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A new environmental movement vilifies Big Oil, borrows from Occupy and encourages your grandma to risk arrest



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"Many of the other organizations around here have a more specific focus," Gary Pace, one of the cofounders of local 350 says, mentioning the Post Carbon Institute and Climate Protection Campaign. "We're trying to be a place for someone who reads the paper and gets concerned, and can go to a demonstration or work on divesting or get involved with any of those more specific projects."

The organization's decentralization, online base and distrust of business-as-usual politics beg a comparison to Occupy. In Richmond, the earlier movement is palpable. A training for those risking arrest takes place before the march at the Bobby Bowens Progressive Center, where posters read "Criminals Wear Suits." Later, while McKibben is speaking, a 350 volunteer walks around with a clipboard and "99 percent" T-shirt. It's pretty clear that many of the players, at least on the local level, are the same.

But though Occupy is often caricatured as drifting aimlessly in leaderless decentralization, McKibben believes that parts of its structure (or lack thereof) could actually work for a climate movement. After all, global warming is just so . . . global. It's difficult to see how all the pieces fit together, difficult to care. As Joey Smith, a teacher at the Santa Rosa Junior College beginning a 350 divestment campaign says, the dry concepts of climate change can seem impersonal.

"The numbers have been so incremental, it would be like getting people to be upset about trash in space," he says, adding that unless you understand how climate change is directly harming people, it can seem as intangible as the weather. "I'm positive 350's been trying to put a human face on the issue."

Or many regional faces. As McKibben says in Richmond, places where Chevron has been a bad neighbor are everywhere. Global warming may be impersonal, but that black vapor which rose like a mushroom cloud over the bay last year—that's not. That makes people angry enough to organize, angry enough to march into a driveway and risk arrest.

SPREADING THE WORD Bill McKibben believes it’s time to start directing anger over climate change toward Big Oil.
  • SPREADING THE WORD Bill McKibben believes it’s time to start directing anger over climate change toward Big Oil.

A line of police in riot gear greets the crowd that walks onto the cement slab bordered by an iron fence. Immediately, they begin pulling sitters to their feet, cuffing them and leading them away. One says that she's a nurse.

"I treated people from the fire last year," she shouts, as she's pulled up.

Unlikely activists abound, and for many, this is their first arrest. There's Melody Leppard, a 21-year-old with red hair and a knit hat who admits to being nervous but tells me "petitions and protests just aren't enough." There's Nancy Binzen from Marin, a 64-year-old who's also never been arrested. There's Pace—of Sonoma County's 350—who's here with his kids. While waiting at the end of the driveway to go forward toward the police, he says he's here because getting arrested is something he can actually do. "I'm a family doctor in Sebastopol," he says. "I'm part of the system." There's a short, white-haired woman who comes forward and announces that she's "90-and-a-half," to be cuffed along with her grandson. Her shirt reads: "We are greater than fossil fuels."

Not everyone is impressed with the waving sunflowers and chants of "Let the people go, arrest the CEOs." A photographer covering the arrests—which take hours; there are over 200 people sitting in the driveway—tells me he thinks it's a waste of time.

"This does nothing to convince the people who aren't already convinced about climate change," he says, alluding to that 46 percent. "This only makes people feel good."

It's a fair point. While 350 has so far successfully helped four colleges divest from fossil fuel companies and held rallies all over the country—one in Washington, D.C., attracted 50,000 people—its end goal has to be sweeping political overhaul if it's serious about keeping oil in the ground. And that has to come in part from an energized voting population, not one that's deeply split. I overhear one police officer muttering to another, about the crowd: "OK, you've made your point." Another adds, "There could be a triple homicide today, and where would we be?"

But with 90-year-olds and 21-year-olds getting arrested, with white people from Marin and Latino labor unions from the East Bay and women and children in hijab, this feels less like some kind of privileged agenda—as environmental causes are so often portrayed, alienating many—and more like a community coming together. It's a year after the fire. The city is suing Chevron. Even the police chief will later tell reporters, "We don't work for Chevron. We work for the community."

It feels like there's a collective enemy. And it feels like a start.

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