On Friday, September 20, millions of young people and allies around the world participated in the Global Climate Strikes. The purpose of these strikes was to tell adults across the world to get it together and do something to address climate change. This is no easy task, and will definitely require a massive overhaul of our current infrastructure and dramatic shift in the way we live. In D.C., the action didn’t stop there. On Monday, September 23rd, various activist groups shut down traffic in strategic parts of the city with a goal of “disrupting business-as-usual.” The groups, which included the DMV Black Lives Matter, Code Pink, and Extinction Rebellion, purposefully shut down busy areas like K Street, where many powerful lobbying firms are located, as well as roads near the National Mall, White House, and the Capitol.
The disruption has sparked a wide range of opinions, some of which are completely valid in their critiques. Others, however, demonstrate that many still misunderstand the amount of action that needs to be taken to address the climate crisis. In the Facebook group “7000-Series Memes for Congressionally Disenfranchised Teens,” a meme group about public transportation and urban planning in the DMV area, a post about the disruption became really polarized really fast. One group-member commented,
I wanna support radical climate action when I see it, but this ain’t it. It’s a bunch of people with the privilege to be activists inconveniencing people who can’t take the day off, while the targets just work from home. All to ‘make a point’ that the assholes already know? I just don’t get it. They look like privileged idiots, totally out of touch with workers.”
A D.C. resident in the Washington Post thought that the protesters were targeting the wrong people and that they should direct their efforts towards the White House because of Donald Trump’s frequent rollbacks of environmental protections. These responses plus others that have made excuses as to why this type of activism isn’t helpful have been frustrating to me ever since I read them. Also, insinuating that all participants in civil disobedience have the “privilege” of missing work in order to protest is a gross misunderstanding of the sacrifice that activists and organizers make to seek justice.
Of course, the impact that this action has on low-income workers is no small consequence to write off. The organizers of the event made sure to strategically base themselves in areas of D.C. that were least likely to impact working class people and communities of color, as well as making sure their disruption didn’t affect hospitals, schools, fire stations, and other important services. On their website, they state:
We do not take this action lightly. We know that this shutdown will cause massive disruption to people who bear little responsibility for the climate catastrophe we are facing.”
Because of insufficient public transportation and reliance on cars to get to work, it is virtually impossible to pull off a demonstration like this without affecting those in minimum wage jobs and vulnerable employment conditions. This is critical to highlight. That, however, is not the fault of the organizers, but rather another example of how our system fails marginalized groups who need radical action the most. So, in no particular order, here are some reasons why direct action that, yes, sometimes violates the law and hinders the usual order of our workday is unequivocally necessary, especially on the most monumental issue that we could ever fathom:
Climate Change Should Make Us All Take to the Streets
World leaders and corporate executives are quite literally ignoring this existential threat that will rapidly transform our civilization whether we like it or not. Exxon has known about the dangers of fossil fuels since the 1970s, yet didn’t publicly acknowledge it for decades. Political leaders and oil lobbyists are spending billions of dollars to pump out the false narrative that climate change isn’t happening, and that everyone should just go about their day and not worry about it. Frankly, there should be thousands of people disrupting traffic and shutting down the city all the time until those in power give in to our demands and implement policies that address this catastrophe. We only have 11 years before the effects of climate change become irreversible. None of us can afford to go about our day as if nothing’s wrong.
Permitted Protests Can’t Be Our Only Option
Seeing young people all across the world come together in a mass demonstration about the climate crisis should give everyone hope that the youth are angry and don’t plan on stopping any time soon. This was an essential gathering of a population who have basically no political voice, and that is not to be taken for granted. Still, this was a demonstration that was monitored by the police and given a designated space. It also seems that adults in power want to focus on how “inspiring” these young people are instead of listening to their anger and resentment.
The most disturbing example of this was during teen activist Greta Thunberg’s passionate speech at the UN Climate Action Summit, where she specifically told the people in the audience that they are directly responsible for her despair and the deaths of people all over the world from climate disasters. She looked pained as she tried to get it through their heads that this could very well turn into a “mass extinction event,” and yet they only care about destructive amounts of economic growth. Their response was to applaud her. As if her words were directed at a hypothetical audience with hypothetical blood on their hands. What else is there to do when you can’t ask your leaders politely to make change other than begin to demand it?
Nonviolent Direct Action is an Important Tool
This isn’t even the first time activists have tried to shut down D.C. In May of 1971, 25,000 student activists disrupted traffic to protest the Vietnam War. Their unruly, disorganized actions did cause many government employees to stay home from work. Although they did not reach their lofty goal of “stopping the government until the government stops the war,” their tactics did make President Nixon agitated enough to call for a press conference where he stated that the government will not be threatened by these protesters. Even if an act of nonviolent direct action does not result in immediate victory, it still allows for more open conversation about the role of civil disobedience in public life. The Metta Center for Nonviolence says that the tactic is different from other forms of protest that are about asking for our rights because in this case, we’re acting for our rights. It also disrupts the traditional power structure, showing that power not only flows from the top down, but also from the bottom up if there are enough participants to cause disruption.
Climate Change is Already Affecting the Most Marginalized Populations
Some of us still think of climate change as an imminent but future threat, one that will arrive like a monster in an action movie. The climate crisis isn’t going to come to us in a singular, cinematic event. We’re already seeing impacts of environmental racism and anti-Indigenous discrimination: the Dakota Access Pipeline, Flint, Michigan water crisis, and air pollution are just some examples of how the lives of marginalized communities are already being dramatically altered. We can’t wait until privileged people are impacted at more dramatic rates. Climate change is a social justice issue that has a symbiotic relationship with every other social inequality–not only do we need to demand climate action, but also an end to the demonization of poor people, greater access to contraception and abortion for those who want it, and the uplifting of Indigenous voices who have been protecting and preserving the land for centuries.
D.C.’s climate disruption should only be the beginning of responses taken to help protect ourselves and the Earth. We can all use our power and raise our voices to help stop this crisis, and give ourselves hope for the future along the way.