Activists walk for five days in name of climate justice

Photo by Joey Waldinger
Arthur Blackhawk and Beverly Little Thunder lead a haunting Native American chant during the five-day Next Steps climate walk.

JOEY WALDINGER
Correspondent

After walking more than 60 miles over five days, close to 150 environmental activists descended on Montpelier Tuesday, calling on legislators to take more decisive action on environmental issues.

Led by the organization 350Vermont, an anti-fossil fuels nonprofit, the Next Steps climate walk began in Middlebury. During their trek to the capital, activists stopped each day for an action related to a natural gas pipeline running through the northern half of the state. They envisioned the sort of world they’d like to inhabit, and strategized for future climate justice activism.

“We just have to make people aware that … we cannot continue to use fossil fuels,” said Andrea Morgante, a Hinesburg resident and former selectboard member who participated in parts of the walk.

For accommodations, a logistics team arranged for the 90 or so people who walked the length of the route to sleep in churches, co-housing apartments and other domiciles, said Zac Rudge, the development and communications manager for 350Vermont.

By sleeping as a group, singing songs and practicing various rituals, the walk was a means of establishing a community between the activists and reaffirming the effort they make in fighting climate justice, he said.

“It was fun and beautiful … people were in good spirits, it was a delight, really,” said Rachel Smolker, a long-time Hinesburg activist, of the first day of the walk.

But once arriving in Montpelier, organizers intended to use the attention and awareness from the action to propel specific pending bills through the legislature, said 350Vermont Director Maeve McBride of South Burlington. The bills include H.51 and S.66, which would prohibit future construction of fossil fuel infrastructure, except for projects certified by a federal committee, she said.

Besides these bills, McBride hoped that the climate walk would raise awareness about more general environmental goals that 350Vermont has long been pushing, such as the need to price carbon and provide subsidies for home weatherization, she said.

After arriving in Montpelier, the activists ate lunch and held a “sing-in,” wherein they practiced protest songs to be recited in the state capital, McBride said. They walked in silence to the capital, a nod to the somberness of climate change, before breaking into song in the capital’s lobby, she said.

Photo by Joey Waldinger
April and Lucy Mnookin take a break from the ceremony with their pal Hunter Dimario during the climate walk to Montpelier.

Though they were blocked from climbing the stairs and being with the legislators, “we definitely were heard,” McBride said.

350Vermont began planning this action in November with the goal of demonstrating constituents’ dissatisfaction with their elected officials’ inaction on key climate issues during the legislative session, McBride said.

The route was purposefully mapped to mark several key sections of the Addison Natural Gas Pipeline, McBride said. Transporting natural gas 41 miles from Colchester to Middlebury, the pipeline has long been opposed by 350 Vermont and a host of other organizations and citizen groups across the state. Included is a group called Protect Geprags Park, a coalition of Hinesburg residents who banded together to try and stop a section of the pipeline from being built beneath the group’s namesake park.

The climate walkers stopped in Geprags Park the morning of Sunday, April 7, to grieve for the damage they say fossil fuel infrastructure has wrought here and throughout the world, while noting the potential to turn this grief into an important motivation for future climate justice struggles.

Forming a circle on a hilltop overlooking the field beneath which the pipeline runs, activists looked on while volunteer organizers led prayers, chants, and other rituals to highlight the day’s message.

One such ceremony invited protesters to dip their hands into a bowl of water and say a prayer for parts of the world that had been marred by fossil fuel infrastructure. Later, Beverly Little Thunder, a Lakota Elder from Standing Rock, and Arthur Blackhawk performed a chant Little Thunder described as “a love letter to the Earth.”

Morgante, who served on the selectboard during the fight to prevent Vermont Gas from installing the Addison pipeline, recalled the limitations of town leaderships to thwart this sort of infrastructure, and the importance of electing state leaders who will.

“Our power is in our voice … and in voting local leaders willing to do that,” she said.

Hinesburg residents have been especially vocal about the dangers a fault in the pipeline could pose to their beloved park, but during the ceremony on Sunday, they found joy in continuing to fight the pipeline, Smolker said.

Coming from a background in biology, Smolker is keenly aware of the everyday consequences of burning fossil fuels, and has dedicated her life to helping stop these practices, she said.

While activists have thus far been unsuccessful in stymying Vermont Gas’ construction of the pipeline, they retain some hope that the current investigation into whether the company initiated construction without the required approval of an engineer, and other violations, might stop the flow of gas.

Even if not, Smolker does not see this action as an endpoint in the fight for climate justice locally and abroad, but just as one step along the path, she said.

“People in Hinesburg have realized (Vermont Gas) would love it if we give up … we’re not going to give up,” she said.

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