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The Time to Fight Coal in Oakland Is Now

How I came to see climate change as a fight for our lives.

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Two years ago, I stood with a group of other young people and allies in front of Phil Tagami, a prominent developer who was — in fact, still is — suing the City of Oakland for permission to build a coal terminal through West Oakland. We told him: "This coal is going to poison us." "I have asthma, and it's going to get worse if there is coal." "We need to stop shipping and burning coal to have a chance of slowing this climate crisis."

This day ignited a flame in me. Before this interaction I didn't see climate change as an issue that impacted me, but through my work examining this coal terminal, I recognized that the fight against climate change is really a fight against all systems of oppression that lay the foundation of our world. The systems and industries that created the climate crisis profit by considering communities of color like mine disposable. These targeted communities then experience the strongest impacts of climate chaos, while the people responsible for creating it sit back and collect checks while their air filters run. This is why climate justice is also racial and economic justice. The fight against climate catastrophe is a fight for our lives and futures that needs to be led by people on the frontlines of its impacts.

My work since that day has been to bring this knowledge of intersectionality to my community. I have heard people claim that there is a "lack of climate concern" from communities of color like West Oakland. The problem is not a blatant disregard for climate change, but rather a lack of understanding. The truth about climate change has been strategically concealed from impacted communities.

Now, as smoke recently drifted into the Bay Area once again, and as we sweltered under another "unseasonable" heatwave, we have learned about the lengths promoters of coal have gone to in their attempt to mislead our community, and poison our environment, and climate.

According to new reporting by Darwin Bond-Graham in the Guardian, the backers of coal in Oakland have been investing in a lobbying campaign to co-opt community leaders in an attempt to overcome opposition to coal. In simple terms, they have been paying prominent black leaders to support the coal terminal.

This includes paying a local blogger to write positive articles about the coal terminal. Could that have been the same blogger who attacked me and other youth climate organizers by name and even accused us of elder abuse for asking Dianne Feinstein to support the Green New Deal? Coal terminal supporters also tried (unsuccessfully) to buy off Marshawn Lynch to support the polluting project. 

For almost three years, I — along with many other activists and community members — have been working to tell the truth to our community. This coal terminal is racist and poisonous. It's up to us — people on the frontlines — to make sure that it doesn't come into our community. This movement is about creating unity among a systemically silenced people.

The importance of this goal has become even more evident with the recent news of the coal supporter's tactic of community co-opting. We must stay strong in the face of this calculated attack on our community. We must continue to fight for the truth.

On November 11th, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in the lawsuit between Tagami and the city of Oakland. Regardless of the verdict — which will be announced sometime in the next couple of weeks — the people will continue to fight to ensure that this destructive coal terminal is not built. 

For people who don't live in West Oakland or other frontline communities, you may feel far from the threats of climate change, but we are all experiencing its impacts. Abnormal weather patterns, hurricanes, floods, PG&E shutdowns, unhealthy air quality due to wildfires, and many other phenomena like these are direct results of climate change.

The time to stand up and make a change is now. Though climate change is disproportionately impacting working-class communities of color, this crisis is coming for everyone. We need community members and leaders to stand up to powerholders who threaten our lives and the future of this planet.

Isha Clarke is an Oakland High School senior and an activist with Youth Vs Apocalypse.

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