At 8:30 am, we marched onto the public plaza of Citibank’s HQ, our chant filling the air: Stop funding fossil fuels. As we’d rehearsed, around fifty of us moved straight into position blocking the six doors that make up the entrance to the 150-meter-high skyscraper. As we unfurled our banners, linked arms and refused to move, a stream of Citi employees immediately began to back up into the plaza, unsure of how they could get into work.
A wiry, middle-aged man in a dapper suit tried to barge past me and another protestor. As our bodies connected, we stood firm and refused to move. “Are you fucking serious?” he asked, before trying to shoulder his way past us again. When he realized that we were, in fact, serious, he left to try and find another way into work. But wherever he went, he would have met a similar situation. We had all twelve entrances into Citi’s HQ blocked.
The action at Citi’s HQ was one of many confrontational anti-fossil fuel protests that happened between September 13th and September 20th, the week leading up to the UN’s Climate Ambition Summit in New York. In all, nearly two hundred arrests were made at protests targeting companies, politicians and cultural institutions with ties to the fossil fuel industry.
In several ways, this wave of action―organized primarily by New York Communities for Change, the Climate Organizing Hub, and the Oil and Gas Action Network―felt different from previous climate mobilizations. For one, not only were some of the actions less purely symbolic than many climate protests that have come before, but they were targeting and disrupting the right people and institutions, something which seems to have been missing from recent climate protests.
In one action, dozens of young people swarmed into the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) to protest the museum’s ties to Henry Kravis, founder and chairman of KKR, a private equity firm that has been buying up oil and gas companies and is the primary owner of the Coastal GasLink pipeline that’s being fiercely opposed by the Wet’suwet’en nation. The goal of the action was to communicate to both Kravis and MOMA leadership that it’s no longer possible to be both a fossil fuel baron and an accepted face in polite society. In response to the protest, the museum―which was the target, not just the scene, of the action―closed its doors hours early, turning away several thousand customers who were lining up to pay $25 each to enter the museum. An action that costs its target close to one hundred thousand dollars in revenue is no longer a simple symbolic protest.
When we blockaded every entrance into Citibank’s Global HQ, more than one thousand white-collar Citi workers were unable to get into work; workers backed up in their hundreds in the plaza outside as activists explained why they were going to be hours late for work that day. Even when irate workers tried to ram and kick and punch their way into the building, the blockade held firm. Activists chose to take blows rather than cede their ground.
Of course, the US climate movement has witnessed activists standing up to blows infinitely greater than the kicks that a couple of activists received around the back of Citi’s HQ. At Standing Rock police reigned terror upon peaceful Water Protectors. At Line 3, activists were blasted with rubber bullets and tear gas. At Cop City, police murdered the forest defender Manuel Esteban Paez Terán, shooting them fifty-seven times as they held their hands in the air.
But one difference here was that this was the climate movement going on the offensive. People weren’t standing in the way of a bulldozer in order to defend their homeland, a forest or a body of water. They were traveling to New York in order to block, disrupt and occupy the very centers of fossil capital. That, too, feels newer.
Over the last few months, few groups have gone more on the offensive than Climate Defiance. The youth-led direct action group has disrupted and shut down speeches by dozens of politicians and Biden officials, uncompromisingly demanding an end to fossil fuels. Last week, some of their activists prevented Tommy Beaudreau―the Biden official who signed off on the Willow project―from entering a climate event. As they refused to let him in the building they chanted “fuck you man” in his face. That is the chant of a movement that is done with asking nicely.
This change in tone was evident throughout the week of action. Inside the Museum of Modern Art, activists―led by the youth group People over Profit―initiated dance parties to raucous, upbeat chants of “tax the rich.” When the climate movement evolves from marching and chanting “climate justice now” to dancing and chanting “tax the mother fucking rich,” something meaningful has begun to shift.
With income inequality at historic highs and the world’s wealthiest 1% responsible for double the emissions of the world’s poorest 50%, “tax the rich” isn’t just a catchy chant. It’s also a precise policy demand. Don’t be surprised if it’s a demand that begins to take greater center stage in the climate movement. And don’t be surprised if the actions blocking private jets, storming golf clubs, and infiltrating elite neighborhoods not only continue, but escalate.
Even the mass march that occurred during the week of action was different. Attracting an estimated 75,000 people, the march wasn’t the largest climate march this country has seen―both the Peoples’ Climate March and the 2019 Climate Strikes were far larger. But this was the largest ever march where the primary demand was the abolition of the fossil fuel industry. We have evolved beyond climate change being the problem, to grasping that the problem really is the oil, gas and coal executives and the financiers and politicians that enable them.
All of these are important evolutions for the climate movement. As academics Laura Thomas-Walters and Kevin Young convincingly argue, actions that directly target and meaningfully disrupt the operations, bottom lines, and daily routines of the rich and the powerful are far more strategic than actions that are purely symbolic, or actions that don’t have a clear demand and disrupt the lives of everyday people who are just trying to get to work or enjoy a sports game.
Last week, the Citibank CEO was almost certainly briefed that a thousand of her most important employees were unable to get to work that morning, especially as the action came the day after the company announced a major corporate restructuring. The leadership of the Museum of Modern Art were almost certainly informed that their business lost revenue due to a protest around one of its board members. By contrast, it’s hard to imagine that any oil barons, financiers or political enablers of the climate crisis were inconvenienced by the recent disruption at the US Open Semi-final.
In the years ahead―as the climate crisis continues to escalate in severity―bold civil disobedience that directly and meaningfully disrupts the lives and operations of business and political elites will be more important than ever.Of course, as we consider the future of direct action within the climate movement, it’s important to point out that civil disobedience and confrontational action is only one tool in the activists’ toolkit, and many more tools will be needed to rein in the worst of the climate crisis. In the bank campaigns that we help to run at Stop the Money Pipeline, our strategy also involves organizing shareholders, customers and bank workers―and we’re developing secondary campaigns designed to agitate some of our targets’ most important and wealthy clients to join us in the fight to end financing for fossil fuels.
But in the years ahead―as the climate crisis continues to escalate in severity―bold civil disobedience that directly and meaningfully disrupts the lives and operations of business and political elites will be more important than ever. After the recent actions in New York, there is good reason to believe that the climate movement is ready for this evolution.
Of course, as we consider the future of direct action within the climate movement, it’s important to point out that civil disobedience and confrontational action is only one tool in the activists’ toolkit, and many more tools will be needed to rein in the worst of the climate crisis. In the bank campaigns that we help to run at , our strategy also involves organizing shareholders, customers and bank workers―and we’re developing secondary campaigns designed to agitate some of our targets’ most important and wealthy clients to join us in the fight to end financing for fossil fuels.
Alec Connon is the coordinator of the Stop the Money Pipeline coalition, a coalition of over 160 organizations working to stop the flow of money from Wall Street to the fossil fuel industry. He is also a writer. His first novel, The Activist, was published in 2016.
This article first appeared on Common Dreams and is republished under Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)