It is 8:00 on a Monday morning, and I sit in the Pittsburgh Airport, waiting to fly back home to Milwaukee after an amazing weekend at Power Shift, a massive environmental conference focussed on youth engagement. Last Monday, I had no idea I would be here. On Tuesday, organizers at the Sierra Club and 350.org contacted me, hoping that the Overpass Light Brigade could be a part of their closing keynote ceremony. "The Light Brigades," one organizer told me, "are the most exciting things happening in grassroots activism, and we want you to be a part of this event!" By Wednesday, logistics were worked out, by Thursday I had flights and a room reserved. On Friday, I checked and packed the light panels, and on Saturday afternoon, I arrived in Pittsburgh, having made it through TSA in spite my very weird package bristling with wires and batteries. I'd have paid good money to see the x-ray of that particular box!
I spent Saturday in the massive Convention Center, going from table to table and talking with a few of the over 6,000 activists in attendance. ...Mountain Top Removal, Fracking, Indigenous Rights, Food Awareness, Pipelines, Green Economies, Solar and Wind, Transportation… I was so impressed with the level of awareness and engagement of the attendees. You might want to check out the work of the Beehive Collective, or the Real Cooperative or the Indigenous Environmental Network. Amazing stuff, and this just scratches the surface of the creativity and commitment that I encountered.
Early Saturday evening I found myself in a bar packed with Greenpeace activists. I was reminded of Greenpeace's roots in the Quaker tradition of bearing witness. There was talk about the thirty activists incarcerated in Russia, as well as the need for the environmental movement to respect and collaborate with communities of color at the local level. I repeatedly experienced an emerging critical sophistication regarding "big green campaigns" and the tendency of the environmental movement in the past to reify positions of privilege, whether consciously or not. As Kimberly Wasserman of the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization in South Chicago eloquently stated in her keynote speech later that night: "Big Green and Big Government will sell us out. Let's not just build new infrastructure... let's rebuild old infrastructure!!! Beware of false solutions like fracking, like "clean coal." I invite you to look beyond the solutions that are out there. Our communities are on the front line. We do not need to be saved. We are saving our own damned selves! ...We don't want to be invited to a table where others have set the menu. We are now building the table, and growing the food!"
Later in the Keynote, Kandi Mosset, of the Indigenous Environmental Network, brought the keynote audience to tears with tales from the dirty energy frontier known as South Dakota. She spoke of a post-apocalyptic landscape of "flare-offs" where the prairie darkness is lit by towering infernos of natural gas burn-off belching light visible from space at night. She told of her little town of 1500, where tanker trucks rocket through the roads they ruin, frequently hitting animals and pets and her dear friend, a 24 year old woman who beamed her beautiful smile at us from the transient permanence of powerpoint. Ms. Mosset's pain was palpable when she told us of another friend who was stabbed by an oil-rigger because the roughneck thought he was gay. Stabbed him in the heart, killed him dead. Got three years for it. Her friend was an Indian. She showed a curious image of a thing that looked like a condom fit for a horse, pancaked in the desert dust. It was a radioactive sock - an item that is supposed to be highly regulated, but is strewn about the country side for little kids to find and play with. She showed us a sign that read "Danger: Toxic Air" and asked the rhetorical question: "What does that mean you are supposed to do… Not Breathe?" There are now ozone alerts in the Black Hills. Old wheat fields are now industrial zones. Her people can't visit their sacred sites. The Headlands are appalling. Crime and rape and slavery and death are visited upon citizens. Frack trucks dump their chemicals onto the dusty roads. "It is just water" they say, "only a bit salty." She showed us pictures of vast holding ponds scooped into the dry dirt, lined with nothing but torn black plastic, like the kind you buy at Home Depot for your roofing project.
"Our system has failed us," she said through hard shed tears. "How are you going to clean it up? If a little kid pees in the shallow end of the pool, you aren't safe in the deep end! What are you going to do to clean it up?" The speeches that followed were mere echoes of her forceful thesis. I wept in the cover of darkness.
On my way out I was surprised to see a Solidarity Sing Along in the large lobby. Well, it wasn't the Solidarity Sing Along, but a bunch of Greenpeace Quakers singing labor and protest songs. What joy! I joined in. It was great to be there, but in my mind's eye I kept seeing the police coming in like sharks, like they do in Madison, dragging us off under arrest for singing. My Wisconsin roots run deeper than I ever imagined. We've been forged in a hard fire.
The next day, Sunday, was exhausting and exhilarating. The closing keynote was a complex and highly coordinated production. In the late morning, we did a run through of our OLB action, and worked out the tracking, the lighting and the timing down to the minute. After a lot of deliberating and subtle suggestions aimed at giving the many directors the ideas you want them to have, we got our part of the act together. One of my young volunteers was even an ex-cheerleader, and had some great stage moves that were fantastic. I love it when The Holders take over the action. I get to step back, and witness the operation of the operating system. When evening hit, we were ready to go!
I wish I could paint for you a true picture of this throng of young activists, the very people who elected our first Black president, who now work so hard to convince him to do the right thing. Hope&Change seems somewhere lost between expediency and politics, floating next to empty signifiers such as "Have It Your Way" and "Just Do It."
Hope and hopelessness. Zombies walk the earth throwing radioactive foot condoms on the dusty ground for poor children to find and caress. Hellfire belches from the sands, and fish one thousand miles north swim in chemical waters, cancers and buboes disfiguring their rainbow skins. Meanwhile, a small community of rainbow skinned warriors succeeds, after twelve years of work, in shutting down two of the dirtiest coal burning plants in the nation down in South Chicago. First Nation's people of Canada have cut off pipeline access to the coasts, and one lone warrior holds a feather in fearless resistance, crouched in the road in front of a phalanx of militarized protectors of power. A massive resistance is mounting, and most of our population just doesn't yet perceive it. At dinner last night, one of the organizers of the event said to me, "I read recently that every human population has some personality types that have been genetically predisposed to be guardians of the larger group. I see all of these activists in those terms."
I like that thought. The Sentinel Generation, holding steady in the genesis of movements born in coffeeshop murmurs and social media working groups, ready to go out on the line against the crack pipe of pipelines. "Trans-Canada: I Don't Like" and the Koch-clones should tremble if they knew enough to care.
Power shift. It can't happen soon enough!