Climate

“We Need Immediate Acts of Justice”: Climate Coalition Marches in Eugene, Two Arrested

THE GATHERING

After a brief hiatus, the presence of in-person activism is gaining momentum in Eugene once again. This includes actions by a climate-focused coalition leading a Fossil Free Eugene campaign.  The coalition is made of groups that have both national and local presence such as the Sunrise Movement, Earth Guardians, 350 Eugene, Cascadia Wildlands, and many more. 

On March 9, a mix of these groups, mainly members of Sunrise, organized in Skinner Butte Park for the first time since last year. The advertised event was a bike ride protest for climate awareness, though the destination had yet to be revealed.

Just before noon, event organizers met a modest crowd of approximately 40 bike-riding supporters of the cause. 

The crowd was diverse by any measure, composed of BIPOC supporters, experienced older activists, and even a handful of children dutifully toddling their trikes or hanging out in bike-seats. However, the majority proved to be a youthful composition of students in high school, college, or freshly graduated. 

Members of the quickly growing Fossil Free Eugene coalition came out on March 19 to demand that the City of Eugene abandon its reliance on fracked natural gas and plans to expand fossil-fuel-based infrastructure in the city. (Robert Scherle)

One activist, Jacque Travis, recounted her years of supporting the climate protests, achieving her Masters Degree in Education, and her most recent work with theatrically climate focused group, The Red Rebels. 

“[Being a Red Rebel] was really important. It got me to shut up and get serious with the state of our lives and our planet. I kinda start to cry just thinking about it.” 

About the age composition of the crowd, Travis said “I’m so glad to see young people picking it up, and I’m really willing and ready to stand behind them. You just tell me what you need of me.”

Meanwhile, bright yellow signs with bold, black lettering were handed out and zip-tied to bikes. Phrases like “Time for a just transition,” “fossil-free Eugene,” “Green new deal,” and “Fracked gas – nothing ‘natural’ about it!” were spread throughout the crowd.

At this point, the destination was still unknown.

THE CONTEXT

These groups are also calling attention to Eugene’s 2014 Climate Recovery Ordinance’s ability to meet its planned goal —  a 50% reduction in fossil-fuel use by 2010 standards by 2030. Sunrise Eugene argues that under current standards, this goal will not be met.

Lane County, itself, has its own Climate Action Plan and, similarly, its ability to meet its six promising strategies is also under question. 

In April 2020, the county completed Phase 1 of it’s CAP. In this report, landfill emissions single-handedly dominated the chart, however, all other categories were polluters by fossil-fuel use. 

In order to abide by the CRO’s projected standards, Fossil-free Eugene and its sister coalitions have three demands

  • Transition all utilities in Eugene to 100% renewable energy by 2030
  • Ban new all new fossil-fuel infrastructure construction in Eugene
  • Bill all fossil polluters, including NWN, for socio-environmental damages and create a social fund for those most affected with the proceeds

In Feb. 2021, the same activists rejoiced at the downfall of the NWN Franchise Agreement that was up for reconsideration by county officials. 

Mayor Lucy Vinis commented on this achievement and said, “I don’t want to be a model to show how a city is held hostage to a franchise agreement that doesn’t serve our higher goals. It is an important moment to stand really clearly for what we see as our legacy work going forward.”

Yet they feel that their work is far from over. 

THE RALLY

Climate activists on bikes make their way toward the Northwest Natural facilities in North Eugene. (Robert Scherle)

At noon, the spread out, chattering crowd gathered and focused their attention as speeches from organizers began.  

Youth organizer Sophia Trotter kicked off the speeches and said, “The climate crisis is here. We need immediate acts of justice to face this existential threat.” 

Trotter made sincere acknowledgments to the true owners of the land, the Kalapuya, as well as those communities, including low-income, BIPOC, and other at-risk communities,who are disproportionately affected by the detrimental effects of climate change.

“We are fighting for a just and a livable future for all,” Trotter shouted. “However, Northwest Natural, the fossil fuel company, is standing in our way.”

When revealing that the protest was heading to Northwest Natural Gas headquarters, Trotter was met with a swelling applause. 

Trotter summed-up the organizers’ bristled emotions towards the gas giant and the, so-called “pushover,” Lane County civil servants enabling Northwest’s behaviors. 

“Northwest Natural is attempting to hold our city hostage in a franchise agreement that pays lip service to the state commitment to work towards greenhouse gas reduction.” Trotter added, “It seems Northwest Natural would rather play the tobacco industry playbook , than face the reality of our future, and we can not let this happen!”

The following speakers, all youth organizers, continued explaining their personal relationships and concerns with climate change, the city of Eugene’s flimsy involvement with the issue, and just why Northwest Natural was the persona non grata of this particular protest. 

“Science proves again and again and again that the effects of climate change are numerous and disastrous. And yet our elected officials are not taking necessary actions to protect our planet, its wildlife and the current and future generations inhabiting it,” said activist Sahara Valentine. 

“In fact they are going against the best available science by allowing climate polluters, like NWN, to continue business as usual.”

Feelings within the group were ubiquitous with organizer Tyee Williams remembering advertisements from his youth excitedly promoting NWN as “natural” gas. “NWN has skated by on its ‘good will’ of ‘natural’ gas is better, or good.” 

After a few more passionate speakers and communion songs led by Williams, organizers outlined the route to the destination, mounted their bikes, and set off. 

 “Let’s make Eugene a climate leader once again!” rang throughout the crowd. 

THE RIDE

The roughly six mile, 45-minute-long bike ride to Northwest Natural was breezy, filled with chants, and met with enthusiastic support from some passersby. 

A heavy police presence greeted the bicycle-mounted protesters as they made their way to Northwest Natural Gas’ headquarters on Goodpasture Island Rd. in Eugene. (Robert Scherle)

During the ride, Bailey Grebvin, an organizer with Sunrise Eugene and other eco-sensitive groups, commented on her gravitation towards the Sunrise Movement in particular. 

Having graduated with a Masters in Environmental Law, she conscientiously observed the tendency of her conservationist peers to “always put the environment in front of the people.” 

“Yes, we want to make the world a better and livable place with clean air and clean water,” Grebvin stated, “but it’s not just for the sake of recreation or for having clean air or clean water —  it’s also for people.” She concluded, “I love how [one of] Sunrise’s goals is creating good jobs and a livable future for everyone.”

Her point is, in fact, one of the main demands FFE and Sunrise are making: to not just simply cease the production–and therefore the profits of fossil-fuels cold-turkey. 

Fossil fuel is destroying the environment at the behest of corporate desires and they intend to end this toxic dependency by means of a transfer of power. 

To transfer the fossil fuel dependency to renewable, green energy would support the social economy of those invested in business, support the economic demands of their cities and simultaneously eliminate the urgent danger presented to the environment and its inhabitants.. 

Another organizer and graphic artist for Sunrise Eugene, Layna Beale, gave a few more comments just moments before reaching NWN’s front door. 

“Fighting NWN is a direct cause,” Beale said. ”Protesting at the headquarters is an upfront and direct action that proves that we are not just some people behind a screen giving testimony.” 

Beale concluded, and said, “I’m excited to get a reaction, a response [from NWN], just hopefully not with the police, but if it comes to that we are ready,”

THE DIE-IN

Activists staged a die-in at the NW Natural building, surrounded by tombstones explaining the dangers posed by fracked natural gas. (Robert Scherle)

The protest’s arrival was met with silence at the 10-foot gates of Northwest Natural. The only “natural” part of this iron horse was the 15-square-foot patch of grass just outside the main gateway, which proved the perfect spot for the organizers to move into Act III of their march. 

Signs mimicking tombstones describing the casualties caused by fracking, fossil-fuel emissions and climate collapse joined the all-black “bodies” that lay “dead” before them. 

Once assembled and signs placed, speakers took the stage on top of the NWN sign and protested.

During the speeches, two neon-clad NWN workers were spotted on the roof of the building. They took videos and made comments mocking the protesters. 

Organizer Dylan Plummer brought insight to the growing animosity towards the workers by stating, “These are the people we are trying to help. We are trying to secure your futures… sustainably.” 

“Don’t ever think [these corporations] have your interests at heart,” said activist Avery Temple. 

Temple continued to speak about the reason why Sunrise and FFE have proposed levying a fee upon Fossil-fuel companies and said, “We are making sure that we [the people] will never have to pay for the damages caused by these corporations. Not only that but we are making sure we transition, and paying to make the transition off of gas and onto electric [utilities].” 

Colored smoke bombs accompanied the die-in participants, protesters shook signs at passing cars, and sang communal songs towards the seemingly empty building. 

It was around 15 minutes into the protest that two activists climbed the fence and entered the property, their motive unknown. 

THE ARRESTS

Moments after the two activists scaled the fence, eight Eugene Police Department cruisers—two with their trunks open for immediate dispatching—surrounded the protesters. 

The gates to NWN opened with their arrival, three cruisers entered the property, and officers quickly apprehended the two, 19- and 21-year-old activists for trespassing on the property.

A statement given by EPD’s spokeswoman, Melinda McLaughlin, to the Register Guard claimed the original call was a noise complaint to the industrial part of town. 

Once the two activists trespassed and one appeared to be putting on gloves—an apparent cause for alarm—officers were dispatched. McLaughlin said the “additional resources” of eight cruisers and its 12 to15 officers were dispatched due to the two trespassers and the “damages” they were causing. 

No damage has been reported. 

EPD officers guarded the entrance to the NW Natural facility after two activists were arrested for climbing a fence. (Robert Scherle)

Traffic was blocked by the officers and protesters, themselves, were escorted off of the small patch of grass to the public sidewalk not 10 feet away. 

One officer threatened to arrest one of the “dead” bodies, but declined.

After the arrests, officers continued to monitor the effort and control traffic, though no protesters were in traffic for the entirety of the protest, save for upon their arrival. Nearly 20 minutes after the event, the activists disbanded. 

SOLIDARITY AT THE JAIL

At 7:30 p.m.,, attendees of the march and those in solidarity with the two arrested activists met at the gates of the Lane County Jail armed with pots and pans. 

Protesters called out to the two in chants affirming their support and love for the two and  their cause, all while banging their pots and pans loudly. They were seen in their cell windows, alongside two jail employees staring and taking videos.

The Eugene Bail Fund will be used to help pay for their court charges and expenses. 

On March 22, a spokesperson for Sunrise Eugene, who did not wish to be named, made a statement about those apprehended —  “Two courageous young Sunrise members put their bodies on the line to stop operations at NW Natural by blocking the gate at their headquarters in Eugene.” 

A small noise demonstration gathered at the Lane County Jail in solidarity with the two activists arrested for scaling a fence at the Northwest Natural building earlier that day. The activists were able to quickly post bail, thanks to donations from the Eugene Bail Fund. (Robert Scherle)

THE TAKE-AWAY

Upon reflection, the sheer amount of police dispatched to the location was disproportionate to the alleged crimes taking place. 

The event—besides the claims of the police spokeswoman Melinda Mclaughlin— was peaceful in execution and hardly a physical threat to the iron-clad corporation. 

Perhaps, however, the message behind the movement proves more threatening to the foundation of their empires: educating and promoting the truth behind “natural” gas and the projected failure to meet city standards. By no other means do the curiously aggressive tactics by an overwhelming police presence make sense. 

Regardless, Sunrise and its sister coalitions will continue to shed light on NWN’s role in fossil-fuel production by means of attending city council meetings, spreading educational awareness via social media, banding in physical, peaceful protests and writing letters to their county officials. Their next meeting will take place April 12 at 7:15 p.m.

Kyra Roesle

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