When Everything Changes
It’s felt strange transitioning from journalist to activist this year, from covering protests to participating in them, as I was reminded Monday morning when I joined the Flood Wall Street West demonstration that shut down the 200-block of Montgomery Street, which was the penultimate home of my beloved Bay Guardian.
Even before I arrived at this annual civil disobedience action targeting capitalists who are contributing to climate change, I was already buoyed by another protest victory that I woke up to that day. Late Sunday night, Royal Dutch Shell announced that it was ending its oil exploration in the Arctic Ocean, something that I and other environmentalists had been calling for all year. That was the focus on my trip to Alaska just a few weeks earlier, when I dressed as Frostpaw the polar bear to protest President Obama’s visit and call for his energy policies to match his tough new rhetoric on climate change.
It was frustrating to hear Obama’s inspiring call to confront climate change while Shell was drilling for oil under conditions so hazardous that the federal government acknowledged there was a 75 percent chance of a major spill that could never to be fully cleaned up – all so we can burn massive new deposits of oil that should be left safely in the ground. But the fact that Shell decided to cut and run after failing to strike oil seems like a testament to the pressure that we’d been applying, and it feels good to be a part of this movement.
So after writing a press release and doing some media outreach work on Shell’s decision, I headed down to where the Flood Wall Street West march had ended up, outside Bank of the West at the corner of Bush and Montgomery streets in San Francisco’s Financial District. Almost a dozen of my work colleagues were there among the hundreds of protesters who seized the intersection while five protesters inside the bank used steel pipes to link arms and blockade the entrance to the building’s elevators. The bank is owned by BNP Paribas, a major investor in the coal industry.
“Wall Street, we’re gonna shut it down. We want climate justice in this town,” I chanted with the protesters, who waved flags and wielded signs as the circled a massive blue and gold mural they had painted onto the roadway, which read, “Stop Climate Profiteers. #Flood the System.”
I had been there for a few minutes before I was powerfully struck by the realization of how familiar this block was. This was where the San Francisco Bay Guardian ended up after being purchased by San Francisco Media Company, owners of the San Francisco Examiner, which then bought the SF Weekly about eight months after it bought us, both at fire sale prices after the fierce (and illegal on SF Weekly’s part) competition between the two papers had locked us both into a death spiral. The Bay Area Reporter would later join the fold as well.
All four papers shared space in the old Standard Oil Building, which was ironic for the Guardian, a paper that had long fought against corporate power in general and Big Oil in particular. We were all editorially independent papers, even though that was tested a few times, including during the controversial ouster of longtime Guardian editor Tim Redmond in June 2013. But this was where we made our stand, right on this block, exposing why Tim was forced out and keeping control of the paper in Guardianista hands right up until it was suddenly shut down a year ago.
But now, that fight is over, and I’ve moved on to a full-time communications job with a great national environmental organization, still battling the same power structure as before. The jobs are similar in many ways, including how I was covering the protest by live-tweeting photos, videos, and breaking news developments, such as when the police arrested the five people in the building and the seven on the street who chose to defy the repeated police orders to disperse.
Yet we still need full-time journalists to get the word out to the general public, maybe more than ever as the ranks the reporters have been thinned out by shrinking media organizations. So when I saw reporters who I knew from the Examiner and SF Weekly, I connected them with one of our main organizers at the event, then took a step back to watch and listen to the interview that I’m no longer a part of.
The world is changing so rapidly, and I vacillate between feeling hopeful and despondent about the prospects for humanity, sometimes on an hourly basis. Powerful people and corporations are pushing the planet to the brink of utter chaos, probably within my lifetime, along the way systematically dismantling or disabling the institutions that should be keeping them in check. But then again, Shell left the Arctic with its tail between its legs, and that counts for something.
The reality is that climate change is presenting humanity with a dire existential threat, as well as tremendous opportunity to make the systemic changes that the most vulnerable people and creatures need us to make anyway. As the wonderful journalist Naomi Klein writes in her insightful new book This Changes Everything: “As part of the project of getting our emissions down to the level many scientists recommend, we once again have the chance to advance policies that dramatically improve lives, close the gap between rich and poor, create huge numbers of good jobs, and reinvigorate democracy from the ground up. Rather than the ultimate expression of the shock doctrine – a frenzy of new resources grabs and repression – climate change can be a People’s Shock, a blow from below. It can disperse power into the hands of the few, and radically expand the commons, rather than auctioning it off in pieces.”
But that can only happen if I do my job, my old journalist colleagues do theirs, and you all help us grow this movement and make the big transition that this critical moment calls for.
Photo by Peter Menchini