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Street Blockade At Kalamazoo Climate Strike Prompts Debate About Civil Disobedience

Three young people hold a bright red banner that says "climate and ecological emergency - extinction rebellion SwMI -"
Sehvilla Mann

When climate activists shut down parts of Londonthis spring, Chris Carr took notice.

“I’d been pretty depressed about this – the climate, and thinking, well there’s nothing we can do,” he told WMUK.

Carr, who splits his time between Kalamazoo and Douglas, said the protests in England gave him an idea. The activists there belonged to a group called Extinction Rebellion. As in, rebelling from the extinctive threat that climate change poses to plants, animals and even people.

“It was right near Earth Day, and I said, ‘I’m going to set up a table at Earth Day and see if a chapter can get started here.’”

That’s how Carr ended up co-founding Extinction Rebellion Southwest Michigan. Like its U.K. counterpart, the local chapter sees direct action as the most effective way to make a difference. That can mean legal acts like marching or hanging banners. But it can also mean illegal action – like nonviolent civil disobedience.

Climate activists say that principled law breaking has a place in their movement. But a street blockade organized by XR Southwest Michigan troubled some of the organizers at a recent Kalamazoo climate strike. Now the city’s emerging climate coalition has a decision to make.

Carr says the disruption of an action like a blockade is “focused on the government – forcing the government to take action, because they’ve really been like criminally negligent in dealing with the climate crisis.”

“We’ve let this develop for 40 years now, and have reached the point where it’s almost too late,” he added.

The chapter’s debut action happened September 20th, during a recent global climate strike at a rally in downtown Kalamazoo. During rush hour, Extinction Rebellion members and supporters blocked traffic on Kalamazoo Avenue.

MLive captured the scene on video as blockaders chant and motorists honk. One guy on a motorcycle keeps pushing forward, trying to break the line near Chris Carr.

“I had my foot under the front tire,” Carr said. “He was on my foot with his tire hitting my leg, but not like it hurt or anything.”

As planned, the protestors eventually disbanded to avoid arrest. No one was injured. The blockade got attention. But not everyone at the rally was happy about it. Mary Ann Renz is with the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, a group that’s pressing a fee-and-dividend model for reining in carbon emissions.

“There are other groups that are focused on particular solutions and want to work within government despite the fact that that’s difficult,” she said.

“So we work with whoever’s in office as long as that person’s in office in a polite and respectful way,” Renz added.

Both Renz’s group, the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, and Chris Carr’s group, Extinction Rebellion belong to a third group, the Kalamazoo Climate Crisis Coalition, founded in July. It’s the KCCC that organized the climate strike where Extinction Rebellion blocked the street.

Renz says civil disobedience absolutely has a place in the movement. And each coalition member can do what it wants on its own time. But Renz adds that for the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, “It’s important for us not to be perceived as lawbreakers, however well-intentioned and important the civil disobedience is.”

So Renz prefers that the Coalition not endorse illegal actions at its events. But for Chris Carr, from Extinction Rebellion, it’s the other way around.

While the group is nonhierarchical and Carr said he can’t speak for it, from his perspective, “It would be very difficult to see how we would work with the Coalition" in that case.

In just a few months, the Kalamazoo Climate Crisis Coalition has organized a strike, launched a Friday event series and backed the declaration of climate emergency that the City of Kalamazoo adopted this week. But Carr says the group is so young its structure is still in flux. A draft mission statement would bar civil disobedience at Coalition events. The group is expected to discuss that proposal at its next meeting.

Sehvilla Mann joined WMUK’s news team in 2014 as a reporter on the local government and education beats. She covered those topics and more in eight years of reporting for the Station, before becoming news director in 2022.
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