The sprawling state of Montana seems an unlikely setting for the next major battle against climate change. Compared to the Keystone XL protests that have spanned the continent, with mass sit-ins outside the White House and high-profile celebrity arrests, last year’s Coal Export Action in Helena was a modest yet groundbreaking achievement, with a few hundred participants and 23 arrests. In fact, in a state with one of the sparsest populations in the country, it was a huge triumph–the largest climate-related act of civil disobedience in Montana’s history–and the first time issues surrounding coal export mining have broken into Montana’s public discourse and press. In addition to opening a floodgate of mine development, the state’s incoming mine and railroad proposals pose a direct health threat to local residents and destroy more land. If successful in blocking the development of new coal mines in Montana, the Coal Export Action will not only be protecting Montana’s valuable agricultural resources, but will also prevent further pollution from coal trains running throughout the Pacific Northwest. In doing so, it will be setting a powerful precedent towards advancing clean energy solutions.
We arrived in Helena after a couple of days of driving through endless green mountains, right as the Coal Export Action was wrapping up the last of their arraignments and legal paperwork. Several people emerged from the courthouse, just down the street from City Hall, where the rotunda had been the site of a week of civil disobedience. The place where activists and residents gathered against coal export mining and delivered their demands to Attorney General Steve Bullock was, by that point, deserted. The sunlit halls were also eerily quiet.
Occupy the Farm (OTF) began on April 22, 2012, when over a hundred activists began planting crops on an unused plot of land in Albany, California. Like the date—Earth Day—the site was chosen for its significance as the target of a decades-long struggle to preserve one of the last pieces of prime agricultural land in the area. The Gill Tract, as OTF’s home is known, contains the last Class One soil left in the East Bay and is located within a thermal belt that provides some of the best farming conditions statewide. Just three miles from the UC Berkeley campus, the fourteen-acre plot is all that remains of the original 100-acre Gill Nursery purchased by the University of California in 1928. Since the 1990s, community groups, local residents, and UC faculty have fought to establish a sustainable urban farm on the land, pressuring the university administration to protect the school’s legacy as a pioneering institution for sustainable agricultural research. Despite this history, the majority of the Gill Tract is currently being used for research related to genetic modification of corn, and is slated to be rezoned for commercial development in 2013.
Our day with Occupy the Farm began with a morning meeting in the backyard of a nearby house, where an ever-growing diameter of activists circled around a picnic table spread with fresh fruit, tea, and breads. The action plan for the day was straightforward: go in; weed; harvest; get out; distribute.
When he’s not teaching kids about urban agriculture, Ashoka Finley regularly tends to the Gill Tract farm with other folks involved in Occupy the Farm. Ashoka became involved in activism in 2009 during the budget cuts movement at UC Berkeley and participated in the occupation of Wheeler Hall. Forty-three students locked themselves inside the building for 12 hours, while thousands of supporters waited outside in a standoff with riot police.
Taylor Kohles also became an activist during the student movement at UC-Berkeley, and went on to organize with Occupy Oakland, getting involved in projects such as Oakland Occupy Patriarchy and the East Bay Solidarity Network, a mutual support organization of workers and tenants. A new initiative of theirs, Foreclosure and Eviction Free Oakland (FEFO) aims to stop all evictions - foreclosure, rent, and squat - in West Oakland.
Lindsay Grace moved to Oakland from L.A. two years ago and has organized with Oakland Occupy Patriarchy. In her interview she speaks about the Feminist Vigilante Gangs march, which was meant to encourage women, queer and trans folks to come together to physically confront patriarchy, and have one anothers’ backs at all times. Oakland Occupy Patriarchy was formed out of a need for a space to address patriarchy within the Occupy Oakland commune/camp and wider community. A self-defense class, Offensive Feminist, came out of the group and continues to meet weekly. The Facebook event for the next class can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/events/123085451197090
At times seen as a relatively uncontentious encampment, having managed to evade negative media, Occupy Los Angeles still experienced traumatic events like being raided, evicted, and arrested in hundreds. Similarly across Occupy communities, people with historically marginalized backgrounds found the need to create their own spaces within the larger group, so the Occupy Los Angeles (OLA) Queer Caucus was formed, more formally known as the LGBTQA2Z Caucus. Thereafter, affinity groups formed around projects in common, as was the case with the OLA Queer Affinity Group, or Los Angeles Queer Resistance Collective, a producer of radical queer propaganda and hub for zine-making skillshares. Before visiting the site of the former encampment, we spent some time talking with John Waiblinger, whom the Los Angeles Queer Resistance Collective had chosen as its delegate for our interview.
Despite being an appalling development in Arizonan legislature, HB2281 was preceded and eternally upstaged in mainstream media by its older sibling, Arizona Senate Bill 1070 (SB1070). SB1070 was a controversial law enacted in 2010 and requires all immigrants over 14 to carry identification and comply to racial profiling, stops, documentation requests, detentions, and arrests by the police and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
We had the opportunity to talk to Lupe, a spirited MAS graduate, who earnestly identifies as a thug-turned-activist and organizes with Derechos Humanos and Occupy Tucson. He is just one example of how new laws spawned by racism and anti-Mexican bigotry are invading multiple aspects of people’s lives. Lupe spoke of the MAS program as being life-changing, familial, and formative; HB2281 destroyed that. He also described a night with his family, when his brother-in-law ran to the supermarket during dinner preparations, but was stopped, arrested, and ultimately deported to Mexico instead; SB1070 made that legal and common.
Our first day in Tucson also coincided with the weekly meeting of Derechos Humanos, an activist coalition which leads the local struggle for human and civil rights, increasingly challenged by the militarization of the Southern Border and its soldiers’ cruel treatment of undocumented people. The coalition’s goals include:
We awoke on our first morning in Tucson to learn that Roberto Rodriguez, a professor at the University of Arizona, was holding a press conference to address death threats he had received by an apparent white supremacist. Roberto’s writings were part of the curriculum of the school’s Mexican American Studies program, which was dismantled by the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) in January 2012. Roberto’s unwavering support of the program is believed to have motivated the death threats.
The Mexican American Studies (MAS) program, created in 1998, devotes an accessible curriculum to teaching high school students history from the perspective of the oppressed. The program provided an alternative to traditional high school curriculum that glossed over or in some instances, outright ignored, significant pieces of Mexican American history. While the dropout rate of Chican@ students was 50 percent within the TUSD, those in the program had a 98 percent graduation rate.
Originally known as the Raza Studies program, the MAS program was forced to change its name in October due to state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne’s incessant and ignorant criticism about the word raza, which translates to ‘race.’ Horne, now Arizona Attorney General, was instrumental in devising the constitutionally questionable Arizona State House Bill 2281 (HB2281) legislation passed in May 2010, which sought to ban the MAS program and prohibit Arizona school districts and charter schools from teaching classes that:
At the Occupy National Gathering this past July, we found ourselves completely in awe of two people who spoke at a group discussion on people of color and Occupy hosted by organizers of (A)GITAT(E), an anarchist convergence happening concurrently. After a long conversation on the grass, we learned Amalia and Maria were organizers with (un)Occupy Albuquerque who had consented to sending them as representatives, and raised funds on their own for travel costs. With the overwhelming feeling that getting to know our new (un)Occupy friends and hearing their thoughts was the the highlight of our time at the National Gathering, we looked forward to visiting Albuquerque on the Radical Resistance Tour more than ever.
Maria told us that when visitors come to (un)Occupy, they almost always ask about “the name-change.” That was easily understandable, since it was one of our first questions to them during our interview. As they often do, and as Amalia skillfully did at the National Gathering, they touched upon several reasons how and why the name-change happened.