This interview is a behind the scenes follow up to DC’s Got a Gas Problem, and They’re Not the Only Ones.
From Oct. 24-26, a coalition of ecoactivist groups, including Extinction Rebellion Northeast, Extinction Rebellion DC (XRDC), Scientist Rebellion, and Climate Defiance, engaged in three days of nonviolent actions against the gas industry in Washington, D.C. They disrupted the industry’s biggest annual event in North America, temporarily shut down construction on a major pipeline project, and built bridges of inter-movement solidarity by joining in protests for a ceasefire in Gaza.
To share an inside view of how this campaign was developed, where it’s at, where it might be going, and how it relates to broader climate issues and intersectional movement solidarity, Alexandria Shaner interviews Jay (he/they), an organizer from Climate Defiance, and Claire (she/her) and Rachel (they/them), two organizers from XRDC.
“Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals. But the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels. Investing in new fossil fuels is moral and economic madness.”
– Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the UN
These 3 days of actions were the culmination of a lot of groundwork. Could you give some background and context for how each action, at the National Gas Forum and at the Project Pipes construction site, was developed?
Rachel on the Gas Forum: Before XRDC had gotten involved in planning this action, a coalition of rebels [rebels is the term for XR activists] from various Extinction Rebellion chapters in Northeastern America had started formulating ideas on how to disrupt the forum, raise money, and get people involved. When they initially contacted XRDC to help with the logistics, we all knew this was way too good of an opportunity to pass up, and of course we wanted to help our comrades call out the gas industry!
I started joining their meetings twice a week and doing some research on what the forum was about. It wasn’t too long before we realized the forum was largely about how to greenwash “natural gas” and convince the public that we need gas for a transition to renewable energy. In other words, “how to gaslight the public to make a buck and destroy the planet at the same time”. We thought this tied in really well with Extinction Rebellion’s foundational demand, “Tell the Truth!”, so we leaned in and decided to call the action “Stop the Gaslighting” – because, let’s be real, gaslighting is exactly what they are doing when they tell us that lighting gas is in our best interest.
We really wanted to disrupt the forum from the inside. We tried to register an activist for the event, but unfortunately the North American Gas Forum had a really elitist vetting process and this activist wasn’t unable to get in. It makes sense that they would only want the most committed and well-known gas-goblins to participate in an event that talks about manipulating the public. Why would they open the doors to the public when they don’t actually care about the public’s well being?
Jay on the Gas Forum: When the Climate Defiance team heard about the beautiful resistance that Extinction Rebellion groups were putting together at the North American Gas Forum, we jumped at the opportunity to contribute some good trouble inside the event. We weren’t surprised to see US public officials rubbing elbows with the methane gas industry. It’s pretty standard these days. Which is all the more reason to bring youth-led, multigenerational climate leaders to resist such a corrupt and destructive forum.
Rachel on Project Pipes: I joined XRDC about a year ago, and by that point in time, XRDC had been working on a campaign to call out the City Council for neglecting their supposed “commitment” to move towards sustainable energy. In this effort, an emphasis has been placed on Washington Gas’ Project Pipes, which aims to replace all of DC’s gas infrastructure – not just the old and leaky gas pipes, but ALL of them. Despite a decade of work, there has actually been an INCREASE in gas leaks since the beginning of this project.
The motivation on Washington Gas’ part is to delay any efforts to move towards a future where their product (gas) is obsolete and to make as much money off of the ratepayers as they can – but, of course, they won’t tell you that. The initial estimated cost to the ratepayers was $4.5 BILLION, and the project is already over budget.
By the time I had joined, there was already a vision of a construction site shut down, but we wanted to exhaust other options first. We emailed City Councilmembers to put an end to Project Pipes, we protested in less disruptive ways, we invited Washington Gas to debates, chess games, and even jousting. We even locked ourselves on to the doors of the Wilson Building to remind Councilmembers that the people are paying attention. Unfortunately, we haven’t gotten any indication that the DC Council will put a stop to Project Pipes, so we had to take matters into our own hands.
Claire on Project Pipes: XRDC’s End Methane, Electrify DC campaign launched back in April 2022 with a huge banner drop from the front of the DC Council building, but it was born earlier, about two years ago, over a series of strategic planning sessions. Among other influences, we took notes from groups that had shifted from broad climate demands to organizing campaigns around much narrower demands, such as Insulate Britain.
The idea was that focusing on a specific, winnable demand, and demonstrating that NVDA [nonviolent direct action] allowed that win to happen, would make a strong case for the power of NVDA and build huge momentum to move toward larger wins. We wanted to try that idea out here in DC and adapt it to our context. We weighed many different ideas for what our narrower demand could be – at one point we had possibilities on a whiteboard, each with tally marks indicating how we had scored them against a long list of factors.
We considered things like, is this demand actually winnable? Is it easily understood, and would it be able to win popular support among DC residents? Does it center climate justice? Can it have impacts beyond DC? And more. We got input both from within our XRDC chapter and from outside experts. And in the end, we decided to demand that the DC Council take action to stop Washington Gas’s Project Pipes.
Project Pipes began about a decade ago and is slated to continue into the 2040s – compare that to DC’s commitment to become climate neutral by 2045. The project has to be approved in phases, and the third phase is up for approval very soon, making it especially critical to escalate the pressure now and hold our leaders accountable. Even as our recent action took place at a Project Pipes construction site, where we stopped an entire day of construction, our message to DC leaders was clear: DC Council, don’t ghost your climate promises!
This campaign brought together a coalition of ecoactivist groups and included both local and regional participants – who was represented at each action?
Rachel on the Gas Forum: XRUS, XRPhilly, XRCapitol Region, XRDC, XR Boston, Scientist Rebellion, Climate Defiance, Third Act, Beyond Extreme Energy, CCAN – and many more…
Rachel on Project Pipes: While this action was organized by XRDC, there were individuals from many groups such as CCAN, XRPhilly, XRDC, Scientist Rebellion, and Climate Defiance.
Any behind the scenes organizing highlights or strategies that you’d like to delve into?
Claire on Project Pipes: A lot goes into planning an action like this, and there are multiple points where folks come together to prepare and build community.
XRDC held an NVDA training a few weeks prior to the action – it was open to anyone, not just those who would be participating in our action. Prior to the action, a core group of us also had a more intimate training and build session where we constructed the lock boxes used during the action, with guidance and help from a talented and generous ally who came in from about an hour outside DC. This was an amazing capacity-building opportunity, and also an important part of getting ready (and excited) for the action.
We also had an art build where we painted the beautiful, Halloween-themed banners as well as smaller cardboard signs.
Having the Gas Forum action earlier in the week also helped to build community for the intense Project Pipes action. It especially helped out-of-town folks get to DC and get connected. We were so appreciative of all the folks who traveled to DC for the Gas Forum action, and then stuck around for Project Pipes, and even took on key roles in the action.
XRDC had been doing a lot of outreach to trusted groups and individuals to invite folks to participate, but the weekend before the action, our outreach also took another form: canvassing the neighborhood surrounding our action site. Around eight of us spent an afternoon knocking on doors, having conversations with neighbors about what Project Pipes is and why they should oppose it, and distributing flyers (which included an invitation to our post-action happy hour).
Day-of, while it may have looked like things wrapped up when we loaded up the banners, megaphones, and signs into the car and left the action site, that was just the transition to the next phase. A number of us shared a meal, and our jail support team kicked into high gear to support our reds [“red” roles signify a high probability of arrest, five “reds” were arrested at this action]. This continued into the next day, when we were there in the courtroom and outside the courthouse to welcome our reds as they were arraigned and released.
That evening, we held a “DC Methane-Free” happy hour at a local pizza place where XRDC folks, other climate orgs, and community members gathered to get to know one another and share information about our work, including XRDC’s gas campaign. The happy hour had a great turnout and was an exciting way to continue the momentum from the previous day’s action.
The following week, we all gathered virtually to debrief from the action, with each person sharing their “roses” (things that went well), “thorns” (things that didn’t go so well), and “buds” (ideas for the future).
Jay on the Gas Forum: We knew our targets inside the forum were going to be defensive and insecure to our presence. They were ready to attempt to block our ability to disrupt their anti-science toxic business meetings that serve to advance climate chaos and perpetuate environmental injustice. So, we brought a saxophone. Our comrade wailed out some jazz blasts to accompany our love and rage that we delivered up and down the lobby, stairs, and elevator of the Park Hyatt, where the gas forum was held.
Rachel: Claire’s and Jay’s descriptions are pretty comprehensive. A few of the organizing highlights I’d point out from the Gas Forum action were: scouting, NVDA training, making sure people coming from out of town had a place to stay, and doing the art build.
For Project Pipes: scouting, NVDA training, making sure we weren’t disrupting lead water pipe replacement, talking with a lawyer about how to minimize charges, changing plans daily based on how the construction locations changed leading up to the action, art builds, and wheat pasting and flyering around the neighborhood.
Discuss participants joining in the Palestinian solidarity and Gaza ceasefire actions, in addition to the fossil fuel resistance actions. What are your thoughts on building power blocs of solidarity between movements and highlighting systemic connections between the fossil fuel industry, arms industry, and capitalism?
Rachel on the Gas Forum: Initially, we wanted our actions to take place over the course of the three-day forum and not just on Tuesday, but since Monday was just registration day at the forum, we decided not to tip our hand too soon. Tuesday was our big day of action, and while we initially wanted to disrupt again on Wednesday, we were invited to an action organized by If Not Now which focussed on telling congress “Ceasefire Now”! We discussed our options and we all felt that our efforts would be best spent at If Not Now’s action.
Unfortunately, a lot of the out-of-town rebels who participated in the Gas Forum action had to go home before the “Ceasefire Now” action. But I follow some of them on social media and see that they are going to marches and actions in their local cities. A lot of people from different affinity groups who were at the Gas Forum action are now risking arrest in actions to support Palestinians. At least one of these people was at the Grand Central Station shut down, another person was demanding a ceasefire in Bernie Sanders’ office and got arrested, and one was a medic at If Not Now’s action. It really is an honor to know these people, and the love and fire in their hearts inspires me every day.
Rachel on Project Pipes: XRDC’s Stop Project Pipes action may have been locally focussed, but the plague of the gas and oil industry plagues the whole world. Shortly after our action, I saw a statement that talked about Gaza’s “natural gas” reserves and immediately realized that may be a motivating factor in this whole thing. I did a little research and saw the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development was talking about “the unrealized potential of Palestinian oil and gas reserves” in 2019 as if oil and gas are the only reasons to value that land. I also found that Israel has been using gas and oil licenses to bribe different companies (and likely international governmental bodies as well).
This all just emphasizes the fact that capitalism has to go if we want a livable future. If our governments are prioritizing oil licenses and war for profit over the wellbeing of ANY person or people, then it is FAR past time for a change.
One beautiful thing about the rebels I have met through climate activism is that they will fight for justice no matter what it looks like. Despite our regular XR rules of keeping messages climate related, we have been openly discussing ways we can help the people of Gaza. We have been sharing actions, expressing our grief, sharing our hopes, and using our platforms to speak up. We had a brief discussion about endorsing the November 4th National March for Palestine, and there was no opposition. There is so much worth fighting for, and we will give it our all.
Claire on Project Pipes: Although we each have finite time and energy, it absolutely makes sense that people are joining actions across these and other areas, from climate and fossil fuels, to Gaza solidarity, to reproductive rights, and more. We’re here out of love and rage, and we see that racist, capitalist, and colonialist systems are at the core of so much injustice and oppression around the world.
The more we shake up the status quo, and the more we demonstrate that anyone can fight for a better world, the more we acknowledge how interconnected all of these issues are, the closer we get to tipping points where the people’s voices can’t be ignored.
Where is the campaign going from here? What are your thoughts on climate justice and broad movement strategy in DC, the US, and possibly wider?
Rachel on the Gas Forum: While XRNE does not currently have our next action planned, we are already discussing the formation of an official Northeast chapter. This would encourage climate coalitions in Northeastern America to continue supporting each other in major power centers. Whether we decide to target politicians in DC or capitalists in New York, expanding our network of support could provide countless opportunities. Perhaps this will allow further coalitions to form. I would LOVE to see an XR Midwest or XR Southeast coalition! And you already know we will be at the next North American Gas Forum – that is, if we haven’t already shut them down by then.
Rachel on Project Pipes: Since this was the first time a gas pipeline construction shutdown has happened in DC, we are really hoping it will inspire others around the country and maybe even around the world to take similar action. Even if there is not enough momentum in someone’s city to do their own local action, perhaps they will be motivated to go to the Mountain Valley Pipeline and aid in shutting down that construction in whatever way they can.
We also want to emphasize that you do not have to get arrested to be an essential part of the movement. You could spread the word on social media, you could message your representatives, you can create art, you can donate – whatever your strengths and passions are, they can be used to further this movement.
This fight isn’t going anywhere. Earth defenders will exist as long as humans are around.
Claire on Project Pipes: As we already mentioned, the third phase of Project Pipes is up for approval very soon. We are definitely feeling the need to keep up the pressure and build on the momentum from this action. Awareness of this issue in DC is rising, and we feel it’s a critical moment. That said, we are also reflecting on where we are at in the campaign, how it’s gone so far, and what makes sense strategically as far as next steps. So, stay tuned!
As far as broader movement strategy, I wish I had the answers but honestly, I don’t. I still have so much to learn about activism and organizing. Like so many others doing this work, this isn’t what I was trained for or thought I would do when I grew up – it’s something I’ve realized is entirely necessary, and I am learning as I go.
I very much believe that NVDA is the key to achieving transformational change, but most broadly, my feeling on climate justice strategy is “yes.” If someone is able to sit outside a government building every day in protest – yes. If a group is able to continuously disrupt pipeline construction – yes. If a coalition is able to organize a massive march and rally – yes. We need more of it, in whatever way it is able to happen. And the more we can learn from and support one another, the stronger we will be.
Jay: The climate wing of the movement for human rights must connect these global scale issues to frontline communities to achieve real justice. We need a livable planet, and unless it’s one that is accessible to the poor, it’s neither radical or revolutionary. Mass nonviolent direct action can help us get there and help us continue to build pressure on public officials that should be doing more. Winning environmental justice fights, advancing mutual aid, and building capacity for a general strike will also be transformative in the global fight ahead!
Let’s end on a more personal note – how did you come to this movement? Share a little about your path to becoming an organizer. What are the hard parts and the benefits of doing this work?
Claire: It has been on a long journey to get to this point. Growing up and into early adulthood, I loved nature and considered myself an environmentalist. I was active on various environmental causes, and I knew climate change was real and bad, but didn’t understand that it was truly catastrophic.
NVDA was nowhere within the realm of what I could conceive that I might do in my life. I heard about XR in the break room at work, from a coworker who was telling a story of being locked onto a boat during a protest. I was awestruck by the fact that real people do those things and that I was talking to one of them.
Not long after, I went to an in-person XRDC talk, and I was sold. It was the first time I’d heard the truth told like that. Not half-truths, not hedging or sterile abstractions, not cushioned in “it’s okay, we’re fine, we can make it better, no worries.” It was the first time someone told me that it’s a crisis, that it’s scary, that things are going to get really, really bad – and that NVDA is one of the best tools we have to do anything about it.
I wish I could say that everything about the crisis and about what I needed to do was totally clear to me in that moment. It wasn’t, and I’m still learning. But that talk changed my life.
Over the past few years, I’ve gotten more and more involved with XRDC, from planning actions and discussing strategy to doing community outreach and wheatpasting. I’ve reduced the hours I work at my day job so that I can spend more time on climate activism, which is now one of the most important things in my life – maybe the most important.
I’m here because if I want to make a difference for other people (and other creatures) in this world, if I want my life to have meaning beyond myself, I don’t know of a better way to do that. If you’re wondering if you should get more involved and dedicate more of yourself to this work, the answer is yes. It always has been for me, even if I didn’t accept that truth right away.
Jay: I always knew I wanted to help make change. For eight years, I focused on advancing renewable energy by working in solar engineering and solar scientific research. This is important, but I began to see that without a root cause analysis of where our society and economy stands, expanding renewable energy is only part of the solution. We must approach progress in a lens that deprograms our extractive and exploitative ways.
When Bernie’s campaign was gaining momentum, I began my organizing career to fight for a political revolution. From that point on, I knew organizing was my calling. For four years, I have fought for an empowered democracy for the people, economic rights, compassionate public policy, and against expansion of industry that is killing our people and planet.
Even in these intense struggles, the main thing that sustains me is movement work that is centered on love. A love that especially includes people getting together to express righteous anger and outrage about what harmful action governments are doing with our money, and in our name!
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