The day before the People’s Climate March in Washington, DC, Preyton Lambert—skinny, dreadlocked and sporting black-frame glasses—was getting hustled on a boulevard near the National Mall. Another boy restrained his arms, before throwing him to the ground. His cheek pressed against the pavement. Two girls recorded the encounter on their phones as a crowd looked on.
The youth were part of a delegation from Philadelphia’s Soil Generation, a group of black, radical, urban farmers, and this was an act of street theater, organized by the national It Takes Roots coalition of grassroots environmental groups. Among them were indigenous, Appalachian, and immigrant activists, each performing the attacks and defense of their communities and environment. “This is what happens to young black men and women almost everywhere,” explained Lambert. Their scene represented the most potent symbol of contemporary American racism: a young black man being brutalized by a cop. “We’re not just here for climate justice.”
So what does police brutality have to do with issues like carbon emissions, rising global temperatures, water pollution and government-by-oil-corporations that have dominated mainstream climate discourse?
Standing before the Capitol Reflecting Pool at the 200,000-strong Climate March the following day, Katherine Egland, the chair of the Environmental and Climate Justice Committee for the NAACP National Board of Directors, argued that, because low-income minority communities suffer the most adverse impacts of environmental pollution and climate change, this is also where the transition away from fossil fuels should begin.
In the east of Egland’s home state of Mississippi lies Kemper County, Mississippi, which is 60 percent African American and was home to some of the highest numbers of lynchings in the state from 1877–1950. It is also where the Kemper Project, soon to be operational, is located, an experimental “clean coal” plant that was a keystone of President Obama’s climate plan for reducing carbon emissions. The only major coal plant currently being constructed in the country today, it would be the first large-scale plant to use the energy-intensive Carbon Capture and Storage technology (which gasifies the coal, captures the carbon emissions, and stores them in the ground).
Concerns about leaking pipes aside, Egland is angry that, with a $7.3 billion price tag, costs for the nation’s most expensive power plant are now being passed on to residents of one of the nation’s poorest states. “That’s a huge investment in past, unsafe technology, when we could’ve had renewable energy and money to spare,” she said. “I’m not sure why we continue this addiction to fossil fuels when we know that we should be looking at renewable sources of energy.”