Lessons from the Movement for Black Lives: Strategies and Priorities for Environmentalists

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J. Buck, member of SDSA’s Ecosocialist Caucus, writes about the intersection between the uprising for Black lives and climate justice, and the strategic necessity of defunding the police for a … Read more

J. Buck, member of SDSA’s Ecosocialist Caucus, writes about the intersection between the uprising for Black lives and climate justice, and the strategic necessity of defunding the police for a just climate future.

Note from the author: this piece was written before the recent Guardian article revealed that the fossil fuel industry extensively funds law enforcement agencies in the US.

The environmental movement in the United States has chosen to support the Movement for Black Lives. In response to the uprising, there have been numerous commentaries from environmental organizations on the particular vulnerability of Black communities to climate change. Several prominent climate leaders have cited that 57% of Black people are concerned or alarmed about climate change versus 49% of white people, and so Black people are a natural constituency in the climate movement. The repeated theme is that climate justice is inextricable from racial justice. Commentary has also touched on Cancer Alley in Louisiana and the environmental racism that disproportionately places toxic industry in Black neighborhoods. In recent weeks, organizations like the Sierra Club and 350 have explicitly put their resources—mailing lists, fund-sharing, and websites—behind the Movement for Black Lives and the demand to defund the police system.

There are common goals documented between these groups. The Movement for Black Lives Vision has the divestment and dismantling of the tools of state violence—police, military, incarceration–as its first 2020 platform plank—and the Invest-Divest and Economic Justice planks also call for divesting from fossil fuels, an end to the privatization of natural resources and a Green New Deal. It is also notable that the dismantling of the police, military and carceral systems are the first step to climate justice called for in the 2018 Red Deal, written by Indigenous collective The Red Nation. The Red Deal is sometimes mischaracterized as an alternative proposal to the Green New Deal set forth by Rep. Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Markey; rather, it is an outline for a mass movement in the sphere of ordinary people to create necessary conditions to allow a Green New Deal to succeed in the political sphere.

However, I have not seen white-founded environmental organizations engage with these demands from Black and Indigenous organizations as necessary on a strategic level—that is, to communicate to their members and the public why defunding police perhaps must be the first step to tackling the climate crisis. There are several reasons why this step is necessary to build a climate movement that can succeed; policing in America is resource-intensive, carbon-intensive, and upholds the fossil fuel industry’s power.

The police department budget is the largest line item for most American cities, accounting for 20 to 45 percent of the general budget. This is with a falling rate of reported crime—the violent crime rate in America in 2018 was half what was reported in 1990—and a clearance rate of only 45.5% for those violent crimes in 2019. Anyone familiar with climate change solutions—more robust mass transit, dense green housing, retrofitting existing buildings for energy efficiency and away from fossil fuels, even planting a tree or painting a bike lane—knows the answering lament “How are we to find the money?” Budgets are essentially statements of value. We should ask what is being valued when such large percentage of spending is put, year after year, into a group that most citizens hope that they never have to interact with, while giving much smaller share to programs that they would choose to use. The questions of who is kept safe, and what threats they are kept safe from, and whether these threats are more dire than an environment that is perhaps underwater or without fresh water or unable to produce sufficient food, are questions that our politicians must answer to continue with our current situation.

The activity of policing and the jail and prison system are not environmentally neutral. The lion’s share (nearly 80% in Seattle) of personnel and resources in most cities are devoted to patrolling. Patrolling means driving around the city in armored vehicles. Policing also uses military surplus gear designed for urban warfare—helicopters, tanks. A Lenco Bearcat truck averages 7 miles per gallon highway driving. A study by the Yale Journal of Industrial Ecology estimated that in the UK for the year 2011 the carbon impact of operating prisons, police investigations and court buildings was responsible for 21% of crime’s carbon footprint. Prisons’ physical structures are constructed ongoing environmental catastrophes: built from carbon-intensive concrete, placed on unremediated Superfund sites, landfills, and coal ash ponds, or on the habitat of endangered species. They have lead leaching from their pipes into their drinking water inside, and raw sewage and industrial manufacturing effluents flowing into the community water table outside. The Walla Walla State Penitentiary has for the past twenty years emitted “excessive toxic metal waste including zinc, copper, and mercury at 100 times the permitted level for discharge”.

Finally, as the COVID-19 response has shown, the US government has great interest in serving the wealthiest people—specifically insuring that they stay wealthy– and indifference-to-contempt for the welfare or life of ninety-nine percent of its people. Any climate movement will find the American government arrayed against it in defense of the fossil fuel industry. This is true no matter which party holds power. It was under President Obama that the United States achieved “energy independence”, ie., through the Federal subsidy of fracking, became the world’s largest fossil fuel exporter. The 2016 Standing Rock mass movement was an attempt to confront the powers of the fossil fuel industry to stop the Dakota Access pipeline. It forced a limited concession from President Obama to stop the pipeline, later reversed by President Trump. In the aftermath of this success, at least twelve states passed laws to criminalize the act of protest—being in a roadway, unlawful assembly, etc. One member of the Standing Rock Sioux had a firearm planted on her by an FBI agent and faced Federal charges. Two activists at Standing Rock were charged in 2019 by the Federal government and face a 110-year prison sentence for property damage to pipeline materials—essentially, vandalism. The Department of Homeland Security in 2020 lists “environmentally themed ideologies” as the greatest current threat to American safety. They classified the Valve Turners, people who turned a wheel to shut off tar sands oil pipelines in five states (which were turned back open a mere few hour later), as domestic terrorists on par with Dylann Roof, the mass murderer at the AME Church in Charleston. The full weight of the domestic security and criminal punishment apparatus is terrifying and devastating for individuals, families, and communities. Black and Native communities know this unavoidably, and unless the system’s power is reduced, the environmental movement will struggle to not only find people willing to bear its wrath, but to continually find more and more people willing to be sacrificed for an uncertain benefit. Groups like Extinction Rebellion have posited that a group can have so many people engaged in civil disobedience that the criminal justice system will snap under the strain. America has shown no hesitancy to continually incarcerate more and more of its population; it has 4% of the world’s people, and 25% of the world’s prisoners. To imagine that the US government will balk at warehousing ever more people in prisons, or that the corporations controlling the government will grow weary of an ever-increasing supply of free labor, is to refuse to understand whose interests “justice” serves. There is no shaming a system that is designed to be gleefully immoral.

Finally, there is a compelling moral narrative that a society that treats entire categories of people—Black, poor, Indigenous, and others—as disposable commodities will never respect non-human life as more than a resource for exploitation. It is true that some leaders in the environmental movement’s history have thought this way, awed by the native megafauna of the North American continent and contemptuous of its Native peoples. However, laboring under this contradiction has won the movement only temporary or partial victories, while the forces that threaten our natural world have grown more pervasive and powerful. In light of this, centering marginalized groups’ analyses should not be viewed as only a moral consideration for the environmental movement. Because of their distance from power, their members collectively can offer a clearer view of the structural weaknesses within an oppressive system and ideas to build a new system without such flaws. There are more lessons on tactics and engagement that will be useful, but first the necessary goal must be achieved: massive, rapid reductions in policing, surveillance, military, and the criminal punishment system.