Re-imagining the campaign: what climate justice can teach MJ

Statement on Authorship:

The authors of this piece recognize the complexities of representation. This document is an attempt to combat the overpowering white voices that are so prevalent in many spaces, but especially in environmental movements. In the process of writing this document, we reached out on the basis of preexisting relationships to people who may share these same frustrations. We recognize that the listed authors are not representative of all students who would have wanted to contribute, and we feel as though it is important to explicitly state that this document was not spearheaded by white people.

What this document tries to do is to create a pro-environmental justice space that is critical of MJ and white environmentalism in a polarized campus context where one must either be pro-environment and pro-MJ OR anti-environment and anti-MJ. There has been a harmful dynamic on this campus where students, especially people of color (POC), are essentially forced to choose between environmental justice and racial justice, and those of us who identify as POC and refuse to choose are often made to feel as though we have to apologize. One of our hopes for this op-ed is that it helps launch a culture in which it is ok to be pro-environment and stand up for racial justice at the same time.

We recognize that this is not the end of the conversation; in fact, we hope that this can catalyze more dialogue.

In this article, we will use the terms Climate Justice and frontline community in our critique of Mountain Justice as it currently operates. As part of the larger Environmental Justice (EJ) framework, Climate Justice (CJ) recognizes that those least responsible for climate change bear the brunt of its negative impacts, and that addressing climate change requires shifting these burdens to create a more equitable world. Climate Justice demands centering and respecting the voices of frontline communities, those directly impacted by fossil fuel extraction and combustion.

I. Pro-divestment, with caveats

We believe that Swarthmore College must divest from fossil fuels. We support Swarthmore Mountain Justice’s (MJ) campaign, and we support the sit-in that is happening now on Parrish 2nd. We respect the time and energy that the MJ organizers have put into the divestment campaign. We believe that divestment is a necessary step toward building the political power to undermine the fossil fuel industry and create a sustainable future.

Since its beginning, we have seen two narratives over the course of MJ’s campaign: one that centers frontline communities’ activism and one that centers leaders of the group with a tokenizing mention of the frontlines. We have also seen a shift in the structure of the group, from inclusivity and consensus to a hierarchy that does not make space for critique.

The authors of this article come from differing relationships with MJ and environmental action. As a group, we maintain that MJ has an invaluable opportunity to re-evaluate its internal structure and cultivate authentic relationships with other activists on and off campus. Furthermore, MJ needs to commit to action in line with a fully intersectional, Climate Justice analysis that comprises other pressing issues such as racial injustice and economic inequality.

This is not an attack on MJ as people or organizers, but rather a reminder that, historically, mainstream environmental movements have tended to exclude those who are most marginalized. This tendency is a larger structural problem, not just a fault of an individual campaign, though we challenge MJ to resist that trend. We understand that it is hard to balance the practical implications of fast action with intentional community-building, but we think this is an opportune moment to make a push to focus on the latter.

Two-and-a-half weeks into the sit-in and as the May Board meeting nears, MJ could be approaching a turning point. And so, at this moment, we would like to offer suggestions to MJ to highlight both the oppression faced by and the resistance of those who are suffering the most at the hands of the fossil fuel industry.

II. Solidarity with other groups on campus

MJ’s direct action comes in the wake of  the Black Liberation 1969 project, which re-examines the events surrounding the 1969 sit-in, as well as the student-led revisiting of the protests and demands of the Spring of 2013. Unfortunately, MJ has bypassed opportunities to lift up these two histories of resistance.

MJ’s Parrish sit-in is certainly not the first. Though it may be the largest, it is important to recognize how it differs from actions of the past. Their action recalls the 1969 sit-in led by the Swarthmore Afro-American Student Society (SASS) in the admissions office. Neglecting the different levels of risk due to race and political climate ignores the differences between the two sit-ins. The Black students demanding increased Black enrollment, faculty, and administration, as well as Black Studies coursework and a bridge program, faced threats against their safety: alumni wrote suggesting that the students be expelled, Swarthmore police offered to remove the students, and the FBI recruited Swarthmore staff as informants. This harsh reaction demonstrated their racism and fear of mobilized POC; they focused on dispersing the organizers rather than addressing their concerns. Fortunately, today there is less threat of physical danger to members of the sit-in. MJ must ask itself why it has received so little pushback from those in positions of power at this institution and for what reasons students can participate in large numbers and not have to fear for their safety.

Echoing that sit-in could be a powerful way to remember resistances in Swarthmore’s history. It is disappointing that MJ is lauding the size of the sit-in while failing to explicitly acknowledge this tactic’s history on this campus.

In Spring of 2013, students were again met with a dismissive administration in response to a set of demands. After the series of urinations on the door of the Intercultural Center, students mobilized to resist the oppressive structures that continue to pervade administrative action and campus culture.  MJ appropriately ceded its place in the spotlight that May, by taking the microphone from notoriously inaccessible Board members at an open debate with the Board and handing it to a coalition of students who had been leading the resistance since the fifth urination, as well as leaders of other campaigns for social justice.

In the debrief after the Board meeting action, members of the IC expressed their appreciation for MJ’s decision to de-center divestment in that moment. They encouraged MJ to continue to work in coalition with other campaigns for social justice on campus. Since the Spring of 2013, however, MJ has done little to work in coalition with EJ/CJ or other social justice groups on campus. Rather, it seems that MJ has misremembered the collaboration of May 2013, describing the “Board takeover” as a 200-person action for divestment.

In short, MJ has failed to stand in solidarity with other on-campus activist groups, erasing the work of previous struggles on campus and neglecting an opportunity to retell and emphasize the history of their resistances.

III. Re-centering the frontlines

Bill McKibben was recently invited by MJ to lead a rally in support of the sit-in and the Swarthmore divestment movement. At the center of Swarthmore’s and the media’s attention, he delivered a rousing pep-talk encouraging everyone to attend the sit-in on Parrish 2nd, which he called the “white, hot center” of the fight against climate change.

McKibben’s talk needs to be put into the context of the mainstream environmentalist movement. Historically, environmentalism has centered the experiences and goals of higher-income, white men. The movement thus has a problematic legacy of benefiting white people and prioritizing false solutions to solve environmental problems at the expense of indigenous peoples and communities of color. In the name of “solving” environmental issues, people are removed from their land, toxic and nuclear waste is dumped in communities of color, and destructive extractivist industries are sited in poor communities.

Because of this persistent neo-colonial oppression worldwide, many peoples’ traditional or indigenous knowledge and relationships with land have either been destroyed or denied. The California Wilderness Act, authored in the name of environmental interests, removed California Natives from their homelands.

These systemic processes are perpetuated by lifting the voices of middle to upper-class white men and erasing the experiences of directly-impacted communities to find solutions to environmental problems. That is why the work of Environmental Justice and Climate Justice organizers requires that we center frontline activists and directly impacted communities. MJ’s decision last month to bring McKibben is a departure from their previous narrative, which highlighted people in directly-impacted communities.

In 2013, MJ planned a divestment convergence to bring together fossil fuel divestment activists from around the country. The idea was to share information and strategies about the campaign and to lift up the voices of people from directly-impacted communities. For this reason, when the option to include Bill McKibben as a speaker arose, MJ turned it down, instead inviting frontline activists resisting tar sands in Alberta, fracking in Pennsylvania, mountain top removal coal mining in West Virginia, coal-fired power plants in Chicago, and a range of others whose voices are often overlooked in mainstream environmental movements.

At this moment, MJ must not only center the voices of directly-impacted communities that exist off-campus and nearby in Chester, but also students here who identify as members of such. MJ should look at whether the communities it claims to be in solidarity with are leading the movement or included in the decision-making process in a genuine way. How movements acknowledge histories of exclusion and who is chosen to speak at rallies will impact whether or not certain students feel uncomfortable and excluded from these spaces. We encourage MJ to conscientiously reevaluate who is at the “white, hot” center of the movement.

IV. Moving forward

So how can MJ learn from its past and present to move forward? As we’ve already suggested, the first step is self-reflection. We hope that this article can spark face-to-face conversations that reach across group boundaries.  Below are some specific suggestions we would like to offer as a starting point for this conversation:

  • MJ must explicitly recognize how it has borrowed tactics from other movements, such as the 1969 Black students’ sit-in. Instead of disregarding that history, MJ can make space to talk about how the struggle for Black liberation is connected to EJ. Similarly, MJ can recognize the racism inherent in many environmentalist spaces. It should ensure that members are aware of this legacy and the tension that it invokes between environmental and other social justice movements.

  • Forming deep and genuine relationships between movements and between individuals is a crucial component of the CJ movement. MJ must stand in solidarity with the IC/BCC and social justice groups on campus. Attending these groups’ events, as allies (not as representatives of MJ with the goal of talking about divestment), would be one demonstration of a commitment to solidarity.  For example, joining the upcoming discussion, “Toward Future Coalition Building: Revisit Spring 2013 Student Demands,” (on April 13 at 4:30pm) would show that MJ members are committed to retelling the history of the Spring of 2013 in a meaningful way.

  • MJ must recenter frontline communities by returning to the idea of divestment as for communities directly impacted by extreme fossil fuel extraction. MJ must not only stand in solidarity with but take leadership from the frontlines. To start, we invite you to join us in learning directly from the words written by POC, indigenous people, and people from the Global South. The sit-in is an excellent opportunity to center this kind of programming.

  • Take advantage of the sit-in space by hosting discussions about the links between EJ and allyship, with reference to the Allyship and Anti-Oppression Resource Guide; screening films about frontline resistance work; providing opportunities to discuss readings by marginalized CJ activists; and inviting students involved in the 1969 class to share their research.

We offer these suggestions recognizing that there is not one definitive set of actions that will constitute the process of Climate Justice. We all must work to establish authentic relationships with each other and people at the frontlines – not in order to “get” anything from them or “give” anything to them, but rather, for its own sake.

Divestment movements across the country look up to MJ for both strategy and direction; and so, it is crucial that MJ set a precedent for how a divestment campaign can enact Climate Justice.

All that being said, let’s divest.

We would like to especially thank the contributors to the Black Liberation 1969 database. Without their attention to keeping alive institutional memory, we would not have been able to make the connections in this piece.

Sanaa Ali-Virani ’15, Christopher Chalaka ’15, Bryan Chen ’15, Matthew Chen, Natalia Choi ’15, Amie Chou ’15, Damella Dotan ’15, Ben Goloff ’15, Pati Gutiérrez-Fregoso ’15, Hazlett Henderson ’17, Lillian Jamison-Cash ’15, Lekey Leidecker ’16, Daniel Orr ’16, Laura Rigell ’16, Kat Galvis Rodriguez ’17, Peera Songkünnatham ’15, Mayra Tenorio, Emily Zhang ’15 

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