By Brandon Pytel
A pink and yellow boat shut down a major Washington, D.C., intersection this morning. Yes, you read that correctly.
The boat was strategically placed by climate activism group Extinction Rebellion as part of its attempt to “shut down D.C.” The event intends to “block key infrastructure to stop business-as-usual, bringing the whole city to a gridlocked standstill,” according to the Shut Down DC website.
“A lot of people will be upset, but a lot will be inspired,” Adil Trehan, who supports media relations for Extinction Rebellion, said to Earth Day Network on Monday morning. “We need mass participation [to combat climate change]. A lot of options have been exhausted.”
Hundreds of activists from Extinction Rebellion, and other climate activism groups like 350.org and Sunrise Movement, divided into groups to shut down major intersections around the city. Mobilizations included a ten-foot tall fire hydrant, dance parties and the previously mentioned boat, emblazoned with the phrases “Tell the Truth” and “Rebel for Life.”
Charlie Abrams, who traveled from Atlanta to support the strike, said movements like these are “a critical step to save the planet. We can’t wait until 2020,” referring to the U.S. presidential elections taking place that year.
The most high-profile blockade was the boat, placed at the corner of 16th and K streets. The intersection is an important one for logistic and symbolic reasons — in the city, “K Street” is shorthand for lobbying and advocacy, while 16th Street provides an unobstructed view of the White House.
About half a dozen strikers attached themselves to the boat’s steel frame, while a hundred or so activists held signs and banners calling for climate justice and action.
“We’re in the belly of the beast right now,” yelled climate activist Russell Gray, sporting a pink Extinction Rebellion shirt and yellow vest, standing on top of the boat.
An hour or so into the strikes, the D.C. police force, which was present since the strike commenced early Monday morning, descended into the group. Police officers created a perimeter around the boat and after removing two people, began sawing off the steel frame in which some activists had attached themselves to.
Chants of “What side are you on?” quickly ensued. Fortunately, no violence broke out, and in some cases, activists and police officers had friendly conversations with each other.
“Joining a mass mobilization can be scary, but all these people feel this is the right thing to do,” said Trehan, when asked about the risks associated with the movement. He also stressed the importance of safety and nonviolence.
Police involvement in mass civil disobedience isn’t new to D.C., nor is it new for many of the activists. Mike Warburton, who donned a Sunrise Movement t-shirt as he passed out information cards about the strike Monday, was no stranger to these risks. Warburton was arrested last year when he and more than 100 activists showed up in or outside congressional offices, urging lawmakers to confront climate change.
“This really is a crisis. We don’t have time to spare. As Greta, says, ‘Listen to the scientists,’” said Warburton, referring to the Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who founded the global climate strike movement Fridays for Future.
In addition to the boat at the corner of 16th and K, other intersections were blocked around the city. Groups were divided into different themed groups, said Tarek Maasaraui, an Extinction Rebellion activist who was passing out apples at the vegan-themed group.
According to its website, the Shut Down DC strikes will take place all day across the nation’s capital. Maasaraui also said the strikes could continue throughout the week. That means tens of thousands of commuters, pedestrians and government officials could be affected by the blockades. Hundreds of thousands more will hear about it from media outlets.
The D.C. shutdowns were coordinated to overlap with today’s U.N. Climate Action Summit, a gathering of world leaders at U.N. headquarters in New York to examine national plans to meet the emissions target set by the 2015 Paris Agreement. Shut Down DC also follows the global climate strike movement, which turned out 4 million people worldwide on Friday.
“The intention is to bring attention to the importance of this issue,” said Maasaraui. “[Shutting down intersections] is a risky tactic … but it’s a potentially impactful strategy because it’s such a visible one.”
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