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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.