Environmental Justice in Detroit
Here’s what we said before they got here: The Environmental Justice Task Force of the Detroit City Council welcomes the United States Environmental Protection Agency and national Environmental Justice (EJ) activists to Detroit. In recognition of the historic EPA conference in Detroit from August 24 thru 26, 2011, and affirming the importance of EPA’s work and role as essential to accomplishing the goals of EJ, including improved quality of life for all, we offer the following proposed points of unity for a 21st century EJ agenda:
1. Public Health Issues are Environmental Justice Issues
• Improved waste management is essential for our communities, including recycling, waste reduction, materials re-use and composting.
• Food security, local agriculture and improved soil quality are essential for our communities.
• Improved air quality is essential for our communities.
• Improved water quality and access to affordable water supplies are essential for our communities.
• Adopting renewable sources of energy, energy conservation and access to affordable supplies of clean energy for achieving climate justice, with the economic benefits of the transition equitably shared, are essential for our communities.
• Reducing or eliminating cumulative and synergistic impacts of multiple pollution sources and contaminants in concentrated populations and environments is essential for our communities.
• Reducing and ending adverse disproportionate impacts of pollution on people of color and low income populations is essential for our communities.
• Ending environmental racism is essential for our communities.
2. Principles Guiding and Supporting our Work:
• The government and society are responsible to make work available to people who are willing and able to do it.
• We seek adoption and implementation of alternative economic models, based on principles of solidarity, the commons and redefining work to fulfill all of our lives, rather than to enrich a few privileged and extraordinarily empowered groups and entities.
• The Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the UN’s recognition of water as a human right support our communities’ rights to live in clean, healthy, and just environments.
• Applying the precautionary principle to protect our most vulnerable from unknown, potentially severe risks is essential for our communities.
• Land use and economic development policies, programs and activities should be integrated with the principles and goals of Environmental Justice.
3. Our Communities Need and Demand:
• Adequate and affordable housing as an alternative to the Wall Street foreclosure catastrophe that has decimated our communities.
• Affordable, clean, safe and efficient mass transit and mobility.
• Accelerated movement away from fossil fuels to clean and affordable energy.
• Education and work to benefit the fundamental human needs and rights of all, not just to profit a few.
• Nonviolent alternatives to war, policing and imprisonment, and other destructive forms of social conflict.
Wednesday, August 24, 2011 (first day of the conference)
Welcome to Detroit, in the same spirit Richard Moore of New Mexico, co-founder of the Southwest Organizing Project, said this morning: I want to commend individual EPA staffers for joining us here to discuss the critical issues of environmental justice, but we have so much more work to do!!!
Similarly, this morning Peggy Shepherd of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, and Dr. Beverly Wright (“I don’t follow instructions very well”) of Dillard University Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, observed that if you ask for a set of environmental justice policy recommendations today, it’s pathetic and laughable that we can pull out documents created 15 years ago, and they are still completely relevant, because none of the things called for back then have happened yet.
So I feel very frustrated this afternoon, after listening to the panel discussion of the federal government’s Inter Agency Working Group on environmental justice. But I was trying to figure out what to say here, under these circumstances. And then it just came to me.
Tomorrow you will be honoring the legendary, lifetime activist Grace Lee Boggs of Detroit. And it occurred to me that last year I heard Grace say something that speaks directly to the situation here. Grace said something amazing (You can always tell when Grace is saying something amazing, because her lips are moving).
It was last year round the time when the real horror and enormity of the Gulf of Mexico oil blowout was just becoming apparent and inescapable to the whole world. And this was just after President Obama gave his major speech about that disaster to the country and to the world. Grace had watched the speech and her reaction speaks volumes to our discussions here about what the EPA can and must finally do to help us work for environmental justice.
She said “… Here was the president of the United States, and he was completely powerless. And not just because we don’t know how to plug the damn hole immediately. He was powerless primarily because he doesn’t believe that another world is possible.”
And that’s the question I have for you in EPA, and for all of us: Do we believe that another world is possible? And if so, what are we gonna do about it?
Because the change has come, the new world is here now. The industrial world the corporations built has failed. They’re not “too big to fail.” They failed. Sister Theresa, one of the most active community leaders in Detroit’s industrially inundated 48217 area, asked you just now who takes over if an administrative agency screws up. We know the answer is “the corporations.” The same Wall Street system of corporate domination that’s devastated our communities and our whole society. This has created a whole new context for our work. Not only is a different world possible, it’s already here. The real question is are we up to its challenges? Environmental justice is critical to these challenges and the new world we have to build now in the wake of the industrial neoliberal collapse that’s brought us to this point.
Saturday, August 26 (after the conference)
Like Grace’s friend Shea Howell says, Detroit is a city that changes the world. Mass production of the automobile transformed not only the quality of daily life in communities, but the whole industrial system. It’s called “Fordism” by it sharpest analysts, because of what happened right here in Detroit, Highland Park, and Dearborn in the first half of the last century. But Detroit the world changer didn’t stop there.
Organizing under the social relations of work in the Fordist system gradually transformed race relations – the original sin of American politics and law – with the rise of the UAW CIO in the 1930s and 40s. This was the first sustainable, strong multiracial organization of working people in the country, probably the world. Some of our ancestors, in some cultures and communities, even began to see “the others” who had different skin tones, hairstyles, facial features and kin & cultural relations with new eyes. This was the thing that had to be attacked by resurgent capital in the Cold War, the Red Scare and the FBI’s COINTELPRO hounding of Dr. King, Black Panthers and other rebels. And this growing ability to make alliances across lines of race and ethnicity was a crucial ground for what we now know as the environmental justice movement.
Because even before that vicious rightwing backlash gathered and broke on the unions and our communities, when the world crisis of fascism and fighting back had come to a head in 1942, the new, multi-racial UAW had done something else really extraordinary in Detroit, and spreading throughout the industrial urban centers of the Arsenal of Democracy. The great Captains of Industry doubted that production could be changed over from cars, radios and washing machines to tanks, war planes and heavy trucks and jeeps as swiftly as Uncle Sam and FDR wanted them to fight Hitler and his allies. But the labor leaders and unionized workers demonstrated the essential difference between people who actually know how to build a camshaft and those who pay others to do so. They said “Hell yes we can,” and they helped reorganize the essential human and material resources to win the war of humanity and democracy against racism, barbarism and fascism. The “greatest generation” was largely a working class culture and movement “imported from Detroit,” to mix and match a couple fashionable media slogans.
So it’s really more appropriate than you would think for the EPA to come to Detroit, in the midst of the global crash and non-recovery since 2008. Hell yes we know another world is possible. We’ve done it before and we’ll do it again. EPA needs to hear the voices of the people in these communities who know how to survive under these conditions, not just those of the professionals who argue about them, regulate them, and cut deals behind their backs.
THREE QUESTIONS FOR “THE DETROIT STORY” AT THE EPA’S ENVIRONMENTAL JUSTIC CONFERENCE:
• How can we establish and defend the commons as an effective alternative basis for socioeconomic, political and legal relationships?
• How can we stop the unjust, racist process of turning places like Detroit into toxic and exploited sacrifice zones?
• How can government help us build an environmental justice movement that won’t be derailed by attacks based on greed and unprincipled, adverse administrative rulings?
As we learned this week, the answer is by reinstating meaningful legal remedies for disparate impact discrimination caused by communities’ excessive exposure to pollution; by standing up to corporate power when necessary to protect fundamental human rights; and by remaining open to meaningful, timely, and effective input from the communities that are most affected by industrial development and emissions where we live, work and play.
Tom Stephens is a people’s lawyer in Detroit. He can be reached at