What the Climate Movement Can Learn from Black Lives Matter

“The way they respond may not be the way we responded years ago — nonviolence — we’ve got to catch up to that.  Right now, we’re playing catchup,”
Rev. John Richard Bryant, bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, commenting on Black Lives Matter protesters

“You can’t get funding from Tides Foundation Canada or George Soros to do [effective] direct action training.”Zoe Blunt, Forest Action Network/ Unist’ot’en Camp

Introduction: In theory, a lot has changed since this piece was written in 2015. Climate change is a major watchword in the media. Extinction Rebellion and #FridaysForFuture are two of the fastest-growing social organizations in the world. And a young climate activist, Greta Thunberg, is Time’s Person of the Year.

Look closer, though, and much has gotten worse. Not only has climate awareness not been raised enough to keep Donald Trump out of the White House, but just four out of the dozen 2020 Democratic candidates oppose hydro-fracking.Carbon emissions fell slightly, but US methane emissions dramatically rose. The Obama-endorsed shale boom made the US the largest oil producer in the world. And Greta Thunberg herself acknowledged in 2019 that her actions had  “achieved nothing.” 

As the Shell Oil ship Fennica sailed out of Portland on July 31, 2015 to begin its drilling mission in the Arctic, many of those watching on the shore wept. One crestfallen witness explained that although Greenpeace protesters had delayed the ship for over a day, that was “a drop in the bucket” compared with what was needed to discourage the drilling. The veteran activist wrote that the delusional “sense of self-congratulations, as if a victory had been won,” which many environmentalists held, only compounded his sorrow; this culture of denial had been fostered by Greenpeace and other mainstream activist groups, who’s view of their campaigns, regardless of outcome, invariably amounted to an attitude of “rah rah us, and lacked serious analysis of tactics or ends.” Lest anyone think this was overly pessimistic, when Fennica reached its destination, Shell was not only unfazed by the protest, they were bold enough to ask the Department of Interior for rights to drill even deeper in the Arctic than previously requested.

The dashed hopes of the Oregon action put a fine point on the crisis that the climate movement finds itself in. Even Obama’s much-trumpeted new regulations on coal are a sad farce.  Slate.com, about as Obama-friendly a venue as one could name, writes that

…the president’s plan just perpetuates business as usual…if you dig into the lengthy text, the targets call for an even slower transition from coal to natural gas over the next 15 years than we’ve had over the last 10. In fact, in another telling passage on Page 17 of the full text of the new plan, by 2030, “coal and natural gas will remain the two leading sources of electricity…

…by boasting about such an incremental change, Obama is actually making it more difficult for truly bold climate action to pass through Congress in the coming years. James Hansen, the former NASA scientist who has raised increasingly dire climate warnings, called Obama’s plan “practically worthless.”

It’s instructive to contrast the backward slide of the climate situation with the seismic impact of the Black Lives Matter movement, especially the Ferguson rebellion. There are some vacuous reforms made in response to the anti-state violence movement of course, but there are also genuine changes which effect people’s lives: Ferguson is voiding thousands of arrest warrants from prior to 2015; California is rolling back the use of solitary confinement; The Supreme Court has taken away prosecutors’ primary tools for mandatory minimum sentences against drug offenders; And in the wake of violent protests, six police who murdered Freddy Gray in Baltimore were indicted – launching a new trend of prosecuting killer cops that’s now growing around the country. In terms of public opinion, there have been dramatic shifts which portend further change: A year ago, less than 40 percent of white people believed that racism was a serious problem in the US, but “the news during the last 12 months has caused them to rethink racial issues” and today a clear majority of whites say Blacks face major discrimination; even the number of Republicans who say anti-Blackness is a problem has grown.

Meanwhile, public opinion on climate is regressing. Not only does half the country not believe man-made climate change is taking place, most of those that do believe it are in denial that the catastrophe will personally effect them. Confounding the doctrine of liberals and pacifists, the movement which uses moderate methods is creating “one of the U.S.’s sharpest ideological divides,” while the one which has used the most militant tactics, Black Lives Matter, is pushing America towards some kind of consensus.

Ever since the collapse of the Occupy movement in 2012, the question has lingered: was the movement destroyed by the specter of violence that hovered around its militant wing, or by the tendency of centralization and co-optation promoted by its moderates? When we compare the past year of climate protests (connected to the moderate “99% Spring” side of Occupy via Greenpeace and 350.org ) and the post-Ferguson movement (which seems infused with the spirit of Occupy Oakland ) we can answer the question definitively.

Almost everything about high-profile climate actions are about singing a sweet tune and telling a heart-warming story via street theater (and increasingly through elaborate art displays). Everything is done to make everyone as comfortable as possible, including the police – who in turn keep things comfortable for the polluters who are supposedly being targeted. Paid professional “grassroots” organizers take for granted that they are in charge, and that anyone with slightly deviating ideas, particularly those which would stray from Gandhian tactics, are simply troublemakers to be denounced to the media. As Greenpeace says, “nonviolence is non-negotiable” and the risk of being “discredited in the press” is simply too great. Periodically, there is also a spectacular action involving some mountain-climbing equipment, which inevitably ends with the participants quietly going off to jail after a few hours. With this responsible and well-managed atmosphere, climate demos ensure they will be inviting and appealing to the largest conceivable number of people.

In contrast, when young race rebels burned and looted in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Oakland, grassroots leaders not only refused to condemn them, they considered any Black leader who denounced the insurrections to be a traitor. When the Justice Department concluded that Mike Brown did not in fact have his “hands up”, the movement didn’t flinch – many marchers seized the moment to start chanting “Fists up! Fight Back!”  Even when desperate men shoot at police, the movement does not shrink, but instead points out the reality that there’s never been a safer time to be a cop, and a more dangerous time to be an African-American youth. Whenever Black Lives Matter hits a sour note with the public, it keeps right on playing, because the point isn’t to sing a pretty tune – it’s to sound an alarm that can’t be ignored.

Controversies naturally arise, yet grassroots BLM activists are able to force major liberal publications to concede to their points. Even centrist outlets like The New Republic were compelled to accept much of the BLM critique of Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party. Radical climate activists, by contrast, are condescended to by the national press, even when they have the better part of the argument. When grassroots environmentalists criticized the corporately-endorsed “People’s Climate March,” The Nation dismissed them as obstructionists.

The post-Ferguson movement has never had numbers on its side. African-Americans are less than 15 percent of the population, and only a fraction of them participate directly in the network; whites are only allowed to participate if they embrace the militant terms of the movement (no liberal apologetics like “all lives matter”, no victim-blaming, no snitching, etc.) What it does have is conviction, courage, and a healthy amount of desperation, derived from the realization that they are in a life-or-death struggle.

In theory, the climate movement is about life-or-death struggle as well; yet nothing about the behavior of its most visible activists supports that idea. Greenpeace’s demonstration in Portland might initially seem impressive, but the 100 million dollar organization has taken more effective and drastic action to block Japanese whale hunters, mustering Greenpeace ships—actual ships, not kayaks—to chase down whaling vessels. Of course this effort only took place after years of aggressive action by the more militant anti-whaling group Sea Shepherd. Will it take a Sea Shepherd of the climate, blockading Shell ships on the high seas, to shame Greenpeace into meaningful action?

Professional environmentalists have given nods to Black Lives Matter, and voice intentions to follow the lead of movements of the oppressed. More often than not, as at the NYC climate march, such platitudes are simply window-dressing for the usual top-down, foundation-funded management. If climate activists really want to learn from the post-Ferguson movement, they will have to accept a few key things.

Firstly, BLM is an explicit diversity of tactics movement. This means that it rejects nonviolence as ideology and challenges it as policy. Streetfighters and saboteurs are freedom fighters in the people’s eyes—Period. Ferguson made the movement and won victories, and the distinguishing feature of Ferguson is that it was not nonviolent. Even a member of Missouri State’s “Ferguson Commission,” acknowledged: “If not for the unrest, we wouldn’t have seen municipal court reform. It’s certainly a game-changer.” On the eve of 2015, #BlackLivesMatter founders called for a “Year of Ungovernability” – seemingly echoing anarchist graffiti painted on West Florissant Ave in Ferguson. At the Netroots disruption in July, protesters chanted “If I die in police custody…Burn everything down!” Even Black groups specializing in nonviolent action feel compelled to commit to a diversity of tactics framework:

We work with various communities and with each of those groups that group has to decide what they view as being violent or nonviolent. I think that it varies [depending] on what community you’re in. As a collective, we believe in a diversity of tactics. It’s not our role to critique anybody’s tactics or any of the actions that are happening in the movement if they are continuing and supporting black people who want to do direct action.

Groups such as Greenpeace, however, testily denounce diversity of tactics. They presume to know the perfect strategy and to impose it on all protesters, even though in the area of climate they have nothing to show for it.

Secondly, as the Blackout Collective’s statement above indicates, diversity of tactics is directly related to a doctrine of decentralization and autonomy. This commitment to autonomy is great enough that the grassroots will actively confront professional activists and organizations who monopolize and mislead the movement. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, merchants of liberalism and nonviolence, were disrupted and called out in Ferguson, and even at one of Sharpton’s own Washington rallies. Will the leaders of the failed climate movement have to be called out as well?

At the NYC climate march last year, the leadership nearly was challenged, but the “foundation complex” (as Ella Baker called it) worked overtime to co-opt its own opposition. The reputed alternative to the Climate March was “Flood Wall Street”, a demonstration administered by Rising Tide North America. RTNA bills itself as a grassroots group, but on closer scrutiny, the group takes corporate foundation funding (Tides Foundation, CREDO Mobile, etc.) and operates in lockstep with Greenpeace and 350.org.² Flood Wall Street spokespeople publicly criticized the Climate March, promoted anti-capitalist messaging, and choreographed civil disobedience – all of which it used to distinguish itself from the larger permitted march. It was later revealed, however, that Flood Wall Street was sponsored by the massive NGO Avaaz which is widely regarded as the most undemocratic member of the Climate March coalition, and that FWS shared numerous organizers with the march.

Flood Wall Street did have an effective strategy- not for promoting direct action, but containing it. They almost seemed to have absorbed Peter Gelderloos’ point that “nonviolence has lost the debate,” by avoiding using that n-word, thereby avoiding that debate. Along with Avaaz, they used militant terms like “disruption”, and “the fight of our lives” in the lead up to the demo, but in civil disobedience trainings, I witnessed them relentlessly urging activists to avoid all danger and seek “safety.” It was constantly stressed that short-term safety was paramount for the sake of “the most vulnerable among us” by which they generally meant people of color. Of course, in recent years, it has in fact been people of color who have done the most to abjure safety and face down danger in direct action situations. There was also no discussion of what safety could possibly mean in a context where the planet is daily being destroyed.

The timing of Flood Wall Street also pointed to counter-insurgency: No civil disobedience was promoted by the Avaaz crew at all until after a call appeared on The Earth First! Newswire and other websites in June 2014 inciting “a large anti-capitalist bloc of the [climate] march to spread subversion and unrest throughout the City…” The #FloodWallStreet hashtag, along with the anti-capitalist talk from the campaign, only appeared in September. Although Flood Wall Street spokesperson (and 350.org board member) Naomi Klein gave regular lip service to “blockadia,” neither she nor FWS supported the campaign to blockade the Rockaway gas pipeline construction taking place in Queens that very summer. Instead, Flood Wall Street siphoned attention away from this genuine direct action against extraction taking place just a few miles away.

In the end, even the less timid of the FWS protesters (the ones who continued to sit in the street at the southern tip of Manhattan after the sun went down, instead of going home as the organizers urged ) were quickly acquitted of all charges. This was a fait accompli given that the mayor had publicly blessed the protests and Flood Wall Street had secretly been communicating with police through much of the demonstration’s planning. Despite the hot-blooded rhetoric, it was another installment of what Jeffrey St. Clair calls the “designer protests” of a foundation-managed climate movement.

“Some of us must be willing to die.  There is no movement for change–fundamental change, revolution–unless there’s willingness on behalf of somebody to die. That’s a fundamental fact. If all of us come together and we have no one willing to die for the cause, in a sense it’s still sounding brass and tinkling cymbals. And that’s especially when it comes to black and brown and red people.” – Cornel West, Left Forum address, January 2014

“Social unrest and peaceful protest are neither discreet nor disconnected, but interrelated tactics on a protest continuum. After memorandums, petitions, and marches fail, insurrection becomes a direct line of communication from the downtrodden to the power structure that benefits from ignoring them…Insurrections launch articulate action and foment revolution.”
– Dr. Ashley M. Howard (Loyola University) “Why Ferguson Is Not the Tale of Two Protests”

For this fall, Rising Tide NA is promoting a sequel called “Flood the System.” Has the group learned anything the past year, or is this simply an effort to justify their fundraising and pre-empt more militant organizing? If they believe what they say about “rapidly escalating the pace and scale of our resistance to the level of the crises we’re facing,” then they should acknowledge that all our lives are on the line. There is as much urgency, as much an issue of survival, as what the Black community faces.  And if collective self-defense is justified against forces directed at part of the population, it must surely be justified against destructive forces that threaten the population as a whole.

What should that defense look like?  It may look like the street battles and blockades that protected Bolivia’s water from corporate takeover fifteen years ago.  It may look like the chaotic campaign that prevented People’s Park in Berkeley from being paved over in the late 1960s.  It may look like the armed occupation by the Mik’maq people who drove extraction companies off their land and won a moratorium on fracking from the New Brunswick government last year.  The possibilities are endless, but the final choices will have to be made by the fighters on the frontlines–not by professional organizers and their paymasters.

(Banner image: Leslie McSpadden, Mike Brown’s mother, shortly before the November 2014 insurrection in Ferguson)


  1. Shell eventually suspended drilling in the Arctic, but The New York Times and other press reported that this was done for economic reasons; the Times noted “that the entire industry is trimming its ambitions in the wake of collapsing oil prices,” part of “major oil companies’ increasing willingness to turn their backs on the most expensive new drilling prospects…American oil companies have decommissioned more than half of their drilling rigs over the last year, and production is beginning to drop in the United States. Even exports from Saudi Arabia are beginning to ebb because of a glut in its Asian markets.” Analysts confirmed “that renewed efforts are still possible if and when the oil price recovers. But environmentalists declared a triumph” even though “economic forces have scuttled what environmentalists had tried to do for years…” The Trump administration is now encouraging companies to drill in the Arctic, but Shell has still not returned because the investment is so unappealing. None of this has made American energy policy more sustainable, as the US has become the world’s largest producer of oil—even before the inauguration of Trump.
  2. Rising Tide North America took at least $8000 from Tides Foundation in 2014, and at least several thousand dollars from Tides in year’s previous.  Tides is notoriously opaque about it’s funding sources, but it acknowledges working with Nike, and is also linked with Warren Buffett and George Soros.  – http://www.tides.org/fileadmin/user/grantees/Tides_list_of_2014_Grantees.pdf