Direct Action is the Only Way We Can Free Our Economy from Corporations

The Take Back St. Louis campaign blends resistance and creative thinking around transitioning to a green economy

In the next few months, the city of St. Louis, where I live, will vote on a referendum regarding Peabody Coal, the world’s largest private-sector coal company. Most people in St. Louis have never seen a coalmine, so why would we vote on Peabody Coal? Because St. Louis is where Peabody (and four other coal companies) are based. Though there is no coal extraction in St. Louis, Peabody extracts a different resource from the city – tax dollars. In 2010, after Peabody threatened to leave downtown, the city gave Peabody tax breaks on $61 million of purchases for its downtown office building, $2 million of which was meant for the St. Louis Public Schools. It was this injustice – the taking of tax dollars from public schools for a company who exploits the communities around its mines and causes climate change – that connected climate and economic justice activists in St. Louis.

photo of a demonstration Photos courtesy MORELocally, St. Louis has some of the highest asthma rates in the country as a result
of the four coal plants surrounding the city that burn Peabody’s coal.

I started organizing around Peabody when in 2009 the CEOs of Peabody and Arch Coal were placed on the Board of Trustees of my school, Washington University. The two companies had given millions of dollars to fund the Consortium for “Clean” Coal Utilization. I had watched the chaos that unfolded in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and I knew the climate crisis necessitated bold action to move us away from fossil fuels – not the legitimization of coal by an academic institution.

In St. Louis, coal executives are able to hide far away from where they do the worst of their dirty work. Here, they are commended and celebrated. The CEO of Peabody chaired the United Way campaign last year, and is also on the Board of the Children’s Hospital and the Science Center. Meanwhile, on Black Mesa/Big Mountain in Arizona, in the Illinois Basin, and in Appalachia, Peabody poisons water and air every day, displaces indigenous people from their land and bankrupts retired miners. Locally, St. Louis has some of the highest asthma rates in the country as a result of the four coal plants surrounding the city that burn Peabody’s coal; the schools are underfunded, and the unemployment rate, particularly for African-Americans, is high. Our weather too, is bearing the brunt of all this coal burning: In the summer of 2012, we had record heat waves, temperatures soared to triple-digits and dozens of people died.

As we began to connect all of these struggles, I realized that Peabody is just one piece of a much larger economic system that places corporate profits above people. My work started to have a much larger scope: I realized I had to fight for a just economic system to ever have a stable climate.

Often this focus on the root cause of what’s driving our climate crisis paralyzes me with fear. We are up against exorbitant amounts of capital, all while the ticking clock of climate change sounds in the background. Some days more than others, I am overwhelmed with the feeling powerlessness about what is coming; about the harm extreme weather will have on my loved ones, about the injustices that Peabody and others inflict on communities today.

photo of demonstrators sitting in a circle on the streetDuring our visioning exercises, people come up with diverse ideas about how to
build a green economy, from community-owned and operated solar arrays on
vacant lots to recycling centers employing local citizens.

However, I have found that the only antidote to this paralysis is to organize and fight back. Direct action is more than just a strategy or tactic. For me, it is the only way that I can feel any sense of power or control over the problems I see. In St. Louis, our campaign against Peabody is fueled by direct action; we have done dozens of actions over the last five years. These actions have focused on highlighting the impacts of Peabody on St. Louisans, on disrupting Peabody’s “charitable” acts and on bringing the campaigns of groups from Appalachia and Black Mesa to Peabody’s headquarters.

Now, we are using an additional tactic – the ballot referendum on Peabody is our next stage in the fight. If you measure the effectiveness of our actions by how much Peabody has to spend, it might just become our most effective action yet. The Take Back St. Louis initiative would change the charter of the city of St. Louis to assert citizens’ right to a sustainable energy future. It would end public financial incentives from going to extractive industries and big corporations supporting them and instead invest money in renewable energy and sustainability initiatives. We spent nine months collecting the 22,000 signatures necessary to get this initiative on the ballot. We qualified in August and are now waiting for an election date.

Nobody has yet figured out the campaign to end the power of the fossil fuel industry, but we are seeing more and more innovative approaches like the Take Back St. Louis campaign. There are several pieces of what we’re trying that excite me and make me think this could be a replicable tactic in other places.

First, the Take Back St. Louis initiative is an example of citizens going around our elected officials in an effort to introduce legislation we wanted. We honestly didn’t have much of a choice but to take our issue straight to the citizens. In St. Louis, Peabody’s political power is strong; the mayor took over $20,000 in campaign donations in the last election cycle. When the mayor’s office called the ballot initiative an “anarchist’s dream” that tried to shut down the city, I was heartened that our ultimate decision-makers were the people of St. Louis, not the mayor.

Second, the ballot initiative does not focus solely on Peabody, instead it also targets all those with large amounts of capital connected to the extraction economy – such as banks, law firms and lobbyists. Just as fossil fuel companies profit off of the climate crisis and the health of communities where they mine, so too do the secondary institutions that do business with them. I believe that by including these institutions, we illustrate the extent of what is at fault – our current economic system.

photo of a march In the corporate headquarters of Big Coal, we are blending resistance and creation,
figuring out campaigns that fight back and make material changes in people’s lives.

Third, and perhaps most importantly, the Take Back St. Louis campaign creates the beginnings of a different kind of economy for St. Louis. Sometimes at campaign meetings, we close our eyes and picture what St. Louis could look like if we passed the initiative and all goes according to plan. This important exercise seeks to capture people’s imaginations about what a new economy looks like, and in doing so, broadens and diversifies the scope and reach of my work.

People come up with diverse ideas: community-owned and operated solar arrays on vacant lots, urban farms to provide local food, weatherization cooperatives going door-to-door, brownfield remediation efforts fully funded, recycling centers employing local citizens. This thought experiment of loose, diffused green economy is what could be possible if resources were allocated differently in the city.

I don’t know how this election will end. Our limited funds can’t match those of Peabody’s, and we know Peabody and others will spend big. Regardless, I hope that my work in St. Louis can serve to undermine the power of the coal industry and corporate capitalism to some extent. By using direct democracy and asking for what we really want, I believe we’ve got a good shot at isolating Peabody in its hometown and winning resources for a local green economy here. In the corporate headquarters of Big Coal, we are blending resistance and creation, figuring out campaigns that fight back and make material changes in people’s lives, connecting the struggles against all pieces of the extraction economy and opening up a new front in a much larger movement.

If you’d like to help us in St. Louis wage a new front against Big Coal and create a green economy, please consider a donation to Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment!

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