Jane Fonda Brings Her Climate Activism and Civil Disobedience Home to L.A.

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Morgan Lieberman/Getty
Morgan Lieberman/Getty

LOS ANGELES—On Friday morning, a crowd of climate activists, indigenous rights groups, some stray Tom Steyer supporters, celebrities from Jane Fonda to Joaquin Phoenix to Norman Lear, and one man dressed as Kermit the Frog rallied on a hill outside Los Angeles City Hall. Days before the Oscars, the motley crowd had come out for Fire Drill Friday–the climate protest led by Fonda and inspired by Greta Thunberg’s directive to act “like your house was on fire.”

Since October, Fonda has led protests every Friday in Washington, D.C., inviting speakers to talk about climate justice, performing acts of civil disobedience, and getting arrested with an array of activists and high profile colleagues–Sally Field, Ted Danson, Rosanna Arquette, Catherine Keener and Sam Waterston, to name a few. Fonda herself has been arrested five times, one of them on the eve of her 82nd birthday and another which landed her with a night in jail. Each Drill focused on a different aspect of the climate crisis, with experts conducting a live-streamed “Teach-In” before the rally began. A common set of demands has tied all the protests together: protection of indigenous land, investment in communities impacted by environmental racism, restoration of biodiversity, widespread implementation of sustainable agriculture, and a Green New Deal.

But this month, Fonda wrapped her D.C. protests and flew back to Los Angeles, where she plans to host Drills until the summer. The actress had come home for personal reasons–to shoot the next season of Grace and Frankie–but there were other factors behind her focus on California. “I’m excited, not just because I’m home, but because I realized this is the front lines of the climate crisis,” Fonda told the crowd in her opening speech. Like many in attendance, the actress and activist wore all red in solidarity: a bright scarlet trench and a Robin Hood-looking feathered fedora. “The wildfires and the long draughts and… the horrible diseases–cancer and asthma and birth defects—suffered by the people who live in the shadow of the oil drilling. This is the fifth-largest economy on the planet. Literally what happens here can affect the rest of the country and the rest of the world.”

Friday marked the first protest back in her home state, and the first with a more direct mission: ending the fossil fuel industry, specifically in California. Fonda and Greenpeace had partnered with the Last Chance Alliance, a coalition of more than 700 state and national groups dedicated to ending fossil fuel extraction, and instituting a 2,500 buffer zone between drill sites and residential areas. In her opening speech, the actress reminded the crowd that former Gov. Jerry Brown, known for his support of renewable energy, had failed to confront the fossil fuel industry. She praised current Gov. Gavin Newsom’s apparent commitment to climate activism, but warned that, without pressure, he could fall into similar traps. “There are thousands of oil permits waiting on the governor’s desk for approval this year,” Fonda said. “He must not sign them.”

If in the past Hollywood activism has drawn criticism as shallow or navel-gazing, this rally took a distinctly different approach. Celebrities abounded–Phoenix, Lear, Catherine Keener, Rooney Mara, Kate Mara, Rosanna Arquette, Bonnie Wright, June Diane Raphael, Rainn Wilson, and Paul Scheer made appearances–but they weren’t the focus. Instead, Fonda employed her friends to introduce organizers and local activists. “Let’s face it, 99 percent of celebrities are idiots,” Rainn Wilson said from the podium, “including myself. But we’re here to honor the people on the ground that do the grassroots work, the change-makers in the system.”

Wilson introduced Cesar Aguirre, a community organizer with the Central California Environmental Justice Network, who grew up in Kern County, an area consistently found to have the worst air pollution in the United States. Aguirre, a bearded twentysomething, explained to the crowd how his town had been targeted. “We have been targets of contamination. We have been targets of the pollution,” he said. “I call us ‘targets’ because they don’t respect us. If they respected us why would they put oil wells next to our homes, next to our schools?”

After Aguirre, a man named Don Martin, a climate activist and resident of a South L.A. neighborhood polluted by a toxic waste site, took the mic. “The message is simple,” Martin said. “S.O.S. When you are in trouble at sea, you send a distress signal: SOS–Save Our Ship. Well I’m saying S.O.S for us–Save Our Selves.” Martin went on to describe how he got into climate justice work after his wife and 8-year-old niece were diagnosed with cancer related to chemical exposure. His wife died from her illness. His niece is in remission. “I sat next to my wife on her deathbed, as she rattled her last breath,” Martin said. “I stand on the front lines every day. I live within 300 feet of a 24-hour toxic waste disposal unit that blows into my window as I sleep. We have to save ourselves. They’re not going to save it for us.”

Later, Joaquin Phoenix took the stage, chewing gum in RayBans and a black “Animal Equality” sweatsuit. But as the crowd cheered, he threw focus to yet another organizer, a 17-year-old activist he introduced as “our future president:” Nalleli Cobo, who has been fighting oil wells in South L.A. since she was 9. Cobo went to school 30 feet from a notorious L.A. oil well, known as the AllenCo drilling site. She grew up with constant nosebleeds, chronic asthma, and heart palpitations so strong she frequently had to be hospitalized. But Cobo, who started passing out flyers and protesting as a preteen, told the crowd how her community had gotten AllenCo closed in 2013. “We started going to community meetings and letting these elected officials know that they work for us,” Cobo said. “We put them in those seats and we can just as easily take them out.”

The local focus resonated with attendees, who understand as well as anyone how far the state must go to meet their stated climate goals. In the crowd that morning was Nithya Raman, a progressive candidate for Los Angeles City Council, the most powerful city council in the country, who has made progressive housing policy and environmental justice a key part of her platform. “There is a missing sense of urgency in city hall when it comes to climate,” Raman said. “Los Angeles plans on going carbon neutral two decades after the UN’s climate deadline of 2030. That is not acceptable, especially when climate change impacts the most vulnerable first.”

When the rally ended, Fonda and Lear led the crowd in a march through downtown L.A. towards a tall building at the heart of the financial district. Protesters filed into the lobby of the Paul Hastings Tower, home to Maverick Natural Resources, which operates a large number of oil and gas wells in Southern California and the Central Valley. Fonda, who is still involved in legal proceedings from prior arrests, couldn’t participate in civil disobedience for 90 days. But as the actress watched from outside, activists like Raman sat down on the lobby floor and started to sing.

“I don’t know if anyone is going to be arrested,” Fonda said. “But civil disobedience has to become the new normal... We have marched, we have petitioned, we have written, we have lobbied—and they haven’t listened. But we’re going to have to become bigger and bigger and become an army that shuts the government down if needed.”

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