going to the roots of the problem.
The most marginalized communities in our society — poor communities, communities of color, immigrants, queer and trans people, and the global south — are the most impacted by environmental destruction and the most vulnerable to climate chaos. Yet the most impacted are the least responsible. So, if we ask what the roots of the problem are, the answers are clear to me. Climate chaos will continue and exaggerate the oppression of the same people already forced to fight racism, classism, the patriarchy, xenophobia, and imperialism.
If the climate movement is truly a movement for justice, then standing with Ferguson and embracing anti-racism as a guiding principle in our local campaigns is not a choice, but a necessity for the climate movement to live our truth and build the future we want.
October 22nd is the next national day of action against police brutality. Talk to your friends and organize to see what you can do to support actions and campaigns in your area. Then, share stories and build the relationships needed to do the long-term movement-building work. We know it’s the ongoing campaign-work and solidarity-organizing that drives and directs our movement.
Last weekend, I met Auriel, who was born and raised in St. Louis and currently lives in Wichita. After work every weekend, she drives 6 hours to join the protests. At the end of our conversation she said, “I’m ready to do more.”
Auriel, so am I.