Climate advocates have lobbied, petitioned, called elected officials and written countless, ceaseless letters; we have organized, built communities, and worked within the system. This weekend, at the Power Shift climate justice and organizing conference in Washington D.C., civil disobedience and direct action were finally a central part of the dialogue around what’s next for our movement.
On the opening day of the Power Shift Conference, nine young activists (meet them here) were arrested for staging one of the most creative and courageous actions for the cause of climate justice in recent history. They stood up in the House of Representatives and sang a revised version of our national anthem, whose lyrics included: “If you represent me, not the fossil fuel industry, you will stop wasting time chasing your dollar signs. Oh say, will you listen to our generation? If you refuse to hear us now, then we have to shut you down.” They were arrested, interrogated, and detained for more than six hours. They emerged inspired, radiant, and ready to go another round.
In his keynote address to 10,000 young organizers, 350.org founder Bill McKibben explained that civil disobedience is one of the most important tools the climate movement can use to further its urgent agenda. After Bill exited the stage, Tim DeChristopher was introduced by Tabitha Skervin, one of the nine young arrested on Friday for disrupting the U.S. House of Representaßtives. DeChristopher addressed the crowd and called out the cowardice of the environmental movement insofar, and the need for radical change and
immediate action. He suggested that the next time 10,000 youth assemble to work on climate issues, they should use the opportunity to do something meaningful, something risky, effective, creative, and real.
The youth listened.
Monday morning, after the peaceful and permitted legal march organized by the Energy Action
Coalition, more than 800 marchers followed Rising Tide North America, flanked by Peaceful Uprising, to the Department of the Interior. Without any provocation, more than 100 folks rushed into the lobby of the building. 21 of them sat down to hold space in the lobby; even after warnings and threats of felony charges, the activists stood their ground, peacefully singing “We Shall Overcome,” with raucous supporters outside urging them joyfully onward. They emerged in handcuffs to applause, cheers, thanks and song from hundreds of their peers and supporters. They were jailed for hours before their release, and passed the time by singing revolutionary songs to the police and to one another.
Up until now, civil disobedience has been dismissed as too “extreme,” too taboo, to be cited as a real tool for the youth climate movement to embrace and encourage. Perhaps the crisis has been exacerbated to a point where we can no longer think in such a conservative frame; perhaps the youth are simply ready to correct the movement’s lack of success around the most terrifyingly urgent issue society has every encountered. Either way, this year’s Power Shift conference illustrated a new face for the climate movement: a young, bold, brave face which, equipped with enough information, motivation, and perseverance, could truly transform ours into a sustainable, just, and healthy world.
This weekend was only the beginning of a hopeful new era for our cause and for our climate.