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Hit Hard by Toxic Smoke and COVID-19, This Chicago Neighborhood Fought Back

Kelly Hayes talks with activist and organizer Juliana Pino about environmental racism in the time of COVID-19.

El Foro Del Pueblo holds a demonstration outside City Hall in downtown Chicago, on May 20, 2020.

Part of the Series

Kelly Hayes talks with activist and organizer Juliana Pino about environmental racism in the time of COVID-19, particularly in the Little Village neighborhood in Chicago, Illinois.

Note: This is a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.


Kelly Hayes: Welcome to Movement Memos, a Truthout podcast about things you should know if you want to change the world. I’m your host, Kelly Hayes. Today, we are going to talk about environmental racism and some of the dirty work that’s been unfolding under the cover of a pandemic. On April 11, a massive cloud of toxic dust overtook Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood after a smokestack at an old coal power plant was demolished. The implosion blanketed the neighborhood in a cloud that looked like something out of a war zone. The reckless nature of the demolition was immediately slammed by activists, who have insisted that there was no need to conduct any demolition that could unleash toxic dust during a respiratory pandemic. Little Village has two ZIP codes and one of them has more confirmed cases of COVID-19 than any other ZIP code in the state of Illinois.

Today’s guest is Juliana Pino. Juliana is the policy director for the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization. LVEJO is a community-based frontline group based in Little Village, Chicago, that organizes for environmental justice and the self-determination of immigrant, low-income and working-class families. As an organizer, Juliana works to subvert, mitigate and challenge patterns of systemic violence committed by institutions and individuals against marginalized people, and to center community visions and expertise in crafting a new future. Juliana Pino, welcome to the show.

Juliana Pino: Hey, it’s great to be here. Grateful for this space.

KH: How are you doing today?

JP: I’m feeling good to be really present with you and to talk about things that matter very much and, in thinking about how I’m doing, I want to make sure that I name that we’re speaking today, both of us, from Chicago. This is the land of the Council of Three Fires, the Potawatomi, Ojibwe and Odawa. This land also served as an important geography for Miami, Ho-Chunk, the Menominee, Inoka, Sac, Fox, Peoria and other tribal nations. This land was violently taken under settler colonialism through genocidal actions and open warfare, and Illinois is still currently home [to] thousands of Native people who are actively struggling for sovereignty, self-determination and justice. And in solidarity with those struggles, definitely want to lift up the work of the Chi-Nations Youth Council, who are doing mutual aid in this time of COVID-19 to support Native folks currently residing in Chicago. Give them your money and your support.

KH: Thank you for naming that, and I hope our listeners will consider supporting the Chi-Nations Youth Council. They are currently raising money to support their work delivering groceries and pet food to Native families in Chicago, and if folks would like to contribute to those efforts, we will have that opportunity linked in the transcript. Now, to dive into what’s been happening, this past week, a protest unfolded in the Logan Square neighborhood, outside the home of Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot. While car caravan protests are not unusual in our city during shelter-in-place, we don’t often see people marching on foot these days, for obvious reasons. But the protest was an escalation in response to Chicago’s mayor allowing another demolition to be scheduled, with no notice after saying it wouldn’t happen again. The event provoked a swift response from the mayor, who indicated on Twitter that she would halt a demolition that had been scheduled for the following day. As someone who came across the protest while scrolling on Facebook and then started watching, I have to say, the imagery was striking. People were marching in the dark, using banners to model physical distancing and wearing masks to protect each other. There was a serious police presence and those lights were flashing, but the righteous energy at work was front and center. What can you tell us about that protest?

JP: The protest really was born from anger, frustration, and a feeling, I think, on the part of residents that enough was enough, you know, in having the situation where the Little Village community was faced with yet another planned demolition during a respiratory pandemic in a neighborhood with extreme levels of respiratory distress from environmental degradation, past and current. The neighbors were shocked. You know, the city on April 11 had already conducted a planned implosion of the coal stack of the coal plant and such a massive explosion, dispersed dust, [pollution], toxic dust throughout the neighborhood and adjacent communities. We had devastation as a result of that and extreme fear about the consequences of that kind of exposure, especially right now. So to hear, again, with no notice, much like last time that this was going to happen again. I think folks said to themselves, this is a life-or-death situation, and we absolutely have to do everything we can to stop this from happening one more time. And you know, as you noted, this comes on the heels of a long legacy of pollution in Little Village and in Chicago’s communities of color, Black, Brown, Indigenous communities. Low-income people in Chicago are facing this every day. And I think one key thing to note here is that I think that’s part of how that was organized spontaneously by residents, many of whom build with El Foro Del Pueblo, I want to shout them out. [The action outside the mayor’s home was organized by El Foro Del Pueblo, a community-based, all-volunteer organization of Little Village residents.] They hold elected officials accountable. And you know, it’s that lifetime of consequences, building up to this point, and this isn’t something that folks all of a sudden say. “Wow, this is so upsetting. I’m going to do something right now.” This is something folks have been organizing around for years and it was just too much. It just crossed too many lines and folks said, enough was enough. We have to fight for our lives.

A cloud of dust blankets rows of houses
A cloud of dust from the implosion of a smokestack at an old coal power plant in Chicago spreads through the Little Village neighborhood.

KH: Absolutely. So to rewind, for folks who aren’t familiar with the story, let’s first go back to about a month ago, April 11, when the implosion that blanketed Little Village in toxic smoke occurred. I watched the drone footage of that implosion, and it was just horrifying. As someone who has been sheltering in place myself, which is already an anxiety-inducing situation for us all, I can’t even imagine what it must have been like for folks to see the world outside their windows disappear in that unnatural haze. Or worse, to be on your way to or from your essential job, or the grocery store, or the pharmacy, and suddenly, you’re surrounded by smoke and dust, and you’re breathing it, because your cloth mask is not gonna filter the filth out of that air. And as many people noted, this disaster never would have happened in Lakeview or Streeterville, or any of Chicago’s wealthier or whiter neighborhoods. It would never be considered, and everyone who lives in this town can attest to that. But even though there’s nothing new about the violence of environmental racism in Chicago, I think a lot of us were startled by the extremity of this action. Seeing photos of people who were caught outside after the implosion, walking and riding their bikes, just silhouettes in a fog. It was just unthinkable. How, in your understanding, did we get there?

JP: I think that we got here through a few different pathways all coming together in one toxic situation for the community and for communities across the city. In terms of the implosion itself, what we have in the site where the implosion happened is a former coal generating station that ran for over half a century in the Little Village community. And when it was running, the pollution from that station was causing immense death, suffering and grief with 43 people dying prematurely per year, thousands of asthma attacks and emergency room visits, lost days of work and school, and incredible suffering in the community. Little Village and our organization, the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, are probably best well known on the national and international stage for running a campaign alongside the Pilsen Environmental Rights and Reform Organization to shut down that coal power, coal fired plants, along with Fisk generating station in Pilsen less than two miles away. That was in 2012. The city facilitated the sale of that property to Hilco Global … a major global company that, you know, one core part of their business is to acquire industrial properties and “turn them over,” essentially cleaning them up to their version of what a cleanup should be, and then using them for additional industrial uses to turn a profit.

KH: Like flipping an apartment.

JP: Like flipping an apartment, but flipping an industrial site. Absolutely. And it should be understood and that sort of speculative, market driven, completely irrespective of the surrounding property or the consequences, type of activity. Very similar to the kinds of activity you see on a residence by residence basis when we talk about gentrification. So they, much like they have in other cities, acquired the site. The sale was a private property to a private property, and in Chicago, when that happens, that does not need to be disclosed to the public according to our current laws. So we found out through a politician letting us know, because he knew that we were going to be extremely concerned, and he didn’t want us to come for him. So that was the former Alderman Ricardo Muñoz that represented the neighborhood in the 22nd Ward in Chicago. And at that point, the sale was already done. Again, we were extremely concerned because of the nature of what this company does.

And they immediately began pedaling stories about investment in the community. You know, this was a great neighborhood to come to because, quote unquote, the labor was “sticky.” To them, that meant that, you know, Black and Brown people in the community, it’s a majority Latinx community, Mexican American immigrant community, Central American immigrant community, that those folks would be highly, quote, “employable.” And that the site being nearby the interstate and nearby other industrial amenities would make it the perfect place for them to capitalize and to build a business. Now, the racist and offensive nature of the way that they were thinking about this, it just added on to the harm that community members could already see coming. So they started to fight back right away. And again, this is a neighborhood that knows about what industrial actors are capable of and could see, oh wow, you know, the years of planning that we did as a neighborhood, even with city-sanctioned processes for what the site could become instead, are just being thrown to the wayside to capitulate to this big industrial actor who’s coming in with a bunch of money saying that they’re not going to take tax breaks, which they ultimately were granted $19.7 million in tax breaks, and they’re, you know, they’re up to no good. We have to stop this. So, you know, let’s fast forward several years of organizing later and we get to the demolition process on the site. They’ve gotten their, quote unquote, permits, their allowances to pollute up to the local regulations and, you know, amidst promises of transparency and safety and all of this stuff, there began to be major problems on the site. Fires, safety issues in December of 2019. To get us a little closer to the current timeline, a community member who was working on the site, a 54-year-old gentleman, fell to his death because of their negligent safety practices. So the community already was mourning the loss of someone as recently as December.

Only a few months back. You know, we get into the new year, they’re still not doing anything. OSHA, the occupational safety regulators at the federal level shut the site down very briefly, and then it was like nothing happened. We continue to warn politicians. We continue to agitate to say that the company was lying about their activities, that they weren’t following proper regulations and that slapping them with small fines wasn’t going to change their behavior. And then you get to April, April 9 when we find out at literally 11:00 p.m. that the company planned to, during a respiratory pandemic, demolish the smokestack. To put that action into context for folks in other countries where when they demolish smoke stacks or coal plants of this size, we’re talking 73 acres, they vacate the surrounding premises. This is not an activity that is not well known to be dangerous, and in fact, in Chicago, this kind of demolition hadn’t been done since 2005. When the last time that happened, there was a demolition of a public housing complex, and the explosion could be seen from downtown, and it caused a political uproar, and was essentially banned, unless you got special approval, affirmative approval by the city. So that’s important here because this is not a routine permitted activity that they could say, well, you know, paper pushers in the department, they just didn’t think it was important and they missed it. This is something that the city had to affirmatively allow in order for it to happen.

KH: And that point is particularly infuriating, because the mayor’s office really tried to act like they were caught off guard by the whole thing. As you said, this required special permission from the Commissioner of Buildings, so the city had to go out of its way to say that it was okay with this. And in addition to that, I was on Twitter that day and I saw the Chicago Fire Department tweet that they were present and supervised the demolition and that tweet said there were “no problems,” as though they thought it went fine, even as the smoke cloud enveloped the neighborhood. And it wasn’t until after there was this community uproar and after this drone footage was circulating widely that it was even acknowledged that there had been a problem. And at that point, the mayor acted just shocked and appalled that it could go down like this and insisted somebody was going to be held accountable for this. And yet, you know, obviously the city was very involved in the decision making that led up to this. What can you tell us about the mayor’s response and how hypocritical it was?

JP: Absolutely. I’d be very pleased to detail that. I think what is incredible here is the very thing that you said. This is something that the Commissioner of Buildings, one of the most senior officials in the city, the most senior official in charge of demolition in a department, had to, had to allow this for it to happen. Which is just frankly shocking and that there was no notice to the community in advance. There was no, you know, acknowledgement of the incredible recklessness or risk that was coming toward Little Village and all of the adjacent neighborhoods. And what was astonishing to me was the mayor’s official position on this was that, well, the company made promises they didn’t keep to the city. They promised that they would be using all of these protective measures to contain this explosion. And wow, they sure didn’t do that. And we’re very disappointed and we will be investigating and you know, penalizing someone in that chain in the company, and you know, we demand that this be cleaned up and that “measures be taken.” One of my favorite phrases, by the way, and I think the irony there is that putting the narrative frame around the company exclusively absolves really the administration the decision makers in the administration and the mayor herself from responsibility for what happened, and it’s our view that everybody’s at fault here, and they’re all trying to attempt to point the blame at other parts of the decision making chain to say, well, that person should have done this or that entity did that, when actually, all of them participated in facilitating this event to become real and to solely blame the company is disingenuous, frankly, and just not accurate to how these decisions get made in Chicago specifically, where the administration has a lot of permitting power and could have stopped this. They could have denied the permit. They could have said this should happen, but only in a certain amount of time, with notice with protective measures, not during a stay at home order that’s imposed by the state of Illinois, but they failed to do all of those things. And that failure sits squarely on the administration as well as our local alderman who found out, and this is Alderman Mike Rodriguez, also the 22nd ward, now the current alderman who found out 10 days prior to the implosion on the 11th and didn’t do anything to notify anyone or to say anything to us as an organization, to other neighborhood organizations, to neighbors about what was coming, you know? And the answer there was, “Well, the permits were already pulled. They already had permission. And this is something that the city sanctioned and said that, you know, we didn’t have the authority to stop.” And I think my contention there is that there are many other things that elected officials can do to support community well-being even when something is not technically the procedural lever that would stop something. He could have used his platform. He could have said something, he could have warned neighbors. He could have gone to the media. He did none of those things. And so the responsibility also rests with him. And I think the appalling thing is circling back to the time when this is happening, you know this at the, at the point at which the implosion happened, we weren’t here yet in the numbers, but those of us, including you, Kelly, I’ve been following all the things that you’ve been saying, you know, we at LVEJO moved very quickly on responding to coronavirus, seeing what was happening in other countries and taking that seriously. We weren’t here yet where Little Village has the highest number of coronavirus cases in the entire state of Illinois. We weren’t here yet. But where we were was that this pandemic is hitting Black and Brown communities and people with respiratory diseases and people with chronic illness and other disabilities so hard and that those communities and those community members were being failed by the state in terms of not being prioritized, not getting testing, not getting protective measures, and in Little Village you had that with community members who had a lifetime of respiratory struggles already due to the legacy and the present day pollution in the neighborhood. You also have Cook County Jail, the largest single site jail facility, and all of the thousands of people in the jail, many of whom are Little Village community members, but all of whom we consider community members of the neighborhood while they live there, while they’re forcibly incarcerated there, those folks were also getting complete deprioritization not having any substantive measures to protect them, are also exposed to the poor air quality and the legacy of environmental pollutants. And that was the sort of status quo. There was panic and frustration and stress in the community. And now, we have all of that and we have deaths and we have losses, including the loss of a community member who was outside in his house three blocks away from the facility when the implosion hit, he was outside later that day, the implosion was in the morning. And within less than 24 hours, he passed away. Sr. Cantú, this is someone who is a community member who was really core to the fabric of the neighborhood, who had lived with COPD and asthma and had lived alongside the coal power plant in that house for 50 years and had survived and managed his symptoms. He didn’t last a day after being outside of the day of the implosion. And so, you know, for the mayor and for elected officials to chalk this up to “well, a company lied” is just such a severe understatement of how bad this was and a complete miscarriage of the, of the plain facts.

KH: Well, I am very sorry for the loss of that community member. It was Ruthie Gilmore’s work that first made me understand that racism is about oppressive dynamics that increase a group’s vulnerability to premature death. We have seen that violence play out environmentally in Little Village for generations, but here and now, we are seeing a neighborhood being ravaged by COVID-19, weeks after being exposed to a collective respiratory trauma. The city claims, by the way, that they have run tests and that no dangerous chemicals were left behind in the community, as a result of the implosion, and I have bridges to sell to each and every person who believes that. They can each have their own respective bridge. I’ve got lots of them. But the truth is, we have no idea just how toxic that dust was, or what the long term effects will be. We only know what’s happening in the community, and the sequence of events, and these events tell a very disturbing story of environmental violence and governmental neglect. Can you say a bit about the neglect and resource deprivation Little Village has experienced and about how COVID-19 is affecting the neighborhood now?

JP: Absolutely. I think when we think about neglect from the city regarding COVID-19, but also in general, I think one thing that’s important to understand is that often, the administration is moving from a position of managing their liability. Their purpose in releasing test results in, you know, condemning the company, in putting out fines, politically, that serves a narrative that the city is coming in to enforce, that they’re the heroes and that they should be lifted up for this role. When the reality is that actually Little Village has suffered from long term neglect and this is in you, and to put this into, into economic terms, the irony is very real, because 60% of the city’s street vendors come from Little Village. The 26th Street corridor has the second highest tax revenue to the city after Michigan Avenue. This is not a neighborhood that is disconnected from the city’s coffers, and yet in return, the neighborhood gets industrial polluter after industrial polluter, gets racism, gets neglect, gets public health messaging that focuses on individual decision making, less so about how the city’s own hand and pollution has actively caused the public health outcomes that neighbors are experiencing. So that’s the sort of backdrop here, and that’s the backdrop in front line communities all across Chicago. Neighborhoods like McKinley Park, neighborhoods like the South East Side, neighborhoods like all Altgeld Gardens, you’re seeing a pattern of this neglect that really is emphasized every time something like this happens, but I want to really establish that one of the reasons that this seemed so extreme is because it was visible and because Alejandro Reyes, shout out, a community member, took it upon himself, at great personal risk to himself, to document the incident. And so people could actually see what was happening. But the reality is that the city is committing permitting and allowances and sometimes playing an active hand in these kinds of events every day, all day, in neighborhoods all across Chicago. And so, you know, when we think about neglect, this is not, let’s say, benign neglect. This is an active role that the city plays. Then when you add coronavirus, we immediately, we were alarmed at the lack of Spanish materials, Spanish language materials from the administration. We were doing pop ed for community members who were understandably really confused about the mixed messages they were getting about what they should be doing. We asked for guidance for homes where you have multiple families under the same roof. That never came. We argued that there should be testing in Little Village and all their frontline communities that have extreme respiratory problems, and that that should be prioritized, especially because those neighborhoods also tend to be neighborhoods with high percentages of what we are now terming essential workers, but we know are the, you know, the backbone of the economy and of the services that keep many of us alive. Many of those people come from Little Village.

KH: Back in late February when some of us were becoming really alarmed about the threat of COVID-19, and demanding action on the part of the city, state, and federal government, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot was shaming the CDC for spreading fear about COVID-19. On February 26, she said, “we need people to continue to go about their daily lives.” Which was, of course, not helpful to those of us who were trying to raise awareness and initiate action. She, however, has been perceived very differently in recent weeks, I think nationally and even by some people locally. Because something happened that sort of wiped away the original narrative, of her being someone who opposed public school closures due to the pandemic, and who opposed the closures of bars and restaurants due to the pandemic, and that narrative game changer was a meme. A meme in which she was pictured around the city, interrupting the activities of people who were violating shelter in place guidelines. The memes were funny, and the Lightfoot administration embraced the story they told. And the mayor solidified that new narrative when she started emulating the meme by popping up on the South Side to break up pickup games, and to tell people who are socializing to disperse. Which is really amazes me, since she has been clear that she doesn’t have time to have any ongoing communication with members of the City Council about housing issues. She claims that would not be a good expenditure of her time or anyone on her staff’s time, because we’re in the middle of an emergency, but she has time for these moments of meme emulation, these PR moments. It’s just been astounding to me as someone who worked on early awareness around this threat. But here we are, and now this meme-ified mayor has allowed a heinous act of environmental violence to be inflicted on Little Village in a very public way. Given what went down here, what do you think accountability looks like for city leadership in the wake of these events?

PJ: Yeah. For us, accountability looks like first and foremost, centering the needs of communities that have been impacted. Accountability looks like complete transparency about the supposed testing results on what the dust was. Accountability looks like not repeating a situation where they’re not going to give notice, and there are additional explosions planned. Accountability looks like supporting people’s medical care in a neighborhood where a number of people are undocumented, don’t have insurance, and already are struggling for their lives due to their past actions. Accountability looks like support to change the laws such that polluters don’t have these loopholes and are, you know, not incentivized any longer to concentrate their harm in the same places over and over again. Accountability looks like collaborating across jurisdictions to make sure that folks who are incarcerated in the neighborhood get redress as well. Accountability could look like so many of those things, and they have done none of them. And so I want to emphasize, I think you’re right to point out this pivoting point about the meme positioning Mayor Lightfoot as an enforcer, as a savior, really somebody who was looking out for the city. And I want to encourage folks to try and think about why that is such a comforting image to so many. What we need are real services, supplies and redress, measures that would actually protect the public’s health. What we don’t need is for someone to be positioning themselves as a police officer, you know, trying to arrest coronavirus and that’s the way that we’re going to be kept safe. What we don’t need are these themes that in times of fear, we should look toward enforcement as the way to get through, as the way to survive. What we don’t need are for a Little Village youth, for Black and Brown and Indigenous youth all across the city, to be told that their experiences of this moment aren’t valid and that they shouldn’t be directly engaged to figure out what they need to be able to stay home. I think the kinds of accountability that we need are things that would require a transformation from the mayor’s current position, but instead, she’s, she’s doubling down. You know, a recent statement that she made was directed toward Alderman [Byron] Sigcho-Lopez who actually joined the protesters outside of her home to say, you know, she was really disappointed that there are some lines that you don’t cross. And I think, you know, journalist Serrato Flores, who’s editor in chief of South Side Weekly here pointed out, Alderman Sigcho-Lopez is a constituent. He lives in Pilsen where the Fisk power plant is also owned by Hilco and where they also want to do demolition and reconstruction. So what we would need, what we would need is accountability that looks at the actual problems and that focuses on public health and focuses on redress and less so about positioning the mayor as a cop who is going to use moralistic reasoning to say, Oh, well, you know, what the protesters did was immoral, and she’s the one to sort of fix the situation by, you know, putting the full weight of the law on people’s necks. Actually, people know what they need and they’re asking for it. And most of the time they’re taking care of themselves through mutual aid. Because the state is largely failing Black and Brown communities and largely failing low income people. You know, they can’t even get it together to reconnect people’s water when we know there are households without water from before the beginning of the administration’s moratorium on shut offs, which we won. And, you know, I think the key thing here is to look at the actions, not at the words. Look at the actions, not at the memes. What’s actually happening is that redress is not coming down the pipeline. Redress is not something that the city has prioritized and it would take a complete about face to demonstrate, in fact, that they’re going to show up for the communities that have been most harmed here.

KH: So we’ve seen a couple of protests around this in the last month. The first was a car caravan protest that occurred in the wake of the implosion. And then we saw this week, the in-person protest outside of Lightfoot’s house. Can you tell us a bit about the car caravan protest that happened after the implosion, and how things escalated from there?

JP: Absolutely. The car caravan protest was a really beautiful multi-organizational action that emerged from the Earth Day to Mayday formation that linked together different labor groups with frontline communities working on environmental justice and climate justice to tie together some of the ways that these issues are fundamentally intertwined. And there was collaboration there amongst our organization amongst a number of different groups in that formation. You know, we had warehouse workers for justice, for example, bringing their voice to the table. We had a car caravan that was extremely long. We were in East Pilsen and the end of the caravan was at Cook County Jail, that’s three miles of cars going through industrial areas, starting at the Crawford coal power plant, passing by Cook County jail. Passing by the Fisk site in Pilsen. You know, and again, I want to repeat that because for folks who are not aware that this is also something that could happen in Pilsen, please be aware, in Chicago. And we ended up at City Hall. As we went through the caravan, we also took the opportunity to talk to everyone who had called in, to one line, about the industrial sites that we were passing by. You know, and I think I’ve said this already on the, on the show, but this situation is one of many. There are all of these different places that are impacted on a daily basis and wouldn’t, you know, we were driving by so many of them. And I think what, what was really something that stuck with folks was for those people who are from the neighborhoods that we pass through who didn’t know as much about this were for people who spent time in those neighborhoods. These things were around the corner from the places that they love. You know, they’re, they’re right behind, right behind doors, right around corners, right down the street. And just because the toxins from these facilities are invisible and thus easy for the city to pretend that they’re not there, it doesn’t mean that they’re not having these daily impacts on the people that they love. And so I think it was a powerful way to really do some pop ed organizing and combine it with social distancing and really make sure we’re focusing on folks as public health. Cause we didn’t want to, you know, to add to that risk. And then the protest that happened, just recently that was spontaneously organized as I mentioned, by residents who were just fed up and who said, they’re not gonna listen to us, they’re gonna keep going with this thing.

They’re saying the same thing that they said last time. And you interestingly, you saw, that formation, that activity come together very quickly, be supported and you know, people really threw down because of what was at stake. In that case, it was really about sending a message. You know, if you’re going to, if you’re going to come to the homes of Little Village community members and tell them that they will have less of a chance of surviving, due to your activities, they’re going to come to your house and tell you that that’s not acceptable. And I think that that very clear juxtaposition really landed with folks. And also made it clear that people were watching the situation, and this wasn’t something that the city or the administration or the mayor would just get away with.

KH: Can you say a bit about the mayor’s response to that protest?

JP: Yes. So interestingly, the mayor responded somewhat quickly to say, okay, you know, we will delay this for a few more days to continue our quote unquote engagement with the community. I contend that I’m not exactly sure what they mean by that, given that they weren’t going to tell anybody. It’s not like they were holding virtual community meetings or putting up posters or letting anybody know. So, you know, ruse one was we’re going to continue our engagement. That’s like not a thing that was happening. Ruse two was, this needs to be done because of safety. Now, so many things are carried out due to this notion of safety, when actually it’s a, I think, a foil to do things that the city was planning to do and what the company wants to do. I think the backdrop here is that the Hilco Corporation is losing money every day that they’re not demolishing. From the beginning, they’ve been trying to drive this project forward as fast as possible at a breakneck, no matter what community members die on the site, or who is going to pay consequences to their recklessness. And they’ve been desperately lobbying to begin their project again. Even after what happened a month ago. So, you know, I think it’s important to remember that that’s operating in the background and that these things don’t just happen by accident. Now their contention is that the site is quote unquote, partially demolished, and that it poses a hazard to community members in its current state. And thus they should be able to move ahead with their process. But the city didn’t provide any sort of proof to the community that this is actually real, they also haven’t said anything to the company about securing the site properly. Like if you’re worried about people getting in your building, you should probably secure your site differently.

I mean, there are all sorts of things that just don’t make sense, but the foil of this is for your safety is kind of like a blank check to cover all sins. And to allow the city to say, well, we’re justified in our actions. This is for your safety. This is for security. This is for the wellbeing of the community. But it’s frankly audacious for them to claim that that’s why they want to do this one. If they cared so much about the wellbeing of the community, they wouldn’t have permitted these things in the first place. To be occurring, especially right now. And so it’s an audacious response, you know, it’s disingenuous. I think one thing I want to highlight for folks in Chicago and for folks listening is the way that the administration is also using this opportunity to expand their contracting powers and their powers to speed procedures at the city. So, you know, there was a big uproar from a big, a big portion of our city council and a number of different communities about an initiative by the mayor to expand her emergency powers. And expand the emergency powers of the administration, despite a huge amount of dissent, they were able to get that through. Buried in some of that are things like expedited industrial permitting, expedited zoning, other things that developers have literally been trying to do for decades to push some of their projects through, and to skirt public health regulations where they’re barely where they belong really exist as it is to be clear. So, closing those loopholes, that’s what we need. We have to close the loopholes and we have to close them fast. So we’re going to need to see some legislative action. And when those kinds of pushes come forward from frontline groups, we’ll need folks to support that and to understand why that kind of action is necessary. Because so long as these behaviors are permitted in the law, which they are, with the exception of the implosion itself, these companies are going to continue to abuse communities and we need a structural fix.

KH: And we are seeing around the country, and particularly at the federal level right now, this crisis is being exploited by the powerful while everyday people are frightened and staying home and thinking of little else than this disease. Corporations and governments are using this crisis to push forward policies that folks would otherwise be mobilized against and to create even more draconian scenarios for marginalized communities. Now, amid all of that, I think that there’s an attitude that is very unhealthy towards protest right now. And I think that when people see folks outside protesting in-person, their first reaction is kind of a cringe. Like, this isn’t the time. You know, first and foremost, this is not like an elective thing we do when we have spare time and there are no impediments. Obviously, protest happens under relatively calm and safe circumstances, and under very inconvenient and dangerous of circumstances, and everything in between. The people who are causing harm in our communities aren’t going to be derailed by the crisis, if anything, they’re ramping up what they’re doing because of the crisis. While there are many, many ways, as Mariame Kaba mentioned during last week’s show, literally hundreds of ways people are enacting protest right now, sometimes, it’s going to be the stuff we are most familiar with. Sometimes, it’s going to be aggrieved people marching to someone’s front door. But with that said, there were measures being taken to ensure people’s safety during the protest outside the mayor’s home. Can you say a bit about how that action was different than it might have been if it weren’t happening during the pandemic?

JP: Yes, definitely. So I definitely want to make sure to shout out that El Foro Del Pueblo folks were spacing out people amongst their banners, they were making sure folks had masks. They were trying to essentially follow social distancing principles while doing protesting, which is entirely possible, by the way. It just has to be done with care. You know, those folks should get like all the credit, the residents who are front and center, who are putting themselves on the line. And again, even though there’s a pandemic, that doesn’t mean that you’re not risking arrest. You’re not doing all these other things that you’re also engaging in when you do any kind of nonviolent direct action. You’re just adding on a whole layer of risk. You know, those folks where in a space where the, I think the cost of not doing something was so high that you, that again, it happens in an inconvenient time when it’s not ideal at great personal risk, because survival is on the line. And that’s absolutely, I think what was happening there. And folks took as many measures as they could to make it as compliant with the right practices. But it, you know, but the thing that I heard was like, “we didn’t have a choice.” And I think that it’s important for, for listeners to understand that, that you’re putting that in these situations, communities are being put between a rock and a hard place. It’s like you, you can, you choose death by one thing or death by another. And I think when that, when those kinds of things are on the line, you know, people are going to be creative and going to resist as best as they can.

KH: And what we are seeing here is something we see a lot, which is that people who are creating unsafe conditions for the community are using safety as an argument as to why they shouldn’t be stopped. And I did notice in the livestream on Facebook, the night of the protest, that people were modeling distancing with the banners, and there was obviously a great deal of care taken to keep folks safe. And so that’s something I really want folks to reflect on when they hear complaints and critiques of people being out protesting: Are these people taking measures to look out for each other, and also, who isn’t looking out for them? Who is poisoning or harming their communities? Who has the power to stop that harm? Are they exercising it? Who is menacing these people with arrest, which would lead to them experiencing even more violence? As you mentioned, Juliana, Cook County Jail is part of the Little Village Community, and that nightmarish facility is now an epicenter of contagion. So when police menace community members who have gathered to demand redress, and that their air not be poisoned again, and they are threatened with arrest, they are being threatened with death in a very real way. And I think that people, you know, maybe have an impulse to be alarmed when they see in-person protest happening. Even I was uneasy the first time I saw images of people marching on foot during shelter in place, but as an organizer, I understand that my discomfort should be the beginning of a conversation, rather than the end of one. And I just want to make sure that people who become alarmed about in-person protest right now are becoming alarmed about the right thing. Because it is alarming that people would have to take these actions right now. It is alarming that people can’t just stay in their homes during a pandemic and expect that, at bottom, their government isn’t going to do anything to make them even more unsafe, but that’s not the world we live in. And right now, we are witnessing disaster capitalism in progress, and we have to understand that corporations and politicians will exploit every aspect of the crisis that they can. Chicago has some shady politics, but we are not unique in this way. Wherever you are in the country, please pay attention to what projects are getting the greenlight, what’s being built, what’s being demolished, what rules are being changed, because you are going to find that powerful people are getting things right now that they have wanted for years, or even decades. These are full-on power grabs, and they aren’t going to stop unless we stop them. And sometimes, that’s going to mean drawing outside the lines and being unpredictable. All of that said, if folks are listening to this and wondering how they can support people in Little Village, what are your asks right now?

JP: So things that we want folks to do are to make sure to be plugged into community meetings that LVEJO is going to be holding and to take stock of and follow the community supported media around the different actions. I think that, you know, we had, for example, around the first round of the implosion, we had a petition with an initial list of demands that got almost 20,000 signatures. We really appreciated that backing. I think that that was part of what, combined with organizing, generally, got some of those demands met. But there’s still more to come, you know, from that petition. One of the demands was that the state attorney general actually use enforcement for, use that office for good enforcement and go after the company for violating Illinois law. They are now doing that. So things like that, those sort of petition asks, those procedural things actually are really helpful. And so, I think our current asks are very similar to what was included in the petition, including the medical coverage for community members, including distribution of masks that actually are worth something, to, you know, more than a couple of members of a household and to the neighborhoods that are impacted. We are getting a testing site in Little Village that has been, had been a pre-implosion ask from a number of neighborhood organizations that’s finally happening now. Now many people in the neighborhood will be able to get access to those tests has yet to be seen. And we want to see, we want to see policy change.

KH: Where should folks go if they want to learn more about LVEJO and follow the work you all are doing?

JP: Yes, please check out social media. We are not updating our website as frequently right now because things are moving too quickly. But, our social media on Facebook we’re at LVEJO, on Instagram we’re LVEJO20, on Twitter we’re @LVEJO, and that’s L. V. E. J. O.

KH: Excellent. We’ll also link that in the transcript. Well, Juliana Pino, I want to thank you so much for joining us today.

JP: Thank you so much for having me, Kelly. This was great.

KH: I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.

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