The climate case for abolition

Minnesota climate justice activist Sam Grant makes the case for police abolition in the wake of the Derek Chauvin verdict.

People raise their fists and hold a portrait of George Floyd during a rally following the guilty verdict the trial of Derek Chauvin on April 20, 2021, in Atlanta, Georgia. Source: Elijah Nouvelage / AFP

Yesterday afternoon, former Minneapolis Police officer Derek Chauvin was found guilty of murdering George Floyd last summer by kneeling on his neck for 9 minutes and 29 seconds.

For reaction from a climate justice perspective, I spoke with Sam Grant, the executive director MN350, Minnesota’s chapter of Grant was “among the first climate activists to call for the prosecution of the police officers implicated in the killing of George Floyd,” according to the New York Times.

In the interview, Grant made an argument that more and more climate activists are making lately: that anti-Black police violence and the climate crisis are inextricably linked. Addressing one effectively means addressing the other. For Grant, that means climate activists must consider the case for abolition: that is, “abolishing criminal law enforcement as we know it within [a] larger democratic-abolitionist framework,” and creating “new non-police institutions empowered to supersede the police monopoly on violence reduction.”

Instead of focusing on exactly what type of abolition Grant wants or how it would work, I asked him to help explain why he believes abolition and criminal justice reform in general should be a focus and priority of the climate movement. We also spoke about how the Chauvin verdict relates to the Line 3 pipeline fight in Northern Minnesota. If you find this interview helpful or interesting, click the button below to share it with a friend.


Emily Atkin: How are you feeling? What's going through your mind?

Sam Grant: A lot of people, including me, were very nervous about what might happen with this verdict. White police officers have not usually been held to account for the unjust taking of Black lives. So the fact that he was found guilty on all three counts is significant.

But as soon as the verdict came out, the Movement for Black Lives and other close colleagues very quickly came back to the more critical and enduring mantra that abolition is what's necessary

There's a relationship between anti-Black violence, as happened with the murder of George Floyd, and climate violence, that happens with the transmission of climate injustice all over the Earth, including here in Minnesota as manifested through the Line 3 pipeline.

I think about Angela Davis’s Abolition Democracy. I'm calling on us to join the Abolition Democracy, which asks how we build an abolition framework for all of our relations, with ecological democracy, which asks how we do that in honor with all of life.

EA: You and I have talked before about this relationship between climate justice and criminal justice reform. In this specific case, how would you explain that relationship? Why would a climate newsletter be talking about this trial right now? 

SG: The fight for climate integrity necessitates that all human beings who care about their future are going to be standing up, practicing democracy. And if as we stand up now, we're going to have our lives put at risk by law enforcement who are trained and paid to protect property at all expense at any cost.

This is an unacceptable scenario of structural violence perpetrated by the state. That's not OK. So this particular case [the Chauvin case] said emphatically that this was going over the line. But this is also just one case. What we need is for this case to be a redrawing of boundaries around what we think the justice system needs to look like going forward, and what it means to respond to the Department of Defense's declaration that climate change is the greatest threat multiplier.

We can look at the threat multiplier as a way of increasing division among human beings, and protecting privileges already taken at any cost. Or we can say, because of the level of threat and because of all of the lives that are going to be harmed by the way we respond, let us today and every day forward commit to healing our relations with each other and bringing alive an approach to healing justice that ripples through every relationship and system in the world so we are no longer causing harm to the Earth or to each other. 

That's the objective of the climate justice movement, to say that both things are necessary for each other and you can't choose one at the expense of the other, because then both of the aspects of that equation lose the mutual future. So we're just calling on everybody to join the climate justice generation; to link bringing down greenhouse gas emissions with a journey of healing all of our relations. So that no matter what color skin you're in, no matter what zip code you live in, no matter what national border you live in, you are going to be respected and included democratically in finding mutual solutions to our future. That's the best way to respond to the threat of the climate crisis. 

EA: Earlier you brought up the fight over the Line 3 pipeline, which this newsletter has reported on extensively. And one of the things we’ve focused on is the relationship between the oil company Enbridge and Minnesota law enforcement. Are there connections between that fight up north and the Chauvin murder trial in Minneapolis?

SG: There are definitely connections. When we have a moment like this, where we're all collectively thinking about anti-Black violence, I am always very quick and consistent with saying, “Say their names.” Jamar Clark. Philando Castile. George Floyd

But it's also important to say the names of the Native women and girls who have been murdered by human trafficking and sexual violence in northern Minnesota. We have to say the names of Jojo Boswell, of Sheila St. Clair, of Rose Downwind, and the many others that are Missing & Murdered Indigenous Relatives Campaign is working on. 

Related reading: “Exploiting More Than the Land: Sex Violence Linked to Enbridge Line 3 Pipeliners

We have a law enforcement system that protects and serves people of privilege, but does not equitably protect and serve the interests of people who are in BIPOC bodies in Northern Minnesota. When our government made the decision to allow the Line 3 pipeline to be built, they decided which lives they chose to listen to, which lives they chose to honor. 

In this moment, post this determination in the Chauvin trial, we need to think about how to amplify the deep, profound intersectionality of violence perpetrated by police with violence perpetrated against the Earth, and join together in a new paradigm of action. That means honoring the well-being of the environment and the well-being of human beings as the same conversation. This is the work going forward. 

EA: President Biden spoke today about the Derek Chauvin trial and praised the verdict as a form of justice for George Floyd. Did you have any reaction to that, knowing that he hasn't made any comment about Line 3 since taking office? 

SG: Well, I have been working all day, and haven't had a chance to really catch my breath and cry my tears in response to this verdict. So I haven't had a chance to check the news and hear what President Biden has said or has not. 

But certainly, we at 350MN and many of our colleagues' organizations have been asking Biden to stand up and stop DAPL and stop Line 3 ever since he was elected. And he's been silent. Like, totally silent. Not saying one way or the other why he's willing to stop some pipelines but not stop all pipelines, even though he said very explicitly that he wanted to challenge fossil fuel infrastructure and not allow any new fossil fuel infrastructure to be built. 

So I'm not sure what in his mind and heart as he thinks about Line 3. But I would definitely like to know. Given the number of people who have asked him to weigh in on it, he is obligated to give us an answer one way or the other. Say something. Don't just sit there and pretend you can be neutral, because that's not a possibility.

Related reading: “The Biden administration remains silent while Indigenous women continue to battle Line 3 with their bodies.

EA: The readers of my newsletter are people who are concerned about climate change. They subscribe because they want to know about climate change every day. I'm giving them a newsletter about the Derek Chauvin trial. Is there anything that you want to convey to them that I haven't already asked you about? 

SG: It’s an important question, and I'm not sure if what's already been said will resonate with your base. So I'll just say this, to sort of amplify some of what I've said already.

We have a number of systems that are all joined together, that collectively are playing roles in shaping negative outcomes for the climate and human life. And it's important for people who are in the climate movement to recognize the intersectionality of systems. The systems that hurt the climate and the systems that hurt human life are the same systems.

It’s also important to not believe any longer that, because of the severity of the climate crisis, we have the luxury of saying no to climate justice. We have to have systems change, not climate change, as Naomi Klein and many others have talked about. We have to not allow ourselves to be divided from each other as we work for climate integrity. 

The path to bringing down greenhouse gas emissions to zero is a path that heals our relations with each other; that ensures we are honoring all of life and each other. Doing that allows us to create a future in which it is far less likely that a police officer like Derek Chauvin could have his body on top of George Floyd’s body and suffocate the life out of him without having awareness shock his consciousness into mutual concern for his life sooner rather than later.

It was nine minutes and twenty nine seconds of opportunity for that to have gone a different way. All of those seconds were wasted, and there's something about bringing awareness to how we relate to each other and saying “your well-being is important to me. My well-being ought to be important to you as a police officer.” 

I often say that privilege makes you blind. Power similarly makes you blind. And we have to work on healing our relationships with privilege and power so that we stop perpetrating violence on each other.

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

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