Environmentalists Look Back and Forward for the Open Door

Climate Change Personal Writings

            Pearl River      Earlier this year, I had gotten a message on Facebook from an ACORN member in England.  Besides his activity with ACORN, he was also active in the environmental group, Extinction Rebellion, which has become well known in recent years for its aggressive actions highlighting the urgency of confronting climate change.  He said he was a friend and comrade of Roger Hallam, one of the co-founders of the organization, and would I do him a favor.  It seemed Hallam had gotten into a problem on a bit of civil disobedience with a subsequent organization where he was active, called Just Stop Oil, and he was going to have to spend some time in the pokey to settle up with the authorities.  He said he had been talking to Hallam about my book, Nut and Bolts:  The ACORN Fundamentals of Organizing, Hallam was interested, and would I be willing to send him a copy to read in jail?

I didn’t know Hallam, but I was familiar with Extinction Rebellion.  I try to stay current and informed on the work of all sorts of social movements.  I had read about their exploits.  I had been fascinated by a young intern of ours several years ago from the Everett Program at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who had announced that upon graduation, she was going to spend a year with some folks traveling the US to organize chapters of the organization.  I had watched with admiration their huge delegation march ahead of ours in Glasgow during COP26, and found myself surprised that it was not just young people, but quite the opposite.  Anyway, how could I refuse to send someone a book in prison?

So, I did. It was complicated, because it had to be sent to another address, and then taken to him, I suppose.  It cost more to send than to buy the book, almost.  Of course, weeks later, it was returned to me as undeliverable.  One thing led to another though, and until the last minute, when schedules changed, we were set to hand-deliver the book and meet in London.  Nick Ballard, ACORN’s head organizer in England, and I talked to Hallam on Zoom instead.  He has a new project with a different twist to organize assemblies around England and the UK to build a more extensive grassroots pressure for reform.

I get it.  Following an experience I had in early 1970 running an action at a hotel in Boston with welfare rights, I’ve always said, “you have to keep rolling until you hit the open door.”  In that situation, I had summoned my muscle memory from years of playing football, and confronting a bank of doors to enter the downtown hotel, hit one with my shoulder ahead of the march and rolled to the next, and then the next, until hitting an unlocked door, so that the 200 members could stream into the hotel to disrupt the banquet.  Hallam is still trying to hit the open door.  Extinction Rebellion has moderated its tactics in the face of public antipathy, while Just Stop Oil is still at it, while Hallam looks to open another front.

I read a piece about the legendary and much admired Canadian environmentalist, Dr. David Suzuki, recently, who I’ve never met, though working in Canada, we’ve known many who worked at his foundation or with him.  At 87, he was reflecting largely on his regrets about the shortcomings of the environmental movement, saying, “We failed as a movement to change the underlying assumptions of society, the behavior of government and business people.”  Suzuki is carrying a weight that you can’t just shake off.  I get that, too.  After more than fifty years organizing lower income families and lower waged workers, no matter how I count huge successes and failures, it is undeniable that unions have gotten weaker and that inequity has gotten larger.  Hallam is 57, thirty years younger than Suzuki.  He can still try to keep hitting the open door around climate.  Maybe this time, he’ll get through.  For my part, I’m still trying to put my shoulder to the door and somehow breakthrough with our people as well.