My Suggestion for "Climate Emergency" Absolutists: Open One Lane
A tiny human tragedy at a climate campaign's highway shutdown shows the realtime costs of extremism by activists focused on long-term threats
In between writing about the deadly unpredicted collapse of a heat-shriveled glacier in the Italian alps and preparing for Friday's Sustain What webcast on Colorado communities trying to rebuild after the Marshall Fire, I noticed, and then became horrified by, a Twitter thread of video clips posted by Ford Fischer, one of the new breed of real-time video purveyors funneling breaking-news footage to TV news networks and social media.
Twitter thread by @FordFischer with video by @T_JonesMedia
The sequence, recorded by videographer TJ Jones, pulled me in like a Mamet play or Tarantino script. The full video, now you YouTube, is wrenching and infuriating. Think of it as a 25-minute mini-series focused on a struggling, stressed-out, down-on-his-luck ex con vying for a better life who gets sucked back into the void as his weaknesses collide with some unexpected obstacle.
The obstacle in this case was a highway cordon of climate activists seemingly oblivious to the real-time harms that can result form high-minded publicity stunts.
And of course in this case it's not fiction.
This young man's story is worth examining because it crystallizes a damaging and self destructive trait in a small, but highly visible, corner of climate activism.
Here's a bit of a tick tock, followed by an interview with Jonathan Tijerina, one of the climate-action demonstrators involved. The images are posted with Ford Fischer's permission.
A highway standoff
Around 12:30 p.m. local time on the Fourth of July, a team of protestors in fluorescent vests spreads out across all lanes of traffic on one side of the inner loop of I-495 in Montgomery County, Maryland, near Exit 30. They are from Declare Emergency - a nascent group of activists aiming to use societal disruption to pressure President Joe Biden to declare a "climate emergency" and reverse course on fossil fuel production.
Highway actions, guaranteed to get press coverage, have become widespread and have been adopted from the far left to far right - from Extinction Rebellion through France's working-class Yellow Vest movement to the "People's Convoy" that is now called the 1776 Restoration Movement and notably briefly stopped traffic on another D.C.-area interstate on the same day.
This post is not about the logic of such civil disobedience, nor is it about Declare Emergency's "climate emergency" demand. I'll be devoting a thorough #Watchwords entry to that term. (For one hint see this Twitter thread.)
It's about absolutism, and the failure to recognize when a tiny bit of flex in a shock strategy not only might avoid worst-case damaging outcomes, but also boost a movement's public support.
The scene, and why it matters
As traffic backs up, some drivers sit and stew while others begin to walk forward. One, a slender young man wearing shorts, white socks under his sandals and a peach-and-white striped shirt, begins ripping at their printed paper banners.
He explains repeatedly that he has been on parole for several years, that being late for work could get him fired, violate his parole and send him back to prison.
"I’m trying to see my kid grow up and not be in prison, and you are disrespectful to that," he tells them.
Alternately restrained and physical, he drags two protestors out of the passing lane, including Jonathan Tijerina. They crawled back into place as the man roves the line, trying to get someone to listen to his increasingly intense plea:
"Let me get to my job. I’m please asking, just this one lane. One lane."
The protestors, sitting or crouching, answer his and other frustrated yells with pre-packaged statements about Biden's broken promises or impending mass starvation - mainly directed at the streaming video being recorded by Declare Emergency supporters like Guido Reichstadter.
As local and state police begin to assemble, the daunted driver tries a different tactic - sitting on the pavement facing the blockade and telling an officer that he is now counter protesting.
"I am sitting here for one lane."
The blocked motorist, now down to his t-shirt, sits face to face with Tijerina (with Reichstadter recording on his phone) and explains the logic of compromise: "Give us one lane and continue your protest and I promise you more followers will come. "
Tijerina, speaking mainly to the camera, says, "I don’t want his son to starve to death and that is what we’re looking at."
The frustrated driver speaks with Jonathan Tijerina of Declare Emergency
The motorist embraces that message but turns it back on the protestors:
"We are destroying the world. Honestly i know what you’re saying. So give us one lane and let me develop him [his son] as much as I can until we’re dead. You all are literally disrespectful to us like we are disrespectful to the world."
He adds, "Give me a response."
Nothing substantive is said, and then, as you might imagine, things deteriorate rapidly.
The motorist, now shirtless, is losing his shit, as the saying goes.
A young woman from another car tries, in vain, to protect him from his own emotions. (You can see her in the banner photo holding him back.)
But he's past salvation.
He ends up surrounded by an array of officers, cuffed, and, when he resists, lifted off his feet and carried away, screaming back to the protestors, "Record this! Record this!"
I'm still trying to determine his status via the Maryland State Police. One thing is clear. His car by now has been impounded. His life path, which appeared to be headed to rehabilitation, has derailed. I hope he'll avoid a return to prison, but I doubt it. [Update 3 p.m.| I have his name and the Maryland arrest record; he was charged with disorderly conduct; I'm holding off adding his name here for now.]
And all because those claiming to be fighting for the salvation of future generations couldn't compromise, even confronted face to face by someone facing a real-time crisis yet offering them his support - if they just opened one lane.
The time comes for the police to arrest the protestors. That's the standard script. Unlike the driver, their whole purpose was to get booked. A sidebar discussion between a police officer and Paul Severance, one of the leaders of the action, leads to 13 pro-forma arrests.
The Declare Emergency Twitter account today posted a lame note about the incident, offering to vouch for the arrested driver with his employer and parole board - not mentioning that if they had compromised, he would have driven on to his job even as they got their soundbites on social media.
Reichstadter tweeted that he has started a GoFundMe campaign for the arrested man. On the fundraiser page, he wrote this: "I'm doing this fundraiser for my friend, a man who was caught in a blockade I helped participate in. I believe he was abused by police who wrongfully arrested him for assault due to him bumping into me a few times during the blockade. I hold that this man behaved nonviolently toward me and I did not feel threatened by him, and I will testify to that under oath in support of him at trial if needed."
But on Wednesday Reichstadter posted this on his Facebook page about such tactics: "If you are not blocking roads to demand emergency action on the climate crisis at this point in the game you are pissing in the wind. The problem is too many people trust their naive political intuition more than the empirical evidence."
In a conversation I recorded last night with Jonathan Tijerina of Declare Emergency, he expressed regret about what happened to the young man, and more generally to those whose lives are disrupted by their actions.
But he never acknowledged that the driver's wise and reasoned suggestion - just open one lane - had merit.
He explained the need for going to extremes this way:
"[W]e feel that we have to step things up. We have to take risks and take this kind of action that is dramatic, that is in your face, because we've tried everything else and we've tried addressing the problem on a local level."
These issues are as old as human affairs - with endless tension over the limits of free speech and assembly and the need to prod the powers that be.
Response diversity facing grand challenges is a natural and desirable part of how societies work. Edge pushing, even monkey-wrenching, has a place, within limits.
And of course if you're okay with Declare Emergency doing it, I assume that means you're okay with the 1776 truckers' blockades, too.
I'm fine with creative confrontation. But I'm not fine with what played out on Monday.
INSERT, 2:15 pm ET | I forgot to mention that those in high places pressing the case for emergency-centered activism might consider how this can play out. I'd include United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres. Declare Emergency's website highlights his April tweet saying this:
"Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals. But the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels. Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness."
What's your take
What situations have you seen or experienced that convey ways to push for action without backfiring or causing unacceptable harm?
Here's my interview with Jonathan Tijerina fronm Declare Emergency, conducted on Wednesday, July 6. I've smoothed some conversational clutter.
Here's our conversation on YouTube:
Andy Revkin - What's your role at Declare Emergency?
Jonathan Tijerina - So I'm just here speaking as a supporter of declare emergency. I have been supporting declare emergency since December of last year when we first started doing actions here focused in Washington, D.C..
Andy Revkin - And were you there - at I-495.
Jonathan Tijerina - I was. Yes, I did get arrested.
Andy Revkin - Were you the guy with the backpack?
Jonathan Tijerina - Yes. Well, one of the ones with a backpack. There were a couple of us with backpacks.
Andy Revkin – So I've been writing about climate change since 1988, from the Amazon to the Arctic to the White House. I've been on this beat for a long time covering every aspect of it, including protests at climate talks and the like. And I'm just interested to get my head around this group. There are others like it in England, very similar in a certain way, you know, really taking to the streets, literally. And I thought it'd be worth going through your thinking.
Jonathan Tijerina - Right now I'm just speaking as a supporter, a spokesperson for Declare Emergency. So I'm here to support the message and the demands and what it is that we're trying to accomplish.
Andy Revkin - I'm very into language. Even the words global warming mean different things to different people. So what's the definition, the operational definition, of climate emergency for you guys?
Jonathan Tijerina - It really means telling the truth and what we want is for the government to do its duty, to take its responsibility seriously. The responsibility of any government worth its salt is to alert the public when there is a crisis, when there's an emergency, and then explain how they're going to tackle it and how they're going to address it. And it's ludicrous that this government hasn't done that. It's criminal, frankly, because they're not telling the public the truth.
And there's good reason why people don't quite know how serious it is. If the government and the media in general are not telling them that. So what we want is for President Biden to declare a climate emergency and to end all extraction on federal and Indigenous land. There are no-brainer demands, and he promised that he was going to end drilling on federal land and just recently announced that they're actually going to expand it. So he's going back on his promises, he's failing in his duties, and that's why we feel we need to take action.
Andy Revkin - And what, for you, puts the climate emergency in the foreground? Given what's going on in Ukraine, one could argue Europe right now is hitting an energy emergency on its way to a decarbonized energy system. You could argue we're in a democracy emergency as of the January 6th election aftermath. There is an energy crisis short term, and it sounds like that's pretty much sidelined by [your] priority. You feel that climate has to be in the front the front row?
Jonathan Tijerina - Well, you know, fossil fuels and our fossil-fuel economy are at the heart of a lot of these issues, right? The war in Ukraine, it's funded by fossil fuels. And these governments, these petro states, of which the United States is one, are continuing to expand fossil fuels. And that's how they pay for war. When the war broke out, the fossil fuel industry was ecstatic.
They said that they want to, in their words, want to be hugged for saving the world. And while the war in Ukraine is criminal, it is not going to be solved by continuing to expand fossil fuels, which is what our governments and the Russian government are wanting to do. So this is really at the heart. And if we don't solve this crisis, if we don't get this under control, we are not going to have any future. And the science is telling us that as more and more people are not able to live where they're living now, you know, in a few decades and it's happening right now, we're seeing it, there's going to be more war and there's going to be a lot more warfare, a lot more people displaced. We're going to see the collapse of countries, societies around the world. And Ukraine is just a taste of what we're going to see.
Andy Revkin - Along with definitions it's good to ask what's your theory of change? In other words, tell us about the tactics you've chosen, and we can look at some of the images from the 4th of July.
Jonathan Tijerina - Yeah, definitely. So what we're doing is we're following the model of civil resistance movements around the world for decades and decades and decades. When things break down and when the governments aren't functioning as they should, we see examples from the Global South where people go to the capital, they protest, they block roads again and again.
They disrupt business as usual until the government gives in to their demands. Just recently, the Indian Farmer Movement, they were protesting those two or three, I think, draconian farm bills. And that's exactly what they did. They all converged in the capitals and they were prepared to lay down their lives. And they did. Many of them actually did die in those protests. But we see it was effective because they won. So we're following that model and doing exactly what people have done throughout history is what we're trying to do - to disrupt business as usual.
Andy Revkin - Still getting at the theory of change, how do you see what you're doing propelling the Biden administration heeding your message?
Jonathan Tijerina - Well, the first thing is that people aren't quite aware of how serious it is. What we could do is write letters to Biden. We could write letters to our congresspeople. We could get try to get more people elected. We could try to get more of a platform. But the disruption has gotten an interview with you, Andy, and it's gotten us interviews with other outlets. And that's the main thing. We need to get this out into the mainstream. We need to get people hearing and talking about the severity of the crisis and to be able to use it as a platform to be able to communicate with the powers that be. So it seems like it's been effective and it's continuing to be to be effective.
Andy Revkin - So now I have to ask some questions that will take this a little bit deeper. I saw the tweets by the news outlet that covered really in depth your protest at I-495 and I saw the video clips which really do tell the tale of what unfolded there. But I started to focus on this one instance and this one question.
That young guy, before he lost his shirt and lost his temper, he was talking to several of you and he had physically manhandled a couple of you, and I think you were one of them. But his story seemed pretty disturbing. You know, he said he's going to lose his job if he doesn't get to work. He's on parole. And he had several years of essentially heading in a track toward a career.
He mentioned to one of you that he had a kid, and he kept saying just open one lane. Open one lane. And something about that, open a lane, struck me as a path to avoiding what ended up happening - which was - along with 13 of you getting arrested, which is fine, you know, doing civil disobedience - he lost his temper in front of the police after several of you had actually very diplomatically declined to say that he had manhandled you.
But then he was really losing his temper and he got arrested and his life is now on exactly the opposite track that he had hoped it would be on. I've a message in to the State Police. I haven't heard back. I haven't even gotten his name yet. And that woman who is kind of trying to shield him from himself - at least in reviewing the 25 minutes of tape I got that impression.
I looked at this incident and I say, well, why wouldn't you open one lane where you still have the disruption of traffic, you still have the media presence, you still have all of the other things you're looking for, but you have kind of a pressure valve. Tempers get hot. You guys have seen it. Extinction Rebellion has seen it. The Yellow Vests in France with the opposite perspective, worried about high gas prices, they've seen it. But why not open one lane? In other words, why was there this sort of absolutist approach to this protest?
Jonathan Tijerina - Yeah, well, the first thing that I'll say is that this is a horrible situation. Every time that we go out and do these actions and block roads, we know that people are their lives are being disrupted and through their lives are being disrupted and they may lose work. They're often going home to see their kids.
And that's what they tell us. I need to get to work. I need to go see my kids. I need to be with my family. And the reality is that if we don't get this crisis under control, no one will have work. There will be no jobs. There will be. Our families are going to die. I mean, that's what we're looking at. The scientists are saying that we're going to head well over two degrees centigrade warming since pre-industrial times. And at 2 degrees, there are scientific papers, peer-reviewed papers saying that a billion people are going to be on the move at 2 degrees Celsius. A billion people in the poorest countries. The countries that we've been strangling and colonizing and off of whose backs we have created our wealth. And we have created our lives here in the Global North.
Those people are going to be suffering and dying of starvation and slaughter. And that is the reality of what we're seeing. And it won't end there. It is going to come to this country. And when things start to break down, when the food runs out, that's the end of our society as we know it. There won't be any rule of law. There won't be any people in jail because they will have died of starvation. And that's what we're looking at. Now, I mentioned about that man we did offer, and we are in the process of trying to reach out to him, connect with him and see how he is and how he's doing. We did offer to take a photo of what was happening to send to his just parole officer, to his boss, to let them know that it wasn't through any fault of his own that he was not going to be able to make his work.
And at first, he wanted to take us up on that, and then he decided not to. So, again, we're very regretful that this situation happened, that he was put in the situation where that was risked, and ultimately he did get arrested. But again, the reality is, right, that we are here in the Global North, complicit as a society altogether. We are complicit in what's happening. And what's happening is a criminal injustice, the greatest crime in human history. You know, these poorer countries, they've done so little to contribute to climate change, so little compared to what we have.
Andy Revkin - Yeah, this is an issue that I've written about since 2007. That specific aspect of it.
Jonathan Tijerina - So thank you for doing that reporting.
Andy Revkin - So at the same time, though, the word justice comes out a lot. And I just have to get back to the idea of why you feel that you wouldn't have accomplished the same goals while opening a lane, essentially. If his circumstance is correct as he described it - and certainly the intensity of his statements speaks to the reality of his situation - the after-the-fact efforts to get him out of custody could have been avoided and you'd still have the merits of making your points.
What I'm getting at here is absolutism, which I recoil from, from generations, from experience in my family. You know, my grandfather fleeing Russia in 1903 as a child, essentially, a 12-year-old, because of pogroms and on forward. It's the absolutism that personally I find hard to come to grips with. And I just want to get clear that you feel that not having that sort of pressure valve is okay.
Jonathan Tijerina - Well, yeah. So the first thing I'll say is that there was a lane open the lane to the left and you could you could probably see in the video that cars were going through. So that was the exit ramp there. That lane was open, the cars were backing up. That's the first thing. I will say again, this was a regretful situation and we are very regretful that drivers, and that all of us, have to be caught up in this horrible situation where we're continuing our march towards catastrophe. And the public and the government and the media in general is not paying attention to this and is not addressing it with the intensity with which it needs to be addressed. As I mentioned, we're trying to reach out to him and see if there's any way in which we can help. We did offer to take a photo and and be able to remedy that situation with this parole officer and his work....
Andy Revkin - So you are in touch with him? I don't quite understand if you are or you will be.
Jonathan Tijerina - We're working on trying to reach out to him. You know, we're not sure exactly. We didn't get his full name. But, you know, again, the reality is that we are all caught in the crosshairs of this.
Andy Revkin - Rhetorically we are, and abstractly we are. You and I are not. You're not burned out of your house and you're not flooded out of your house unless you're in a situation that would surprise me. I've been in those houses and I know those people and there's tons that can be done for them to reduce their vulnerability right now that you could actively do with your time. Vulnerability reduction in every community, from Portland, Oregon, in the heat to flood zones where rich people are getting FEMA money because they have the lawyers and experts to get the FEMA money while poor people are in flooded communities.
There's a ton to work on. And I understand also your focus here obviously on the institutional, systemic reality that I've written about again for decades. We are heading toward an overheated planet and it's already manifesting. And I also feel personally that it's okay to have response diversity. If everyone in society went to the highways or if we all were like Elon Musk, you know, creating supercars, we'd be screwed. We need that whole matrix. I wrote about that in the context of some things that Greenpeace did many years ago that I really liked, although there were some things they were doing that I was reporting on that were not [good]. So I'm all about response diversity.
I'm all about activism. Reverend Billy Talen has been on my blog at The New York Times many times. And I had him on the show recently, on the creative work that they do going into banks with their phones and disrupting bank culture. It's super. I just do think in the end that there are limits. And I wonder in this situation whether a limit was crossed. And it's fine to do ex-post-facto after-the-fact, oh, we'll see if we can get him a picture that will verify it. He's already been booked. He's been arrested. He was on parole. The idea that something you will say will obviate the 26 minutes of video which show him pretty roughly dealing with officers and with a couple of you is sort of fantastical to me.
And there was a moment at the very beginning he's saying just one lane, just one lane. He's saying, you're being so inconsiderate. He wasn't screaming epithets. He was wearing socks and sandals. He was not some gangster. And he got turned toward being the worst of him by this event in a way that was avoidable. I think there's a role for what you're doing. It's not like I'm against "Declare Emergency." I personally think the dimensions of the problem are such that an emergency declaration doesn't really get you very far. But I may be wrong. And I'm not saying shame on you or anything. I just feel that this one particular thing - finding a pressure-valve approach - feels like a good step forward, perhaps.
Jonathan Tijerina - Yeah, well, I will say gain, this was a terrible situation. And we wish that this hadn't occurred, that he hadn't been arrested. The video and the police report do show clearly the reason why he was arrested, which was continuing that physical aggression. And we completely understand why he would be upset, why other people are upset and would be upset. And it's a terrible situation. And again, to come back to, we are all in a terrible situation right now. I am not myself burned out of my house, right?
But I'm from northern California and a city not too far from the city where I grew up just burned down a few years ago, in 2018, the city called Paradise. And I've driven back through and met a lot of the people who lost their homes, lost everything in the fires, and years later, they still couldn't talk about what had happened - those climate refugees. And that's going to be happening more and more. They lost everything. They lost their jobs, a lot of them, because a lot of them worked in the city. They lost their homes. And that's going to happen more and more and more. And so we feel that we have to step things up. We have to take risks and take this kind of action that is dramatic, that is in your face, because we've tried everything else and we've tried addressing the problem on a local level.
We've tried through elections, through writing to our congressmen, through having mass marches. We've done that in the climate movement and nothing has worked. And the government is continuing its march towards the precipice of disaster and catastrophe. So it is time for folks to step up and take it to the next level. And we've given President Biden the chance for months. We sent our letter back in November, I believe, asking him to declare a climate emergency and telling him that we were going to be causing disruption. And we were very specific. We said we were going to be blocking roads, causing disruption. We've given him the opportunity again and again and he's failed. And if he had taken those steps and declared a climate emergency, then we wouldn't have been there in the road. So that's what we're asking for. We're asking for an institutional change of the government, getting the government to address the crisis because individual efforts are not enough anymore. Just the operations of NGOs aren't enough anymore. The government has to take its duty seriously, stop behaving like a criminal genocidal enterprise and start making a change on this, starting with telling the public the truth about the emergency.
Andy Revkin - Well, Jonathan, it's been helpful to have you on. And again. Hopefully this situation will lead to pathways for the organization that get across your message as you see fit and perhaps do so in a way that limits some of those worst-case outcomes that might have been avoided. It's tough doing these things under pressure. I constantly write about situations with environmental risk, where you can't avoid every scenario that comes up. There's no house that's flood proof. There's no house that's fireproof. And there's no demonstration, I guess, that doesn't have the potential to lead to something really awful happening. And hopefully nothing worse than this will happen. As you say, you're all taking a risk in doing this, too. So good luck with what you're doing.
Another edgy activist
Here's my recent chat with the climate activist "Reverend" Billy Talen:
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At the risk of hyperbole, reading about this man on parole getting arrested for losing his shit while the activist couldn't admit to a really bad call based on absolutism, kind of broke my heart. I, too, believe that we need many forms of changemaking, but they all need to be strategic. Yes, Jonathan got the media attention his group wanted, but at what cost? Not only did the blockade harm this one man (and all the others we didn't hear about), but the backlash from everyday people against "extremists" is real and harmful to the cause of addressing and solving the problem of climate change. Creating a negative response to one's cause is just not strategic.
Not to belabor the Solutionary Framework we've developed at the Institute for Humane Education, but it does work to prevent actions that cause significant unintended negative consequences. The framework guides people to find powerful leverage points for change and then asks them to develop solutions that do the most good and least harm for everyone (people, animals, environment). Few (if any) taking the framework seriously would conclude this kind of absolutist activism is actually solutionary. The framework would demand that they think harder and devise truly strategic approaches that don't harm others in their execution.