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Activists Shut Down DC Streets as Climate Activism Heats Up

Friday’s climate strike was not a one-off moment.

Protesters advocating for new policies to combat global climate change shut down an intersection in Washington, D.C., on September 23, 2019.

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Maybe there’s hope after all.

It was in the mid-80s Monday morning in Washington, D.C., on the first day of autumn. By afternoon, the temperature soared to 93°F (34°C) in this hottest year on record, ominously underlining the urgency of #ShutdownDC’s climate change protest.

Building on Friday’s youth-led climate strike, which saw 4 million people protesting worldwide, Monday’s action was intended to disrupt business-as-usual in the nation’s capital to highlight the climate crisis. Liz Butler from Friends of the Earth Actions said, “We are proud to shut down D.C. with an inter-generational, multi-issue coalition.”

The D.C. shutdown gave a sense of what’s to come: Friday’s climate strike was not a one-off moment. Instead, activists say, it was a beginning, signaling a wave of climate action that befits the emergency.

Starting at 7 am on Monday, a coalition of 16 climate and social action groups shut down main intersections all over Washington, D.C.

The coalition’s demands are a Green New Deal with a swift transition to 100 percent renewable energy, halting deforestation by 2030 and climate justice, among others.

The group chose to coordinate with youth activists from around the world, who, led by Sweden’s Greta Thunberg, demanded that world leaders at the United Nations do something to stop the climate crisis.

As “Democracy Now!” quoted Thunberg as saying last week, “Politicians and people in power have gotten away with not doing anything to fight the climate and ecological crisis…. Since our leaders are behaving like children, we have to take the responsibility they should have taken long ago.”

As for her personal trajectory, Thunberg said, “People were saying ‘Yes, climate change is very important’ but just going on with their lives like before. I don’t get that.” With that awakening, she moved into action.

Throughout much of last week — capped by Friday’s momentous strike — Americans of all ages did get it. As actions continue this week, the message is clear: Climate protesters are not going away.

On Monday, in front of D.C.’s Union Station, Medea Benjamin, founder of CODEPINK, a women-led grassroots organization working to end U.S. wars, regime change and militarism, told me at 6:45 am that she expected 60-80 people to be there by 7 am. Within an hour, there were a couple of hundred. At the end of the day, organizers said a total of 2,000 participated citywide.

Activists filled five main intersections and then fanned out to 16 locations. Most were from the D.C. area, but I also spoke with those who’d come from Massachusetts, California and Ohio.

Extinction Rebellion Washington D.C., part of an international environmental action organization that promotes nonviolent civil disobedience, was one of the groups coordinating the action. Its members stuck a replica of a pink and yellow boat in the center of an intersection near the White House, to which several protesters chained themselves. Black Lives Matter filled a major avenue near the House of Representatives, and partnered with health care workers to set up a blood pressure clinic in the street. Members of 350 DC, WERK for Peace, CODEPINK and World Beyond War blocked the circle in front of Union Station, some dancing to Britney Spears’s “Toxic” in front of a black, 50-foot long snake-like tube with a skeletal head which read “Stop Pipelines Now.”

The activists’ signs were calls to action: “How Do You Want to Be Remembered?” “Stop The Lies.” “Planet Before Profits.”

What might not have been expected was the support from almost all those watching from the sidewalks — hotel, office and construction workers, passersby, and even some drivers stuck in their cars.

A security officer at one office building told me, “We need to stop the pipelines. Once they’re built, they leak into rivers and poison the water.”

A 57-year-old construction/demolition worker from Maryland who renovates old buildings said, “My 32-year-old daughter is all into this. If we don’t do something now, our children won’t have anything. It won’t be a place you want to live. When I was a kid in the 1970s, I did crabbing in the Chesapeake Bay and could get a bushel in one to two hours. Now I can’t get six crabs all day.”

He proudly described the company for which he works. “It’s an environmental company that recycles everything. We do things like remove asbestos. We have so many jobs we can’t keep up.” And who will get his vote in 2020? With a large grin, he says, “It won’t be Trump.”

A man who works the front desk at a hotel, said, “The Earth is dying. Something has to be done. Most people at the hotel agree with me.”

A 25-year-old Mexican hotel housekeeper said she was pleased with the protest, noting that the company she works for uses green cleaning products. “We shouldn’t take down the trees or use throw-away things like Pampers,” she said. “My daughter, who’s 14, tells me not to use plastic.”

A woman who works for the city cleaning streets didn’t want to talk with me. But as I turned away, she called after me, “Climate change is scary.”

A government consultant who lives in a Maryland suburb, told me, “I came in town today to support this. No one believes climate change is fake. Everyone knows [that line] is a cover-up for protecting the fossil fuel industry and other vested interests.”

Daneil Mengent, a cab driver who came to D.C. from Ethiopia 10 years ago, said, “My 9-year-old son went to the youth rally in front of the Capitol last Friday, along with 10 or 15 other kids from his northwest D.C. charter school. The teachers talk about climate change, and the kids have an amazing awareness about it.”

Not everyone, of course, was pleased. Three men on the sidewalk, who work in an office building, wouldn’t talk. A doorman at one hotel told me, “We were told not to speak to anyone,” and went inside.

By 8:40 am, the group took the protest around the block to the American Petroleum Institute, where it stopped and played more music. A few protesters talked to drivers stuck in their cars, some of whom honked their horns. “We have some good talks,” said one young woman. “I apologize and tell them we’re not targeting motorists, just inconveniencing them for a few minutes to make our point.”

How did drivers respond? “It’s a chance for a good conversation. Not everyone agrees, but one woman told me, I’d like to give you a hug.”

Many of the activists mentioned how Swedish activist Thunberg has spurred the movement. “Just like Gandhi and King, we focus on someone who inspires us,” said David Hart, co-director of Nonviolence International. “Today it’s Greta, who speaks truth to power, and we admire her courage.”

Sergei Kostin, who works with CODEPINK, said, “There’s something about a … child with great intelligence and a moral compass that children of this generation can relate to…. Who would have thought it would be children leading a global revolution?”

For the right wing, Thunberg is a threat. Marc Morano, who produces the climate-denial site, Climate Depot, and formerly worked for Republican Sen. James Inhofe (widely known for rejecting climate change science), is a Fox News favorite. On September 13, when Thunberg led a rally outside the White House, Morano opined on Rebel News, a far-right Canadian outlet, that, “Thunberg is instilling fear in millions of kids.”

Morano added, “She’s been captured by the media and climate change activists, trying to shame governments around the world. She’s untouchable. Like King was. No one can criticize her.”

“Not even the government,” he said, pointing at the White House. “And I don’t expect the Republicans will do any push back. Since she’s a young girl with autism, any criticism of the misinformation she repeats to the UN and the world is impossible. She’s the face of her generation and will only grow in power, when she’ll be even less touchable.”

With those assessments, activists can surely cheer.

This story is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 220 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

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