Climate justice, Black organizing, and Mike Brown

By Nene Igietseme, CSS Fellow

Read on about the connections between state violence, climate change and answer the call for a climate contingent to

Our Power Richmond


Approximately two years ago in August of 2012, the Chevron oil refinery in Richmond, CA erupted with a fire and explosion that almost killed 20 employees and sent over 15,000 residents to the hospital. On the 2nd year anniversary of this event, over 400 people from communities all over the country came together for the Our Power National Convening, hosted by the Richmond Environmental Justice Coalition and the national Climate Justice Alliance. For three days, we discussed strategies for how to have “power without pollution” and how to put “people over profits;” key topics for communities who, like Richmond, are dealing with the impacts of drilling, fracking, dumping, and pollution.


As a youth worker, I was excited to attend because I sometimes I find it challenging to bridge the gap between the issues young people I work with are finding urgent: policing, gentrification, incarceration, jobs, etc., and environmental justice, and climate justice (beyond youth engaged in environmental justice organizations already). At the Our Power National Convening, I hoped to gain strategies that link these topics, particularly from other black organizers doing similar work.
On Sunday, August 9th, the last day of the convening, Mike Brown was shot to death in the streets of Ferguson. By the end of the day there was really no one left to process the news coming through on Twitter that this black teenaged boy had just been killed by the police in St. Louis.

…coming through on Twitter that this black teenaged boy had just been killed by the police

I have two beautiful black brothers and my world is filled with black men, women, teenagers and community members whom I love and care about. So, the shock, pain, and anger of the moment, while familiar, were almost paralyzing. Hope, however, grew from recalling the work of folks at the convening like Ed Whitfield from the Fund for Democratic Communities, Colette Pichon Battle from the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy,organizers from Cooperation Jackson, people from Detroit, and of course folks from our host city, Richmond. These people work at the intersection of black organizing, climate justice, and building a new economy.

Mosiah Sims Bey from Young Educators Alliance ( YEA ) &  EMEAC

Mosiah Sims Bey from Young Educators Alliance (YEA) & EMEAC

As the days and weeks of coverage continued, however, and pieces of analysis emerged about the root causes of Mike Brown’s murder, I grew more and more anxious about the lack of links I noticed being made between police and state violence and capitalism. The Our Power Campaign is at the core about the end of our current capitalist system of profit-driven enterprise and unequal resource distribution. Police think they are doing their job; and they are. The purpose of the police has never really been to serve and protect people. It’s to serve and protect capital. Capitalism requires the exploitation and repression of people and results in the violence some people (more than others) experience every day. Because when you steal people’s land, resources, and labor and make them pay for the basic things they need to survive without giving them the means to do so; you have to do it by force. 

Stopping the violence requires us to change the very structures in society that perpetuate it.

Inside capitalism, as I heard heartbreakingly put by Alicia Garza of Black Lives Matter, black lives don’t matter. We have seen this historically and we are still seeing it today – not only when a teenager is shot by the police, but with every foreclosed home, gentrified neighborhood, health disparity, and countless other statistic about black lives in America that we have become so desensitized to. 
The Our Power Campaign defines the frontlines as the sites where the impact of the system is felt most and hardest. In terms of the violence and repression that our economic system produces, in this country, the frontline, among brown and native folks, is black people and black communities. Racism, capitalism, and the injustices they perpetuate of poverty, violence, and environmental degradation are intertwined. As important as strategies such as rallies, petitions and monitoring, voting and representation can be, organizing to stop this kind of violence cannot end there. Stopping the violence requires us to change the very structures in society that perpetuate it.

In terms of the violence and repression that our economic system produces, in this country, the frontline is black people and black communities.

Heard over and over throughout the national gathering was that the frontline of the problem is also the frontline of the solution. If we own and control our own political and economic resources and systems, then we can create mechanisms for justice that areaccountable to us. Some people are more willing to accept that black children can and will die at the hands of police and each other, that people will kill themselves over the pain of living in a dehumanizing society, that our children's futures will be gambled on, and the planet decimated than they are to believe that we can change the system. This system continues to put black children on the frontlines of state violence and environmental racism.

The communities connected to the Our Power Campaign, however, think we can change the system. By leading workshops at the national gathering like: Black to the Land: Black Power, Food and Land; Development Without Displacement; and Undoing Borders: Climate Justice and Immigrant Rights frontline communities driving the Our Power Campaign are also leading the way in creating the economy we need and deserve. 
At the day of action on the last day of the national convening, we marched down the streets shouting “It takes roots to weather the storm!” Any solutions to the social ills we are facing must tackle the root causes of the problem. This is a call to action for people in communities at the frontlines to take action – deeply rooted, collective action. More people who are outraged by the death of Mike Brown and the state of violence in the U.S. and around the world should question capitalism. More people should explore how economic configurations like worker ownership, land trusts, community gardens, community-owned energy, freedom schools, time banks, and other strategies for community economic and political control over resources are all intimately connected to our ability to govern ourselves. Building these strategies, and creating new ones along the way, is how we can free ourselves from the forces that kill our children in myriad ways. 

We have to act – not because the system won’t change, but because that’s the only way to get the system to change.