California Launch of Jane Fonda’s Climate Protest Draws Stars, Grassroots Activists

‘Fire Drill Fridays’ banks on celebrity power to lobby for action on climate change.

Clad in what’s become her signature red overcoat and fedora, 82-year-old actor Jane Fonda, along with several other Hollywood celebrities, environmental activists, and about 1,000 enthusiastic demonstrators, launched the West Coast edition of her climate protest in front of Los Angeles’ City Hall this past Friday.

Photo of fire drill friday protest
Jane Fonda (left), Joaquin Phoenix (back left), producer Norman Lear (right), and several community organizers and poets who spoke at the February 7 Fire Drill Fridays rally in Los Angeles. Photo by Ed Rampell.

“This is our fifteenth ‘Fire Drill [Friday]’ and our first in California,” she told the crowd.

“I’m excited not just because I’m home but because I’ve realized this is the frontline of the climate crisis,” she said. “Literally, what happens here can impact the rest of the country and… world… The wildfires, the prolonged drought. What many of you may not be aware of are the terrible diseases — cancer, heart disease, asthma — being suffered by the people who live in the shadow of the oil drills.

Indigenous, Hispanic, Asian, and Black activists, and other grassroots organizers from low-income communities that are bearing the brunt of environmental racism, joined Fonda at the protest. A bunch of Hollywood celebrities, including Joaquin Phoenix, Rooney Mara, Ed Begley Jr., Bonnie Wright, Paul Scheer, and legendary TV producer Norman Lear, put in appearances as well.

Fonda had moved to Washington, DC, “the epicenter of the fight for our climate,” last October and — together with Greenpeace, DC Action Lab and other movement allies — launched Fire Drill Fridays, weekly protests centered around civil disobedience, pressuring our political leaders to take action to address the climate emergency, and that Congress pass the Green New Deal. The two-time Academy Award winner and longtime antiwar activist, says she was inspired to action by Greta Thunberg’s call to act like “our house is on fire” and guided by Naomi Klein’s Green New Deal advocacy, as well as anti-apartheid protests of the past.

After 14 weeks of Friday demonstrations on Capitol Hill — many of which ended with her and other protestors, including her friends and fellow actors like Joaquin Phoenix, Martin Sheen, Sam Waterston, and Lily Tomlin, being arrested or detained — Fonda returned to Hollywood to work — she is contractually bound to shoot the Netflix series Grace and Frankie — and ignite the civil disobedience campaign in the Golden State.

“We have to reduce our fossil fuel emissions by half in 10 years and then gradually phase out…,” she warned. “Ten years! California is one of the big oil producing states… We already have more fossil fuel projects underway than the climate can sustain. They have to be halted!”

Although LA is popularly perceived as the place where movies and TV shows are made, oil, too, is produced here. “Right now, across California, there are over 8,500 oil and gas wells within half a mile of where people live,” Fonda pointed out. “Almost 5.5 million Californians live within a mile of a polluting well, and for them, cancer and other health problems are rampant. California’s children are more important than fossil fuel’s profits!”

The California edition of the protests is also being supported by Last Chance Alliance — a coalition of California-based environmental, health, justice, faith, labor, community, parent, and consumer groups — that’s calling for an end to fossil fuel production in the state. Several speakers at the event spoke about how California’s fossil fuel industry had impacted their communities, many of which are in and around LA.

“I have cancer and can’t have children,” said 19-year-old Nalleli Cobo, who “grew up 30 feet from an oil well.” The South LA resident, who plans to “run for president in 2036,” said that it was living next door to a polluting oil well that turned her into “a fighter for environmental justice… since the age of nine.”

Alicia Rivera of Communities for a Better Environment painted a bleak picture of Wilmington, located near LA’s harbor, where a “90 percent low income, Latino neighborhood” is confronted by “hundreds of oil wells… and a refinery spewing smoke daily.”

South LA resident Don Martin, who was wearing his wife’s ashes in an amulet around his neck, talked about how living “300 feet from a 24-hour toxic removal unit,” had impacted his wife’s health. Now, his eight-year-old granddaughter has Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Kevin Patel, founder and executive director of the youth climate advocacy group OneUpAction, spoke of how he has “heart issues” due to growing up in South Central LA, which experiences high incidences of cancer and asthma. “It’s not rich communities being affected but low income, marginalized communities are on the frontline,” he said.

Fonda acknowledged California’s “reputation as a climate leader,” but said that reputation didn’t mean much as long as the state continued to support the oil and gas industry. “We can have all the solar panels and windmills in the world, but if we allow fossil fuel companies to continue to drill, we’re going to cancel out all the gains we make with renewable energy,” she said. “Thousands of permits are sitting on the Governor’s desk awaiting approval this year. He must not sign them. No more new wells!”

“[Former Gov. Jerry Brown] never stood up to the oil industry… but we think Gov. Newsom has the guts and can be a climate hero,” she said. The veteran dissident vowed to continue to spread Fire Drill Fridays to “Bakersfield, Sacramento,” elsewhere in California and across America, until the climate crisis ends.

After about two hours of speeches in front of City Hall, several hundred protestors marched through Downtown LA to Paul Hastings Tower, where the office of Maverick Natural Resources, the Houston-based company that operates oil and gas wells in Southern California and the Central Valley, is located. About 25 activists occupied the building’s lobby, chanting, singing, blocking elevators, staging a sit-in with banners proclaiming: “Maverick: Stop Fuelling Climate Crisis.” LAPD stood by, as Fonda — locked out of the steel and glass tower by security guards — waved, made peace signs and clenched her fist in solidarity with the protesters inside, who included Greenpeace USA’s executive director, Annie Leonard.

The civil disobedience action ended without any arrests.

Last night, before presenting the Oscar for the Best Picture at the 92nd Academy Awards, Fonda told millions of viewers: “There’s nothing more important than raising awareness.” And during his acceptance speech for the Best Actor Academy Award for Joker, Phoenix made a moving environmental speech denouncing animal cruelty.

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