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Wake Up America! We are in a fight for our lives

by Folabi Olagbaju

April 8, 2020

A vibrant and functioning democracy is our greatest tool to address environmental degradation and climate emergency. We know that when we vote in large numbers, we increase our ability to fight back against corporate polluters and monied interests that have hijacked our democratic process. 

‘Resist" Light Graffiti at the White House in Washington D.C.

© Vicki DaSilva / Greenpeace

What keeps me up at night is not just the fear of the coronavirus pandemic; it is the state of our democracy, rule of law, and our national election this fall. Last week, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she wants to virus-proof the November election by including funding to boost voting by mail in the next relief bill put together by Democrats in the House of Representatives. Ensuring our elections are safe, inclusive, and timely is now more important than ever. 

Respected academics have sounded the alarm that we are one step away from authoritarianism or dictatorship; but we don’t need these celebrated writers to understand the gravity of the moment we are in. In three years of the Trump Administration, we have seen an unprecedented march towards white nationalist fervor, xenophobia, and the demonization of immigrants. We have also seen a remarkable shrinkage of political space for dissent and wanton disregard for the rule of law.

I know about dictatorship first hand.

I grew up in Nigeria, a country until recently ruled by a succession of military dictators. I know that the price of freedom, democracy, and the rule of law is steep, and the alternative is unfathomable. You may think it would never happen here, but think again. It took Germany a few months to go from a democracy to fascism and the tyranny of Hitler and the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust.

In Trump, we have an amoral leader who rode to power on white ethno-nationalist fervor, shows profound disdain for the rule of law, and wants to completely deconstruct the administrative state. Sound familiar? 

The next few months will be critical to the survival of our democracy and the fate of our country. 

This week, House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy said: changing election laws has “nothing to do with our war against the disease.” But the opposite is true. A people centered democracy is essential in fighting the dual crisis of this pandemic, and climate change. Casting a ballot should be easy, not a choice between losing our income and time, and  jeopardizing our health and safety. With the 2020 primaries being pushed back by months, people might abandon the ballot, afraid of going to their precinct—holding the same pen, or touching the same screen—that serves thousands of others. What happens now will affect our future to come. A healthy democracy is a necessary precondition for a healthy environment. Indeed, a vibrant and functioning democracy is our greatest tool to address environmental degradation and climate emergency. We know that when we vote in large numbers, we increase our ability to fight back against corporate polluters and monied interests that have hijacked our democratic process. 

These are unprecedented times, and the opportunities to push for a system that works for us all are enormous. Historical trigger moments like the one we are living through calls for a movement response to push a progressive agenda centered around our collective commitment to democracy, the rule of law, solidarity actions, and social and racial equity to rebuild our communities and a more just and equitable world for our children to the seventh generation.

In three years of the Trump Administration, we have seen an unprecedented march towards white nationalist fervor, xenophobia, and the demonization of immigrants.

Some Democrats fear voting by mail could exclude people of color and low-income voters who tend to move around and change addresses frequently. This is why it is essential that we pursue comprehensive reform to make voting as accessible and easy as possible. Same-day registration, automatic registration, and registration at public benefit agencies are all policies that have been shown to increase turnout and close the gap between those with access to the ballot box and those without. Voting by mail is a critical reform, but should not be pursued in a vacuum. 

Greenpeace activists deploy a banner on a construction crane near the White House reading “RESIST” on President Trump’s fifth day in office.

As we approach one of the most consequential elections of our lifetime, the stakes for our democracy and the environment has never been higher. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, we have been pressuring Congress to fund necessary long term changes to the conduct of our elections in addition to taking care of our frontline healthcare workers and the most vulnerable in our communities during this coronavirus pandemic. People should not have to choose between their health and their right to vote. The allocation of $400 million under the current stimulus package is only good as a downpayment for what is really needed, more than $2 billion to fund state-level measures that expand voter registration, in-person early voting, no-excuse absentee voting, voting by mail, voter education and safe in-person voting during the upcoming November general elections. This is a fight we will continue when Congress reconvenes later this month. 

Wake up America!

It’s moments like this one that can decide our fate. I, for one, am fighting for a democracy of the people for a better, healthier, more just planet. The elections are coming, and we have to make sure we’re prepared to make our voice heard. Safely. 

Folabi Olagbaju

By Folabi Olagbaju

Folabi Olagbaju joined the Greenpeace USA team at the beginning of 2020 Democracy Campaign Director. Folabi brings a wealth of experience as a human rights advocate and recognized leader in the global social justice movement.

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