Earlier this week, I (Monica) attended the Sunrise Movement rally in DC, which most people think of as a movement of young people demanding immediate and drastic action on climate change. But listening to the leaders of the movement, who are much more diverse than the traditional “green” groups, one thing was abundantly clear — this movement is about much more than just climate – it is rooted in environmental justice, with a desire to end the oppression of pollution that unduly burdens communities of color in the U.S.
Which is why the recent creation of the Senate Environmental Justice Caucus by Senators Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Tom Carper (D-DE) is so important. The Green New Deal’s “architect,” Rhiana Gunn-Wright, explained it this way — if the only agency involved in implementing climate change and environmental policy reforms is the Department of Energy, it would be woefully inadequate. The new environmental movement is intersectional — and minorities are insisting that they will lead it in order to ensure that low-income and communities of color see an end to toxic air, water, and waste pollution that are dangerous and are disproportionately impacting them today.
“Every American has the right to breathe safe air, drink clean water and live on uncontaminated land regardless of their zip code, the size of their wallet and the color of their skin.” said Senator Duckworth. “That’s why I’m proud to start the Senate’s first Environmental Justice Caucus to raise awareness of the fact that communities of color face public health challenges at alarming rates while too many in power look the other way. Together, we will be strong advocates for every person’s right to a safe, healthy and livable environment.”
“We cannot achieve economic justice or social justice in this country without also addressing environmental justice,” said Senator Booker. “The fact that communities of color, low-income communities, and indigenous communities across the country disproportionately face environmental hazards and harmful pollutants on a daily basis has been ignored for far too long.”
And Senators Duckworth, Booker and Carper made a powerful case for why their caucus is so important to galvanizing legislative support for laws and funding to correct these injustices. In an op/ed in the Chicago Sun-Times that ran on Thursday, they recount the history of the movement, its foundations in civil rights, and where they hope to lead it. We have, with their permission, excerpted it below.
As a series of trucks headed toward Warren County, North Carolina, a crowd of residents gathered together to lie down in the middle of the road.
It was September 1982, and as they got down onto the ground, a movement rose up.
The residents were protesting North Carolina’s decision to dump 6,000 truckloads of toxic soil into their poor, predominantly African American community. They cried foul after officials brushed aside concerns that the toxic chemicals could bleed into their drinking water and poison their families. ….
They got arrested by the hundreds — peacefully, but relentlessly fighting back against this latest outrageous instance of environmental racism.
Eventually, the government had its way, and the soil was dumped from the trucks into the town.
But those protests sparked something larger. They ignited a movement to recognize every person’s right to a safe, healthy and livable environment and helped launch a new chapter in the fight for civil rights.
A chapter that found early roots on the South Side of Chicago and Newark’s Iron Bound section, led by heroes such as Hazel Johnson and Nancy Vak, who recognized the urgent need for environmental justice.
A chapter that’s still being written today. …
Of course, one of the more recent, brazen examples took place in Flint, Michigan. There, the city’s attempt to save a few dollars set off a chain of events that poisoned more than 6,000 kids in 18 months, as elected officials covered their eyes to the crisis at hand.
But while Flint was a tragedy, it was not an anomaly.
There are thousands of communities in the United States with lead poisoning rates at least double those in Flint during the peak of their contamination crisis. …
There’s something wrong when black kids on the South and West sides of Chicago are eight times more likely to die from asthma than white children, as industrial fumes from chemical plants nearby fill their lungs while they play at recess.
There’s something wrong when parents in Newark, New Jersey are warned that their toddlers risk brain damage if they drink unfiltered tap water, or when the number one cause of absenteeism in school is asthma brought on by exposure to diesel emissions and air pollution. …
There’s something wrong when a light rain in Wilmington, Delaware, inundates the streets of Southbridge with flooding, putting the health and safety of predominately African American and working-class residents at risk. …
Every American deserves access to clean air and water. No matter their zip code, the color of their skin or the size of their income.
This isn’t “just” an environmental issue. …
It’s a matter of systemic racism, and of discrimination against those in poorer neighborhoods. …
That’s why on Earth Day, we officially launched the Senate’s first-ever Environmental Justice Caucus.
We refuse to stay quiet as the Trump administration ignores these crises or as Donald Trump’s EPA hems and haws, then avoids taking proper regulatory action, choosing corporate polluters over American lives time and time again. …
With this caucus, we’re hoping to continue the movement that those Warren County residents helped usher in as they lay down in their streets — doing everything we can to end these interwoven crises of health, safety and justice.
One bill passed, one water fountain tested, one child saved at a time.
We at Our Daily Planet could not agree more. We will continue to tell the stories of the movement every day so that one day soon, together we can reverse these injustices. To read the full op/ed, click here.