An Earth Day for Black lives

Why the pursuit of justice and reparation is increasingly central to mainstream environmentalism.

Erin Lee, left and Mahkhyieah Lee, right, visit Black Lives Matter Plaza near the White House following the verdict of the Derek Chauvin trial on April 20, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Photo by Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images.

For so many Black Americans this Earth Day, the world feels like it’s falling apart. Mere minutes after former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of murdering George Floyd, news broke of another officer-inflicted killing.

The victim this time was 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant, shot repeatedly in the chest by police after calling them for help with a confrontation outside her foster home. Her death, Vox reported, was one more “in a long list of Black and brown children who have died at the hands of police officers: Last week, 17-year-old Anthony J. Thompson Jr. was shot in his high school bathroom when police responded to an emergency call. Last month, 13-year-old Adam Toledo was killed by a police officer as he raised his hands in surrender.”

If you don’t get what this has to do with Earth Day, that’s understandable. Corporate PR has successfully co-opted the imagery of this holiday to seem like a celebration for tree-huggers—that hippie brand of environmentalist who prioritizes nature over people.

But that’s never what this day was supposed to be. “The original founders of Earth Day literally borrowed pages from the then-happening civil rights movement to engage in righteous civil disobedience, righteous group mass action, to have humanity look at environmental degradation and the degradation of lives of individuals,” Aaron Mair, the Sierra Club’s first Black president, told me in a 2017 piece for The New Republic.

That piece was titled “Earth Day is Too White and Out of Touch with Reality,” because at the time, the environmentalism I often saw promoted on Earth Day was alien to the environmentalism I saw the rest of the year. The majority of folks I knew who had dedicated their lives to the environment did so because they cared not just about trees, but about humans. They saw pollution for what it was: a massive injustice inflicted by the powerful onto the vulnerable. They understood that such wrongs wouldn’t be righted by solar panels alone—and as such, their environmentalism was defined by the pursuit of justice and reparation.

This remains true today, but to an even greater extent. Four years later, justice has become an increasingly central pillar of mainstream environmentalism. Even if you don’t view your environmentalism through this lens—and I know from yesterday’s comments, some of you don’t—I think it’s important that you hear from those who do, especially this Earth Day.

Right after the Chauvin verdict came down on Tuesday, I spoke with Anthony Rogers-Wright, now the director of environmental justice for New York Lawyers for the Public Interest. If that name sounds familiar, it’s probably because I’ve interviewed him for this newsletter before (I also talked to him for that 2017 New Republic piece). His perspective has been incredibly valuable to me over the years in changing how I think about environmentalism.

If you’re still struggling to understand the connection between criminal justice reform and climate action, I think our interview from Tuesday might be helpful. Either way, subscribers, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

Emily Atkin: What's going through your mind now that the verdict is in? 

Anthony Rogers-Wright: Part of me is fearful we're going to get complacent. I think Kali Akuno said it best: the state will sacrifice a few of its own to continue the status quo.

We’re not talking about one cop, we’re talking about the entire criminal justice system. Just like we're not talking about one pipeline, we’re talking about the system that created that pipeline in the first place. 

I am fearful that this verdict, this one scapegoat, is going to take the place of system reform. That people will say “We don't need to do anything because the system works.”

Yes, the system works. It’s working, and that's the problem. Because this isn’t actually an example of a system working. This isn’t an example of justice. George Floyd is dead. It was all right there for everyone to see. 

At the same time, we've seen so many other cops who haven't gotten this level of accountability. So it's what I call a quick catharsis. It feels good for the moment. But tomorrow, as Maxine Waters said, we still have to be more confrontational in our approach to addressing the white supremacy system that perpetuates the climate crisis. 

EA: You mention that feeling of catharsis. When I saw the CNN chyron that said “Chauvin guilty on all three charges,” I just froze in place. There was definitely that moment, that feeling. But then almost immediately, it wasn't catharsis at all. It was dread. I just thought to myself, “This took so much. Just getting this took so much.” I  thought about the road ahead, all the challenges, how much more everyone has to give. Did you feel that? 

ARW: Yeah. I won’t lie, watching [Chauvin] be denied bail and get walked away in handcuffs; that was my moment of catharsis. But that automatically shifted.

You know, pretty soon I’m going to be living in a place [D.C] where marijuana is legalized. Our home state [New York] just recently legalized marijuana, too. And I think about the numerous people who look like me, or even people who look like you, who have been denied bail and walked away in handcuffs for far less. And we weren't on the edge of our seats for that, you know? 

So it's like I said: We really, really need to focus. Yes, this person who took our brother, child, friend away from usis getting accountability. But it makes me question what the idea of justice really is. 

EA: It makes me think about the women just a few hours north of Minneapolis leading the movement against Line 3. I think about their experience with the police force up there; this very dubious relationship between the police force and the foreign oil company Enbridge; and all the violence that happens there every day

Barely anyone is on the edge of their seats about that in comparison. I dedicated three weeks of coverage to it, and it didn't do very well, to be honest, in terms of traffic and subscriber numbers. Biden still hasn’t taken a position on it. It makes me think of just how much more injustice is going on, especially in the climate space. 

ARW: Yeah. And we’re in this weird position now where we don’t know what to make of Biden. You and I spoke a lot during the primaries about how he wasn’t my first choice. And then he starts, and I can’t hate what he’s doing.

But now we’re in this battle over the clean energy standard versus the renewable portfolio standard. There’s this idea of, “We can write a crappy climate bill that includes false solutions—carbon capture, clean energy credits to fracked gas, biofuels, et cetera—but it also has good environmental justice provisions.” 

For me, it’s analogous to what just happened with the Chauvin trial. We’re going to convict this one horrible person, but we're not going to talk about the larger issue of police accountability and qualified immunity. We’re going to include EJ provisions in a bill that still promotes nuclear and fracked gas.

We're not looking at the entire spectrum of what is causing this climate crisis, and what do we do to stop it.

EA: We’re very much still focused on symptoms.

ARW: Yeah, exactly. We’re also still willing to throw a bone to keep certain groups happy. Like, I could see backroom deals where the police union was like, “Look, you’ve gotta convict this guy. He’s guilty. But we’re not going to discuss what caused him to do that in the first place.”  

EA: And I think if you can't see a climate parallel to that, then you've got to do a little more reading. You can shut down one dirty coal plant, but that doesn't matter if you still have a system that allows new tar sands pipelines to be built. 

ARW: Right. This one cop cannot be turned into a scapegoat for an entire system. We can't allow that to happen, or we will continue this being in situations like we are with Line 3 and other pipelines. It’ll just be whack-a-mole, whack-a-mole, whack-a-mole.

This is one of the great parallels between these two issues, which are really the same issue when you start to think about it. The battle over policing is symbolic of the larger problem of institutionalized white supremacy. The battle over Line 3 is just symbolic of the larger problem with institutionalized fossil fuel dominance. You can win little battles, but it'll always feel a little hollow. 

Our attention spans are just so short. We only focus on the flash point, and not on the quantity of work that needs to be done; that white people need to do, in many instances.

We really need to transform and deprogram ourselves. And keep in mind, I'm watching some Black leaders act like [Chauvin’s conviction] was this massive victory. I'm working on a piece right now which basically says—and there’s probably going to be some Black people who hate me for this—that the civil rights movement was kind of a failure. Because here we are. So I'm just wondering where the organizing goes from here.

EA: Well, that's why I always call to talk to you. You usually say things that make people mad.

ARW: Happy to serve, my dear friend. Happy to serve.

For another explanation of the connection between criminal justice reform and climate action, you can also check out my October interview with Heather McTeer Toney, the director of Mom’s Clean Air Force. I love how she defines “environmentalism.”

Catch of the Day:

Fish is getting out of town for a few days. He’ll see you next week.

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