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Climate Activists Can Learn a Lot From Black Lives Matter

Changing anything means building a big, brash movement. And doing that means talking about people, not statistics.

Monday afternoon, Cuyahoga County Prosecutor Tim McGinty told a cramped room of reporters that no officers would be tried for the killing of Tamir Rice. The announcement came just over a year after the 12-year-old was gunned down by police for waving around a toy rifle in a Cleveland park. Within two seconds of arriving at the scene, officer Timothy Loehmann had fired two very real bullets at Rice – including the one that killed him.

Calling Rice’s death a “perfect storm of human error, mistakes and miscommunications by all involved that day,” McGinty spent several minutes laying out the ways in which the child should have known better than to play in a park while being black. It was “indisputable,” he said, “that Tamir was drawing a gun from his waist.” McGinty added that the boy’s “size made him look much older” and that he “had been warned that his pellet gun might get him into trouble that day.”

Before the press conference was over, Twitter had issued its own verdict. One of the most popular (and representative) came from “Selma” filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who posted a photo of Tamir smiling in a restaurant with a one-word caption: “Innocent.”

As the movement for black lives has pointed out over the last year, the fact that police can kill a 12-year-old boy with impunity is grounds for moral outrage and disobedience. Organizers are already channeling that outrage into protests in Ohio, New York and elsewhere. The non-indictments of the officers that killed Mike Brown and Eric Garner drove thousands into the streets last year. The rallying cry Black Lives Matter was birthed in similar environs two years prior, when George Zimmerman was acquitted of murder after shooting Trayvon Martin dead on a sleepy Sanford, Florida street. Continued police shootings around the country have prompted further escalation, with protesters moving to shut down business as usual in shopping malls, airports and highways from coast to coast, most recently in a series of actions known as BlackXMas.

These efforts have catapulted a conversation about police brutality and systemic racism into the mainstream. Sixty percent of Americans – compared with just 43 percent the year before – now believe that black Americans’ fight for equal rights isn’t over. The movement has also racked up a string of legal and political victories, including California Gov. Jerry Brown’s decision to ban the use of grand juries in cases of excessive police force.

Central to the movement’s success has been its ability to outline the appropriate public response to killings and non-indictments. On top is a call for empathy, with the families of victims and the countless others who have experienced similar losses.

Alongside it is a sense of justified anger. Nearing 2016, law enforcement’s ability to kill unarmed children and walk free isn’t shocking. As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote of Rice’s case last year, “Convicting an officer of murder effectively requires an act of telepathy.” The anger that the movement for black lives has articulated, then, is not for specific incidents or errant prosecutors; it’s for a system that was designed to fail large chunks of the people living in it. Events like Monday’s non-indictment are reminders to keep fighting.

Samaira Rice, Tamir’s mother, said as much in her statement on the grand jury’s decision: “I don’t want my child to have died for nothing and I refuse to let his legacy or his name be ignored. We will continue to fight for justice for him, and for all the families who must live with the pain that we live with.”

The facts of her son’s case were all part of the discussion Monday – no less so than among legal analysts – but they served mostly to bolster the movement’s larger narrative that “the whole damn system is guilty as hell,” and shutting down business as usual is the only way to change it.

Of the many lessons the climate movement can draw from the one for black lives, this might be the most valuable. Building on a scaffolding erected by Al Gore and his ilk, mainstream climate activists have for years billed their battle as one for the truth, believing that if they tell the truth, the people (and the politicians) will follow. But faced with disappointments like the Paris agreement, more environmentalists are coming to realize what many organizers in the movement for black lives already knew: that changing anything means building a big, brash movement. And doing that means talking about people, not statistics.

To be fair, climate denial is a colossal problem. There are still plenty of truths to be told. The GOP’s party line is to disagree with 97 percent of scientists, and its 2016 hopefuls range from quiet skeptics to dues-paying members of the Flat Earth Society. A year-long investigation by Inside Climate News revealed that ExxonMobil funded cutting-edge research into climate change starting in the 1970s, only to spend millions covering up its findings over the next 40 years. Republican obstinacy provided an easy excuse for U.S. negotiators to excise the Paris agreement’s few binding sections, on the grounds that any agreement that had to pass through a GOP-controlled Congress would be dead on arrival at American shores.

Only sheer stupidity, the argument goes, could obscure the links between devastating floods in the United Kingdom, a nearly 70 degree Christmas in New York and the impotence of the climate deal reached in Paris a few weeks back. “If only they knew better,” goes the thinking of mainstream climate activists.

Content explaining how stupid Republicans are on climate is its own renewable resource – just look at the climate change tab of any major progressive news outlet. A cottage industry has cropped up to generate rapid-fire fact-checks on Republican presidential debates and just about anything Donald Trump says.

But what good does caring about the truth really do? Trump’s resilience against reality is a case in point. As journalist Paul Waldman recently explained, “Not only does [Trump] refuse to be held to any standard of truth, he refuses to act ashamed when he gets caught in a lie, or even grant that he might have been mistaken. And his supporters go right along – if Donald says it, it’s true, and no bunch of media jerks are going to tell them otherwise.” For Trump supporters, facts are irrelevant. The same might well be said of many Americans – not because they’re ill-informed, but because stories do more work than a slideshow ever can. And most people generally don’t like being called stupid. Trump and the climate deniers are telling one story, and the media jerks another. Movements have to up-end them both.

As the movement for black lives already understands, dismantling racism is not about proving racists wrong. Climate change will not be solved by convincing climate deniers of their own idiocy. Each are about power and affecting near-tectonic shifts in national values and priorities: Whose lives matter? Who controls our future? What does security mean amidst rising tides, and who deserves it?

The point here is not to draw a hokey analytic comparison between the movement for black lives and the one against climate change. For one, the links between climate and racial justice aren’t abstract. Reducing that relationship to “links” at all belies how deeply interwoven the two really are. It was Cleveland’s polluted Cuyahoga River, after all, which sparked national outrage when it caught fire one June morning in 1969 – a scandal that led to both the Clean Water Act and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. Additionally, some of this country’s longest-running fights against pollution and extractive industry have taken root in the communities of color that are first to feel their worst impacts. It’s no secret, either, that the nations currently feeling the blunt force of climate change tend to be poorer and browner than the ones that contributed most to it.

These connections aren’t just facts. They’re lived reality. Necessarily, the movement for black lives has always been a struggle for life and death. The climate fight – for many – is no different. As protesters respond to yesterday’s grand jury decision, environmentalists should be taking notes and joining in.

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