I didn’t watch or listen to any of the inauguration. What I did instead, in response to the disturbing transition in our government, was get out and participate in a few of the many activities that happened around Portland this weekend. There were many events I missed, but I managed to take part in several that, with their different formats and focal points, gave me ideas for how to engage in the struggle for our climate and our civil liberties. Here are four options, from four different stimulating and encouraging events:
1) Do your job – and connect it to your activism.
On Friday afternoon, Portland State University’s Social Determinants of Health Initiative led a Commitment to Action ceremony. Hosted by the PSU Native American Student and Community Center, the ceremony invited people who work in the health, public health, and social service fields to take a collective pledge to stand up for equality, diversity, and scientific freedom. The hundred or so of us who had gathered then individually took turns to read short pledges of our own, stating what we would do in the months ahead. Christina Nicolaidis, Director of the Initiative, reminded us in her opening remarks that, in professions that focus on social well-being, it is in fact our job to speak up against policies that harm health, and to fight for spaces in the media to make sure that scientific evidence gets heard.
While climate change is only one determinant of health, it’s a massive one, through impacts on food production, heat deaths, changes in the ranges for human/animal/plant disease transmission, and through increased conflicts and displacement around the world. Yet even in a field where the relevance of climate change is obvious, many of us shy away from bringing our activist values into the workplace. Why wouldn’t concern for the biggest challenge facing human society be an appropriate issue to discuss and consider in our actions at work? There are probably more opportunities to speak up in professional settings than most of us take advantage of.
2) Be united and ambitious.
The Rise Up and Resist Fascism rally and march, also on Friday afternoon, was organized by a coalition of over a dozen Portland organizations all outspokenly opposed to the new government and not shy about calling out the connections between the exploitation of people and the exploitation of our planet in capitalist systems. The crowd overflowed Pioneer Square to hear speakers who each had a unique focus but who made constant connections between the issues. As 350PDX’s Mia Rieback said, “climate change is the background noise to every other issue,” always present and influential whether we are talking about housing, immigration, education, or health care. Other speakers, like Margot Black of Portland Tenants United, made it movingly clear that individuals must have some scrap of security in their individual lives and communities first, before they can have the stamina to fight for the planet’s future beyond surviving today. What came across was the level of nimble and informed dialogue that is happening across groups working on multiple issues, and a shared refusal to be divided and conquered. The repressive forces that have gained power in the government are not afraid of pushing for a bold agenda, so what’s called for is an unashamed push that is equally bold, but much more diverse and accepting, in the opposite direction.
3) Be a decent human being – especially if it’s against the new rules.
By now, everyone will have seen pictures and heard the news that Saturday’s Portland Women’s March was probably the largest public rally ever in our city, with over 100,000 people turning out. Even as it ended, it felt like the march continued all over the city, as people streamed home on foot across bridges in large, happy, soaking wet contingents. I can’t comment on the speakers, as the enormous crowd made it impossible for me (and most likely nearly everyone in the crowd) to hear anything that was said by the organizers, but speeches didn’t seem to be the point.
The energy of being in a crowd that large was infectious, and marching with my own teenage daughter in an event focused so clearly on women’s rights was moving. What I noticed most were the many signs calling for people to be loving, to be kind, to protect one another. When things are going well, this is called everyday decent behavior, but things are not going to be going well all the time in the months and years ahead. A teacher vowing to protect her undocumented students, a Christian congregation organizing events together with their Muslim neighbors, school kids raising money for the Water Protectors at Standing Rock – these are actions that we think of as just being nice, but they can be radical, and they are the necessary seed for more organized, larger responses. Cultivate them.
4) Acknowledge our fears and stand up to them.
As Sunday afternoon turned to dusk, I went to a silent march and meditation vigil, “Healing Our Beloved Community,” that started at Congregation Beth Israel in northwest Portland and ended in Pioneer Square, where a hundred or so people sat silently with tea lights. The silence in Pioneer Square – people wandering through also stopped talking – was in marked contrast to the yells and chants of the weekend’s other marches. The silent event deliberately called attention to our fears of being silenced, and to the increased risk of being silenced now being faced by Muslims, people of color, undocumented immigrants and others, under a regime that rode into power on hate speech. Climate activists around the globe already face tremendous risks to their safety, and here in the United States it is likely that exercising free speech and other forms of protest will entail stronger penalties. As this silent vigil showed, naming or showing what it is we fear does not have to be an act of giving into that fear. It can mobilize people to find the courage to resist, and to stand up for others.
Now on Sunday night, my spirits are high from the thousands and thousands of people whom I saw in the streets and in smaller gatherings, eager for positive change. Imagine if we could get those numbers to block a pipeline or withdraw their money en masse from the banks that fund environmental destruction. The weekend is over, and the work remains – let’s get to it.
Written by Anaïs Tuepker