‘Climate Justice is Racial Justice’: Pittsburghers rally for Earth Day

The energy in front of the City-County Building was charged with hope on Friday afternoon. Dozens of people came together for Earth Day, celebrating with songs, poetry, and call-outs against the fossil fuel industry. In addition to the universal dangers of climate change, the rally emphasized the intersectionality of environmentalism.

“They're choosing the poorest communities — the Blackest and brownest communities,” said Brandi Fisher regarding the placement of facilities that produce toxic waste. Fisher is the president and CEO of the Alliance for Police Accountability. “Our race, ethnicity, income, or immigration status shouldn't matter when it comes to having a stake in the facilities that end up in our backyard.”

Black Lives Matter posters were raised alongside cardboard canvases that ranged from “Divest” to “I want a hot date with the planet.” Interspersed among “No gas, no oil, keep the carbon in the soil” were chants validating Black and queer communities.

Elise Silvestri, a senior at Obama Academy, was one of only two Obama students at the rally. Of course Silvestri was there — she helped organize the event. But where were her classmates? “When I asked them to come they were like, ‘I don’t have time; I have to work.’ That really speaks to … this divide [in climate advocacy] that really exists.”

The majority — 53 percent — of Obama Academy students are low-income. It has the second-lowest percentage of low-income students among non-charter Pittsburgh Public high schools. “Climate justice is racial justice,” said CAPA senior Luna Plaza on the steps of the City-County Building. In addition to the disproportionate risk communities of color face, Plaza spoke about her frustration with the lack of representation among teachers and administrators at her school, how she doesn’t see her experience reflected in her educators. CAPA, a creative arts charter school, has a teaching staff that is 93 percent white, 31 percent higher than its student population.

Lisa Gonzalez, a Pittsburgh native, is disappointed both in Pittsburgh Public Schools and the education system at large. “I have grandkids. I don’t want them in a world like this. … Schools are teaching European history, but that’s not our history. We’ll be equals when they teach true Black history.” The conversation about education links closely with environmentalism, Gonzalez told The Tartan, because waste practices influence who lives where, and neighborhoods determine feeder schools. In her 55 years as a Pittsburgh resident, Gonzalez said affordable housing was the biggest change the city has made. As in — it’s getting harder to live here, and people are being pushed out. “I have family that left [Pittsburgh] to raise their kids somewhere else.”

Climate justice isn’t Gonzalez’s main fight; her advocacy centers on equitable transportation. But she showed up for Earth Day, because “you can’t just fight for one community. You have to fight for all the communities.”

Silvestri led the rally alongside Ilyas Khan, a senior at Winchester Thurston. Both are part of the Sunrise Movement, a political environmentalist organization for people under 35. The Pittsburgh chapter has about 35 active members, who organize teach-ins, canvassing efforts, and — as of Friday — climate rallies.

“It takes people power to create political power,” Silvestri said in an interview with The Tartan. “This fight is for everyone.” That’s why it’s so important to promote racial and economic justice, she explained: “People don’t have the capacity to pay attention.” Access to transportation and ability to take time off work both factor into participation, underscoring environmentalism’s intersectionality.

Beyond protesting for climate justice, the rally was a source of community. Activists wove their way through the crowd, passing out flyers and asking for petition signatures. Political posters were exchanged for petition clipboards as participants freed their hands, jotting their names beside campaigns for green energy in Pittsburgh.

One woman wore a tambourine like a necklace and walked along the edge of the march. Without breaking stride, she would step up onto the sidewalk and smoothly pass flyers to pedestrians. When there were no passersby for her to hand a brightly colored paper, she slipped off the tambourine and shook it to the beat of the chants.

The group marched through downtown Pittsburgh, growing as they accumulated pedestrians. “Off the sidewalks into the streets,” co-organizer Ilyas Khan called into a megaphone. “Join us, folks!”

One boy with a backpack slung across his shoulders slipped into the crowd and asked a woman what climate change was. After receiving a three-sentence explainer, the boy shouted, “It’s Earth Day, y’all! You know what it is!” A block later, another group of boys joined, laughing and cheering.

Buses lined the sides of the street, waiting for activists to pass. One driver tapped along to the beat as protesters chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, fossil fuels have got to go.” Car horns honked in support. Petitions and flyers were passed through rolled-down car windows.

During a lull in the protest, onlookers watched dubiously. “Y’all ain’t even protesting — y’all just marching,” one man called from the sidewalk. “Protest!” he encouraged.

In between leading chants and introducing speakers, Khan checked in on participants. “How are y’all doing? Y’all look exhausted,” he said to a group of middle schoolers sitting on the curb.

Energy began picking up again when Edwin Everhart led “Abre La Frontera,” written by Jose Ochoa. “Deje que canten,” the group sang together. “Make the land whole again.”

In front of the City-County Building, a man with a yellow shirt, yellow bandana, and black guitar approached the mic. Mike Stout assumed his role as song leader, building to the chorus: “Stop, stop, stop the frack attack.” The crowd danced as Stout jumped up and down. From the first floor of the City-County Building, a white-haired woman watched, her face an inch from the window glass.

Silvestri led the crowd in “There are More Waters Rising.” As with all songs and speeches delivered during the rally, this one was accompanied by a sign translator.

Speeches were spaced between songs, like the one given by a high schooler in a patterned, rainbow skirt. “Recycling is a scam,” she said. “Although we should all be doing our best to reduce single-use plastics ... We can never forget the ones responsible for the plastics crisis are the ones who keep making plastic: the fossil fuel industry. They are cracking our communities, poisoning our air, polluting our water, creating generations of damage. … We should be furious at every part of the system that perpetuates this violence — from the cops who protect pipelines over people to the banks and insurers who finance this violence.”

The student called out the hypocrisy of clean, responsible fracking and labeled carbon capture alternatives a “false solution.” She encouraged people to sit with their “rage and grief, because that is what it means to love this place and love our people. Be furious at the fossil fuel industry and many of our elected leaders who look at southwestern Pennsylvania … as nothing more than a sacrifice zone for their profit.”