Blog: On the Road to a Fossil Free California

By Joanie Lohman, FFCA Volunteer

I wonder if David really thought he could slay the giant Goliath when he picked up that rock and slingshot? This question came to mind as I was driving home from Sacramento Wednesday with three retired women friends, my colleagues in Fossil Free California. FFCA has been organizing for over 10 years to get the state’s giant pension funds out of fossil fuel. And, once again, a two-year long campaign to pass a divestment bill in the California Assembly has been shut down by the powerful fossil fuel lobby.

 For the past two years, a coalition of environmental, educational, youth and union organizations have rallied behind SB252 which would require CalSTRS and CalPRS, the state teachers and state employees multibillion dollar pension funds, to stop any future investments in the fossil fuel industry. SB252 also calls for the two funds to divest, over time, their current 14.8 billion dollar fossil fuels investments. Senator Lena Gonzalez, the California Senate Majority Leader, is the key author of the bill.

After SB252 made it through every hurdle of the State Senate last year, it was derailed in the Assembly by one powerful Assemblymember. This year, we had collective high hopes of moving the bill through a seven-person committee to the Assembly floor. Juneteenth was to be our day of reckoning where hundreds of us would testify in person at an Assembly hearing on behalf of the bill.

In the past few weeks, the seven-member Assembly PERS Committee has been bombarded with tens of thousands of emails and phone calls in support of SB252 generated by the environmental justice, labor, education and youth organizations supporting the bill.

The coalition planned an online Zoom rally Monday evening at 6 pm to build energy for our collective testimony on the assembly floor. I was eagerly looking forward to the chance to add my voice. But at 3 pm Monday afternoon, coalition members received an email that the bill was being “pulled” by Senator Gonzalez. It felt like when you blow and blow, and the balloon is finally full and suddenly, it pops. Or maybe it was more like Lucy and Charlie Brown–trusting once more that the football will be held steady, when….voila. Once again, she pulls it away.

Tuesday, we learned why Senator Gonzalez was pulling the bill. The Assembly PERS Committee had added so many amendments that the intent of the bill was gutted.

They proposed BEGINNING divestment in 2040, among other changes. Meanwhile, the ravages of climate change are showing up in extreme weather patterns around the Planet. California is again ablaze.

So instead of caravaning to Sacramento to testify, we chose to make the trek in support of the Senator as she offered her cogent reasons for pulling the bill at an outdoor press conference in the gorgeous rose garden on the Capitol grounds.

Hundreds of supporters who drove and flew from around the state held colorful banners and posters in the bright Sacramento sun. It was both a wake and a pep rally.

The Senator was visibly touched by the outpouring of support. She thanked us all for our dedication to the environment and pledged to continue to challenge the fossil fuel industry.

I was moved by FFCA’s 27-year-old Campaigns Organizer, Luis Martinez, who took the mic right after the Senator. Luis spoke passionately about the health impacts of fossil fuel extraction on his Los Angeles community, where oil drilling takes place in residential neighborhoods and near schools and hospitals. He vowed to continue to invite more and more people into the environmental justice movement. His voice quivered with anger that the bill had been sabotaged by amendments that cut its efficacy.

I connected with my dear friend Park, a sixth grade teacher and dad, who had driven down from the Sonoma County Area. We talked about the need to grieve before getting back to the struggle. Park has worked his way onto the Retirement Committee of the California Teachers Association (CTA) where he is organizing to get a CTA resolution in support of divestment.

As we were waiting for the Senator to speak, a 16 year old youth activist with a bullhorn led us all in chants:

Anushka Kalyan smiled as she led the fast chant “ain’t no power like the power of the people ’cause the power of the people don’t stop SAY WHAT?”

“When we fight…We win.” “What do we want? Climate Justice. When do we want it? Now!” “Ain’t no power like the power of the people, ‘cause the power of the people don’t stop!”

I thought about how times have changed, and not changed, as I watched her scroll down her cell phone to locate the next chant.

And so, we will rest and regroup. And pick up our slingshots tomorrow.