The moment when Cherri Foytlin went from being “just a mom” to a climate activist who would later be thrown down onto the hood of a police car and have a brick thrown through her window came not long after BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig exploded and leaked 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Foytlin, a Diné and Latina mother of six, was a reporter for a paper in south Louisiana and she remembers going on a boat trip into the disaster zone. “We came up on a pelican that was in the water, that had been oiled, and it was dying. We pulled it up into the boat and I just remember coming home that night and looking in the mirror and saying, you know, ‘What have I done to cause this?’” Foytlin said. “‘How am I accountable to future generations?’”
One thing seemed to lead to another. First she was doing small talks and fundraisers, then she was embarking on a walk from New Orleans to Washington, DC, to raise awareness of the spill. She passed through Black, brown and poor communities living next to cancer-causing refineries, strip-mined mountains and uranium mines. “BP was a one-off disaster,” she realized. “But the truth of the matter is there’s disasters happening every single day.”
Then her house flooded because of climate-related disasters—two years in a row. “The water just dumped on us, I had water coming in through the bottom through our floor, water coming in through the doors, water coming in through the toilets and bathtubs, it was crazy, and we lost pretty much everything we had,” she said.
Foytlin and other indigenous women later set up a protest camp to fight a new Louisiana pipeline called the Bayou Bridge from Energy Transfer Partners, builder of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Her house window was smashed. Her cat was poisoned. At an Energy Transfer Partners event in Dallas, she was put in handcuffs and spent a night in jail. Last year, she told the Guardian that at one point she was assaulted by two masked men. Other activists she knew were rammed by a large boat and spent hours in the swamp. She’s now living at an activist retreat in northern New Mexico. “We had to take the family out of Louisiana so we’d be safe,” she said.
As the pipeline fight went on, she heard about a new activist group that was shutting down parts of London with flashy, disruptive protests. “Extinction Rebellion UK was going hot and heavy,” Foytlin said. “It was exciting to see what was happening.” Initially Foytlin had little interest in the U.S. version, which launched in 2019. She wasn’t sure its tactics, which relied on activists breaking the law and being peacefully arrested in large numbers by police, “would necessarily work over here.” But then an activist friend asked Foytlin if she’d like to join the national team. What swayed Foytlin was that XR US had recently added a new demand to its strategy that wasn’t in the UK version: that the needs of “Black people, Indigenous people, people of color, and poor communities” be prioritized while transitioning to a zero-carbon economy.
“I wouldn’t have joined otherwise,” she said.
But Foytlin is now reexamining that decision. This spring, several activists formerly with XR US or associated local chapters launched a new group called XR America, which has removed the demand prioritizing people like Foytlin and replaced it with a rallying cry for “one people, one planet, one future.”
“Let me put it this way, and please get me right on this,” said Jonathan Logan, one of XR America’s founders. “If we don’t solve climate change, Black lives don’t matter. If we don’t solve climate change now, LGBTQ [people] don’t matter. If we don’t solve climate change right now, all of us together in one big group, the #MeToo movement doesn’t matter… I can’t say it hard enough. We don’t have time to argue about social justice.”
Comments like this point to a fundamental divide within activist circles: Should fighting climate change mean also embracing progressive policies that prioritize people of color—who often are more at risk from global warming—or should advocates stay away from fights over inequality that might alienate some people? This has become a bitter and increasingly public fight inside Extinction Rebellion, with some members angrily denouncing XR America as a “non-affiliated splinter group” and accusing it of “an ongoing campaign to undermine climate justice movements.”
Foytlin has decided to step back from the national team and instead direct her efforts towards a new XR initiative specifically focussed on vulnerable communities. But the whole thing has left her feeling “excluded” and confused. “The real question is what can be gained?” she wrote recently of XR America’s approach. “Who, and how many, does that strategy leave behind?”
Others outside the organization are also asking. Demoting communities of color in the climate conversation is “politically kind of stupid,” said Julian Brave NoiseCat, a writer and activist who works with the think tank Data for Progress (he has also written for VICE). An April poll from the Yale Program on Climate Communication suggests 69 percent of Hispanics/Latinos and 57 percent of African Americans feel alarm or concern about global temperature rise, compared to 49 percent of whites. People of color are also more likely to join a climate campaign. Furthermore, NoiseCat explained, “If you look at our data, if you could dream up a single Democratic policy priority that was the most popular thing you conceivably run on. Clean air and clean water are those things, essentially prioritizing the demands that have come out of the environmental justice community.” That is, out of the work people like Foytlin do.
So how and why did something like XR America happen?
The roots of this schism stretch across the Atlantic. Founders of Extinction Rebellion UK argue the organization must transcend traditional left and right politics and instead operate on the more universal idea that climate catastrophe is terrible for us all. “The main issue is everyone’s gonna die in the next 30 years,” XR co-founder Roger Hallam told the podcast Politics Theory Other last year. “Arguably, the identity politics of the last 30 years have been very good at furthering the rights of minorities… but it would be wrong to deny that it also has significant drawbacks, which is that it can’t appeal to everyone.”
Within weeks of its 2018 launch, XR UK had succeeded in convincing thousands of people to shut down bridges and major roads in London. Following additional waves of protests last spring, a UK Parliament committee urged the country to achieve “net-zero” emissions by 2050, which became law not long after. Despite being one of the more aggressive climate targets in the world, XR deemed it a “betrayal,” arguing the phase-out of all greenhouse gases needs to happen by 2025. But many observers took it as a sign the organization’s power was growing. “Extinction Rebellion’s demand that the government ‘tell the truth by declaring a climate and ecological emergency’ has moved from the streets of London to the corridors of power,” the outlet Desmog UK reported.
With that influence, however, came questions about the organization’s approach to race. When XR urged “the police and legal system to concentrate on issues such as knife crime, and not non-violent protesters who are trying to save our planet,” some people heard a dog whistle about crime in low-income black neighborhoods. “It was feeding into a racist narrative,” activist Guppi Bola told the Guardian. Writing in VICE last September, Tatiana Garavito and Nathan Thanki criticized XR’s strategy of purposely getting its supporters locked up in jail: “Stop asking people of color to get arrested to protest climate change.”
U.S. activists figured their version of the organization couldn’t be successful without some tweaks to its strategy. Shortly after XR US was founded in late 2018, local chapters went through a process of reviewing the organization’s demands and voted to add “a just transition that prioritizes the most vulnerable people and indigenous sovereignty” to the list. “That’s the only thing that’s going to work,” said Bea Ruiz, an Oakland-based member of the national team. “And it’s the only morally right thing to do.”
But as months went on, several activists started organizing an effort to remove the “Fourth Demand.” After being removed by local chapters for refusing to compromise, they helped form XR America. Logan sees the Fourth Demand as a polarizing deviation from a model that seemed to be succeeding in the UK. “Their theory of change is dead in the water,” he said of XR US. He argues, like Hallam in the UK, that the only way to mobilize the 3.5 percent of population XR believes is necessary for radical political change is by embracing a “big tent” approach which makes no judgements about race, class, politics or religion.
“Let’s say your uncle is a wheat farmer in Nebraska,” Logan said. “I don’t care if he’s a born-again evangelical Christian, I don’t care if he’s a Trump supporter. If he believes in the science of climate change and is willing to fight for his children and grandchildren’s future, then that [person] should have a chance to be involved in this.”
But polling data suggests that taking steps to recruit new and presumably whiter and more conservative members isn’t likely to be hugely successful. A study last year from the Yale Program on Climate Communication found that only 11 percent of Republican respondents support the idea of “non-violent civil disobedience” on climate change, and just 7 percent said they’d actually consider engaging in it. Meanwhile, the study suggested, 30 percent of Democrats might be open to joining the types of confrontational protests—dousing the Wall Street bull in blood, gluing people to Capitol Hill—organized by XR.
What this shows to climate journalist and author Wen Stephenson is that it’s difficult, at least in the U.S., to separate climate activism from the progressive, inequality-fighting politics favored by Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Despite all the attention given to climate Republicans, as a movement they are weak, poorly funded and isolated. This is the fundamental problem, he thinks, with the theory XR America is promoting.
“If they can point at this late date to any success, anywhere, in bringing conservatives along with big climate programs that are commensurate with the climate science, in terms of scale and urgency, then sure, by all means try to bring those people on board, but I believe the fact of the matter is those people don’t exist,” he said. “The only place on the U.S. political spectrum where you will find people who are actually advocating for policies commensurate with the science is on the left side.”
Stephenson says there has been a recurring pattern in the U.S. climate movement: Activists draw a clear moral line between people most affected by global temperature rise and those who are profiting from it, and then are accused of being polarizing and partisan. It happened with the fight over the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. It happened on fossil fuel divestment. And it’s happening now with the Green New Deal. But in each of those instances the unabashedly progressive side achieved large gains. Keystone galvanized thousands of new activists. Divestment is now an $11 trillion movement. The Green New Deal is a key part of the 2020 presidential election. “The climate movement only really started to build power, become a much broader movement, once it explicitly made the shift to climate justice framing,” he said.
To Foytlin the lesson from all this is obvious: “We’ve got to center the people who have historically become the most vulnerable to climate change. If not, what the hell are we doing?”
Correction 5/12: This piece has been amended to reflect the fact that the XR chapter to which Jonathan Logan belonged was not affiliated with XR US.
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Geoff Dembicki is the author of Are We Screwed? How a New Generation Is Fighting to Survive Climate Change. Follow him on Twitter.