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Growing BIPOC Youth-Led Climate Movement Is the Force Occupy Could Have Been

Youth who understand that white supremacy is fueling climate destruction are building a new era of activism.

Climate activists participate in a pre-march rally at Freedom Plaza on October 15, 2021, in Washington, D.C.

Hundreds of activists gathered this week at Washington, D.C.’s Freedom Plaza for the People vs. Fossil Fuels mobilization — 10 years ago to the week that I set foot in the same place as the Occupy D.C. encampment had begun.

I started as an Occupy D.C. organizer and have since become executive director of Power Shift Network, where I work to support young people, especially Black, Indigenous and youths of color who are organizing for climate justice. This work has allowed me to see a critical throughline between movements that offers us lessons and mandates for our current moment and fight for a stable climate and livable future for us all.

Occupy made us understand a dimension of the hold of corporations over our lives, and while we built on that power, we have also had to redirect our activism away from its failures. What our movement must internalize today is that what is causing climate destruction and what has truncated our past movements’ ability to challenge corporate power is both white supremacy and the violent colonial legacies that continue to shape our politics and world. There are Black and Indigenous youth who have always understood this intimately, working to build a new era of climate activism and environmentalism — and it’s on all of us to get on board.

Ten years ago, Occupy was not yet there. The movement’s failures to address white supremacy and colonialism kept us internally stifled and also externally limited our demands and narrative. In D.C., there was tension on which was the appropriate “Occupy” encampment — there were two in different parts of the city — a conversation that was dominated by white folks.

Those of us whose families had felt the pangs of empire in our own lives, or as a result of structural violence, were fighting to reconsider the word “occupation” being thrown around by gentrifiers and outsiders to D.C., the ancestral home of the Piscataway people, who were also woefully underrepresented in the Occupy space. A centered understanding of colonialism and white supremacy would have resulted in an entirely different, deeper conversation about corporate power, and led us to a different climate today — both literally and figuratively.

Occupy’s failures to address its overwhelmingly white leadership and internal racism are well documented, but perhaps less documented is that those of us participating who were Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) kept the space from imploding altogether by continually putting out internal fires caused by white supremacy culture. I and others spent a disproportionate amount of time being pulled into circles about transforming harm after internal conflicts and acts of violence — leaving us excluded from leading conversations about messaging and external demands, which were largely taken up by white people.

These dynamics had important consequences, both on those of us within the movement and the long-term efficacy of the dominant Occupy narrative and demands. The Occupy movement elevated critical narratives about corporate capture post-Citizens United, wealth inequality and student debt cancellation — but what was obscured in our national conversation a decade ago were many Black and Indigenous organizers’ experiences and analysis about the impacts of white supremacy and colonialism. This is the root cause of the abuse of the planet and people, the ongoing extraction of resources, and the ongoing colonial violence against BIPOC communities who make up the vast majority of the 99 percent worldwide.

This limited analysis leads to Band-Aid approaches to systemic harms that fundamentally leave marginalized people behind in a country built on white supremacy. When I was first exposed to the youth climate movement, the loudest people were the most privileged, and those who were most invested in continuing the status quo. People were fighting to preserve a life of upper-middle-class suburban homes with white picket fences — one that is only made possible when we silo the demands for corporate reform and government accountability (both foundational of the Occupy and environmental movements) from historically grounded analysis of the root causes of these systems’ harms.

In 2011, the vast majority of the environmental movement was not focused on challenging corporate power and challenging colonial violence against BIPOC communities, and the leadership of the major organizations were overwhelmingly white — the Sierra Club being founded by John Muir, an unabashed eugenicist, is just one of many examples of this. This movement focused on the conservation of pristine land for white recreation and the promise of ending climate disruption, while Black and Indigenous communities already experiencing its catastrophic results were too often sidelined or ignored altogether. Meanwhile, Occupy’s white-led leadership, in D.C. and beyond, made few meaningful connections to Indigenous and Black communities, and alienated many internally who did choose to participate.

It has taken years to make real, meaningful leadership changes that have led to today’s Indigenous- and Black-led movements drawing these critical connections. I’m grateful that People vs. Fossil Fuels has been grounded in Indigenous leadership, and all of the climate and environmentalist organizations need to work hard to follow this lead and make sure we’re all learning from past movements.

We need to invest in those who are categorically experiencing the worst impacts of the climate crisis, disproportionately BIPOC folks. In supporting the “melanating” of the climate movement, Power Shift Network’s membership has grown from 86 to 118 member organizations in just the past year — a 37 percent increase — because we’ve been focused on supporting voices that have been marginalized by the environmental movement historically.

But while our movements have been internally reckoning, the 10 years since Occupy have given our corporate targets their opportunity to grow in size and sophistication: The 1 percent’s wealth has grown, transforming from an amorphous idea to one with specific faces, names and cultural power, like Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk. In the absence of meaningful government action, they pose themselves as technocratic capitalist heroes who will solve the climate crisis by moving our extractive industries and pollution into space.

When movements don’t have a forefront analysis about white supremacy and colonialism as extraction from the Earth, this co-optation and posing of “silver-bullet” solutions will continue. Only a movement for climate justice that centers racial justice is going to be equipped enough to understand the action necessary both against this ballooning corporate sector framing itself as a solution and a federal government that continues to expand fossil fuel expansion in service of these corporations, while touting its own climate leadership — as the Biden administration is doing.

The need for climate justice solutions that center our relationship with the Earth are more vital than ever — and youth who are BIPOC are leading the movement that will bring us to these solutions.

Ten years ago, we elevated a narrative about the violence and dangers of corporate power into the national stage. Today’s BIPOC youth-led climate justice movement is challenging both government and corporate power that is holding us all back from a livable future. They’re calling on Biden to take the executive action needed to shut down off-shore drilling, challenging corporate banks funding fossil fuel expansion, and building the care infrastructure to support our communities in weathering the harm to come.

It’s the movement we needed 10 years ago, and long before, but now that we have it, it’s on all of us to support, elevate and grow it.

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