Vision, Audacity and Celebration! Advancing the Climate Justice Movement

Rich Feldman is a community and labor activist, Board Member of the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center to Nurture Community Leadership (, and the Huntington Woods Peace, Citizenship and Education Project (  He is committed to the inclusive education movement and the Disability Rights and Pride Movement, He co-edited the book, End of the Line: Auto Workers and the American Dream.


William Copeland is a cultural organizer from Detroit. He works as Co-Director of the East Michigan Environmental Action Council (  He also works to support the Cass Corridor Commons as a space for everyday people in the midst of development and exclusion. He is a student of tai chi and the metaphysical martial arts. He organizes popular education, movement schools, People’s Assemblies, and other liberating spaces. He served as a Local Coordinator for the 2010 US Social Forum.


Feldman and Copeland got together recently to talk about the Detroit People’s Climate March that took place in April 2017.


Rich: I was extremely moved by the leadership, the vision, the depth and the history put forward at the Detroit People’s Climate March. Who is the audience? I think the march spoke to those who are looking to move beyond attending rallies and marches, those who know there is a climate crisis and therefore a need for movement.

I remember meeting you at the Epistemology of the Environment conference at University of Michigan, Ann Arbor with Grace Lee Boggs and Bunyan Bryant in the early 2000s. The 19 principles of Environmental Justice—  are they good enough for this moment?

It is often been said that, “We can imagine the end of the earth as we know it more easily than we can imagine the end of capitalism and racism.”  What is this crisis that not only affects our physical well being, but also our ability to vision and imagine?

Trump would like to drill in the arctic just as Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand sent Christopher Columbus to the Western Hemisphere.  One was looking to expand emerging capitalism, and today, Trump is trying to save capitalism.  The cost in  the 15th century was 90 million indigenous people and the cost today is millions upon millions of human beings, what is recognized as the “genocide and suicide” of the planet.

Millions of Americans and people across the globe are speaking out, engaging in marches, government policy changes, global initiatives discussions, etc. Others continue to recycle, host gatherings and fairs, march against pollution and environmental destruction, challenge fracking, write songs and spoken word. Detroiters resist, fight back against Marathon Oil, the incinerator, water shutoffs, and other struggles that need to be lifted up in the fight for a better climate.

Others re-imagine and create alternatives to capitalist methods, including wind- CAN Arts, community-owned solar power, urban farms, healing circles, beekeepers, and more. I believe that sustainability is not enough. We need to regenerate our souls and our earth.  

The Climate March in Detroit was a turning point for our movement — not only for our work in Detroit, but for our movement nationally and globally.  It was held at the Charles Wright African American History Museum, the heart of the African American community, with folks outside for the opening ceremony, and the auditorium filled to capacity.  Charles Ferrell, vice-president for public programs at the Museum, opened the gathering with a profound explanation of being present in our ties to our humanity, our self, nature.  For me —  after decades of “centering, breathing, meditating” — he made everything so clear.

He said our minds move to and fro between thinking about our history, our past, and our future, while our breathing keeps on going in the moment, and thus we are in tune with the natural developments of life.  It is an image and a force,  not an idea. Will, it was a revelation for me and I hope it was important to others. Each subsequent speaker represented the love and the depth of the struggle in their/our stories of resistance and resilience.


Will: I remember that Epistemology of the Environment conference. Bunyan Bryant is a true environmental justice pioneer of Michigan.  He made the profound analysis that it is not the flunkies and drop outs that are creating our environmental crises.  It is those who have mastered the highest levels of education, law, business, policy, and technology that our society has to offer. There must be something structurally wrong with our society’s education, as it only leads us further and further into worldwide catastrophe.  This thinking has stayed with me for 15 years.  So from the Opening Ceremony, led by Anishinaabe Elder Sharon George, to Ferrell’s remarks that you mentioned, to the march itself and the closing celebration called, “The Future of Detroit Is Now,” we wanted to root the entire process in an identity that is outside the mainstream understanding of education, progress, and society.

People were tripping that we had the audacity to end a climate march with a celebration!  A celebration!  The Detroit Climate March was publicly celebrating that we have survived—that hundreds of years of genocide have not killed our bodies nor our spirits.  Furthermore, we are celebrating the accomplishment of having the audacity to project positive images of our future—and get this– the nerve to assert that we can offer leadership to a wide array of people seeking serious solutions.

I’m honored that you say The Detroit People’s Climate March was a turning point for our movement, nationally and globally. We identify with the climate justice movement and we sought this opportunity to welcome our local and national friends who are concerned about climate and the future of humanity to link up with this movement.

Rich: I remember – in the opening – B. Anthony calling upon the strength and wisdom of the ancestors to guide us in the march and beyond. Emma Lockridge, Monica Lewis Patrick, and Maria Thomas sharing the stage at the same time, demonstrated Detroit is ground zero as we move from the oil conflicts of the 20th century to water wars of the 21st  century.

Emma talked about the devastation that the Marathon Oil refinery has wreaked upon the close-knit 48217 community. Monica Lewis Patrick represented We The People and its tireless work against tens of thousands of home water shutoffs.  Maria Thomas, from Soulardarity, organizes for people to control their own energy solutions by building streetlights and home solar units since DTE has shut down electricity for not only individual families, but entire cities such as Highland Park, MI.

As I sat there, I was reminded of the power and significance of the Women’s March in Washington, where women provided leadership for all of America and today. I was reminded of African-American men and women and Indigenous women providing leadership for all of America.

This was not about one issue. This was about moving from being to becoming. There was no separation between water shut-offs, Flint water murders, the stealing of Detroit’s great resources and water system by those “Returning to Detroit,” the hockey stadium, billionaires and other investors buying 75-90 buildings downtown, or the shift from city-owned and maintained gems such as Belle Isle to State of Michigan ownership.

This is about more than just responding to Money and Power. Our event was about people, vision and power. I like how you framed it– climate justice responds to weather patterns and the social systems, the money and the power, that are causing havoc to natural systems.  We were offering a vision that touches our hearts and our souls.

Will: Right! And the whole time we were inviting people further in.  It was an organizing experience, and as such, it was educational.  You could feel – subtly at times, and other times very Black and straight forward—the assessment that in Detroit you must confront genocide as you confront environmental degradation.  We are trying to build solar power (community owned) and food infrastructure (from gardens to markets to distribution systems).  This is not the response to climate change where everything stays the same  — where we would have solar farms where we used to have coal power plants, but the same incentives and structures remain.

You use the phrase “water wars” quite appropriately.  Too many climate activists think the work is just to ask corporations to change some of their practices,  whether asking nicely or demanding sharply. The context that this climate thing is a war that some of us are enmeshed in may be a frightening concept, but for tens of thousands in Detroit, the water war is here. For residents of Flint, Michigan, the water war is taking casualties.  In both of these cities, we see the dastardly hand of emergency management and “financial reviews” forcing municipalities into “tough decisions” that are jeopardizing the lives of tens of thousands. These anti-democratic government systems rule over the majority of African-American people in our state.  In Syria the USA calls chemical poisoning an act of war.  Is it any less in the working class cities of Michigan?

I am glad that more people are taking to the streets against the Trump administration. In the last year, my analysis has sharpened.  When you listen to many progressives’ and liberals’ fears of what might happen,  you see that [what they fear] has already happened in Detroit. But the action against Trump should only be a first step towards enlisting in this climate justice war that we did not ask to be placed in.  Still, many of us are boldly stepping up to our responsibilities—not only for Detroit, but for the US working class, and for the well-being of the world.  

Rich:  It is really sad that it has taken Trump to remind white progressive, liberal folks in Oakland County, to realize that Detroit has lived under “Trumpism” through the destruction of the schools, EMF (emergency financial management), and bankruptcy, but they/we did not care as long as we could live our individual economic dream.  Our moral compass was rather weak. Trump has taken the veil from this failure to see, feel, and listen. In April 2016, well before the Presidential Election took place, our Detroit Climate Justice Peoples’ Movement Assembly was subtitled, “Just Transition in Times of Fascism.”

For both those who truly believe that the “system has failed and broken,” and those who have been mobilized to defend Trump’s policies, progressives too often have failed to authentically engage with them as they see their “American dreams” (sometimes our nightmares) dissolve.

Coal is never coming back.  Large scale manufacturing is never coming back.  JOBS are never coming back. It’s time for our movement to create a new dream that includes all of us and that is what this gathering and march on climate justice day represented.

Why should 60-65% of the garbage going to the incinerator in Detroit, poisoning our children, be from Oakland County? It’s time to take our garbage to City Hall and to the Oakland County Executive, Brooks Patterson — time for us to stop the trucks from entering Detroit.

We need to create Break Our Silence committees in every town and village in Oakland, Macomb and western Wayne county.  “How will we live simply so others can simply live?” is a call for a national movement.

Will Copeland: How can people from Detroit, the metro region and around the country engage, support the work going on in Detroit to create local, sustainable communities and community production?  How will we continue the momentum and keep bringing people into the climate justice battle?  I am a #JustTransition organizer.  We need to transition all aspects of this capitalistic society towards interconnected local economies.  Those of us who have been targets of oppression and genocide must be supported in our ancestral attempts to build, maintain, and defend communities that sustain us.  This is OUR definition of sustainable. This is what we invited the region to join at the Detroit People’s Climate March.

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