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Candidates Should Visit the Country’s Most Polluted Areas, Activists Say

Few candidates have made a point of visiting environmental justice communities as part of their campaigns.

Protesters march down Woodward Avenue in front of the Fox Theatre on July 30, 2019, in Detroit, Michigan. Few candidates have made a point of visiting environmental justice communities as part of their campaigns.

Hundreds of activists marched on the Fox Theater in Detroit on Tuesday as Democratic presidential hopefuls readied themselves for a televised debate, generating headlines about the local push for a Green New Deal. Using the hashtag #Visit48217, activists are also demanding that the candidates visit an area in southwest Detroit considered to be the most polluted zip code in Michigan, where lower-income neighborhoods of color live in the shadow of a massive oil refinery.

The climate crisis remains a top issue for Democratic primary voters, and some of the more ambitious climate plans unveiled by top candidates reflect the movement for climate justice, which centers communities directly impacted by climate disruption and fossil fuel pollution. The Green New Deal proposal in Congress has set a high bar for presidential hopefuls with its plan for a massive public investment in sustainable energy and green infrastructure. The resolution contains specific language about environmental justice communities — neighborhoods that are overburdened by pollution and economic decline in environmental “sacrifice zones.”

Environmental justice communities tend to be Black and Brown, as polluters have concentrated their operations in areas impacted by institutionally racist policies of the past, such as the redlining of urban neighborhoods of color and the mass displacement of Native Americans. Despite decades of grassroots organizing, the federal government has done little to address widespread environmental discrimination that has left communities across the country without clean air and water.

While moderates say the Green New Deal is a pie-in-the-sky proposal, activists who have fought environmental racism for decades see it as a real opportunity for reducing harmful pollution and revitalizing environmental justice communities with green jobs — but only if these communities have a say in policymaking. Bernie Sanders has embraced the Green New Deal, and climate plans put forth by frontrunners such as Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg contain environmental and racial justice components. However, few presidential candidates have made a point of visiting environmental justice communities as part of their campaigns. Activists say that must change.

For activists, a campaign stop at an environmental justice community would not just about be shoring up votes for the right candidate. It would be about ensuring that candidates are listening to the voices, experiences and policy recommendations of the people most impacted by pollution and environmental degradation.

“We want to make sure that 48217 is part of these potentially game-changing set of policies,” said Antonio Cosme, an environmental justice activist from southwest Detroit, in an interview with Truthout ahead of Tuesday’s debate.

Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a member of “the Squad” who represents southwest Detroit in Congress, echoed the call on Twitter:

Over the weekend, local activists and civil rights leader Rev. William Barber II called on candidates to visit the petrochemical corridor known as Cancer Alley in Louisiana, where environmental justice activists are challenging a rapidly expanding industry that threatens to wipe rural Black communities off the map. Barber challenged the 2020 presidential candidates to visit Reserve, Louisiana, where residents have the highest risk of developing cancer in the nation due to airborne toxins emitted by chemical plants.

“If you cannot come here to Reserve, then you don’t have any business being president,” Barber said during a tour of Cancer Alley on Saturday, according to The Guardian.

Of the 20 candidates that appeared on the debate stage over two nights in Detroit, only Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington attended a community meeting on environmental justice in 48217 ahead of the second televised debate on Wednesday, according to organizers in Detroit. Inslee had already visited 48217 earlier in the week to announce his Community Climate Justice Plan, part of the governor’s ambitious climate agenda that he hopes will set him apart from the other candidates.

Like the growing movement for climate justice that is pushing for a Green New Deal, Inslee’s climate proposal focuses on frontline communities impacted by climate disruption and fossil fuel pollution that are so often lower-income neighborhoods of color. Inslee has proposed $9 trillion in spending to build a 100 percent clean energy economy that provides an estimated 8 million jobs. His plan recognizes that pollution reductions in one area have historically resulted in pollution increases in disadvantaged communities, overburdening residents with less political clout.

Inslee’s plan acknowledges the nation’s legacy of environmental racism, and his administration would use pollution mapping tools to track environmental “equity” as the climate plan rolls out. Inslee would also reorganize the federal bureaucracy to put leaders from environmental justice communities at the decision-making table. His plan would create an environmental justice office at the Department of Justice that would use federal laws to aggressively target polluters. This office would likely replace the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Civil Rights, which has been mired in controversy for years for failing to act on a long list of environmental racism complaints.

“Inslee has the strongest platform for engaging with environmental justice yet … but he is a real small-chance candidate,” Cosme said.

Cosme had hoped some higher-profile candidates, such as Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg would answer the call from climate justice activists and show up for the meeting in 48217. Biden and Buttigieg’s climate platforms contain environmental justice provisions, while Warren has focused on countering “white supremacy” and holding various industries accountable for carbon pollution. She is also campaigning on free early childhood education, arguing the benefits would be particularly substantial for the same lower-income communities of color that often bear the brunt of pollution. Campaign offices for all three candidates did not respond to email inquiries from Truthout by the time this story was published.

Sen. Cory Booker and Sen. Kamala Harris are both pushing sweeping environmental justice legislation in the Senate, with Harris teaming up with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez this week to unveil a plan for expanding the environmental justice section of the Green New Deal. Both legislative efforts would create a federal office that would represent environmental justice communities in Congress and at federal agencies and assess the impacts of new regulations and legislation. The bills build on a Clinton-era executive order requiring federal agencies to evaluate the environmental impacts of their decisions on at-risk communities. (The Clinton-era requirement, as it stands, has proved toothless over the years.) As long as Republicans hold a majority in the Senate, the legislation has little chance of passing.

Booker co-founded the Senate’s Environmental Justice Caucus and visited environmental justice hotspots around the country in 2017, including communities covered by Truthout. This is exactly what activists want the rest of the Democratic field to do.

Marianne Williamson, the self-help guru making a presidential run, made a splash in Tuesday’s televised debate by bringing attention to widespread “environmental injustice” that impacts “communities of color and disadvantaged communities all over this country.” Williamson said the problem is much bigger than Flint, Michigan, where a drinking water contamination crisis brought national attention to environmental justice during the 2016 election season. The statement drew a notable applause, a sign that after several decades of grassroots organizing, the environmental justice movement is garnering much-needed attention on the national stage. However, Williamson’s press team did not respond to an inquiry from Truthout about whether the candidate has any plans to visit the communities she spoke of.

Activists have been pushing for federal action on environmental racism for decades to no avail, often because polluters have a wealth of resources and political clout. If communities impacted by environmental racism are not part of the climate solution, they could be left behind as the country begins moving toward a greener economy. Green tech may be all the rage in wealthy, coastal cities, but what about places like Detroit, Houston and Louisiana’s Cancer Alley, where polluting industries are entrenched?

Environmental justice leaders have been fighting pollution for years, making their knowledge and voices incredibly valuable — if national leaders would take the time to listen.

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