Thomas Tonatiuh Lopez Jr., the keynote speaker at 350VT’s Annual Convergence this past Sunday, began with a spine tingling rendition of a song created in Standing Rock. You can hear him perform it along with a recording of his speech here. The power of Thomas’s song, and the words he shared with us, made real for those in the audience the ongoing impact of colonization in this country, and the deep connection between extractive capitalism and oppression.
Thomas, a member of the International Indigenous Youth Council and a water protector at Standing Rock, spoke about his grandparents’ resistance to colonization, his rejection of boundaries drawn by colonizers, and his parents’ efforts to teach, “the very students of the people who oppressed them about the history of this country.” He told us a story of resistance, of “people descended from warriors” who are standing up, connecting over similar experiences of colonization, and reaching out to “anyone who drinks water” to join the resistance.
At Standing Rock, working to amplify the voices of other young people, Thomas in turn found his own voice. One of his fellow water protectors asked him, “Who better to speak for the people of the past than the voice of the future?” With a strong message to the young people in the room, he told us of his realisation that, “Instead of asking to be given our place, we earned our place. We didn’t ask for someone to give it to us. We showed up to those front lines. We fought every single time.” His message was inspirational, not only to the young people in the room, but also to the many activists present who have been working towards climate justice for decades.
Recounting his arrest after the attack at Backwater Bridge, Thomas spoke of the harrowing connection between resisting extractive industries, facing law enforcement, and ongoing colonization: “They used the very water that we were protecting against us. I saw war that night. I saw how far this country is willing to go. I saw how far these corporations are willing to go. I saw true darkness – the true spirit of this country. I witnessed it first hand. All those stories my grandpa had told me, they were real.” And in the face of this use of power, Thomas spoke of the importance of peaceful resistance and of not using physical force. Instead of violence, which was language that Thomas’ arresting officers wanted him to use, Thomas stood in solidarity with other water protectors and finished his prayer:
“Individually, I was just one stone, but together we were a mountain. I would not bow to the wind, and I finished my prayer. And in that moment I realized that I was resisting an entire system that was built on the backs of my ancestors. That my very existence was resistance. By me being here singing, praying, wearing my hair long, braiding it when I want to, wearing my earrings, my regalia, singing my songs in any way, being with my people, was an act of resistance. My whole life changed after that I realized I was willing to dedicate my whole life, put my life on the line, for my people.”
Thomas’s inspiring words, of the fire and spirit necessary to gather and peacefully resist, were echoed throughout the day of the 6th Annual 350VT Convergence. They were echoed in the two Racial Justice/Climate Justice workshops held that morning, filled to capacity with over 150 350VT community members deepening their understanding of who bears the highest costs of climate change. They were echoed in the 350VT leadership retreat held that morning, during which board members, staff, and community leaders came together to reflect on the year and plan for the coming weeks, months, and years of climate justice activism. And they were echoed as 350VT staff reflected with over 150 Convergence attendees on the achievements of the last year and plans for the next.
As 350VT staff, we see these moments of convergence as crucial to achieving our mission. It is in the relationship building, the knowledge sharing, the moments where we challenge ourselves to think deeply about the root causes of the crisis we are in, when we are truly building this movement. As staff, we take the energy and inspiration of days like this and bring it back to our homes, or communities, our families. We hope that the community of 350VT supporters from both near and far are able to do the same.
Closing his speech, Thomas had a message for young people in the room which resonates further:“For all of the young people in the room, I just want to let you know that the road ahead of you is not an easy one. You are going to have a lot of people try to bring you down. Your own people will try to bring you down. But if there is one thing that we can learn from the civil rights movement, it’s that they never gave up. They never stopped, they never felt sorry for themselves, and they never got bitter. And because of what they did for us, we can do what we do today. So keep your heads up. I’m very inspired and honored to be in front of you, behind you, next to you, and I’m sure one day we’ll share a frontline together again. And I hope you can lead us, in a better way than we ever could.”
Here at 350VT, we want to mirror Thomas’ words. As we move into true crunch time in the climate justice movement, we are inspired and honored to be in front of you, behind you, and next to you. We are sure that we will one day share a frontline, and hope that together we can lead in ways that the future of life on this planet requires.