Why Going to Jail for Climate Justice Is More Than a Responsibility: A Closer Look at Our Movement’s Tactics

Written by Amanda Starbuck

Topics: Coal, Direct Action

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This is a guest post by Peter Hoy of Chicago, IL. It originally appeared on WeArePowershift.org.

Si al pueblo, no al carbon.Washington, D.C., for better or worse, always feels like a losing battle. I am educated enough to know that our politics are polluted by corporate money. I have lobbied enough to know that even congressional allies will say the political climate “isn’t right” for climate legislation. I have even been arrested enough to know that 100 people committing civil disobedience in front of the White House isn’t enough to move leaders on a moral issue. So what gives?

Though I am often discouraged by my time in D.C., I still made the trek to Power Shift 2011, if only to meet with other youth equally confused about the direction of our movement. It is clear to me, at least on the national political stage, that we are not winning. The EPA is under attack, climate legislation is off the agenda until 2013, and mountaintop removal mining is still legal in the U.S. court of law. So we have a lot to reflect on as a movement.

I went to Power Shift not with any definitive strategies or answers, but with many questions about what’s next for young people willing to dedicate their lives to confronting the climate crisis.  The main question that guided me throughout the weekend was this: In the face of all these challenges, how can I be most effective?

I spent some time in the Clean Economy Track, where I have a personal connection with Grand Aspirations, a youth-led organization that is building the clean economy from the ground up. I am one of three Chicago Program Leaders for the Summer of Solutions, a Grand Aspirations leadership-training program running in 15 cities this summer. Solution-based work like this is a major component of my answer to the question of how to be most effective. We need to draw the line in the sand as a movement and say “no” to the polluters, but we also need to offer our society the “yeses” that build the clean and just future we are demanding. The Summer of Solutions is just one of several summer programs that are offering those “yeses.”

Still, there is a need to say “no.” If the Summer of Solutions and other programs like it were to end U.S. consumption of fossil fuels today, we would still have the problem of dirty energy exports, which are growing in volume from U.S. extractors. But the fact of the matter is we continue to burn coal, natural gas, gasoline, and diesel fuels in power plants and vehicles all around this country and in alarming quantities. And everywhere these fuels burn, there are communities absorbing the negative effects of toxic pollution.

So, before our solution-based organizing gets to the point of displacing these dirty energy sources, there is a need for communities and solidarity organizers to stand up to the pollution wrought by the fossil fuel industry. If we don’t say “no” now, we accept the exploitation of people and whole communities in exchange for convenience and profit. Is this a world we would be proud to leave our grandchildren?

Not satisfied solely by solution-based work, I returned to Chicago to take action against two of the oldest and dirtiest coal-fired power plants in the United States. On April 20th, as a part of Rising Tide North America’s Day of Action Against Extraction, I joined five other Chicagoans in unfurling a banner on top of a coal pile at the Crawford Generation Station in the Little Village neighborhood of Chicago. We carried a message penned by the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, which read “Close Chicago’s Toxic Coal Plants.” A rally attended by local residents and allies took place on the street side of the fence where another banner reading “Si al pueblo, No al carbon” was prominently displayed (the English translation is “Yes to the people, no to coal”).

Activst getting arrested at coal plant in Chicago

Six of us went to jail that day to draw attention to a local injustice. We have put the company on notice and after packing the lobby of City Hall for a hearing on the issue the next day, it is clear that we won’t back down. But what is next for our movement? Will we continue to push our tactics and speak LOUDER until we are heard? Or will we allow ourselves to be silenced by the corporate pollution of our politics and the fear of going to jail for speaking the truth?

This post is intentionally left open ended for greater discussion. What are the tactics that will allow us to win? We can’t raise billions of dollars to influence Capitol Hill, so how do we level the playing field? I think our movement needs to take a close look in the mirror and consider how we respond to a political process mired in inequitable access and influence.

So I ask, in the face of all these challenges, how will YOU be most effective?

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