Dominque Thomas . Photo: 350.org

Russ Vernon-Jones

I take seriously the admonition of Black Lives Matter leaders to White people that we should follow the lead of Black people.  In the current moment this seems more essential than ever.  As I planned to write about race and climate again this week, I went online to find current voices of African Americans who are grounded in both issues.  I found a remarkable new short video featuring Dominique Thomas, a dynamic Black climate organizer.  I learned a bit more about her online and am pleased to bring her message to you in the first part of today’s post.

Dominique Thomas has helped rally people to challenge ExxonMobil in court for its many years of deceptive practices around the harm done by burning fossil fuels.  She’s fought pipelines and fracking.  She lives in Harlem and  organizes with 350.org   —  working remotely during the corona virus crisis.  Last week she marched for 3 hours with thousands of others from Harlem to Washington Square Park in NYC to protest police violence against Black people. 

In this new video, made partly during that march, she says, “Black people in this country are being systematically suffocated, whether that’s with police officers using their knees to suffocate us and snuff the life out of us, whether that’s through the coronavirus attacking our lungs, or whether that’s through the fossil fuel industry — us having to breath toxic fumes in our communities.”  She goes on:

 “What does racial justice have to do with climate justice?

  • Black communities are disproportionally affected by the climate crisis.
  • Black people are pushed into neighborhoods near pipelines and highways and environmental hazards that cause health conditions which exacerbate the impact of the coronavirus.
  • When Black communities are hit by climate disasters they receive fewer resources and a slower response.  Think Hurricane Katrina.
  • Climate change is not a race-blind issue.”

“What Can Climate Activists Do To Show Up For Black lives?

  • Show up for Black-led actions.
  • Support Black-led policy platforms like the Movement for Black Lives.
  • Listen to Black organizers when they talk about the brutalities Black people face in the streets and from the climate crisis.
  • Provide resources — donate to bail funds and Black organizations
  • Ask your white and non-Black people of color friends what are they doing in their daily lives to dismantle white supremacy?
  • Talk to them about the links between racism and the climate crisis.
  • Support a Green New Deal, that will invest in Black [and other] workers and communities.” 

“We invite you, White people and non-Black people of color, to join with us in this movement to defend Black lives and Black communities.”  “We need all hands on deck.”   “It’s time for all climate activists to show up for Black Lives,” she says emphatically.

In my view, and here my thinking has been shaped by multiple Black people over the years, the current situation is a mixture of old and new.

Connected Issues – System Of Domination, Division And Greed
Police violence against Black people, white supremacy, the climate crisis, the economic crisis, and the rise authoritarianism and undermining of democracy are all closely connected.  They are all rooted in the prevailing system of domination, division, and greed which has given tremendous wealth and power to the top 1%, (while also benefiting many others in society’s dominant groups).  In the United States, the 1% now have more wealth than the bottom 90%.  The 1% is continuing to prioritize further increasing their wealth and power over the common good, over stopping climate change, over maintaining public health.  This elite continues to defend, deny, and promote racism to keep people oppressed, fearful, and divided.

Something New
There have often been protests and outcries against police killing of Black people, but in the current moment we are seeing something we have not seen in many decades:  Countless marches and protests against police violence are happening throughout the United States and in many other countries.  Demands to defund the police are being taken seriously in many municipalities. Virtually every major climate organization is advocating action for racial justice.  The top 5 books on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list (and 13 of the top 15) are all books about white supremacy and racism.

Led by Black people and joined by myriad White and non-Black people of color allies, protests are continuing.  A Washington Post-Schar School poll published June 9th found that Americans “overwhelmingly support the nationwide protests that have taken place since the killing of George Floyd” and 81% say police need to make changes to assure equal treatment of Blacks and Whites. This is unprecedented. 

Is This The Moment?
Is this the moment when history turns?  Is this the moment when a transformation toward a just and equitable society begins in earnest?  Is this the moment when enough people demand a change that the elites cannot hold back the flood of people power?  We can’t know for sure, but perhaps this can be the time. 

We can be sure that the elites and those who do their bidding will fight back viciously to hold onto wealth and power and prevent real change.  We know that those of us who want such a change will need to struggle against our own personal histories of disappointments and discouragements.  It can feel risky to dare to hope that things can change significantly.

Ta-Nehisi Coates
However, even Ta-Nehisi Coates, someone usually seen as pessimistic, who has explicitly refused to hold out hope in the past, told an interviewer last week, “I can’t believe I’m gonna say this, but I see hope. I see progress right now, at this moment.”  He highlighted the fact that this time the protests are not just Black folk in their own communities expressing anger and pain, but “there are significant swaths of people and communities that are not Black, that to some extent have some perception of what that pain and that suffering is. I think that’s different.”

We will only succeed in the climate crisis, if we dismantle the systems of divide and control that keep the 1% calling all the shots.  Dismantling white supremacy is central to this effort.  Let’s show up and use Dominique Thomas’s recommended actions above.  Let’s take action. Let’s talk to everyone we know about making this the moment when the world turns.

Russ Vernon-Jones was the Principal of Fort River Elementary School from 1990-2008.  He is a co-facilitator of the Coming Together Anti-Racism Project in the Amherst area.  He co-chairs the Racism-Climate Change Connections working group of Climate Action Now of Western Mass, and blogs regularly on climate justice at www.RussVernonJones.org.

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