In 1963 Martin Luther King Jr., arrested for engaging in civil disobedience during the Birmingham campaign against segregation, wrote a letter to his colleagues in the clergy from a Birmingham, Alabama jail cell. He and other civil rights leaders had been labelled as "outsiders coming in" to disrupt the way of life in Alabama. Although "initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist" King lamented that he "gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label," citing numerous examples of past "extremists" who stood up to the status quo -- including Jesus, Martin Luther and Abraham Lincoln.
Earlier this week the Royal Canadian Mounted Police leaked a report targeting the activities of what they call the "anti-petroleum movement" of "peaceful activists, militants and violent extremists who are opposed to society's reliance on fossil fuels." It lamented the threat posed by outside interest groups and questioned the validity of whether fossil fuels were indeed contributing to climate change. The report also came just weeks after it came to light that FBI agents were investigating American anti-tar sands activists, visiting them at their homes and places of work.
If nothing else, these attempts to polarize opposition prove one thing -- that governments are paying attention to the growing movement for climate justice. They've seen hundreds of thousands march through the streets of New York City, they've seen countless Indigenous communities stand up to extreme energy development on their territories, watched as billions of dollars have been moved away from coffers of the fossil fuel industry and seen communities send dirty energy projects running just to pass local and regional moratoriums and bans to keep them away for good. They have seen the sum total of a new climate movement that is starting to put big polluters and their political allies on their heels.
Surveillance and criminalization like this is designed to tell the public that climate organizers are a violent threat to security and prosperity. It's an ironic move when you think about it. Climate change threatens to deliver a global cocktail of social unrest, famine, superstorms and droughts. It is already fuelling mass forced migration and killing tens of thousands of people a year. In the words of Rebecca Solnit, "climate change is itself violence. Extreme, horrific, longterm, widespread violence." It's violence being fuelled by the inaction of our political leaders -- the same leaders attempting to criminalize those people standing in the way of unchecked fossil fuel expansion.
Our opponents want to divide us between "good" and "bad" protesters while they refuse to choose between clean and dirty energy. They use terms like "extremist" and "foreign funded radicals" to try and scare people into accepting inaction, but we can make a choice that solidarity and our actions are more powerful than fear. In that same letter from a Birmingham jail cell King lamented that "the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?"
Now that question is posed to those of us fighting for climate justice -- will we be extremists for a safe and healthy planet, for self determination for communities and freedom from the grip of fossil fuels or will we be a society of extremists for profit above all else. Will we be extremists for current and future generations and to stand up in defense of the places we love?
King wrote that "perhaps the South, the nation, and the world are in dire need of creative extremists" and today I only have one disagreement -- it's no longer just the South, the nation and the world, but our entire planet with that dire need.
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