Green groups pivot to back protests against police: 'People see those deep connections'

Zack Colman, Gavin Bade and Ben Lefebvre

Nationwide protests sparked by the police killing of George Floyd are testing whether the historically white environmental movement has succeeded in its efforts to expand its core mission to include racial justice and equality.

The environmental movement has drawn millions of activists to marches calling for action on climate change or to stop pipeline projects, and many of the largest green groups, including the Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense Fund have issued statements supporting the protests that have erupted in dozens of cities and towns this week.

But the connection between "environmental justice" — which focuses on the pollution and health risks faced by low-income and minority communities — and the outpouring of anger at Floyd's killing are especially salient for activists in some of the emerging environmental groups that have gained attention in over the past few years.

“Seeing massive health inequalities in the black community — that’s the same mass death we want to fight against with climate change, and we should be showing up for black lives,” said Mattias Lehman, the digital director for Sunrise Movement who got his start in the Black Lives Matter movement. “The perception I always had as a person of color growing up in this country is environmentalism was a separate thing. It was something for white people who liked big animals.”

For large environmental organizations seeking to pivot from their efforts to draw attention to the heightened Covid-19 risks facing people exposed to pollution, addressing the unrest from the death of Floyd and others before him underscored the challenges facing the green movement as it broadens its focus.

“I think there’s been a deafening amount of silence from the traditional environment organizations,” said Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, North America director for the climate-focused group 350.org. “The amount of solidarity that has been shown to date is not enough.”

But the national groups have in recent years prioritized efforts to address the health concerns facing minority communities that are most vulnerable to climate change and the pollution generated by fossil fuels. That focus emerged after years of complaints from local and minority activists that big, politically connected organizations overlooked them while also sometimes taking credit for their work and neglecting to include them in long-term strategies.

For the newer groups of young activists that since late 2018 have led the push for the Green New Deal, seeking a sweeping overhaul of the U.S. economy to fight climate change, issues such as racial equality are seen as a core part of the mission. Organizations like the Sunrise Movement and Extinction Rebellion have led that push, attracting activists from a wider set of backgrounds than the largely white legions of people who drove the environmental movement in the past.

“I do think this could be a turning point for the environmental movement. But the question is whether they are taking the moment now to stop and do nothing but uplift black lives,” said Lauren Wiggins, an online content strategist at Greenpeace, who attended protests last Friday in Oakland, Calif.

Many of the most powerful green groups in Washington, D.C., are still assessing what kind of role they can play beyond issuing statements supporting the protesters and giving staff time to attend protests. The NRDC is “exploring ways for staff to increase all kinds of civic engagement activities,” spokesperson Jenny Powers said in an email. The League of Conservation Voters is "still figuring it out,” said Jen Allen Arroz, senior vice president of community and civic engagement, admitting that “we have got a long ways to go.”

That’s progress compared with the past, said Peggy Shepard, executive director of the group WE ACT for Environmental Justice. She noted that national organizations helped raise $1.2 million for environmental justice groups through a coalition called the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform. Shepard said she was on a call Monday with six green group presidents to set strategies to try to influence presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden on environmental justice.

“A few years ago there wouldn’t have been any statements by green groups. So now there are some. But there also are smaller groups that are actually doing something,” she said.

Melissa Martínez said her organization, the National Parks Conservation Association, is sorting through similar challenges. The battle she fights is familiar for people of color within the environmental movement, which has historically had few people of color in leadership positions — a flaw that many groups acknowledge leaves them hamstrung when issues regarding race flare.

“When I started the job at NPCA I came in knowing it was a predominantly white organization with white privilege,” said Martínez, the NPCA's resource protection manager, who was among the dozens of protesters who took shelter overnight Monday in a Washington, D.C., home as police threatened them with arrest. “How do we use that power to do what we actively need to do — move toward an actively anti-racist movement?”

Mainstream environmental groups may appear to be slow offering material support to events on the ground, said Dorceta Taylor, a University of Michigan professor and director of diversity, equity, and inclusion. But environmental and civil rights activists have made enough inroads with each other that even the leaders of predominantly white groups such as conservation-focused Openlands in Chicago have put out statements supporting the protests, something that would not likely have been seen a decade ago, she added.

The larger groups may have been caught flat-footed by the escalating protests while they have been focused on adapting their strategies to deal with restructuring their messages in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak, Taylor added. And they may also wary of appearing to be co-opting attention from groups closer involved in organizing protests or adding to the confusion, she said.

“If the Audubon Society said we’re going to bus in ten thousand activists, that wouldn’t make any sense,” Taylor said. “What the big green groups are going to be considering is what they can do otherwise. Are they hiring in those communities? Are they going to invest their resources? They can amplify messages. Those are things they can do besides coming in to protest.”

Still, the response has been frustrating to people like environmental justice activist Anthony Rogers-Wright, who joined protests in Minneapolis where Floyd was killed — and where National Guard officers ordered him and his friends to lay face down on the sidewalk, hands behind their heads, as they tried to march to a mural of Floyd after curfew Sunday. He said environmental groups’ reactions need to become “axiomatic" to convince people they understand racial justice concerns.

“Just a press statement of how appalled you are — I hope that you’re appalled … that another black man was killed at the hands of the state and the other three responsible are still at large,” he said. “What commitments do you make to make sure this doesn’t happen again?”

LCV's Arroz said the group, the environmental movement’s top political fundraising organization, is leaning toward its strengths in advocating for policy, and is searching for a strategy to press for change with lawmakers. The Sierra Club has sent emails to its volunteers and members amplifying messages of black activists and organizations, including calls to donate to such causes. Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace are working to expand their roles as conveners between environmental and social justice organizations.

Still, environmental activists who have participated in protests this week said they have seen a big difference in how law enforcement agencies have treated people calling out police violence than people who have taken the streets for climate change action.

“One thing that immediately stands out is the police presence was way more militarized and way more aggressive,” said Marcela Mulholland, deputy director for climate at progressive think tank Data for Progress. She attended protests in Miami, where she said law enforcement “had tanks and cops armed to the teeth,” adding, “I had never seen that before at a climate strike.”

But for some, it was reminiscent of the protests in North Dakota against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which turned violent and where many in the environmental movement were drawn into issues of racial injustice.

Jane Kleeb, the chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party and a longtime anti-pipeline activist said those protests brought together white protesters concerned about climate change and indigenous Standing Rock Sioux Tribe members that opposed the pipeline's presence near its tribal land.

Protesters there learned to stock up on water for prolonged demonstrations, carry milk of magnesia to combat tear gas and establish bail funds to ensure arrested protesters could leave jail if arrested, Kleeb said by phone as she traveled to a protest in Omaha. But the groups also started to explore the links between the individual issues they were working on.

“Standing Rock was the moment that everyone came together between racial and issues lines. We learned a lot of lessons,” Kleeb said. “Essentially, we all feel like we have to have each others' backs. The injustice that is happening to black men and women, or Native Americans over treaty rates — people see those deep connections now.”