On climate change and domination: Some thoughts on the Baton Rouge police protests, policing and rain

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Many of us are no doubt familiar with the image, captured by photographer Jonathan Bachman, of Ieshia Evans as she faced Baton Rouge’s police during a peaceful protest this past July against the police killing of Alton Sterling. Clad in a light, airy sundress on that hot and muggy midsummer day, Ieshia stands her ground as the police move in to arrest her. A far cry from the riot gear in which the officers themselves are clad, the sundress in which Ieshia is clothed underscores both her vulnerability and her power. To stand against such a militarized force, knowing the violence with which it is capable, reveals an inner fortitude on her part that exposes the force’s own vulnerability, the kind unmasked when people resist injustice.

What Ieshia is also standing against, however (though she cannot yet see it, nor can we), is an impending rain storm – and not just any rain storm, but one that will dump 7.1 trillion gallons of water over the Gulf Coast, displace nearly 30,000 humans, take the lives of thirteen, destroy tens of thousands of homes, and visit similar, if not worse destruction on the lives and habitats of untold nonhuman life forms in Louisiana.

Indeed, this was a special storm, for as climate scientists recently concluded, it was “made more likely because of climate change.” That is, it was made more likely because “humankind has dramatically altered the chemical composition of the global atmosphere” through our “rampant use of fossil fuels.” Since the 1860s, we – or more accurately, the global North – have “spewed into the atmosphere” over 500 billion tons of “human-generated greenhouse gases” (primarily carbon dioxide) that are trapping heat near Earth’s surface and are thus causing Earth’s average temperatures to rise (between “1880 and 1990, the global North was responsible for 84 percent of all fossil fuel-related carbon dioxide emissions and 75 percent of all deforestation-related carbon dioxide emissions”). This global warming is creating the kinds of conditions that increase the probability that weather events like the Gulf’s August three-day rainfall will occur more often – “40 percent more often” – than “in our preindustrial past.” We can now expect to see such “extreme weather events” in the Gulf region once every thirty years – maybe “even more.”

I offer the image of Ieshia Evans standing against the Baton Rouge police while she (and many others) simultaneously stands against the Gulf storm not only because it is crucial to see that both the policing of African Americans and climate change share a particular history; but also because that shared history requires us to see our carbon-laden atmosphere itself as domination – domination powered, to a great extent, by the pursuit of policies and practices (including unjust policing) done to (though increasingly by) people of color as well as to seen and unseen nonhuman life forms, all for the benefit of the few, but  most especially for those of the global North.

Like Baton Rouge policing, climate change was, as Chris J. Cuomo reminds us, “manufactured in a crucible of inequality.” In particular, it is “a product of the industrial and the fossil-fuel eras, historical forces powered by exploitation, colonialism,” Jim Crowism, and “nearly limitless instrumental use of ‘nature.’” In other words, the colonial powers of the global North made the planet hotter as they transformed the “subsistence economies” of the global South “into economic satellites of Europe” and, in the process, “wreaked havoc on the peoples and environments of the colonized territories.”

Climate change, of course, continues to be manufactured within a “crucible of inequality,” for it proceeds unabated within and on behalf of a “’colonial power matrix,’” within, that is, the “‘long-standing patterns of power that emerged as a result of colonialism’” –“anthropocentric, androcentric, heterosexist, rationalist, Euro/Western-centric, modern/colonial, racialized, industrialist/developmentalist, capitalist, and ableist” – and to which the extraction and burning of fossil fuels is absolutely crucial. Powered by seemingly endless military adventures and neoliberal economic policies, as well as by policies embraced by elites in the global South to raise their societies’ standard of living, global warming proceeds apace. Carbon dioxide concentrations (currently a little over 400 parts-per-million) are “now greater than at any time during the past 800,000 years,” and Earth’s temperature is fast approaching 2°C, the surpassing of which will be catastrophic for the entire planet.

Considered in light of this history and this present moment of “coloniality,” i.e., a moment in which colonial forms of power persist, our “dramatically altered” global atmosphere is, in a very real sense, an atmosphere of domination, one that is intentionally imposed upon us all and that makes “extreme weather events” – whether rain or snow or heat or wind – the continued felt experience, by all forms of life, of human acts of exploitation and violence that produced, and continues to produce, a warmer Earth.

The colonial power matrix, in other words, is literally in the air.

Although we did not notice it, it was as much in the air as it was on the ground the moment Ieshia Evans stood against the police and against the crucial role that policing plays, all over the globe, in creating the crucible of inequality out of which climate changed is manufactured.
It was also in the air in that moment when G4S – the private security team hired by Dakota Access, LLC – set its dogs on the Standing Rock Sioux, who had been standing and continue to stand firm to prevent the construction of the Dakota Access oil pipeline on their land because the pipeline (the tribe contends) will contaminate their drinking water, destroy or harm sacred sites, and ultimately contribute to climate change. It was in the air when machine gun-wielding and riot-outfitted local police descended upon and arrested pipeline protesters. And it was in the air during the military checkpoints conducted by the National Guard deployed “on the outskirts of the Standing Rock Sioux reservation.”

Though the Baton Rouge and pipeline protests concern different issues, the remarkable confluence of policing at both tells us a great deal not only about how the atmosphere gets constituted as domination; but also about the degree to which addressing and mitigating climate change is inseparable from confronting and dismantling the kind of structural injustices that we see in the policing of black and other communities of color.

So, for instance, if you look closely (with 400 parts-per-million of carbon in mind) at the pipeline confrontations, you just might see that the radically altered atmosphere in which they take place is actually a thing that G4S, the local police, and the National Guard defend. For it is not the mere construction of a pipeline that the private and state security forces hope to safeguard for Dakota Pipeline, LLC and other corporate interests; it is, more critically, the actual burning of fossil fuels and thus the manufacture of a chemically altered atmosphere – because therein lies the profit.

In other words, G4S, the local police, and the National Guard serve private interests (G4S also guards the BP pipeline in Colombia; the Basrah Gas Company in Iraq; “emergency vessels operating in the Niger Delta for Chevron” – you get the picture) in pursuit of a project that requires the exploitation of Native lands, the repression of the Sioux, the fouling of natural resources and, finally, the burning of fossil fuels. The Dakota Access pipeline, then, is a project in which global warming is the necessary end result.

But the damn Sioux are in the fucking way. Again.

The police in Baton Rouge – a force that is the legacy of Jim Crow – are not any less aligned with fossil fuel interests. They operate, after all, in a state committed (with federal support) to the drilling, extraction, and burning of fossil fuels – all with full knowledge that these activities will warm the earth.

Thus, in spite of the destruction that the Gulf rains caused Baton Rouge – a majority black city where almost 25% of the population lives below the poverty rate, and where the median household income is approximately $39,000 – the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management nevertheless moved forward to auction off “for fossil fuel drilling and exploration” an area in the Gulf that is “the size of Virginia.” This auction occurred just a month after the rains. And although hundreds of outraged Gulf coast residents descended on New Orleans to shut down the sale, which took place at the Superdome (the very site where New Orleans residents sought refuge when the levees broke after Hurricane Katrina), the sale proceeded. Protestors were arrested, leases were secured, and global temperatures continued to rise at record-breaking levels.

So what we witnessed in Baton Rouge on those three stormy days in August was rain, certainly; but it was also rain bearing the imprint of a politics of exploitation, such that it was the felt experience of a history of domination and of a present marked by the continued exploitation of Earth, of nonhuman life forms, and of the poor, especially those in formerly colonized nations. That same imprint is what we see in the photo of the police/Ieshia Evans encounter, where the police appear like an impending storm that will soon overtake a woman – defiant and unyielding – clad in an light and airy sundress.

What kind of justice can be achieved within a context – within a matrix, that is, where the state/police is aligned with corporations in their pursuit of fossil fuel profits and power at the expense of all life on Earth, and with little or no regard for the particular ways climate catastrophes – very likely produced by our radically altered atmosphere – impact communities of color the world over?  Indeed, what is justice under a such a regime?

And to what degree is the state violence that is directed against African Americans and against the Sioux – the cold-blooded police murders of men like Terence Crutcher – a measure of our nation’s unwillingness to do all that is necessary to address climate change? How is it even possible to meet the demands of our climate crisis without undertaking a radical politics of decoloniality, without speaking everywhere and all the time of our altered climate – and even our “extreme weather events” – in terms that conjure (for example) conquest, colonialism, settlers, genocide, apartheid, indentured servitude, rape, Bantustans, Jim Crow, racial segregation, annexation, partition, national liberation, neocolonialism, western-propped dictatorships, proxy wars, neoliberalism, policing, regime change? Who living within our oppressive atmosphere can afford to be, or remain invested in, the murderous, nihilistic colonial power matrix that is driving millions of life forms to extinction?

And how can we not stand against it (and thus against our own complicity) by standing with the Ieshias and Siouxs of our warming planet, who by resisting those for whom the colonial power matrix is worth maintaining – even if it will destroy life on earth as we know it – increasingly face repression, displacement, imprisonment and even death? How?

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