This essay appeared originally on youngcrusaders.org.
In the fall of 2019, award-winning actress and political activist Jane Fonda felt compelled to launch a campaign of civil disobedience to call attention to the climate crisis facing current and future generations. Atmospheric greenhouse gases had reached their highest levels that year, and the Trump administration was not only denying the climate crisis but was also engaged in striking down federal regulations aimed at mitigating the impact of fossil fuels.
On Friday, October 11, 2019, Fonda spoke before a small crowd of political activists near the Capitol and declared, “We have to ensure that the climate crisis remains front and center, and that’s why we’re here.” The “climate strikers,” following the lead of Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, had drawn international attention to the climate emergency, and high school students in countries around the world organized “Fridays for Future” with marches and rallies beginning in August 2018. “I’m standing here with the young people,” Fonda announced, because “our house is on fire. And so we’re calling these rallies Fire Drill Fridays.”
Over the next fourteen Fridays, weekly teach-ins, along with the rallies, were held by representatives of Greenpeace, Climate Action Network, Friends of the Earth, Poor People’s Campaign, the Sunshine Movement, Africans Rising for Justice, Peace, and Dignity, Kenya’s Green Belt Movement, Women’s Earth Alliance, Women Environment and Development Organization, Veterans for Peace, New York City’s WE ACT, the Environmental Justice Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, Green Latinos, and others. At the end of the rallies, Fonda and her supporters marched toward the Capitol building, chanting “The fossil fuel industry will not bury us. We will live to bury them . . . . Tell me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!”
As they approached the Capitol steps, a police officer gave them a warning: “Move back, people. Move all the way back!” When they refused, the police grabbed them and secured the hands behind them with plastic zip ties. Fonda had been arrested before, so she was not afraid. “As each of us were taken by an officer to the waiting vans, people cheered, clapped, and chanted in support. It felt good.” They were taken to the station, placed in cells, and after three hours were processed, fingerprinted, and paid the $50 fine. Upon leaving the station, friends were waiting and provided food, water, and other types of “jail support.”
Afterward, Fonda convinced many other celebrities to join the Fire Drill Friday rallies and teach-ins—Lily Tomlin, Sam Waterson, Ted Danson, Sally Field, Gloria Steinem, Joaquin Phoenix, and others. “And for every one of our fourteen Fridays that involved arrests, rain or shine or frigid weather, jail support was always there.” And when Fonda could no longer risk another arrest, “I would be part of it myself.”
In her book, What Can I Do? My Path from Climate Despair to Action (2021), Fonda recounts her experiences and those others who joined her. She includes broadsides and speeches from those who participated in the protest. The speakers addressed the Green New Deal, “Women and Climate Change,” water pollution, food, agriculture, and climate change; environmental racism, health and employment outcomes; and most importantly, the damage to people’s lives, the environment, and our children’s future carried out by the fossil fuel industry.
Hundreds of children from the local public and private schools attended the rallies, and speaker after speaker emphasized the need to hold the fossil fuel industry accountable for the damage it has done. “My advocacy as an environmentalist,” declared Robert Kennedy Jr., “is about democracy, is about fairness, and about equality and justice.” With the assistance of the political establishment, “These corporations are commodifying the commons.”
Addressing the global COVID-19 pandemic, however, became political leaders’ main preoccupation in 2020 after the Fire Drill Fridays ended. The deceased use of fossil fuels during the lockdowns allowed people in many locations to experience what their lives would be like without the unrelenting pall of pollution. However, the oil and gas companies merely raised their prices to make up for the loss of profits during the pandemic. The Biden administration has promised to move the economy toward greater use of renewable energy, but the billions of dollars in subsidies to the coal, gas, and oil companies continues, as well as the practice of fracking, the extraction process that pollutes the air and water and damages the health of those living nearby.
In answering the question, “What Can I Do?” Jane Fonda describes the importance of marches, rallies, teach-ins, and civil disobedience. However, the most effective weapon in the arsenal of nonviolent direct action protest—the boycott—is not discussed. The profiteering before and during the pandemic must be challenged, and environmental and racial-justice groups and organizations that participated in the Fire Drill Fridays and other protests need to come together and target a gas and oil company for a nationwide boycott. The situation for future generations is becoming more and more perilous, and something must be done before 2030. If the adult leaders and organizations do not organize the oil company boycott, then the young people in the Sunrise Movement, Black Lives Matter, and March for Our Lives must take the lead because they are the ones who suffer the economic and physical burden of environmental destruction.
Eighteen-year-old Abigail Leedy described what it was like for her and other children growing in South Philadelphia near an oil refinery. Large numbers of children suffer from asthma and other respiratory diseases due to the pollution, where fossil fuel explosions release tens of thousands of pounds of hydrofluoric acid into the air. So Leedy decided to defer going to college and founded the Sunshine Movement because “in Philly, people die because of fossil fuels.”
About the Author
V. P. Franklin is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of History and Education at the University of California, Riverside, and author of The Young Crusaders: The Untold Story of the Children and Teenagers Who Galvanized the Civil Rights Movement.