The Koch Brothers have been funding "bait-and-switch" propaganda rallies in black neighborhoods for years, where they use black churches and their congregations to tell residents that new pipelines going through their back yards will help them instead of destroy black communities.
In December 2016, gospel music stars descended on a local community center in Richmond’s East Highland Park neighborhood. Hundreds of residents from throughout the area had answered the call to attend a concert marketed as an opportunity for enlightenment, both spiritual and environmental.
As a sea of hands waved through the air as eyes closed in prayer, what many in the crowd didn’t know was that they were the target of a massive propaganda campaign. One of the event’s sponsors was a fossil-fuel advocacy group called Fueling U.S. Forward, an outfit supported by Koch Industries, the petrochemicals, paper, and wood product conglomerate founded by conservative billionaires Charles and David Koch.
The gospel program was designed to highlight the benefits of oil and natural gas production and its essential role in the American way of life. During a break in the music, a panel discussion unfolded about skyrocketing utility costs. The lobbyists and businesspeople on the panel presented a greater reliance on fossil fuels — billed as cheap, reliable energy sources — as the fix. Later, a surprise giveaway netted four lucky attendees the opportunity to have their power bills paid for them.
The event was one big bait and switch, according to environmental experts and local activists. Come for the gospel music, then listen to us praise the everlasting goodness of oil and gas. Supporting this sort of pro-oil-and-gas agenda sprinkled over the songs of praise, they say, would only worsen the pollution and coastal flooding that come with climate change, hazards that usually hit Virginia’s black residents the hardest.
“The tactic was tasteless and racist, plain and simple,” says Kendyl Crawford, the Sierra Club of Richmond’s conservation program coordinator. “It’s exploiting the ignorance many communities have about climate change.”
Rev. Wilson likens that gospel concert to the Biblical story of Judas accepting 30 pieces of silver to betray Jesus. Like many African Americans in Virginia, he initially didn’t connect environmental policy with what he calls the “institutional racism” — think racial profiling, lack of economic opportunity, etc. — that can plague black communities nationwide. Now he considers “the sea level rising or the air quality in the cities” another existential threat.
So in response to the Koch Brothers’ attempt to sway their flocks, Wilson and others affiliated with black churches in Virginia have channeled their outrage into a new calling: climate advocacy. For Wilson, environmentalism has become a biblical mission.
“The climate is changing,” he says. “And it’s black folk in Virginia who will lose the most.”
If there's anything about climate change that you should know, it's that the first people to lose everything in the increasing magnitude of environmental disasters in America will be black and brown people. You have to look no further than Hurricane Katrina, Hurricane Harvey, or the double hurricanes in Puerto Rico where residents still don't have power after six months and nobody running our government seems to give a good god damn.
Disasters tend to lower prices of land quite a bit, and there's still plenty of it that black and brown people live on that American corporations still want to take. New Orleans lost tens of thousands of residents and it changed the political landscape of Louisiana.
The same thing is happening in Texas: if you think a blue wave is going to help Beto O' Rourke beat Ted Cruz in November, you're not factoring in the hundreds of thousands of displaced Houston residents from the city who are no longer in the state, or won't be able to prove they have the right to vote because their homes, IDs, and documents were washed away. It'll be mostly Democratic voters of color in America's fourth-largest city who won't be able to vote.
No rush to remedy that problem. I figure Harvey will push back the bluing of Texas by a another decade or so, and Republicans who run the state will be just fine with that.
It's good to see black pastors figure out that they're the product being bought and sold, and that they are fighting back, but it's far too late. Disaster capitalism in the Trump era is only going to get worse.