Environmental activists are voicing support for protesters who have taken to the streets in outrage over the police killing of George Floyd, while acknowledging the green movement's own need to tackle ongoing racial inequality.
A number of leading green groups have issued statements recognising that systemic racism is deeply intertwined with the climate crisis, and pointing to disparities between the current response to demonstrators and how other movements have been treated.
“It’s not lost on me that last year’s Climate Strikes received overwhelmingly positive coverage, while this weekend we’ve seen more concern over how people protest than the movement’s goals,” said May Boeve, executive director of climate non-profit, 350.org, which has asked supporters to donate to bail-out funds for those arrested at demonstrations.
Mr Floyd, 46, died on 25 May after a police officer, Derek Chauvin, pinned a knee to his neck for almost nine minutes. Chauvin has been charged with third-degree murder and manslaughter, and while the three other officers involved have been fired, they are yet to face charges.
For seven days, thousands of people have taken part in largely peaceful protests across at least 140 US cities. Some demonstrations have been marred by pockets of violence and looting. In places, peaceful protesters were seen rushing to form human chains in front of stores to stop the destruction.
President Donald Trump upped the ante by threatening to deploy the military to “dominate the streets” of America and federal forces followed his lead, aggressively clearing a Washington DC park of protesters with tear gas so he could walk to a church and pose with a Bible on Monday evening.
Demonstrators have been met by waves of heavily-armed law enforcement in riot gear who have unleashed rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets. Hundreds of people have been arrested while both protesters and police have been injured in clashes.
Some have pointed to the differences in the police response to those protesting police violence this past week — where demonstrations have included many people of colour — and the approach to recent anti-coronavirus lockdown protests consisting largely of white men, some bearing assault weapons.
Georgetown Law professor, Paul Butler, told Vox: “Unarmed people, many of whom are people of colour, protest police brutality and are met with police brutality — flash grenades, tear gas, and rubber bullets. But when armed, mainly white protesters storm the Michigan state capitol, the police just let them be.”
Thanu Yakupitiyage, associate director of US Communications for 350.org, said: "The New York Climate Strikes were incredibly diverse but the reality is that often times when there's a lot of white folks involved as well, something is considered legitimate, and when it's black folks who are leading the charge it's not considered legitimate."
She said their organisation was focused on ensuring "that all of our organising around climate has a racial justice lens" and that those involved in the Climate Strikes were standing in solidarity with Black Lives.
Calls have come from across the climate community for activists to support the Movement for Black Lives.
“We recognize that as a predominantly white organization, we have an obligation to be fully and visibly committed to the fight against systemic racism,” Jenny Powers, an Natural Resources Defense Council spokeswoman, told the Washington Post. The non-profit has asked supporters to donate to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and others providing legal and financial aid to protesters.
Ben Wyskida, CEO of social change agency Fenton, sent an email to supporters, conveying "disgust" at Mr Floyd's killing and anger at the divergent responses to protesters.
He wrote: "We are outraged at the contrast between white 'reopen' protesters being treated with deference and Black protesters being tear-gassed. And we are driven to action shaken by the protests and uprisings of the last several days, and the extreme reactions of police departments nationwide."
Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund, wrote: "For too long conservation and environmental movements have not spoken up to address the long-standing challenges that non-white communities face. Environmental organizations should work to bring down the barriers that affect Black, people of colour, and Indigenous communities. EDF will provide support and solutions to achieve environmental justice and equity.”
Friends of the Earth echoed the Black Lives movement's call to defund the police and condemned Mr Floyd's murder, along with recent killings of Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Ahmaud Arbery, "and the continued state-sanctioned violence against Black people in the United States". Greenpeace also released a statement saying that "the environmental community must not stay silent in the face of systemic injustice."
Minority and poor communities disproportionately bear the brunt of pollution and climate change. Some 68 per cent of black people live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant despite being 13 per cent of the population, according to GreenAmerica.org, compared to 56 per cent of white people, making them more likely to feel the health impacts of pollution including breathing issues and heart conditions. More than a third of Latinos, who make up 17 per cent of the US population, also live within a 30-mile radius.
Indigenous communities in the US and Canada have staged protests and are fighting court battles against oil pipeline construction, which they say is hazardous to the natural resources of their ancestral lands.
The environmental movement has a dark history marred by explicit racist views, with some early conservationists pushing theories of white supremacy, the use of eugenics and sterilisation programmes.
Julian Brave Noisecat, Vice President of Policy & Strategy of Data for Progress, told The Independent in April that "the environmental movement in its history has, for the most part, been a movement led by and for middle-class, white people".
In environmental organisations, people of colour remain vastly underrepresented. Green 2.0, an advocacy group that tracks racial and ethnic diversity in the field, found in a recent study that although there were some positive signs of diversity, there was still a long way to go.
“There is no climate justice without a racial analysis,” said 350.org North America director Tamara Toles O’Laughlin.
"Decades of environmental justice activism has shown that communities facing racist violence and over-policing are also overrun by fossil fuel extraction, pollution, and every manner of related health disparities. The truth is that the status quo is killing us and so we have no reason to support ‘business as usual’.
"Our fight for climate justice must necessarily include challenging the systems of racism that protect profits for the wealthy few and destroys Black Lives. In our demands to invest in climate action and a Green New Deal, we are also calling for divestment from systems of white supremacy in solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives.”
The number of black and Latino organisations which focus on environmental justice is growing.
“When we say ‘I can’t breathe’ — whether it is an officer with a knee on our neck or the pollution which continues to take away our breath — that’s why we march and that’s why we work so hard to change these dynamics,” Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president of environmental justice at the National Wildlife Foundation, told Grist.
Associated Press contributed to this report
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