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October 1

House on Fire: #ClimateStrike Actions in New England

A critical report on #ClimateStrike actions in New England where protesters shut down a bridge and marched on a coal plant and argues that the climate movements needs more than symbolic gestures.

Friday, September 27th capped a week of actions for the Global Climate Strike. Judging by the turnout, the week was a massive success. It may have even kicked off the latest social movement – no longer limited to one country, but truly planetary in scope.

While the 27th didn’t match the astounding showing for the Youth Climate Strike on September 20th, it was certainly impressive. 150,000 in Madrid. 80,000 in Bern. One million people in 160 cities and towns across Italy. Actions in Mumbai, Valparaiso, Budapest, Lima, Atlanta, Dharamshala, Banglore, Thessaloniki. A show-stopping 500,000 in Montreal alone.

All told, there were an estimated seven million who participated in marches and actions during the Global Climate Strike. That figure puts it on par with the anti-Iraq War protests of 2003 as the largest coordinated global protest in history.

“The oceans are rising,” goes a slogan I heard a lot this week, “and so are we.” It’s a nice turn of phrase, but I’m starting to worry it keeps us from seeing what should be as obvious as the melting ice. If we can’t translate rising into uprising, the new climate movements may prove as ineffective as all those anti-war marches.

Boston’s “Flood the Seaport” action was a blip compared to the staggering numbers elsewhere. Called by Extinction Rebellion, some 300 people gathered in Dewey Square, just across from South Station, promising a day of disruption. “Business as usual,” runs an XR tagline, “equals death.” Although the crowd was generally older than the previous Friday, there were plenty of teens. Many carried signs adorned with Greta slogans like “Our House is on Fire” and “How Dare You,” referencing her instantly-famous speech at the UN just days before. I was surprised the crowd wasn’t larger, considering the worldwide attention around the Climate Strike and the unseasonably warm weather. But it turns out a few hundred people is more than enough to block a bridge – at least when the cops let you do it.

In the late afternoon, a brass band led the spirited, colorful rally into the streets. The target was only a couple blocks away: Congress Street Bridge, a short, low roadway perhaps not of great importance in the overall scheme of the Boston commute. As the march made its way forward, chanting and waving hourglass flags, several affinity groups sprung into action. Two teams, one for each end of the bridge, unveiled long, stylish banners which they used to cordon off the road for the next few hours. Another group rushed ahead and dropped off bags of gear. At first I expected some sort of lockdown, but then I recognized the struts and hubs of a geodesic dome. A small team rapidly assembled the dome in the center of the bridge, covering it with fabric painted with blue and purple marine life. A bit of art, a bit of shade on a hot day. Throughout the afternoon, the dome functioned as miniature teahouse: counterculture meets self-care meets protest camp meets barricade (one can dream!).

“If we can’t translate rising into uprising, the new climate movements may prove as ineffective as all those anti-war marches.”

Two individuals scaled the trestle spanning the top of the bridge, dropping a banner emblazoned with XR demands (“Tell the Truth,” “Declare Climate Emergency”). The police looked on nervously but didn’t move to arrest anyone. The rest of the day was time spent much like at a festival or block party. There was a meditation circle, protesters dressed in green and carrying potted plants. Mindfulness as direct action. There was the not entirely un-cult-like Red Rebel Brigade, a crew of red-clad dancers slowly winding across the bridge in provocative silence. There were sing-a-longs and speeches. There was even a hopeful dash of conspiracy. “I’d like to build a city of these,” one dome-builder said to me.

Well, why not? For one thing, organizers never intended for the blockade to become a more lasting event. As an action, it was designed to be temporary, controlled, and safe. That it was. It struck me as choreographed, rehearsed. Both protesters and police played their parts expertly. I’ll give credit to XR for being effective at pulling off stunts like this. But the knowledge that we were only there as a kind of pop-up protest made the day feel strangely empty. There was none of the spontaneous joy or sense of collective power that emerges in more unpredictable moments of mass protest. I never thought I’d be bored while blocking a bridge in a major metropolis, but life is strange like that.

Since the police had easily rerouted traffic around the short-lived blockade, Boston kept churning as if we weren’t there. The city felt unchanged and uninterested. Undisrupted. As evening rolled around, glass skyscrapers melting into the pale sky, the crowd dwindled. The action seemed to have exhausted the endurance of participants and the limits of its own imagination. Remaining protesters decided to pack it in, disassembled the dome, and casually walked back to Dewey Square. This time they took the sidewalk.

The next morning, I drove up to New Hampshire. The small town of Bow is a working-class community straddling the Merrimack River between Manchester, the state’s largest city, and Concord, the capital. Hoping to catch the Climate Strike’s momentum, environmental organizers from around New England had called for direct action to shut down Merrimack Station, one of the region’s last remaining coal plants.

Protesters assembled in a dusty, run-down park across from the entrance to the plant. Behind the baseball diamond, the hulking station could be seen nestled among gorgeous, red-tinted hills. Like in Boston, the crowd was mostly of the progressive sort, a mix of long-time activists and newly-mobilized young people. Organizers gave speeches on the need for climate action, on the importance of the Green New Deal. A police helicopter hovered overhead, occasionally drowning out their voices.

There were some sympathetic locals and nearby residents, but the majority of the crowd had carpooled from states away. It’s one thing to hear eloquent language of a “just transition” centering frontline communities exposed to extreme weather and pollution, as well as those who stand to lose their jobs as the fossil fuel industry closes shop. It’s another to watch huge trucks decked with Trump paraphernalia cruise up and down the road, their drivers revving engines and glaring at out-of-towners who want to shutter one of Bow’s main sources of employment. During a moment of silence for “climate grief,” a burst of gunfire echoed from a nearby range. For a second, the day’s complicated element of class strife took my mind to the shocking scenarios of It Could Happen Here.

At the rally’s peak, several dozen protesters emerged from the sidelines, suited up in white tyvek a la Ende Gelände. Here were those who planned to trespass onto the property of Granite Shore Power, carrying 5-gallon buckets with the intent to exfiltrate coal “bucket by bucket.” They chanted, sang songs, and pounded on the upturned buckets as they streamed out of the park. The march crested a small bridge which afforded a perfect view of the coal plant, still a quarter mile away. Protesters circled up and declared why they were there. “I want a future for my son.” “I don’t want to be responsible for every form of life on our planet to go extinct.” “We have to learn to live a whole new way.”

The march then dipped into an industrial park and squeezed through a gap between parked semis. The path opened onto railroad tracks. This was the line where coal would pour in, someone said, in trains two hundred cars long. Marching through the forest was exhilarating, a touch surreal. Yesterday skyscrapers, today the trees. It was also nerve-wracking, I have to admit, hemmed in by overgrown brush on either side, cops following us on ATVs and a drone hovering overhead.

Before long the march came to the site of conflict, the line at which the state decided it would tolerate no more: a spur in the railroad line, leading to where trains would dump their controversial cargo. One glance at the concrete barricades, the heavy-duty row of police guarding it, and the black SUV with National Guard inside was enough to understand the march was over.

The group circled up one last time, summoning collective courage before calmly plunging over the barricade. Approaching slowly, palms up and out, they walked straight into the line of police, who apprehended them in practiced, careful fashion. Some of the protesters made it past the first line of defense only to be confronted by a squad of riot police previously hidden by the thick trees. The righteous advance was at an end before the coal yard was even in sight.

Nearly seventy protesters in total were arrested, making this oddly peaceful assault on Merrimack Station the largest environmental direct action in New Hampshire since the Seventies anti-nuclear movement.

***

Witnessing these back-to-back #ClimateStrike actions illustrated for me the radical potential of the new climate movements and simultaneously made their shortcomings even more glaring. Millions have flooded the streets in recognition that the ruling class has failed us and that the world must be fundamentally transformed. But this emergent force remains stuck within an outdated political framework, reviving forms of symbolic protest that reality made obsolete long ago.

“There is no salvation to come from repentant elites. The system will keep running until we shut it down. That is the task we must organize ourselves for.”

It seems that the new climate movements are at an impasse. They unleash the unsayable – extinction, civilizational collapse – but still address themselves to politicians as if the crisis could be legislated away. They overflow with the immense sadness and anger of the young, while older generations of activists dictate the playbook with irrelevant strategies and insipid moralism. They know intimately the destruction dealt by capitalism to our bodies, to our minds, and to the earth, yet turn to half-measures to halt the devastation.

There is no salvation to come from repentant elites. The system will keep running until we shut it down ourselves. That is the task we must organize ourselves for. That is the horizon the new climate movements must look to if they want to save what’s left of the world. Everyone knows the hour is critical. It’s revolution or extinction.

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