Whitakers, N.C. — The 17th annual summit of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, held Oct. 16-17, brought together communities from across the state facing environmental racism from the impacts of landfills, sewage spray fields, fracking, gas pipelines and industrial animal farms.
Manzoor Cheema, a co-founder of Muslims for Social Justice, defined the Environmental Justice movement in his keynote as “bringing a racial and class analysis to an environmental movement where it is sorely lacking. They can save the whales or the redwood forest, but are blind to Black and Brown people.”
In addition to panels of activists and community members, scientists and academics from as far as Universidade Federal da Bahia in Brazil presented research documenting the disproportionate impact of various forms of pollution and environmental disasters on Black and Latino/a communities. NCEJN co-founder, scientist and “people’s” professor Steve Wing was honored for his work exposing the toxic exposure of Black communities in Eastern North Carolina to hog farms, landfills and sewage sludge, and for his commitment to participatory research designed to inform and benefit communities rather than exploit them.
State violence as environmental injustice
The plenary panel linked the direct state violence of police brutality and imperialist wars with environmental racism. Panelists discussed examples such as that of Agent Orange, an imperialist weapon that not only caused immediate death and destruction, but continued to perpetuate violence through long-term environmental devastation. Others discussed the violence and “micro-aggressions” of schools that resemble prisons and universities that defend racist Confederate monuments.
Saladin Muhammad of Black Workers for Justice described the interplay between state violence and environmental racism in the unnatural disaster of Hurricane Katrina, in which historic underdevelopment left Black communities more vulnerable and the police kept people from seeking higher ground or returning to their homes later. The key link, he said, was in understanding the role of the state and “how it commits violence against oppressed people. The government is not neutral. There is a class that controls it with corporate-driven policies to oppress, exploit and maximize profits.”
Cheema pointed out that Eric Garner, killed by New York police officers last year, suffered environmental racism in the form of asthma. Due to exposure to pollution and substandard housing, African Americans are 20 percent more likely to suffer from asthma and three times more likely to die from asthma-related causes than whites. Similarly, he pointed out that Freddie Gray suffered lead poisoning due to the environmental racism of substandard housing in Baltimore. Like direct state violence, he said, “environmental racism is a process designed to eliminate Black and Brown people.”
The panel resonated with rural victims of environmental racism. Lewis Dozier, president of the Royal Oak Concerned Citizens Association, noted: “The greatest weapon that Caucasian capitalism has against us is that they have a buffer of poor white people between them and us. How can we get poor and desperate white people suffering to get over the white thing and get with us? If we could get them to get rid of this color thing — we must see what we can do to get that in motion.” The association recently defeated a landfill proposal for their community.
The summit closed with a discussion of the role of the EJ movement in combating climate change. After lengthy discussion the summit adopted a draft statement, available at tinyurl.com/NCEJNstatementWW, that links climate change directly to capitalism:
“Climate change is a symptom of global capitalism, just like fever is a symptom of infection. Treating climate change as the fundamental issue is like practicing medicine in the era before germs were identified as the causes of infection. Cold compresses may help a fever, but they do not treat infection. Because fossil fuel is the lifeblood of the global economy, the climate justice movement must engage with the infection — capitalism — and not just the fever, climate change. Treating the symptoms will not prevent disaster. To treat the infection we have to build a movement that is inclusive, which requires putting racial and economic justice and self-determination first. Our job is to bring this environmental justice perspective to our allies and the communities we serve.”
Gilbert is on the board of the NC EJN and served on the summit’s planning committee.