Rose City Rise Up: Climate Justice Activism in Portland

Rose City Rise Up: Climate Justice Activism in Portland

Harper Fife-Adams, Freelancer

People around the world are fed up with the inaction from our leaders in curbing the climate crisis, particularly with President Biden’s recent approval of the Willow project. The effects of climate change are becoming more noticeable every day, with vulnerable communities facing record-breaking heat levels, rising waters, and countless extreme weather events, all while our leaders pour more and more money into the fossil fuel industry. It can feel hopeless and overwhelming to fight such a massive problem, but we can create positive change if we collectively make our voices heard! 


This summer, climate activists all over the country are planning demonstrations with the goals of pressuring President Biden to declare a climate emergency, spreading awareness, and uplifting local fossil fuel resistance fights. One of these protests is happening in Portland, where organizations including 350PDX, Mosquito Fleet, Breach Collective, and People VS Fossil Fuels are working together to spread awareness of a local company that has consistently put profit over people and the environment: Zenith Energy.


Zenith Energy is a crude Oil and Natural gas company located in Portland. They transport fuel on railroads and ship it overseas. This process and their practice of storing oil along the Willamette puts local communities and ecosystems at major risk, with train derailments proving catastrophic. In 2022, Zenith Energy agreed to transition to renewable fuel within 5 years, in return for a permit from Portland city officials to expand their business. However, this deal did not address the health and environmental concerns surrounding Zenith. This all led to the protest happening in June, a perfect example of how activists fight national issues by enacting local change. 


To learn more about this local action, I talked with Eloise Navarro (they/she), one of the main organizers of this protest. They are a grassroots organizer for the climate justice movement. 


Harper: So first off, could you talk a little bit about your goals for this protest and the process of organizing it?


Eloise: For sure! So this protest, which is called “Paddle Zenith Out of Portland: a land and water rally to end the era of fossil fuels”. This is really a moment to combine our local fossil fuel resistance organizing, with what’s going on with the national fossil fuel resistance. So really it was just a perfect coincidence, because I personally work for 350PDX, and 350PDX, along with many other organizations, are a part of this national coalition, called the People v.s. Fossil Fuels. And that coalition is just a group of organizations that are all doing the work individually to end fossil fuels in their city or community but are coming together to get some demands made, particularly on the federal level. And those are mostly about getting Biden, or whoever our president is at the time, to declare a climate emergency, and then ending fossil fuel infrastructure in the country. 


There’s been specific events that have all culminated out of that space, and one of those is this National Distributed Action that is taking place on the 8th through the 11th of June, 2023. And so, being a part of that coalition, we were for sure going to show up. Locally we are already thinking, what’s an action, a rally, a protest we could do, to move along our movement in getting Zenith out of here, and getting them to rescind the permit that’s allowing Zenith Energy and what’s called the ‘critical energy infrastructure hub’, to sit on the Willamette river and unsafely store all of these fossil fuels? It was a perfect local-meets-national moment, and our goal really is number one, to draw awareness to it. 


Lots of folks don’t know that all of these tanks are sitting locally, on the Willamette River, just a mile from where we are now. And what the concern really is, besides the use of fossil fuels, is (what could happen when an) earthquake hits, which is bound to happen in the PNW. These tanks are stored in a super unsafe way that will result in explosions and intense fires. If folks are aware of what happened in East Palestine Ohio, with the train derailment, that’s exactly the situation we’re looking at here. It’s a climate issue for sure, but it’s also a health and community issue. 


Secondly, [our goal is] to actually get Portland City Council to do the work to rescind the permit, which is allowing [Zenith Oil] to be there. Awareness is important, but we also want the action to accompany it. We really think that this big push, with some national media and attention on Portland, could be one of the events or protests that leads to them actually making the decision to change that. 


And lastly, connecting it to the national fossil fuel fights. I think it’s easy to get a little bit disconnected, especially when it’s like ‘oh, Portland is generally green compared to other cities, and what Biden does at the national level won’t affect us’. Which sometimes is true and valid, but we want to do the work to show folks that we have to show up for federal policy and national fossil fuel resistance as well. Unfortunately, if individual people and communities don’t come together and do that work, [the fossil fuel industry is] gonna get away with it, because ultimately it’s so much easier to side with them. Or ‘easier’ for [policy makers], we don’t think so. So that’s the three main things that [the protest] is about. 


H: I notice that you’ve put a lot of effort into making this a friendly and safe environment for everyone. Do you think that community is important to creating positive change?


E: Yes, absolutely! Obviously, there are going to be some times in any kind of protest or action where it’s not the most safe. Luckily, in the event that we’re doing it in June, we’re able to make it safe and accessible. We don’t want people [to be unable to join us] for whatever reason, whether it’s ‘I don’t know how to kayak’, or ‘this doesn’t seem very family friendly’. We wanted it to be open to everyone because ultimately, the climate and social justice space is built for everyone. Oftentimes the people who feel that these spaces are the least accessible to them are also the people who are most affected by its impacts. One thing that we’re doing to make it more accessible is the kayak training, first thing in the morning. We want everyone to come out and be able to participate. And of course, if you don’t feel comfortable jumping in a kayak, which is understandable, we also want to have fun and productive things to be doing on land too. We’re gonna have an art build, and ‘Stop Zenith’ moments there too. 


But yeah, certainly including the whole community is so important, and that’s just one of the great things about 350PDX! Ultimately, we’re a community and movement-building organization. We don’t have just one specific niche that we show up in, we show up in the forest and the fossil fuel areas, so that there’s a spot for people to plug into. We just want to make sure that people feel empowered to be a part of something greater. And individual action is wonderful, and it’s great whenever anybody can do that, but what’s really really powerful is when we’re able to show up in numbers. We definitely prioritize and value that kind of community-building aspect of the event.


H: So how did you get involved in this type of activism? 


E: That’s a great question! My roots in climate actually started while I was in high school, but not through climate specifically. I grew up in a Spanish dual immersion program since I was in elementary school. Going through that program, we got a lot of really historical and cultural classes that a lot of other kids didn’t have access to. So in high school, I spent a lot of time studying colonization, modern colonization, and neo-colonization. [One] of the ways that manifest is through programs that involve voluntourism, which is essentially when people, whether through a religious experience or otherwise, just visit other countries, stay there for a few weeks, and do this thing called community development. [It] can be environmental, it can be [through] education, but they’re building structures and doing things to help the community, and then they eventually leave. So one thing I started looking into is the social and environmental impacts of trips like that, and the ways that colonization both historically, and contemporarily affects the environment. So that was my beginning. I continued to study language and history and culture through college but then added on that specific element of the environment. 


When I really started organizing, and not just thinking about these things in my head academically, was in college. I joined a group called the Climate Justice League at the University of Oregon, and I actually started out in forest defense. I eventually got really interested in fossil fuels and worked both on campus and in the community on anti-fossil fuel campaigns and divestment from fossil fuels. So that’s what got me here. And now at 350PDX, I’m the national fossil fuels organizer, so it all kind of makes sense! But yeah, I really value that cultural and societal aspect of organizing, because [losing that] is kind of what leads to this old-school, hippie type of environmentalism, which leaves out a lot of nuances of what climate justice and environmental justice are. I’m trying to put the emphasis back in the justice part. 


H: Oregon has had a long history of redlining and environmental racism. Do you think that the transportation of oil through the Portland area has affected different communities unequally? 


E: Absolutely. And this is a history that I’m still learning about. I actually just moved to Portland this past December so I’ve been here a handful of months, and there is a rich history of how, specifically the development of this industrial area along the Willamette and the trains and tracks that go through it, transporting oil, has affected communities. [On] the other side of the Willamette River, where that industrial area is on the west side of the river before all of these oil tanks and different industries and corporations came in, it was essentially a bunch of different immigrant communities. Of course before that, [it was] indigenous communities. When indigenous folks were stewarding this land, the Willamette used to be a braided river, with this awesome, diverse ecosystem. And what made it into the very thick, non-braided river that it is now, is this industry that got rid of it. And [after that] there was a hodge-podge of different immigrant communities. [The industrialists] started tearing down homes, essentially getting folks out by any means necessary, to do that development on that side of the river. So certainly there are some social justice impacts that are at play here, and it goes back all the way to when indigenous folks were inhabiting this land. 


H: Do you have any ideas on why Oregon regulators have failed to hold Zenith Oil accountable so far?


E: I think the most straightforward answer is gonna be that for whatever reason, it is the easy way out to put profit over people, and put convenience over people. Ultimately, so much of it comes down to money, and really doing whatever it takes to maintain the fossil fuel industry and the oil industry so that folks can benefit from it. Exploitation, whether it’s of people or of the land, equals profit for these folks. 


H: Do you have any advice for other people who are thinking about planning protests?


E: Yes, I have lots of advice! I think ultimately, for protests that are public and meant to be community building, safety is always the most important. And then in terms of actually going through the steps of planning, you always want to understand your goal of the protest, before you start deciding on the tactics and the strategies that you’re going to use to make that thing happen. So for example, this event didn’t come about just because we were like, ‘hmm, we want to kayak’! It had to be a lot more intentional than that. So you start with either ‘who is the enemy’, or ‘what is the goal’. We’ve got Zenith, we’ve got these tanks sitting on the river, what’s the strategy here? We’ve got media, we want to bring attention to it, we want strong visuals. What is a tactic that would bring that? A bunch of kayaks on the water brought attention to it. I think a place where a lot of folks go wrong is that they [think] ‘I want to do something so risky that it gets me arrested’, and you start with that endpoint, without thinking ‘What do we actually want to accomplish with that thing’. My number one piece of advice would be to decide on the goal and find your targets, and map that out before you decide on what the thing is. Because that’s going to change, once you fully think through the end goal of your action. That’s somewhere where there’s a lot of learning to be done. 


H: Is there anything else you’d like to share? 


E: I think just, I’d love to do a major plug for June 11th, because that’s gonna be such a fun time. There’s going to be art, we’ll be hitting the water for folks that are willing and able to jump in a kayak, and we’re gonna have a sweet brass band in a boat on the water! We’re so excited, and that really is going to be such a great way for both experienced organizers, who have been working on Zenith or generally in the fossil fuel resistance movement, to get plugged in and do another thing that moves us forward, and for beginners to see the process through and through of ‘ok, I check in here, these people are gonna tell me where to go, I’m gonna hear a spiel about what this whole thing is about, and then I’ll be a little less lost and confused’. So it’s great for everyone! 


Ultimately (and this also connects to some advice about organizing), you always want to have the next thing to point people to, whether that’s another action, whether that’s a training, an event, an open house for your organization for people to get plugged in. At your event, you want to be able to say ‘come back and go to this thing’, or ‘join us next here, at this thing’. For me and my work, for fossil fuels, that next thing is happening in September. The UN secretary general António Guterres is hosting his climate summit in the United States, in New York, and one really awesome and fierce thing he did [was that he] said the ticket to entry to get into the UN climate summit is that the country makes a promise to begin phasing out fossil fuels; coal, oil, gas, etc. What’s really amazing and hilarious about that is that Biden hasn’t promised to do that, which essentially means, he’s not really getting an invite to a climate summit that’s being held in his own country. So, the next thing that the people vs fossil fuels coalition, and the national organizing aspect of 350PDX are focusing on is gonna be that September action. There’s gonna be so much energy coming out of June, [people will be more] aware of Biden breaking his climate promises. And then between June and September, locally in Portland, there’s gonna be so much amazing stuff to plug into. Anti-Zenith events, kayak training, it’s gonna be a sweet summer of action. I just want to put that out there, and we’re excited to really build an intergenerational movement this year!

If you’d like to learn more about the “Paddle Zenith out of Portland” protest and other local actions, please go to the People v.s. Fossil Fuels website ( and Let’s show our leaders that we’re tired of them prioritizing profit over people!