Observations on the #NoGasExports rally on Sunday and subsequent arrests outside of FERC on Monday morning

I don’t expect everybody in the climate movement to agree with what I have to say, nor do I want them to. Some of what I write and say about the climate movement in the Chesapeake bioregion is deliberately provocative in order to encourage people to think more critically about what we are doing in order to effect change , and about whose interests we are fighting for. A desire for justice isn’t enough: effective strategy is essential, and a multifaceted and inclusive movement is essential to effective strategy. Every social movement needs a few party poopers.

I don’t expect or want the climate movement to be only composed of people who think like myself. A spectrum of diverse interests, backgrounds, and strategies is essential for a successful movement. I may disagree with the way that some large organizations approach issues that I care about, but so long as they don’t attempt to overpower other voices with their own in the event of a disagreement (criticism from friends is totally OK and should be welcomed by the NGOs), I don’t have a problem with sharing a banner with a liberal, pro-state organization. I recognize that there are ways that we can balance out one another’s strengths and weaknesses in the successful pursuit of a shared goal. In order for that to happen, though, liberal NGOs need to be unafraid of publicly keeping company with the more radical elements of the environmental movement. I've been seeing more and more steps towards this in the last year (we're building relationships, too), and I think that’s a good thing.






On to Sunday’s rally. My overall impression is that the rally wasn’t an effective targeting of FERC. BUT – and this is a big but – I also think that Sunday's rally provided an essential linking point for climate activism in Maryland in general.  It may not have looked like an escalation, but in my mind it was. 

CCAN (the march organizers and the most influential climate advocacy group in Maryland) invited speakers who advocate a more merciless approach to the Democratic party, including critics of Maryland governor Martin O’Malley. A lot of what was said on the podium implied a subtle rejection of the strategies used by CCAN-led coalitions in MD over the last 3 years. Perhaps the release of the Maryland Department of Environment's interim final report on "Best Management Practices for Fracking", which makes the reality that O'Malley is determined to bring fracking to Maryland (and is very close to reaching that goal) unavoidable to the camps that refused to acknowledge this and instead pressured everyone else to push for public health studies. This report was published late Friday night, less that 48 hours before the march took place.

Many of Sunday's speakers had already confided to me in private conversations that these strategies have been counterproductive and that we haven’t seen a substantial win on climate issues in a while (the wind bill that was passed was a start, but it was weak and gave O’Malley the eco-social capital needed to press ahead with fracking). Things aren’t always as harmonious behind the scenes as they appeared on Sunday, and I hope that this public show of unity signals an end to the Byzantine squabbles I’ve been hearing about. These squabbles are real, they include examples of unbelievable pettiness from organization leaders, and they need to stop because they've turned a lot of talented individuals off to environmental organizing in this state. 
  
When I first arrived about 30 minutes after the rally started, a lot of people were talking among themselves and standing back in the shade, paying some attention to speakers but not much. I was really excited when Tim DeChristopher approached the podium and the crowd suddenly lurched forward into the blistering heat. This included my father, who had never attended a protest before and whose politics are much more conservative than mine. DeChristopher, who spent two years in federal prison for obstructing an auction of federal lands to oil and gas companies, is an outspoken critic of the white/middle-class/progressive US climate movement for being too soft, too complacent with privilege, and unwilling to suffer or make necessary sacrifices. His words at the rally were tamer than they have been in recent months, curated to inspire the audience to escalate their tactics. And the crowd was definitely listening. He said that FERC was symbolic of a broken political system and that public anger would need to be directed straight at the government, especially the Democrats. He could have gone further there but chose to leave it at that.

After the speakers finished, we marched a shadeless route in 96 degree heat to the FERC headquarters, which were empty because it was a Sunday. People yelled in front of FERC and then posed for a picture, carrying some really striking examples of protest art with them.

I left the march overheated, close to fainting and a bit embarrassed that my father’s first exposure to protest was an A to B march that didn’t have any strategic value other than to mobilize people.

Dad thought differently. He left the march feeling energized and informed, and sent around 40 messages, photos, and videos from the march to our family’s WhatsApp chat group, including quite a few dad jokes based around the words “ferc” and “frac”. Writing this now, I think of my own first experiences at protests, and the rush of adrenaline and enthusiasm I got from them.

After so much protest experience – a mix of successes, failures, and promising new beginnings – it’s easy for me to look at an event like Sunday's march and criticize it for being too “fluffy”. In terms of influencing FERC to stop the plans for LNG exports at Cove Point, it was pretty pointless. 

But it’s also important to remember that many of the residents of Lusby, Myersville (where Dominion is building a dirty compressor station), and Western Maryland aren’t as radicalized as I am. Many of them are white and middle class baby boomers who actually have more in common with my father, politically, than with me.

At the beginning of their involvement in these struggles, these local activists had faith in regulatory processes and participated in a series of hearings, petition drives, and phone campaigns to convince the powers that be to reject these projects. For locals, the last year has been a learning process where they’ve had to come to terms with the inadequacy of our democratic systems to allow community concerns to influence decisions on dangerous fossil fuel infrastructure projects. The narrative of a white, middle class person in a comfortable home who realizes through experience that democracy in the US is broken is a tired-out story for me. But for the people who are living that narrative for the first time, it’s life-altering.

The rally wasn’t the end of the CCAN’s mobilization against FERC. Today saw a soft/symbolic blockade in front of the FERC headquarters where 24 people were arrested. Most of the people arrested were older, white, and middle class. This had something to do with the action taking place during working hours, but I think it was also a chance to expose this new base to a sort of “direct action lite”. If the movement continues to develop in the way I think it will, this is only a stepping stone to bigger and better things.

Like many in the climate justice movement, I think that a movement that targets the interests of white middle class people is something to be very concerned about. Our fight for sovereignty over land that was stolen by our ancestors through genocide, enslavement, and dispossession is something that the US climate movement is only beginning to struggle to come to terms with. The Cowboy-Indian Alliance has made some positive steps in this direction.

I think it’s also important to note, as people prepare for the big national mobilization in NYC, that frontline communities of color will have a harder time attending  - let alone hearing about it. The NAACP’s new-ish climate justice program is doing a great job at tackling these issues. But the accessibility of (inter)national mobilizations to working class people, disabled people, trans people, and people of color is a big barrier that was acknowledged in 2009 when contingents from the Global South told Northern protest groups at Copenhagen that they needed to stop jet-setting to protests and start creating change from the ground up and at a local level.

When I bring up the absence of frontline communities of color at these big protest events, other white/middle class organizers often respond with the argument that more should be done to help them get there. But as helpful as this may sound, the assumption (shared by radical and non-radical activists alike) that low-income communities, communities of color and environmental justice activists from these communities actually want to participate in this version of a climate movement needs to be challenged. The FERC rally wasn’t 100% white, middle class, or heteronormative. But most of the people who attended do fall into that demographic. 

Looking forward, one of the biggest questions in my mind is whether this new iteration of activists in Maryland will develop their involvement according to class interests, or whether it can evolve towards a more intersectional approach. I think a lot of credit is due to CCAN for organizing the march and for getting people involved in this movement that my networks would have a difficult time mobilizing. But the effectiveness of this march and of the climate movement in Maryland generally will be determined by what happens afterward, and the ability of established radical networks to not only escalate on a tactical level, but also to make this movement more relevant to the struggles of working class communities and communities of color.

Move up, move up.


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