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‘Which side are you on?’ Youth activists blame ODOT for heat wave deaths


(Scenes from the rally outside ODOT headquarters Wednesday, August 18th. Photos: Jonathan Maus/BikePortland)

Like the climate change-induced heat, flooding, and fires they fear so much, a group of teenage activists refuse to go away.

“They don’t understand. They are not a 15-year-old, growing up in the middle of a climate crisis, seeing their world burn before their eyes.”
— Robin Sack

At the ninth edition of the “Youth vs ODOT” action in front of Oregon Department of Transportation headquarters in downtown Portland Wednesday, a protest organized by Sunrise PDX sought to tie the 116 deaths in Oregon from recent heat waves directly to the agency’s preference to expand infrastructure that encourages the use of fossil fuels and increases greenhouse gas emissions.

“Kelly Slaughter, James Smillie, Kevin Smyth, William Stevens, Joan Stratton, Grace Taylor.”

Just steps from ODOT’s door they solemnly read names of the deceased over a loudspeaker while standing near chalk on the sidewalk that read “116 degrees, 116 deaths” and a banner that read, “A better world is possible”. Wednesday’s rally displayed a powerful combination of respect for the power and consequence of climate change and an obligatory optimism that fuels a sense that teenagers might be our last line of defense against it.

In front of a crowd of a few dozen fellow high school students, 15-year-old Portlander Robin Sack (upper right) shared what happened to her when she went on a walk during the recent heat wave. “[The heat] was encompassing me and I just wanted it to stop,” she said. “When I finally got home, I just couldn’t hold back my tears anymore and I sobbed in my kitchen. As my parents told me, ‘It will be okay. It will get better,’ I heard myself saying back. ‘You don’t understand, This is not your future’. And they don’t understand. They are not a 15-year-old, growing up in the middle of a climate crisis, seeing their world burn before their eyes. They are not growing up in a world where they have to strike outside of an ODOT building every other Wednesday to show them that our futures matter. That we have lives that we want to grow up into without having to worry about 110-degree weather, and people dying on the streets.”

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Sack and other activists at these events see a direct connection between transportation policy and climate-related outcomes like heat waves. Unfortunately, much of the public and most of Oregon’s top elected officials don’t. Even after protesting outside the Governor’s mansion in Salem, Kate Brown still signed into law House Bill 3055 that gives ODOT vast leeway to spend future taxpayer dollars on freeway expansions that could increase driving capacity and contribute even further to the 40% of Oregon’s emissions that come from the transportation sector.

Adah Crandall (right).

Brown’s decision to sign that bill was, “Really frustrating,” to one of the leaders of Portland’s anti-freeway movement, 15-year-old Adah Crandall. “Especially because [the Governor] ran her campaign off the idea that she was going to be a climate leader and fight for the youth,” Crandall shared with me during an interview. “And then she went and signed this bill that is giving ODOT a blank check, essentially, to continue expanding freeways.”

“Then in the press statement,” Crandall continued. “She said she supports the work we’re doing and shares our urgency, which is just so frustrating. Because if she really shared our urgency and wanted to fight for climate justice, then she would have vetoed the bill like we asked her to.”

Can we forgive Governor Brown for not understanding the connection between freeway expansions and heat wave deaths? No way, says Crandall. “If she doesn’t realize by now that freeway expansion is bad for climate, then she’s not doing her job. It’s not so much a matter of her not making that connection, it’s that she is making that connection and realizing that the public doesn’t make that connection, and therefore it’s something she can get away with.”

One elected who does make that connection is Yamhill County Commissioner Casey Kulla. Kulla, a farmer who has launched a campaign to be Oregon’s next governor, attended Wednesday’s protest with his 11-year old son Rusty. Kulla stood in the back in a “Kulla for Oregon” cap and plaid shirt. I asked him why he showed up.

“Rusty is a person who feels everything in the world, and sometimes those emotions go to, ‘I can’t, I can’t do anything. I don’t have any power. I don’t have any voice because I’m young.’ So seeing young people here, who are the same height, he sees there are people who are taking action whose voices are being heard, even if decision makers aren’t doing exactly the things that they want.”

Kulla said if he were governor he would have vetoed HB 3055. He’s concerned ODOT isn’t taking climate change seriously. “Whether that’s about institutional inertia or culture, or just that we don’t see it. I don’t see ODOT really doing that aggressive climate action.”

To urge more action, these youth activists are pushing a binary choice: youth or ODOT. The way they see it, you either support the hopes and dreams for healthy lives by today’s young people, or you support the degradation of our planet hastened by ODOT and their bosses. There’s no middle ground. You must choose a side.

Wednesday’s event ended with the singing of this 1931 union song by activist Florence Reece:

Which side are you on, now?
Which side are you on?
Storms surge and fires burn
but you don’t hear the call.
‘Cause fossil fuels keep paying you–
Does it weigh on you at all?
Does it weigh on you at all?
Does it weigh on you at all?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on?
Which side are you on, now?
Which side are you on?
Corporations raised you up
but we can make you fall.
They picked a war with our generation—
Does it weigh on you at all?
Does it weigh on you at all?
Does it weigh on you at all?

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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