“Hey, Addison, wanna go birddog Hillary Clinton tomorrow?” Asked my friend Ben.
“What?” I replied.
The next day I found myself in the car with Ben headed to a Hillary rally in SUNY Purchase. Our aim was to join Ben’s friends Miles from 350 Action Network and Eva from Greenpeace and film Hillary Clinton being asked questions about keeping fossil fuels in the ground. I hadn’t heard of birdogging before, but checked out a couple 350 Action birddogging videos featuring Hillary slinking away from questions about fossil fuels with “I’ll check on that.” I figured at the very least I’d get to hear her speak and maybe shake her hand.
After skipping a few classes (I don’t usually skip classes, Mom and Dad), driving down from Vassar College, waiting in line for hours, and politely elbowing our way to the front of the crowd, Ben and I found Eva and Miles and got in position. Hillary gave a good speech and proceeded to make her way around the front of the crowd, shaking hands and taking pictures. We waited. I was filming when she got to Ben, giving him a strong “yes” that she supported the New York State ban on fracking.
Let’s pause to check out Hillary’s complicated history and current stance on fracking. After championing fracking abroad she now says it’s ok only under certain conditions, one of which is when local opposition is absent. With the amount of influence the fossil fuel industry has on local democracy, any serious opposition needs to come in the form of heavy community organizing. Let’s consider that lower income communities and communities of color have less time and fewer resources to spend on political organizing against, say, fracking. So if new fracking infrastructure is only to go in places where opposition is weak, where does it go? Wait, also, SHE IS STILL TALKING ABOUT INSTALLING NEW FRACKING INFRASTRUCTURE HERE. Ok, back to the story.
Hillary then turned to Eva, who shook her hand with, “Thank you for tackling climate change. Will you act on your word to reject fossil fuel money in the future in your campaign?” Hillary angrily wagged her finger in Eva’s face, declaring “I have money from people who work for fossil fuel companies. I am so sick of the Sanders campaign lying about me! I’m sick of it.” She was mad. We were ecstatic.
“Did we get that on film?!”
“Yes, yes we got it!”
“This is big.”
Eva went to work finding all the news outlets she could at the rally (emphasizing that as a Greenpeace representative, she does not publicly endorse Bernie or any other candidate) while Miles went to the corner of the auditorium, plugged in his laptop, and started work on the video he was able to get. Ben and I helped talking to the press and charging phones. It was a flurry of phone calls, tweets, and adrenaline from there on out. We dropped Eva and Miles off at the train station so they could embark on other birddogging missions (Eva’s gotten yelled at by a few presidential candidates and Miles has been to “oh, maybe 60 or 70” campaign rallies), and we headed back to school.
I stepped into my morning class the next day and was confronted by my professor: “Addison, tell us what you did.” My friends had told our professor that Ben and I were at the rally trying to push Clinton on fossil fuel issues the day before. I told the quick story to my class and a few of them had already seen the video!
Having just woken up and not checked the Internet, I had no idea that the video went viral. It now has over 2 million views on YouTube, and was all over the news. It invigorated the conversation over campaign donations from fossil fuel interests with responses from both Bernie and Hillary, a Democracy Now! interview with Eva, articles from Grist and the Washington Post, and commentary from Seth Meyers and Naomi Klein.
It’s often hard for me to feel cohesion in the climate movement. It is huge and diverse and so intersectional that it seems to be everywhere. It’s tough to see how we are all working together as these issue play out on so many scales. And there are millions of people who are unable to proclaim that they are part of the movement, because they are trying to survive the effects of climate change.
But, this is a win. By demanding accountability and sincere commitments to a sustainable future in the presidential race, we question and weaken the stronghold that fossil fuels have on our political system. Joining together as the Vassar College Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign, 350 Action Network, and Greenpeace solidified the feeling for me that this really is a movement.
For Ben and me, it’s helped solidify the importance of the divestment movement. With fossil fuel money leaking in on all levels from local to national governments, churches to Wall Street, Vassar to Hillary, a democratic and fossil free future requires a change. As the fastest growing divestment movement in history, fossil fuel divestment is gaining real traction and making this change. Our campaign at Vassar just passed a student referendum with 91% student support. We’ve faced harsh opposition from our trustees and we will continue to escalate. They are accountable for our future. As the dialogue shifts, so does the power.
Addison Tate, from Bridport, Vermont, is a junior at Vassar College.