Greens go off-message to back Black Lives Matter

By Robin Bravender | 07/12/2016 01:08 PM EDT

Leaders of major green groups, outraged by last week’s high-profile shootings, see this as prime time to step up their work on civil rights.

Leaders of major green groups, outraged by last week’s high-profile shootings, see this as prime time to step up their work on civil rights.

Prompted by the killings of black men by police officers last week, several top environmentalists are pledging solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. They say their fight to protect the environment goes hand in hand with civil rights advocacy. They issued strongly worded statements condemning the recent killings and say they plan to mobilize their members to fight what they perceive as racial injustice.

"I think it’s the responsibility of every American who has a pulse and a heart" to support the Black Lives Matter movement, Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in an interview. "The shock of how many black men have been killed by police officers is something that should touch every American."

Michael Brune
Michael Brune. | Photo courtesy of the Sierra Club.

Brune is among several leaders of big environmental organizations who quickly spoke out last week as the killings of black men and police officers sparked a national outcry.

"It is impossible to not be outraged by the devastating images of black people being gunned down by police on a shockingly regular basis and it should be impossible to remain silent in the face of this sustained injustice any longer. Sadly, the tragedies that are unfolding before our eyes are just a fraction of the violence that has been happening off camera in our nation for far too long," Brune said in a statement last Thursday.

On Friday, after the police shootings in Dallas, Brune issued another statement calling the "explosion of racism and violence" across the country "one of the most outrageous and shocking in recent memory."

The Environmental Defense Fund and the Center for Biological Diversity also spoke out.

EDF President Fred Krupp acknowledged that the move marked a departure for his group.

"Environmental Defense Fund rarely speaks out on issues not directly related to our work. But since our work is dedicated to building a world in which people and nature can thrive together, we cannot stay silent in the face of the injustice that is robbing so many Americans of the chance to thrive," he said.

EDF, he said, deplores the recent killings of "innocent black people" and the killings of law enforcement officers.

Kierán Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, condemned the recent "horrifying acts of violence" in another statement issued last week.

"With Black Lives Matters, which ‘advocates for dignity, justice and freedom, not murder,’ the Center for Biological Diversity asks its staff, family, friends and supporters to give no shelter, no support, no quiet acceptance of violence or racism, especially when cloaked in political ends," Suckling said.

Suckling said later that his Tucson, Ariz.-based group experienced the recent killings of black men and police officers in Dallas "very traumatically," as the rest of the country did. "To have that happen," he said, "at the same time that [Donald] Trump is, in an unprecedented way, pushing violent, racist rhetoric has made us worry for the direction of the country is headed, and that caused us to really feel that we really needed to speak out at this moment."

He and other leading environmentalists say they see an urgency in veering out of their usual policy lanes.

"I can’t say it’s unprecedented, but I will say it’s rare," Eric Pooley, EDF’s senior vice president for strategy and communications, said of his group’s decision to issue a statement outside the environmental arena.

"We felt it was a time for everybody to speak up," he said. "We’re not in some ivory tower, off meditating on environmental issues in a vacuum. We live and work in the world."

Pooley added that the feedback from trustees, staffers and members has been positive. "What we’re hearing a lot is that it needed to be said, thanks for saying it."

Vernice Miller-Travis, a longtime environmental justice advocate and a member of U.S. EPA’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, criticized what she called "a reluctance by environmental groups to get involved in the intersection of environment and civil rights." She pointed to an ongoing struggle over what she called EPA’s "lax to nonexistent enforcement of civil rights laws" as an example of where green groups could be doing more.

There’s "a lane that people expect you to be in," she said, adding that donors to big green groups don’t necessarily expect them to be in the lane of environmental justice.

Still, she welcomed the groups’ recent declarations of solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

"I think it’s appropriate for people to say something now," she said. "Some might say it’s been appropriate for a really long time, but I’ll take it."

‘This isn’t a spectator sport’

Big green groups aren’t strangers to social causes. Leaders point to previous efforts to support gay marriage, gender equality, environmental justice and civil rights campaigns.

In 2014, Brune also condemned the police killings of black men Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., and Eric Garner in New York City. He wrote in a blog post then, "The Sierra Club’s mission is to ‘enlist humanity’ to explore, enjoy, and protect the planet. That mission, which applies to everyone, cannot be achieved when people’s rights are being violated and their safety and dignity are being threatened on a routine basis. This must stop."

Erich Pica
Erich Pica. | Photo courtesy of Friends of the Earth.

Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, said in an interview this week that his group can’t achieve its mission "while there are large segments of the U.S. population that don’t feel like they have access to being safe, access to the same economic opportunities that white people have."

He credited the Black Lives Matter movement with prodding green groups and others to get involved.

"I give the organizers credit and the movement that it spurred credit for forcing these issues into front and center in the American conversation and therefore the environmental conversation," Pica said.

The movement will mark its third anniversary tomorrow. It began on July 13, 2013, when activists used the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter on social media after George Zimmerman was acquitted for the shooting death of black teenager Trayvon Martin.

Given that "the preponderance" of environmental group leaders and many of their members are Caucasian, "racial justice and structural racism and Black Lives Matter is not an easy thing to wade into," Pica said. "As a leader, I feel like it’s my responsibility to help create the space for those conversations within the environmental community."

He said his group is preparing a statement of solidarity with the movement to commemorate its anniversary.

Green group leaders say this is part of a broader shift taking place within the environmental movement.

"It’s clear that the movement is opening up and realizing — perhaps remembering — that our mission includes everyone," Brune said. "Just as we know that every American deserves the right to clean air, clean water," every American also deserves to live in a "safe environment."

He said he plans to urge Sierra Club volunteers to "step up" and engage in their communities.

"The fight for environmental justice and human rights isn’t an armchair exercise," Brune said. "This isn’t a spectator sport."

Bill Snape, senior counsel at CBD, said green groups are doing more than merely issuing press releases. "These statements, I think, are indicative of a larger movement that is growing. Certainly the environmental movement is linking up with the civil rights movement to try to seek true justice."

Pica said the environmental community "is really doing some deep thinking and deep diving into racial justice and diversity." He added, "I think we’re at an interesting moment where a number of us are trying to really deeply think" about these issues, and not only think, "but actually act."

Among the formal efforts aimed at linking environmental and civil rights movements are Green 2.0, an initiative aimed at increasing racial diversity in environmental groups and government agencies, and the Green Leadership Trust, a network of people of color and indigenous people serving on the boards of green groups.

"It’s not a new dialogue within the environmental community, but you’re seeing progress at a much faster rate than you’ve seen in the past," Pica said.

He added, "I hope that Black Lives Matter and folks who are campaigning for racial justice hold the environmental community accountable for the words we’re saying now and the actions we say we’re going to be taking."