In 1982, protests against a toxic dump site in Warren County, North Carolina, in the US kicked off what we know today as the “environmental justice movement.” Many in this rural community contended Warren County was chosen as the site because most of its citizens were Black and poor.
Today, Black families are most likely to live surrounded by toxic air pollutants extractive industries discharge into their backyards, especially in the US. Black people face a more immediate threat whenever they leave their homes: the police. To disconnect the two is irresponsible. Polluting industries don’t wind up in Black communities by accident. Neither do police. It’s all by design.
“Racism is the main connector,” Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president of environmental justice at the National Wildlife Federation, told Gizmodo. “Out of that racism has been a disinvestment in communities, the trauma, the assault that has been going on for decades upon decades, some people would say for centuries.”
Jacqueline Patterson, the director of the NAACP’s environmental and climate justice programme, is one of those people. “We, as Black people in the United States and even beyond, have historically and in the present day had the boot of white supremacy on our neck,” she said. “[We] came across from the continent in the hull of a ship barely having an inch to move, much less to be able to breathe fresh air – we were cargo – so from the time we came to this United States, we have been in a state of imprisonment in one way or another.”
When videos showed Minneapolis Police Department officer Derek Chauvin using his knee to pin down George Floyd, ultimately killing him, cities around the US erupted into protest. Some of Floyd’s last words were, “I can’t breathe.” Eric Garner, killed by New York City Police Department officer Daniel Pantaleo in 2014, uttered those words 11 times before he died. These words have become the rallying cry for the Movement for Black Lives – but also for the environmental justice movement.
We know both men died at the hands of the police. Their autopsies also revealed underlying health conditions that are rampant in the Black community, often due to air pollution. For Garner, it was asthma. For Floyd, heart disease. Neither died from these conditions – police officers killed them – but they’re indicative of the heavy toll pollution takes on the communities that live in the shadows of smokestacks, waste treatment plants, and industrial sites.
“I can’t breathe.”
These three words dig deep at what it means to be Black in America, an experience non-Black people like myself will never understand. The sentiment behind these words also carries weight for the environmental movement.
Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring is often hailed as the spark that launched the environmental movement. Perhaps that’s true for the mainstream movement many support today, but Black and brown activists have long been fighting for their right to clean air and water. History professor Chad Montrie at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell lays this history bare in his book The Myth of ‘Silent Spring’: Rethinking the Origins of American Environmentalism.
In 1962, the same year Carson published her groundbreaking book on the dangers of pesticides in the suburbs, the United Farm Workers union was founded in an effort to protect Mexican Americans and migrants from the dangers they were facing from pesticides in the workplace. Despite the everyday realities of these workers, Carson didn’t make much room for them in her book. These Chicano activists might have not thought of themselves as environmentalists then, but that’s exactly what they were. History largely fails to remember that.
“We have this bizarre historical interpretation that the environmental movement starts in the suburbs,” Montrie told Gizmodo. “What that does is reframe the story of the environmental movement that completely excludes all the other work that people were doing well before [Silent Spring] and excludes race and class.”
During America's civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s, Black leaders were shining a light on a different pollutant people were facing within their homes: lead. In St. Louis, poor Black residents organised around the lead paint in their homes poisoning their children. With the help of Wilbur Thomas, a Black scientist, the community built enough evidence to push action upon city leaders who had tried to blame this exposure on parents instead of the environmental and social forces that create these conditions in the first place.
Thomas gave a speech at the first Earth Day in 1970 titled “Black Survival in Our Polluted Cities.” He laid out what Montrie calls in his book, “the racist economic and political forces responsible for the environmental burden urban Black Americans experienced.”
“The nitty gritty issue relevant to Blacks is simply the fact that a disproportionate number of Blacks are exposed to more environmental health hazards than non-Blacks in addition to the regular burden,” Thomas said during that speech. “Exposure to additional hazards such as lead poisoning, infant mortality, air pollution and land pollution, and rat control are all indigenous problems to most Black communities.”
These same racist economic and political forces Thomas called out exist today. These forces are why Black people are most likely to be exposed to air pollution that white people create. They are why Black neighbourhoods previously denied access to government services experience higher levels of extreme heat. These forces are to blame for the police brutality protestors have taken to the streets to contest. These powers that be are why Black people fill the country’s prison cells for crimes that data shows their white counterparts commit at equal rates. They’re why these same incarcerated people are put on the frontlines to battle massive wildfires that are growing more extreme due to climate change. These racist economic and political forces are why US states leave incarcerated populations in the path of hurricanes or without heat during extreme cold events. It’s to blame for all this and more.
“Violence, by definition, is when something extreme happens to someone, and the commonalities [between police brutality and pollution] are that it’s not something someone wants. It is done against someone, and it’s done with intent,” Patterson told Gizmodo. “All of those are qualities shared by the wilful pollution of our communities and the wilful targeting and dehumanising of us as people by the military state… so whether it is a bullet that’s shooting us in the street or it is a coal plant or oil refinery or a nuclear reactor that’s killing us in the community, it’s the same result in terms of our disproportionate demise. So we see a moral, spiritual, and literal equivalency between these factors that are targeting us, that are harming us, that are killing us.”
Mattias Lehman was two years old when he almost died from an asthma attack. As a Black man, he knows all too well the violence that follows him due to his race – both from his exposure to pollution and from his interaction with police. That asthma attack was one of his first experiences of this violence. This happened in the Los Angeles of 1991, at a time when the city suffered from some of the worst air pollution nationwide. This was also the year officers with the Los Angeles Police Department brutally attacked Rodney King, resulting in widespread protests.
Now, Lehman works as the digital director for the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate group that centres justice, people of colour, and the fight for a Green New Deal. It’s one of the few climate organisations taking a holistic approach to the climate crisis. You can’t build a better world by only cutting greenhouse gases and pollution. You build a better world through creating opportunity, building safe spaces for everyone to work and play in, and giving people liveable wages in industries that don’t harm public health.
“[Climate change] only escalates a reality that was already there,” Lehman told Gizmodo. “If we still had the same economy we did, but, for some reason, greenhouse gases didn’t cause a problem, we would still have these same systems of exploitation in place in Black and brown communities.”
The environmental movement doesn’t always recognise the weight of racial inequality. Organisations and advocates have been slow to speak out about this despite the fact that demands Black Lives Matter activists are making around defunding and abolishing police are directly in line with demands from climate groups to divert more funding into local climate and environmental programs. Change has been happening in the green space albeit slowly. Earlier this month, 224 groups came out in support of the Movement for Black Lives. These groups need to stay committed and be quick to respond in the face of inequality.
The phrase “I can’t breathe” is one of the clearest way to see these parallels between two movements that, for too long, have failed to come together. However, it’s not on Black organisers to educate and reach out to historically white environmentalists. No, it’s on these mainstream groups to do the work to reach out and listen.
“I keep watching that video over and over again and look at that policeman as he has his knee on this brother’s neck, and he’s not even looking at him,” Patterson said. “I look at Mr Floyd, and I see his eyes close as he’s grimacing in pain and his lips parted as he’s gasping for breath and calling for his mother. It’s both a literal and metaphorical state of African Americans in this country, and that’s why you see the rage that’s burning in the streets because, in so many ways, that image is our existence.”
As protestors come together to demand an end to police brutality, we can’t forget the other forms of violence that permeate Black communities. This violence is insidious; it’s everywhere. Pollution and the police are but two shapes this violence can take.
Featured image: Bettmann via Getty Images