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As Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the country in response to the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, many political groups and brands fumbled and debated over which parts of the broad calls for racial justice they wanted to support — and what kind of language they should use.
But some of the country’s most influential environmental organizations responded without hesitation to a once obscure demand that has now become the protests’ main rallying cry: “defund the police.”
The youth-led Sunrise Movement recently hosted a mass online training about the concept, which has a variety of interpretations, including taking funds away from police departments — or abolishing them altogether. The group also urged its supporters to donate to racial justice groups and assist Black senate candidates like Charles Booker in Kentucky. Another climate group known as 350 raised $100,000 for bail funds and Black-led organizations and called on members to sign a ”pledge in defense of Black lives.”
For these and other environmental groups, it makes no sense to fight for aggressive climate action that would protect Black communities from natural disasters and air pollution while staying silent about the 1,098 people killed last year by police — a fate three times as likely for Black Americans than white. Failing to support Black Lives Matter and calls for racial justice would not only be morally incoherent, it would also risk pushing Black people away from the climate movement.
“If Sunrise weren’t really in a position to show up for racial justice organizing, as a Black man I’d be like, ‘Oh man, is this really the place I want to be?’” Sunrise digital director Mattias Lehman told VICE.
Efforts to end outsized police control and influence in the U.S. also acknowledge the deep links between racism and climate change. In Richmond, California, for example, Black and brown residents who live near an oil refinery and other fossil fuel infrastructure experience higher-than-average asthma rates. The refinery’s operator, Chevron, a major contributor to climate change, also helps fund the local police department. Four officers there are currently being sued for wrongly arresting a Black man during a traffic stop and then allegedly trying to cover it up.
“All of our fights for justice are occurring within a shared ecosystem,” Lehman explained.
Black people suffer more from climate chaos and police violence
In addition to being arrested, killed, and imprisoned by police at much higher levels than white people, studies show Black communities face twice the health risk of breathing polluted air. Across the U.S., racist zoning laws force people of color to live in less desirable neighborhoods closer to factories and other industrial facilities. In cities like Birmingham, Alabama, more than 70% of pollution sources are in low-income areas home to many Black Americans.
Black people also bear the brunt of climate disasters caused by greenhouse gas emissions released by those refineries, petrochemical plants, and other heavy industry. The low-lying Houston neighborhood most destroyed by Hurricane Harvey in 2017, for example, was 49% non-white. And when 2018’s Hurricane Florence tore through North Carolina, some of the worst flooding took place in eastern areas of the state with high numbers of Black and brown people who have fewer resources and protections.
Many racial justice protesters also want strong climate action
Despite the fact that many environmental organizations are run and supported by people who are predominately white, Black Americans are more likely to see the climate emergency as a major issue. That’s likely due to people of color being more exposed to environmental hazards in their communities — and decades of Black-led efforts to bring attention to those hazards.
An April poll from the Yale Program on Climate Communication found just 49% of white respondents were “alarmed” or “concerned” about climate change, compared to 57% of Black Americans. (For Hispanics and Latinos, it’s even higher at 69%.) And 36% of Black people surveyed by Yale were open to the idea of joining a climate campaign pushing for political changes, as opposed to 22% of white people.
The polling contains an important corollary: Black people fighting for racial justice across the U.S. right now are also likely to support strong political action on climate change. In fact, they might already belong to the climate movement or could be persuaded to join it.
“They are the same people,” said Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, North America director for 350. “Guess what, climate people are also Black people.”
Defunding the police complements the Green New Deal
At its heart, defunding the police is a demand for bold and systemic change to correct injustice. In that sense, it’s not so different from the Green New Deal.
The climate legislation introduced by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez last year calls for the federal government to create millions of high-paying green jobs with a particular emphasis on communities of color, while also investing heavily in education and healthcare. Some of the resources for that funding could be freed up by reducing the $100 billion the U.S. spends annually on policing.
Shrinking the budgets of police forces could in practice mean decriminalizing sex work, addiction, and homelessness. That’s why more radical proponents of “defunding the police” see it as a step on the way to police abolition.
“When it makes sense, we work with other movements who share our values and are also working to win political power.”
Others consider defunding the police as a way to free up badly needed financial resources to pay for more social workers, teachers, and caregivers in Black communities, especially during the economic onslaught of the coronavirus pandemic.
“A Green New Deal for jobs, infrastructure and human health melds very nicely with the vision of defunding the police,” O’Laughlin said.
To her, that’s why hundreds of environmental groups now need to move beyond supportive statements and commit to doing everything they can to support the fight for racial justice: “These movements are careening towards the same vision of the future,” she added.
Making society greener and less unjust requires a lot of political power
For climate justice groups across the country, amplifying demonstrations against police violence and racism isn’t a large shift in strategy. These groups were founded on the premise that the only way to transform our economy and avoid climate doomsday is to build a huge movement of people capable of defeating corporate elites and the politicians those elites support.
Whether it’s moving toward 100% clean energy to reduce the odds of climate disasters or confronting police unions that shield violent cops from legal consequences, fixing the crises of the era requires more political power than any single group or movement possesses.
“This is a huge job and we can’t do it alone,” Sunrise argues in a list of principles guiding its work. “When it makes sense, we work with other movements who share our values and are also working to win political power.”
That’s why throwing support behind defunding the police isn’t a distraction from organizing mass numbers of people to fight the climate emergency — it’s part of the same theory of change and political vision.
“It’s shocking how few people recognize that,” O’Laughlin said.
Cover: In this June 6, 2020, file photo, protesters march in New York. Since Floydâ€™s killing, police departments have banned chokeholds, Confederate monuments have fallen and officers have been arrested and charged. The moves come amid a massive, nationwide outcry against violence by police and racism. (AP Photo/Ragan Clark, File)