Yesterday, our TV news and internet news feeds erupted with tales of rioting in Baltimore. As a Marylander, this seems decidedly more personal than the events in Ferguson last year and the other recent incidents of justifiable, if entirely unhelpful rage. Also, I have a friend in Baltimore. He could get hurt in the riots. He is also black, so how Baltimore police treat black men is not an abstract issue for me. From any direction, this is a news story that hits home.
Let me just say it; for these officers to claim that they don’t know how Freddy Gray developed life-threatening injuries while in custody is an excuse unworthy of two-year-olds.
This is, of course, a blog on climate change and not on civil rights, but I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge current events. Also, there is an overlap between this topic and ours. As I discussed during the protests after Michael Brown’s death, part of the overlap has to do with the necessity of radical protest. Here is some of what I said then, edited for space:
A few days ago, I read the entire text of the Letter from Birmingham Jail for the first time. It is the response, by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., to an open letter written by a group of white clergy condemning civil disobedience actions in Birmingham, Alabama. The Statement of Alabama Clergymen calls for the illegal protests to stop, praises the police for their non-violence in handling the protestors, and says that outsiders (by which they meant King and his associates) should stay out of it. Instead, the black people of Birmingham should be patient, obey the law, and work for their rights exclusively through the court system. They would get their rights respected someday. In essence, King replied that someday isn’t good enough.
Mr. Mann’s basic thesis is that nobody really knows how to talk about climate change [among other charges, he says that “extremists” should stop being so strident]. The charge that environmentalists should stop shouting “emergency” is an old one. We are told that we are scaring away potential allies, making people “feel guilty,” and if we only tone things down a bit we might make more progress.
The thing is, historically, change hasn’t worked like that. Dr. King knew this. To the call that his movement should exercise patience, he replied,
“We know through painful experience that freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed. Frankly, I have yet to engage in a direct action campaign that was ‘well timed’ in the view of those who have not suffered unduly from the disease of segregation. For years now I have heard the word ‘Wait!’ It rings in the ear of every Negro with piercing familiarity. This ‘Wait’ has almost always meant ‘Never.’ We must come to see, with one of our distinguished jurists, that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied.'”
The men whom Dr. King addressed in his letter were self-described liberals who at least nominally supported racial justice, but they cared about public tranquility more. For them, the atrocities of racism must have seemed far away and abstract. In contrast, the social unrest, the protests, the disregard of law, must all have seemed very frightening and very real for them. Like the writer, Mr. Mann, they faced a choice between the solidity of the world they knew and the welfare of “distant, hypothetical beings.” They chose the former.In their letter calling for an end to public protest, the group of white clergy tried to paint their choice as a reasonable response to a strategic mistake on the part of Dr. King and his colleagues. They claimed that the civil rights demonstrators could not rightly call their actions non-violent because their protests incited violence against them. Dr. King rightly called them out on that particular piece of nonsense as well.
The other main point of overlap is that climate change is also a civil rights issue. Extreme weather, of the sort that climate change exacerbates, kills the disenfranchised first. Part of the problem is that poor people tend to live in vulnerable areas by default, such as those parts of New Orleans that everybody knew would flood eventually. Part of it is that the poor often lack the resources to leave before disasters and rebuild after them. Heat waves kill more people in poor urban neighborhoods, because such places have fewer shade trees and no air conditioning. But disasters also provide cover for the worst of privileged human impulses to come out; in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, there were white people who quite literally hunted black people. Many of those murders were never even investigated.
The greatest beneficiaries of fossil fuels will never see their sons hunted through the streets of a ruined city. They will never lose everything they have to a monster storm because they have multiple houses in multiple regions and can simply move. They will never lose their homes and livelihoods to eminent domain exercised in service to an oil pipeline or see their families die slowly of cancers caused by water polluted by shale oil exploitation. All these things are happening to people who lack the means to mount effective protest while the captains of industry raise billions of dollars to buy the upcoming presidential election.
I deplore these riots in Baltimore. They are quite literally self-sabotaging. But I applaud the urgency that fuels them. We need more of it right now.