“We want Biden to declare a climate emergency before human beings disappear from the face of the earth, because we are on our way to extinction,” said Casey Camp-Horinek, environmental ambassador for the Ponca Tribe of Oklahoma. Camp-Horinek was one of the leaders of People v. Fossil Fuels, an Indigenous-led, weeklong climate justice action in Washington, D.C., that began on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, Oct. 11, 2021.
Hundreds of protesters, including at least forty Unitarian Universalists, joined in the historic civil disobedience action demanding that the Biden administration declare a national climate emergency and immediately cease new fossil fuel projects. The action was organized by Build Back Fossil Free, a coalition of hundreds of grassroots and national organizations; its name is a reference to President Joe Biden’s presidential slogan to “Build Back Better.”
At least 655 people were arrested during the week, according to People v. Fossil Fuels, including fifty-five Indigenous activists who, on Thursday of that week, occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) for the first time since the 1970s, calling for no new leases for extractive industries on public lands and the abolition of the BIA.
Camp-Horinek was among the more than 130 people arrested on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, the first day of the action, which included a march to the White House. Although they were not tear-gassed and beaten by police like they were at the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline at Standing Rock, the arrests “certainly were a mistreatment of Indigenous rights and human rights, just to arrest us for being there and raising our voices and saying it’s time to declare a climate emergency,” said Camp-Horinek, a former councilwoman of the Ponca Tribe and its hereditary drumkeeper of the Women’s Scalp Dance Society. She added, “More importantly, I’m a matriarch of a huge clan and a survivor of many attempted genocides. I’m a mother, a wife, a grandmother, and great-grandmother.”
“If a person really considers the juxtaposition of Biden’s stance that, indeed, it is Indigenous Peoples’ Day and he feels as if Indigenous rights and treaties need to be upheld, and at the same moment he will arrest us for practicing our First Amendment rights and coming there in defense of the generations to come and to honor the ancestors who stood for us in the face of the federal government’s genocidal processes, then it becomes even deeper and stronger for us to try to call out to him and Congress to not just ‘Build Back Better’ but build back fossil free,” she told UU World.
A leader in Oklahoma in fighting the oil companies that are fracking, drilling, and “endangering the very existence of the Ponca people,” Camp-Horinek said, “We feel that our connectedness to the Mother Earth, Father Sky has not been severed by generations of colonialism but that we still have within our understandings and our spiritual guidance the ability to help others to reconnect to their understanding of how we can all co-exist, to align natural law with human law, to enter back into a respected state of the natural cycles of Mother Earth, the sacred cycles.”
At least forty UUs participated in People v. Fossil Fuels, including Zoë Johnston, network coordinator for UU Young Adults for Climate Justice (UUYACJ), part of the UU Ministry for Earth (UUMFE), who was arrested on both Thursday and Friday that week. More than thirty UU clergy participated on the second day, which featured a multifaith delegation of about 150 faith leaders, said Susan Leslie, partnerships and coalitions organizer at the Unitarian Universalist Association, who herself was arrested. The Rev. Peggy Clarke, senior minister at Community Church of New York UU, gave remarks on Tuesday on behalf of the multifaith delegation.
The Rev. Dr. Robin Tanner, minister of worship and outreach at Beacon UU Congregation in Summit, New Jersey, said she joined the action because the call came from Indigenous leaders. Tanner was arrested on Tuesday with a group in front of the White House for refusing to disperse. “There are those in power who campaigned on promises and pledges around stopping the climate emergency who have the power, literally with the stroke of a pen, to enact many of the demands we came to D.C. with,” said Tanner. “I want them to make good on their promises. In the long run, I want fossil fuel companies to stop controlling our democracy.”
When he heard the invitation to faith leaders “inviting us to show up in solidarity with front-line communities and Indigenous communities to really call for this action, I felt I needed to be present,” said the Rev. Abhi Janamanchi, senior minister at Cedar Lane UU Church in Bethesda, Maryland. He said it was inspiring to watch Indigenous leaders engage in nonviolent direct action, adding that nonviolent civil disobedience “is not passive” but rather “engaging in peaceful means without resorting to physical violence. The Indigenous leaders embodied that in a very powerful, spiritually grounded way.”
“And there was joy!” Janamanchi exclaimed. “The joy came through in people being together, marching together, singing together, that was clearly evident.”
Janamanchi, a UU Hindu and Indo-American, added, “We are in a climate emergency, and I think we have crossed the urgency part and really are finding ourselves in a crisis moment, and the need for faith communities to show up together and be engaged in the work of bold transformation, to me, is more needed than ever.” Cedar Lane, which he said has a very active environmental justice team, hosted two special events on UN Sunday, October 24, whose theme this year was “All in for Climate Justice: Food Equity and Sustainability.”
The Rev. Fred Small, minister for climate justice at Arlington Street Church in Boston and policy director at Massachusetts Interfaith Power & Light, also traveled to D.C. to answer the call of Indigenous leaders, he said, and was among those who chose to get arrested. There is increasingly “a much greater understanding that you cannot separate climate justice from racial justice and social justice, that they are all interconnected,” said Small. “For me, it is fundamentally a moral issue. Every religious tradition forbids theft, and climate change is theft by the haves from the have-nots and by present generations from future generations.”
Sally McGee, president of the board of trustees at All Souls UU Congregation in New London, Connecticut, also chose to be arrested. McGee said it is important the action was Indigenous-led because Indigenous people “are the ones bearing the brunt, in many cases, of fossil fuel extraction and climate change.” Though she has worked on environmental issues for thirty years, and is currently at the Nature Conservancy, McGee said she did not really understand until she heard testimonials at the action “of the level of impact on Indigenous people and People of Color in terms of climate change.”
Asked what people can do to be good allies to Indigenous leaders in the fight for climate justice, Camp-Horinek said, “I think all humans have to recognize that we’re not here protecting nature, that we are nature protecting itself.” She says that extraction of fossil fuels must end, and that midway measures such as carbon sequestration and carbon taxes make no sense. “That is foolishness,” said Camp-Horinek. “You cannot buy and sell the air and continue down the road of destruction without paying for it in terms of lives lost. And it’s not just human life, it’s all life forms, which ultimately determines the life of humans.”
Asked for a parting message to UUs, Camp-Horinek said, “Tell everyone: Warrior up.”