No one can accuse me of not trying the “regular” democratic route to achieve change. I drive an electric car, I heat my house with heat pumps rather than oil, my electricity comes from renewable energy, I’m trying to cut down air travel, I donate money to plant trees. I’ve talked to my friends and family ad nauseum about climate change (thank you for still loving me!) I’ve gotten involved locally. I’ve organized and educated. I’ve protested. Written letters to the editor and blog posts. I’ve gotten involved federally. I lobby for climate solutions. And, I vote.
But this fall, a switch has flipped. I no longer believe that any of this is enough. Enough to stop the mass extinction and collapse of ecosystems we are currently living through. I don’t think that electing any one individual will be enough to tackle this climate emergency. We are missing something, and that is mass mobilization for the climate. But the good news is, the tide is turning. With the rise of the Youth Climate Strikes (Fridays for the Future), Extinction Rebellion, and most recently Jane Fonda with Fire Drill Fridays—this movement is demonstrating people power. To quote Lisa Fithian, author of Shut it Down, “When people are empowered, they don’t wait for permission. They do what needs to be done.”
Which is good news because I’m tired of waiting.
On Friday November 1st, I woke at 4:30 am to take the train from New York City to Washington DC so I could join Jane Fonda’s Fire Drill Fridays protest. That week’s theme was all about women. On the lawn in front of the Capitol building we heard speeches from Eve Ensler, Rachel Carmona from the Women’s March, Asali Devan Ecclisiastes, and Sunni Paterson. We then marched over to the Senate Hart building, where Jane Fonda was arrested for the fourth week in a row in a peaceful demonstration for climate action. To quote the long-time climate activist Jane Fonda, “I felt as though I wasn’t doing enough about the climate crisis. I’ve been deeply inspired by the student climate strikers that are already giving up so much to fight for their right to a future. So for the rest of us — what are we willing to give up? What actions will we take for this urgent major crisis?”
I was not among the 45 people arrested that Friday. I came close to joining them, but stayed on the side-lines instead, cheering them on, bearing witness to the everyday people and celebrities choosing civil disobedience. We can’t expect our elected officials to do the right thing. Even the ones we like still need a bit of pressure.
Don’t get me wrong, we need many different kinds of activity to provoke, secure, and sustain social progress. And we have definitely made progress in New York State where I live. But time is running out. Our emissions keep going up.
History has shown a long line of social change directly related to nonviolent direct action. After reading several books about social change (highly recommend This Is An Uprising by Mark Engler and Paul Engler and Shut It Down by Lisa Fithian), I will tell you why, as a mother, I firmly believe civil disobedience is now our best chance. We need normal law-abiding citizens to start breaking rules and laws as a way to force change in a system that refuses to change.
This is not a new idea. We’ve done this before, broken the rule of law and caused disruptions many times in our history. In the early 20th century, suffragists repeatedly picketed the White House, with the arrest of 218 women from 26 states helping to pressure the government into passing and ratifying the 19th amendment. In the 1930s, the Great Depression saw massive organizing drives by unions, successful strikes, and political campaigns that changed labor laws for future generations. In the 60’s, Civil Rights activists used bus boycotts, lunch counter sit-ins, marches, and more to desegregate society and get black Americans the right to vote. In recent years, water protectors at Standing Rock slowed the progress of the Keystone XL pipeline and drew national attention to the decimation of indigenous lands.
In his “Letter from Birmingham Jail” Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote:
“You may well ask: Why direct action? Why sit-ins, marches, and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path? You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks to dramatizes the issue that it can no longer be ignored.”
We need our government to come to the negotiating table. At best we hear hollow sentiments from politicians of the need to reach net-zero by 2050 but without any desire to actually address how we got in this predicament in the first place—the never-ending obsession of growth in our capitalist society and an aversion to stand against the fossil-fuel companies. Hey, don’t bite the hand that feeds right?
Time and time again we hear politicians say climate change is an “issue” but they don’t see why we can’t build just one more gas-fired plant. Or they are still defending natural gas as a “good alternative.” Which tells me they are still not taking any of this seriously, and most certainly not negotiating on our terms, which are to keep this planet from exceeding 1.5° C.
A month ago, I found myself on Wall Street joining Extinction Rebellion for the Rebel Fest which took place October 7-11 globally with some pretty amazing actions happening all around the world. It was my first time participating in an Extinction Rebellion action, and it was a profound experience. The action on October 5th was a second line parade – complete with the brass band and dancing. I dressed entirely in black, my face was covered with a black handkerchief, and I held dried flowers, and marched in front of a coffin like a grieving widow. People held tombstones with names of climate victims, animals who’ve gone extinct. The music was uplifting and energizing at the same time a somber occasion.
Contemplating the fate of our planet and all the species who inhabit it, is a heavy load to bear. I’ll be the first to admit, I don’t allow myself much space to grieve around the climate emergency because it’s painful. Like many people, I want to push past this feeling of discomfort and get right down to solutions. I’m coming to realize there’s immense value in acknowledging just how bad the situation really is.
After we marched a few blocks, we set-up in front of the New York Stock Exchange. There was a die-in: people lying on the ground with fake blood on the road. It made this faraway abstract concept of climate change feel real. But we also had a dance party in the street while passerbyers cheered us on. Shaking off what doesn’t serve us, while building a new way of being with each other.
Two days later I was back in New York City for another Extinction Rebellion action, we rallied outside of Fox News Headquarters demanding they tell the truth and the piece de resistance was when activists dropped a boat in the middle of Times Square and then quickly glued themselves to it, creating a two hour traffic jam. One of the youngest arrested was 16-years old and he was handcuffed to the mast. We stood on the sidewalk chanting “Thank you” and “We see you, we love you.” Also it’s pretty darn cathartic to yell at the top of your lungs in the middle of Times Square, “This is a climate emergency.” Because, darn it, it is.
What I love about my experience so far is that these disruptions are not only fun, with art and singing, but we are creating a global movement within our local communities. I’ve been inspired to start my own neighborhood group in my part of the Hudson Valley.
The more protest directly affects members of the public, and the more it interferes with an adversary’s ability to do business, the more likely it is to draw widespread attention. Moments of unusual unrest provide opportunities for those without money or influence to dispel attitudes of indifference—and to highlight social and political injustices. Our power is to make things unworkable. Prominent civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin says, “The only weapon we have is our bodies, and we need to tuck them in places, so the wheels don’t turn.”
But it’s not just disruption that helps build mass uprising: You need to pair it with personal sacrifice. Movements are primed to flare up when participants demonstrate the seriousness of their commitment. One main way of doing this is through showing a willingness to endure hardship, to face arrest, or even risk physical harm in dramatizing injustice.
An example of this came during the civil rights movement, when students organized the sit-ins at lunch counters in cities such as Nashville, Tennessee. After making purchases, they sat down at the stores’ lunch counters, quietly reading and doing homework. They sat for hours on end and returned on repeated days, and the owners refused to serve the students, and tension increased, white mobs started showing up, pouring milkshakes over their heads, stubbing cigarettes on the back of one of the students, hitting the students in the ribs. As they faced this harsh response, the students found their parents, ministers, and classmates, many of whom had been previously reluctant to speak out, were drawn in by their actions. The students’ sacrifice had created a circle, pulling in more participants and allowing for even greater disruption.
Extinction Rebellion, started in the UK one year ago, when more than 1000 people came together on Parliament Square to make a Declaration of Rebellion against the UK government for its inaction on the climate and ecological emergency. It is now in over 50 countries. And the movement is growing, fast.
In the words of the movement’s Declaration of Rebellion:
“Humanity finds itself embroiled in an event unprecedented in its history. One which, unless immediately addressed, will catapult us further into the destruction of all we hold dear: this nation, its peoples, our ecosystems and the future of generations to come.
“The science is clear: we are in the sixth mass extinction event and we will face catastrophe if we do not act swiftly and robustly. Biodiversity is being annihilated around the world. Our seas are poisoned, acidic and rising. Flooding and desertification will render vast tracts of land uninhabitable and lead to mass migration.”
Right now we are in one of the biggest moments in human history, ever. We stand on the edge of oblivion. I’m a mother of two young children and I worry about climate change and how it will impact them.. In the future, when my kids are grown, and they ask, “What did you do for the earth?” I want to look them in the eye and say, “Did I ever tell you about the time I rebelled for life?”
Learn More About Extinction Rebellion
Video (20min): Roger Hallam – Why International Rebellion? – Extinction Rebellion
Rebel Reading List:
- Common Sense for the 21st Century, by Roger Hallum
- This is Not a Drill: An Extinction Rebellion Handbook, by Extinction Rebellion
- This is an Uprising, by Mark Engler and Paul Engler
- The Deliberate Rebellion video (12 min) about the 3rd demand (Citizens Assembly)
- Citizens Assembly
- Writings of Erica Chenoweth
- Shut It Down, Lisa Fithian