New Internationalist

Darkening the White Heart of the Climate Movement

IMG_0745.JPG [Related Image]
by Wretched of The Earth Collective

At London’s climate march, the ‘Wretched of the Earth’ bloc, representing communities of colour on the frontlines of climate change, were supposed to lead. At the last minute, the march’s organizers changed their minds. Joshua Virasami and Alexandra Wanjiku Kelbert from Black Dissidents were there.

The Wretched of the Earth are a collective of over a dozen grassroots Indigenous, black and brown organizations representing diaspora from the Global South. Over the past few months, we have fought tooth and nail to lead last weekend’s London climate march alongside Indigenous delegates from frontline communities on their way to the Paris climate summit. We know that our presence was only allowed so the NGOs could comfortably check the ‘diversity’ tick-box. While we knew it would not be an easy space to be in, the violence and hostility we faced on Sunday was worse than we expected.

As Wretched of The Earth speakers fired up the 50,000-strong crowd with a message of decolonization, delivered from a crane above them – another hard-fought-for concession – the march organizers carefully plotted for their animal props to move ahead of us via a side channel. With minutes to go, the mainstream banner suddenly appeared in front of us for the press photos. We stormed forward and unravelled our own banner, only to realize it was a stand-off. They wouldn’t begin the march unless we put our message behind theirs; theft of narrative – in some cases literally, as banners were physically pulled from people’s hands. From that point until the end it was a violent tussle to lead the march.

Wretched of The Earth Collective

NGOs summoned the police on our black and brown bodies. Re-read that last sentence. Suggesting that our symbolic coffins – calling out BP and BHP Billington for the blood on their hands – were health and safety hazards, they attempted to remove them. Our placards placing British Imperialism in the framework of Climate Injustice were radioed in to be taken down, as they ‘didn’t fit the message of the day’. They tried to recapture the front of the march by stopping it in the middle of central London and moving their banner back. They then slowed down the rest of the marchers that followed us, effectively separating us off. But we stood our ground, together. We write our own rules.

The NGO narrative appealed to the perpetrators again, asking them to ‘do something’. Their narrative read ‘We do this #ForTheLoveOf Skiing’. Our narrative is one which has a context wide enough to contain the solidarity needed for systemic change. It is one which doesn’t compartmentalize the struggle into climate, racism, migration. It acknowledges that to be truly insurrectional, one must be intersectional.

We held placards and gave speeches that explained clearly that another war in Syria is a war on Mother Earth. That war and corporate climate genocidal mega-development is the main driver behind forced displacement and the migrant ‘crisis’. That the white-hetero-patriarchal-imperial ideology which premises this continued climate colonialism is that which perpetuates racist and patriarchal policing, prisons and austerity in the Global North.

Many of the major NGOs and March organizers went on a self-congratulatory tirade, talking about ‘diversity’ and ‘inclusivity’, conveniently forgetting that – whether on the march or in the lead up – it was Avaaz, Greenpeace and cohorts who created obstacles for our communities to lead. Something needs to be made clear: the global climate movement starts at the frontlines of corporate colonialism, in Indigenous territories, where black and brown communities fight back against European-sanctioned climate genocide. And that’s why our placards read ‘We die first, We fight first, We march first’.

‘People get used to anything. The less you think about your oppression, the more your tolerance for it grows. After a while, people just think oppression is the normal state of things. But to become free, you have to be acutely aware of being a slave.’ The revolutionary Assata Shakur said it.

We ourselves in the Wretched of the Earth bloc have had to decolonize our minds in order to recognize the shackles on our bodies, in order to recognize the insidious and acute nature of our oppressor. We therefore have a duty to up the ante where the stagnant water of colonialism has trapped the fight for justice from flowing toward freedom. The Climate Movement needed the medicine, and we have the remedy.

‘The white liberals are foxes, who also show their teeth to the Negro, but pretend that they are smiling’. Malcolm X said it. Colonized peoples rising up recognize a forked tongue by necessity. We see the liberal foxes prowling between the ranks of the NGOs, dangling carrots before the people, knowing that the millions in their coffers are not for systemic change, but for their liberal methods of teasing people toward an empty empathy. The behavior of the NGOs – Avaaz at their head – on Sunday showed why climate campaigners need a decolonization treatment.

Now more than ever, we know that not only do we have to fight against climate change and the capitalist-colonialist system which it hails from, we also have to fight against the UK’s whitewashed colonialist climate movement which perpetuates the oppression, erasure and brutality we face daily.

The march organizers, ITV, BBC, all of the echo chambers of the status quo will have you think we weren’t even there. Yet ’Still fighting Co2onialism’, was the banner leading the Britain’s biggest climate march, because we can no longer afford to place the onus on people recycling and expect the polluters to lead us to liberty. Neither the government nor the NGO liberal line will lead us to justice. This is a war of narratives, and ours is decolonial.

This article was amended on 3.12.15 to better reflect the role of different NGOs in these events.

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  1. #1 Tuffgirlie 01 Dec 15

    This is a bit bloody depressing. BUT there are always those who can genuinely see what the problem is and are prepared to speak the truth and do what is required to effect real change and then there are those who just want to be seen as part of the solution with out having to sacrifice anything. There are a lot of people in the world who know whats going on. This is a fight to the death...either the death of us or the death of capitalism. Don't stop. Kia Kaha

  2. #2 Manchester Climate Monthly 01 Dec 15

    Thanks for this horrifying account of the politics of Sunday's march (and the months leading up to it). I run a website called Manchester Climate Monthly. I'd really like to (email) interview either of the authors on the very challenging (in a good way) questions that they raise, for activism in the UK, activism elsewhere etc. email is [email protected]
    Best wishes
    Marc Hudson

  3. #3 Guy Tanner 01 Dec 15

    Sorry but I find the tone of your article a little sad, almost defeatist... ’NGOs summoned the police on our black and brown bodies’ were you even there, when others of colour were happily chatting and mingling with other of less colour? :/ ... come on this is not even good ’activism’. I was there. I was there when the picture above was taken, with bags of space to make an impact and you had every opportunity to represent your cause... as much if not more than anyone else. When you staged your sit-down in the street with the greater part of 70000 people bunching up behind you patiently expecting to march through the wind and rain, no-one got angry and offended... they were just doing what they were doing, along with 1 million human beings around the world.
    In short the spirit of the day was one of ordinary people wanting to express their own fears, consistent with the generous and co-operative nature of #COP21 in the global realisation that we must work together if we are to change our collective ways and enable a new Quality of Life for us all. It was good to see you & I hope you continue to find ways to be a part of that journey.
    Thanks for listening and may your god(s) bless you,
    Guy, The Green Tau Organisation

  4. #4 Kitona 01 Dec 15

    Here is Sydney, Australia, many of us boycotted the march with heavy hearts after hearing from some of the major Australian Indigenous activist groups: Redfern Tent Embassy and #SOSBlakAustralia that they had the same treatment at the hands of the organisers. Our Indigenous peoples should have led the march. Their concerns are the primary concerns. They are the leaders of decolonisation; not the wealthy toothless bloated environmental groups.
    A particular concern was the decision to allow the Nuclear Power lobby a voice at the march, despite our fears that Australia is going to be used as a dumping ground for nuclear waste....

    You can find out more at:


  5. #5 Dean 01 Dec 15

    It's hard to see the water you're swimming in, you need to be lead out of the water to get perspective of your culture/system.

    In Perth, Western Australia we had Noongar people and other indigenous people lead our People's Climate March. We created one large banner with the key slogan for the march and allowed the indigenous people to lead with whatever climate (or not) banners they wanted. We cannot tell them what their climate message should be. We had 7 other blocs in the march other groups can control the messaging. Some people were not happy with the political messaging the indigenous people displayed and chanted, but we cannot whitewash/politically correct/tame down their expression. They experienced racism and colonialism, not us.

    The second block was Front Line Communities, this was mainly lead by Oxfam WA and their diversity went ok, we need to engage other communities in Perth to make this 'bloc' stronger, to build greater participating from these Perth communities for the movement. Even if they did turn out in numbers for the event our NGOs still have a high number of middle class white people. But at lease most people in these NGOs understand we need to increase the participation from people from different cultures and change our own ways to respectively work with them.

    The racism displayed by the British organisers is very disappointing. To make a diverse movement you need to let go of your control and trust whatever people do will move the movement forward. Even if the media paints the march in a bad light, that's their racism, the movement will understand and grow stronger.

    We were lucky, NO we created it, though our planning, promoting, media releases, and 'blocked' diversity the media and people of Perth understood our vision and wrote about the diversity and excitement at the march.

    We had Noongar and indigenous people take critical parts and representation throughout the whole event. I would have liked more involvement with Noongar people during the planning but that was our organising problem. Something to improve on next time. :-)
    I hope people can take something away from our event and my learning. We also had an amazing person who works a lot with indigenous people work with us on how to work with indigenous cultures and oppressed people.

    The climate movement in Perth is become more diverse and larger. We'll have growing pains and I'm hoping we'll spend more time engaging other communities in Perth and equip them to become community organisers. And hopefully they'll see climate change is a key issue for their community. :-P

  6. #6 Serendipity 02 Dec 15

    This is extremely uncomfortable and utterly essential reading. It is classic new internationalist, once again way ahead of everyone else in nailing what it takes to have genuine justice for the majority world. What that will really look like, what kind of struggle is needed. How we must operate. I've never valued a subscription more than my NI subscription. The coverage of Paris and the whole Cop21 proceedings is exemplary. And Fanonian.

    Never, ever trust the big NGOs, they are part of the problem
    AVAAZ are easily the most destructive, anyone would think they are actually working against the struggle fir global justice

    I'd say cancel all your support to AVAAZ and FOE and become part of the mass network of grassroots groups emerging to fight for climate justice. And it is a fight and so far, it is black and brown skinned people who are the frontline victims. Challenge yourself now to put your body in front of your convictions more and hide behind NGOs and dead marches less.

  7. #7 Miriam Amancay Colque 02 Dec 15

    i am an aymara woman and longstanding activist living in London. Our children who are now leading the young Global South movement against de-colonisation, de-patriarchalisation and much more were on the London's climate march, even my grandchild who is just a baby was there and I feel really proud.
    I've heard their vivid account of events of that day when the so called organisers with a patriarchal attitude, tried to get rid of them, their banners and placards which read loudly the fight against colonialism, imperialism,capitalism,etc. I heard that the organisers even called the police to do this nearly trampling on the head of a young South American activist.
    Shame on the organisers! NGO's who only think that we, mainly indigenous people from the South, have to only obey orders and like herds march behind them to accomplish their selfish and narrow minded aims. Those NGO's need lessons on de-colonisation, de-patriarchalisation.

  8. #8 Dave Baggin 02 Dec 15

    Good, nice to see that the climate movement didn't let another movement take it over in the name of the ’progressive stack.’ Racism has nothing to do with climate change, stop making everything about you. Stop derailing.

  9. #9 Niko Leka 02 Dec 15

    Great to read about the Perth march, quite an achievement as Western Australia is a very racist state. Just to respond to Dave Baggin's comment below, ’Racism has nothing to do with climate change’: you couldn't be more wrong. Read chapter 5 in Naomi Klein's book, ’This Changes Everything’. Put it this way: greenhouse gases are only the proximate cause, the fundamental cause is the attitude inherent in racism.

  10. #10 Daniel Johnson 03 Dec 15

    It kind of sounds like a handful of racist radicals pretended to represent all indigenous people and people of color while derailing the actual solidarity focused on the actual issue of climate change that most of the people attending, including most of the indigenous and people of color, had come out specifically for.

  11. #11 Daniel Johnson 03 Dec 15

    It kind of sounds like a handful of racist radicals pretended to represent all indigenous people and people of color while derailing the actual solidarity focused on the actual issue of climate change that most of the people attending, including most of the indigenous and people of color, had come out specifically for.

  12. #12 Daniel Johnson 03 Dec 15

    It kind of sounds like a handful of racist radicals pretended to represent all indigenous people and people of color while derailing the actual solidarity focused on the actual issue of climate change that most of the people attending, including most of the indigenous and people of color, had come out specifically for.

  13. #13 Julietta Cochrane 03 Dec 15

    I'm writing to Avaaz and Greenpeace to make an official statement and apology. Can you name the march organisers directly responsible for this?

  14. #14 Saif 04 Dec 15

    I find it really interesting that you removed Friends of the Earth and replaced it with Greenpeace and you claim that this reflect better the role of different NGOs in these events. It is really untrue and you know that. Friends of the Earth were, along with Avaaz, the main organisers for this march. Did you remove it because you don't want to say bad things about Friends of the Earth and implicate Asad Rehman who has a senior position in Friends of the Earth and is very involved in Wretched of the Earth?

  15. #15 RMK 04 Dec 15

    Who were these NGOs or those otherwise responsible for this? Can you name names? Only a liberal would say something so idiotic. Anybody who expects this type of behavior to be tolerated is no comrade of mine - environmentalism needs socialism (and anti-colonialism, anti-racism, anti-sexism, etc.) just as much as vice versa

  16. #16 Martin Porter 05 Dec 15

    A curious story. I was there, and the Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace blocs certainly didn't push in front of anyone and were a long way down the line.

    My experience was a fantastic day, but a very crowded one, with everyone marching together with very little distinction between the different groups.

    I think the event organisers should be given a right of reply here.

  17. #17 Diana Warner 09 Dec 15

    Thank you Joshua Virasami and Alexandra Wanjiku Kelbert for holding up your banner proudly, and for speaking out. We each can benefit from looking in a mirror held up by those with very different eyes, to see ourselves more clearly. It takes courage and perseverance to take the hard path 'to decolonize our minds in order to recognize the shackles on our bodies, in order to recognize the insidious and acute nature of our oppressor.' No less for those with white hearts as for those with brown.
    I am new to New Internationalist, and this article makes me want to subscribe straight away.

  18. #18 rad rad 31 Dec 15

    IInteresting, but was this sidelined bloc really ’supposed to lead’? According to whom?

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