Why I’m resisting Trump and the oil industry today

by Rico Sisney

September 11, 2019

© Greenpeace

I will not be watching the Democratic debate tonight. Instead, I’m rappelling off of the Fred Hartman Bridge with ten other activists in order to shut down the biggest fossil fuel thoroughfare in the United States, the Houston Ship Channel.

I want to share why I chose to take part in this action and I couldn’t help but think, “How will I explain this to my mom?” My parents are beyond supportive, but I’ve never done anything quite like this before. I think they’ll have a lot of questions, but the main one is:

“Why do you need to hang from a bridge in Texas to fight climate change?”

To me, that question is made up of 4 smaller questions:

1. Why fight climate change? 

This is the easiest question to answer. Fighting climate change is fighting for my survival and for the survival of the people I love.

The Pentagon sees climate change as a threat to national security and cites flooding, drought, and wildfires as some of the “climate events” that will need to be navigated in the future. But for many communities, that future has already arrived. Last weekend, tens of thousands of people lost their homes to Hurricane Dorian. Last fall, the Bay Area, where I live, was covered in purple smoke from the deadliest wildfire in California history. Seeing N-50 mask covered faces in line at coffee shops, on bikes, and in cars commuting to work was eerily dystopian. We are in a climate crisis. I don’t want to pretend like this is normal.

The current administration has given every indication that they will do nothing to end this crisis, but everything to make it worse. The next president needs to end the fossil fuel era as soon as possible, but there has to be an overwhelming surge of people pushing the politicians forward and holding them accountable. I am a part of that surge.

2. Why in Texas?

One-third of all U.S fossil fuel exports come through the Houston Ship Channel. BP, Exxon, Chevron, and Shell are here, along with the second-largest petrochemical plant in the world. When Hurricane Harvey hit, flooding in the area released 8.3 million pounds of dangerous chemicals.  These included known carcinogens and chemicals that irritate the eyes and the respiratory system.

The fence-line communities here in Houston face similar challenges to the EPA superfund site near where I live now and many neighborhoods in Chicago where I was born. Higher rates of respiratory illness and birth defects are associated with these areas and they tend to affect primarily Black and Latinx communities. I’ve had asthma my entire life, and many of my family members also have respiratory illnesses. We want to hold fossil fuel companies accountable and this is the best place to do it.

My mom has a very real fear for my safety here. Her son hanging from a 200 ft bridge is a scary thought, but no more so than the possibility of me spending a night in a Texas jail cell. The 75-mile distance between the Fred Hartman Bridge and Hempstead, TX where Sandra Bland died is too close for comfort. Being Black in police custody in America is inherently risky. All of us on this bridge have different vulnerabilities, but we have accepted the risks of carrying out this action because the risks of inaction are so much higher.

3. Why hang from a bridge?

We need people to take the most impactful steps they can, which, for most, does not include hanging from a bridge. For many, that will be taking to the streets for the youth climate strikes on September 20th. For others, this may be supporting, getting trained, or recruiting volunteers. For the next president, that will mean phasing out fossil fuels completely with a just transition to make sure workers don’t get left behind. For me today, it means dangling from the Fred Hartman Bridge to block 700,000 barrels of oil from passing through Houston and moving us closer to catastrophic climate change.

4. Why me?

It didn’t need to be me. Anyone can get trained and take part in non-violent direct action. My mom would certainly prefer that anyone else were up here besides me. I’m here today for my grandfather and other family members whose lives were shortened by their environment and living conditions. I will continue to push forward recognizing the many people who made it possible for me to do so.  When my dad was in elementary school, it would have been hard for a lot of folks to imagine a world without “whites-only” bathrooms and water fountains. But what was improbable for them seems inevitable to us, because of the people who struggled to get us here.  The fact that there’s an enormous amount of work left to do just means there are more than enough opportunities to plug in. I hope that all of us up here will inspire even more people to step outside of their comfort zone and push for the future that they want to see.  The future I want is one where zip codes do not predict life expectancy and where pollution of water and air are not par for the course. That world is possible and it means putting an end to the era of fossil fuels.

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