Flood the System Report Back: Still Lots of Work To Do


In May of 2015, Rising Tide North America issued a bold and ambitious invitation to organize a flood of actions “washing over, occupying, blockading, shutting down and flooding the institutions that exploit us and threaten our survival” throughout fall of 2015. The invitation recognized a need begin to organize in a way that would allow us to grow and connect social movements at an unprecedented scale and scope in order to respond to the many crises we face and shift power back to our communities. While much of the climate movement was orienting a focus on the COP21 talks in Paris, we argued that governments and corporations would only address the crisis we are facing with negotiations that propose minor changes and sustain capitalism.

The Flood the System invitation envisioned a small start growing into a massive flood of actions over a period of months. “We will build slowly, like a small trickle of a stream. We’ll reach out to allies, new friends and partners. Our trickle will turn into rapids, as more organizations and affinity groups join decentralized direct actions to Flood the System. By November we will engage in a series of coordinated mass direct actions to seriously disrupt the institutions that threaten our collective survival.”

The vision to build to a series of coordinated mass direct actions around the continent in a period of months was ambitious, perhaps overly so. But, that vision recognized a need to begin to change the way that we organize and mobilize to build our movements to a much larger scale. Flood the System was a meaningful step in exploring organizing tools and practices that could facilitate that type of growth. And even though we knew we might fail to reach the scale we were hoping for, we dove in anyways.

Flood the System aspired to push beyond the traditional lenses of climate change and fossil fuel extraction to challenge systems of white supremacy, capitalism, colonialism, patriarchy and capitalism. Around the continent, activists and organizers coming from diverse movements responded to the call signing up online, joining organizing conference calls, and turning out for local organizing meetings. Through Flood, Rising Tide North America and groups in the RTNA network started a much longer process of engaging with groups and networks such as Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ), migrant justice groups, prison abolition groups and community organizations. Flood was part of a long-term, multi-year effort for Rising Tide to push the climate movement to deepen our collective analysis and open doors to other movements.

Throughout the fall, dozens of groups around North America engaged in energetic stream of actions targeting fossil fuel extraction, racist policing, and financial institutions. Climate organizers pushed to expand their collective analysis to understand the struggle for climate justice as a part of a broader struggle against capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy and colonialism.

Building the Flood

On May 20, 2015, Rising Tide North America launched the Flood the System invitation, culminating a months-long process of visioning, consultation, and engagement. The process started in December of 2014 through conversations within the Rising Tide North America network and allied organizations about what escalation could look like coming off the People’s Climate March and Flood Wall Street in September of 2014. As ideas began to crystalize we began to test the waters to assess interest among the Rising Tide network and among our allies for a coordinated program of escalated action.

We floated the idea to local groups around the network and organizers from other movements. The proposal was workshopped at movement spaces and on a series of open conference calls which brought together hundreds of voices and perspectives. Throughout the process, the vision for the project went through multiple iterations, evolving from a string of weeks of action to a program of actions escalating from smaller rapids to giant floods. The frame of Flood the System shifted as well, away from focusing heavily on the climate negotiation at the COP21 meetings in Paris towards an open-container call around the root causes of the climate crisis.

Because Flood the System was to engage a broad cross section of organizers from diverse movements, we sought to create an autonomous organizing structure to facilitate the organizing work. Throughout the spring and summer, RTNA organizers worked to build local action councils to bring together diverse voices and begin planning actions and continental working groups to facilitate program-wide work and coordination. While these action councils and working groups relied on strong participation from Rising Tide activists, Flood the System’s organizational structure was intended to be an autonomous project.

The Arts and Culture working group developed a narrative graphic, which was presented on webinars and in action summits around the continent and published a 35-page organizing booklet explaining the vision for the project and the organizing process.  At the continental level, the work was to be coordinated by a continental “River Council,” with spokespeople from each working group and each action council.

To facilitate such an ambitious project, Rising Tide stipended a team of two organizers (which later grew to four organizers) to work on Flood the System, supporting local organizing work and taking on key coordination tasks. This was the first time that Rising Tide North America — historically an all-volunteer organization — had provided financial compensation to organizers. While stipending organizers added some much-needed capacity to the project, paying organizers presents some interesting challenges for a horizontal organization like Rising Tide North America.


What Happened?!

Throughout the summer and fall of 2015 Flood the System generated or supported dozens of actions around North America targeting fossil fuel infrastructure, extraction sites, immigration detention centers, and racist police. We supported the network and our allies in expanding our skills and analysis with webinars and trainings on topics ranging from action planning, to racial justice, to corporate research. And we moved forward the very long-term and intentional work of developing relationships between our network and other social movements at the local and the continental level.

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Here are a couple of action highlights:

San Francisco: On September 28, over 250 people  in the Bay area, anchored by Diablo Rising Tide, marched in through the financial district of San Francisco in a “corporate tour of shame,” stopping at the offices of Chevron, Wells Fargo and Bank of the West.  The march occupied a major city intersection and painted a giant mural, while another team of people occupied the lobby of Bank of the West’s corporate headquarters. Bank of the West is a wholly owned subsidiary of French bank BNP-Paribas, a major funder of the global coal sector. A dozen were arrested.


Chicago: Groups, anchored by Rising Tide Chicago, did two actions as part of Flood the System. Working with local residents in Southeast Chicago, five people were arrested blocking trucks from a Koch Industries-owned petcoke facility. Two weeks later, groups fighting climate change, gentrification and prisons came together to “Flood the Banks” and marched to JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo branches in downtown Chicago.


Vermont: In October, hundreds of people, anchored by Rising Tide Vermont, marched in Montpelier against a proposed pipeline being pushed by Vermont Gas. As Indigenous tribes and rural landowners spoke, a few “oil tycoons” scaled a 20-foot oil derrick to block the street.

Seattle: Rising Tide Seattle worked with 350 Seattle and BAYAN, a Filipino organization, to march to declare “Not Another Haiyan,” on the anniversary of the devastating typhoon that hit the Philippines in 2013. In September, Rising Tide Seattle also worked in solidarity with Northwest Detention Center Resistance and other groups to prevent the detention of community members by ICE.


Minnesota: On November 2nd, a coalition of Indigenous, student and community groups in Duluth, MN took over the office of Enbridge to ask the corporation to meet with Indigenous tribes regarding the company’s Sandpiper pipeline. Seven people were arrested occupying the Enbridge lobby.

Endbirdge Action

Australia: The call for Flood the System took off in Australia, where groups used the hashtag to link to actions in the United States. There were multiple actions using flood imagery, including one where an intersection was shut down using a web of blue string.

FTS Australia

Youth Action Council: Through Flood, a continental Youth Action Council that was anchored by Energy Action Coalition formed to pull together pieces of youth and student organizing happening in the Fall. This included young people working on actions such as the Duluth occupation of Enbridge offices, the Million Student March, Our Generation Our Choice in DC and the Michigan Climate March. The Youth Action Council will be used for youth coordination around Democracy Spring in April.

Analysis-Building: Through Flood the System, we released an infographic around the connections between the climate crisis and prison-industrial complex. This work was held by the Flood the System research group — a new working group for Rising Tide, that did multiple workshops for Rising Tide groups on how to do community-led research into corporations, politicians and local power structures. We also held webinars with dozens of organizers about climate and racial justice with other groups such as Showing Up for Racial Justice, the NAACP and Black Lives Matter Boston.

Prison Graphic

What We Learned and What it Means Going Forward

Flood the System was a recognition that in order to fight back against the crises we are facing, we need to go big. Our movements need to build to scale, we need to take bold action, and we need to understand our struggles as deeply interconnected struggles against capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy and the institutions that threaten our collective survival.

In crafting the Flood the System call to action, we went big.  We envisioned that “By November we will engage in a series of coordinated mass direct actions to seriously disrupt the institutions that threaten our collective survival.” And while the actions did not grow to the scale or the scope that we had initially envisioned we pushed the analysis of the climate justice movement, we started the long-term process of building deep and real relationships with other social movements in our communities, supported dozens of strong actions around the continent, and introduced new buckets of work to Rising Tide such as integrating arts and culture into our organizing and thinking about strategic research as an analysis-building tool.

In the coming months, Rising Tide North America plans to learn from the important, and sometimes hard, lessons we were taught through Flood the System and continue our vision of building to scale for big, bold and intersectional action.  We plan to continue to push our movement’s collective analysis with trainings on the intersections of the climate justice movement with other movements, particularly focused on the root causes of white supremacy, capitalism, colonialism and patriarchy.  We are also also exploring doing some large actions in specific geographic areas in support of intersectional struggles that demonstrate what an ideal flood action could be!

And of course we’re committing to continuing the work of supporting a growing and increasingly interconnected Rising Tide North America network by providing resources like mini-grants and trainings to local RTNA groups, using our communications tools to lift up local struggles, and creating spaces for local RTNA groups and allies to get together to develop relationships and find opportunities for shared work.

Going forward, we’ll continue to go big. And we encourage our friends and allies to do the same. With more experiments and more reflection, we hope that together we can build the bold and deeply intersectional movement we need to take on the crises we’re facing. Going big and taking risks are our only chance in building something that can take on the root causes of the climate crisis.

Call for Submissions–Growing the Roots to Weather the Storm—Perspectives on the UN Climate Summit and the People’s Climate March

Call for Submissions–Growing the Roots to Weather the Storm—Perspectives on the UN Climate Summit and the People’s Climate March

Last fall, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon announced that the opening of the UN General Assembly’s 69th General Debate session would be delayed to make time for a one-day United Nations Climate Summit on September 23, 2014.  The UN Climate Summit, which is being billed as a ‘solutions-driven summit,’ is being held one year in advance of the COP21, the Paris summit where some world leaders hope to negotiate a legally binding and universal agreement on climate change.

Shortly after the announcement of the New York summit, several NGO’s most notably 350.org began calling for a mass mobilization in New York in the lead up to the UN Summit.  The mobilization, which is now known as the “People’s Climate March” is being billed as the largest climate march in history.  In the call to action for the People’s Climate March “With our future on the line and the whole world watching, we’ll take a stand to bend the course of history. We’ll take to the streets to demand the world we know is within our reach: a world with an economy that works for people and the planet; a world safe from the ravages of climate change; a world with good jobs, clean air and water, and healthy communities.”

The call to action has now been signed onto by over 400 organizations, ranging from large NGO’s like the Sierra Club to grassroots groups like the Climate Justice Alliance. The Climate Justice Alliance, the Ruckus Society, and Rising Tide North America have put out a parallel call to action demanding that local, national, and international decision makers support local communities in “building Just Transition pathways away from the ‘dig, burn, dump’ economy, and towards ‘local, living economies’ where communities and workers are in charge!”

These calls for bold action in New York have generated a significant amount of excitement and engagement in communities across the continent.  But the focus on this mass mobilization and this global legislative process raises some important questions for organizers committed to confronting the root causes of climate change:

  • Can we use a mobilization like this to build and amplify our ongoing community based work?
  • How can mass mobilizations align with local work in a way that emphasizes and reinforces, and does not distract from local struggles?
  • How can we use moments and mobilizations like this to build capacity for radical climate justice organizing?
  • What does radical or transformative climate organizing mean to you?
  • In what ways are you participating in New York and why?
  • What are you working on now at home, and does New York impact it?  If so, what are your hopes for the mobilization and other events?

There are exciting and dynamic possibilities for using moments like this to amplify grassroots work, raise the voices of frontline communities, and build a stronger, bolder, and more connected climate justice movement.  But taking advantage of this opportunity requires careful and deliberate thought and analysis and strategic action.

Rising Tide North America is compiling a collection of essays on the September New York City Mobilization aimed at answering these questions and others.  The title of the compilation will be “Growing the Roots to Weather the Storm—Perspectives on the UN Climate Summit and the People’s Climate March.”

Join the important discussion and share your perspectives on the UN Climate Summit and the People’s March.  Submissions should be 500 to 1,500 words and submitted to analysis@RisingTideNorthAmerica.org by August 15, 2015.  Illustrations, cartoons, poems, drawings and photographs are also welcome.

The Climate Movement’s Pipeline Preoccupation

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Yes, Keystone XL is horrible but so is every other fossil fuel infrastructure plan

Architecturally, a keystone is the wedge-shaped piece at the crown of an arch that locks the other pieces in place. Without the keystone, the building blocks of an archway will tumble and fall, with no support system for the weight of the arch. Much of the United States climate movement right now is structured like an archway, with all of its blocks resting on a keystone – President Obama’s decision on the Keystone XL pipeline.

This is a dangerous place to be. Once Barack Obama makes his decision on the pipeline, be it approval or rejection, the keystone will disappear. Without this piece, we could see the weight of the arch tumble down, potentially losing throngs of newly inspired climate activists. As members of Rising Tide North America, a continental network of grassroots groups taking direct action and finding community-based solutions to the root causes of the climate crisis, we believe that to build the climate justice movement we need, we can have no keystone – no singular solution, campaign, project, or decision maker.

The Keystone XL fight was constructed around picking one proposed project to focus on with a clear elected decider, who had campaigned on addressing climate change. The strategy of DC-focused green groups has been to pressure President Obama to say “no” to Keystone by raising as many controversies as possible about the pipeline and by bringing increased scrutiny to Keystone XL through arrestable demonstrations. Similarly, in Canada, the fight over Enbridge’s Northern Gateway tar sands pipeline has unfolded in much the same way, with green groups appealing to politicians to reject Northern Gateway.

However, the mainstream Keystone XL and Northern Gateway campaigns operate on a flawed assumption that the climate movement can compel our elected leaders to respond to the climate crisis with nothing more than an effective communications strategy. Mainstream political parties in both the US and Canada are tied to and dependent on the fossil fuel industry and corporate capitalism. As seen in similar campaigns in 2009 to pass a climate bill in the United States and to ratify an international climate treaty in Copenhagen, the system is rigged against us. Putting Obama and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper at the keystone of the archway creates a flawed narrative that if we, as grassroots groups, work hard enough to stack the building blocks correctly to support them, then elected officials will do what we want. Social change happens when local communities lead, and only then will politicians follow. While we must name and acknowledge power holders like Obama, our movement needs to empower local communities to make decisions and take action on the causes of the climate crisis in their backyards.

Because of the assumption that the climate movement can trust even “sympathetic” politicians like Obama, these campaigns rely on lifting up one project above all else. Certain language used has made it seem like Keystone XL is an extreme project, with unusual fraud and other injustices associated with it. Indeed the Keystone XL project is extreme and unjust, as is every fossil fuel project and every piece of the extraction economy. While, for example, the conflict of interests between the State Department, TransCanada and Environmental Resources Management in the United States, and Enbridge and federal politicians in Canada, must be publicized, it should be clear that this government/industry relationship is the norm, not the exception.

The “game over for climate” narrative is also problematic. With both the Keystone and Northern Gateway campaigns, it automatically sets up a hierarchy of projects and extractive types that will inevitably pit communities against each other. Our movement can never question if Keystone XL is worse than Flanagan South (an Enbridge pipeline running from Illinois to Oklahoma), or

whether tar sands, fracking or mountaintop removal coal mining is worse. We must reject all these forms of extreme energy for their effects on the climate and the injustices they bring to the people at every stage of the extraction process. Our work must be broad so as to connect fights across the continent into a movement that truly addresses the root causes of social, economic, and climate injustice. We must call for what we really need – the end to all new fossil fuel infrastructure and extraction. The pipeline placed yesterday in British Columbia, the most recent drag lines added in Wyoming, and the fracking wells built in Pennsylvania need to be the last ones ever built. And we should say that.

This narrative has additionally set up a make-or-break attitude about these pipeline fights that risks that the movement will contract and lose people regardless of the decision on them. The Keystone XL and Northern Gateway fights have engaged hundreds of thousands of people, with many embracing direct action and civil disobedience tactics for the first time. This escalation and level of engagement is inspiring. But the absolutist “game over” language chances to lose many of them.

If Obama approves the Keystone XL pipeline, what’s to stop many from thinking that this is in fact “game over” for the climate?

And if Obama rejects Keystone XL, what’s to stop many from thinking that the climate crisis is therefore solved? We need those using the “game over” rhetoric to lay out the climate crisis’ root causes – because just as one project is not the end of humanity, stopping one project will not stop runaway climate change.

The fights over Keystone XL and Northern Gateway have been undoubtedly inspiring. We are seeing the beginnings of the escalation necessary to end extreme energy extraction, stave off the worst effects of the climate crisis, and make a just transition to equitable societies. Grassroots groups engaging in and training for direct action such as the Tar Sands Blockade, Great Plains Tar Sands

Resistance, the Unist’ot’en Camp, and Moccasins on the Ground have shown us how direct action can empower local communities and push establishment green groups to embrace bolder tactics. Our movement is indeed growing, and people are willing to put their bodies on the line; an April poll by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication found one in eight Americans would engage in civil disobedience around global warming.

However, before the Keystone XL and Northern Gateway mainstream campaigns come to an end, we all must recognize the dangers of having an archway approach to movement building. It is the danger of relying on political power-holders, cutting too narrow campaigns, excluding a systemic analysis of root causes, and, ultimately, failing to create a broad-based movement. We must begin to discuss and develop our steps on how we should shift our strategy, realign priorities, escalate direct action, support local groups and campaigns, and keep as many new activists involved as possible.

We are up against the world’s largest corporations, who are attempting to extract, transport and burn fossil fuels at an unprecedented rate, all as the climate crisis spins out of control. The climate justice movement should have no keystone because we must match them everywhere they are – and they are everywhere. To match them, we need a movement of communities all across the continent and the world taking direct action to stop the extraction industry, finding community-based solutions, and addressing the root causes of the climate crisis.