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Hunger Strike Against Environmental Racism

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There are so many amazing social movements happening at any given time that one cannot hear about all of them. Thus I am very thankful for this Guardian piece about a hunger strike in Chicago after a polluting metal scrapyard decided to close in a rich white part of town and reopen in a poor brown part of town. This is almost always how these things work. The poorer and darker you are, the more likely you are to get toxic poisoning from industry, the more likely you are to die from diseases ranging from cancer to COVID, the more likely you are to have doctors ignore your pain, the more likely you are to have bad schools and suffer from police brutality and not have good pubic transportation or medical care, etc. So the fight against this toxic plant is a fight against the larger conditions of inequality that define life in this nation.

The new recycling plant will house a metal shredder, which uses machinery known to produce hazardous dust particles that can cause severe heart and lung problems.

If Southside Recycling opens, that particulate matter “will be inhaled through the noses, throats, and lungs of my students”, said Chuck Stark, a science teacher at George Washington high school, which is located about a half mile from the Southside Recycling construction site. Stark joined the hunger strike last week. Steve Joseph, the head of RMG, said in an op-ed that the machinery at Southside Recycling “will be enclosed and removed from public view” and “almost nothing” about it “resembles General Iron”.

The Southeast Side of Chicago is the most industrial area of the city, home to businesses that dump more than a million pounds of toxins into the air every year. In August 2020, the city released an air quality report stating that the South and West Sides are “over-burdened” by “high concentrations of industry”. And yet, organizers say local officials have characterized their campaign to stop RMG from operating in their neighborhood as making a mountain out of a molehill.

“If [a metal shredder] is not good enough for the North Side,” said Gina Ramirez, referring to the area where RMG previously operated General Iron, “then it’s not good enough for the South Side.”

The Southeast Side is a fenceline community – a term used to describe neighborhoods that are situated next to polluting industries or facilities. In this case, the community lives alongside multiple cement kilns, warehouses and toxic dumpsites. The area is home to two Environmental Protection Agency Superfund sites, which span 154 acres altogether and are highly contaminated with toxic metals. The area has also had major problems with petcoke (petroleum coke), manganese and lead.

These are some seriously badass activists right here.

The hunger strike, now in its 11th day, may seem extreme – but organizers were inspired by education activists who, in 2015, refused to eat solid foods for 34 days and successfully lobbied to reopen Dyett high school in the Bronzeville neighborhood.

The Southeast Side organizers have asked other community organizations to support them by doing a one-day hunger strike, and have been sharing updates on Twitter. In total, six people have committed to hunger striking until the city denies RMG its final permit – however long that may be.

But the physical consequences of a hunger strike are real. All participants were medically examined and taught how to check their vitals before they embarked on the liquids-only diet. Oscar Sanchez, co-founder of Southeast Youth Alliance and native of the Hegewisch neighborhood, said for the first few days he was racked with self-doubt.

“Am I doing enough? Am I tweeting enough? Are we putting our faces out there enough?” he said, on his fifth day on hunger strike.

I don’t know what doing enough means here. Are you all doing enough to show your resistance to evil? Yeah, I’d say so. Are you doing enough to make white people care enough to do something about it? I’m not sure that anything is enough for that. They could self-immolate and whites aren’t going to care where that toxic plant is located, just so long as their little Maddie and Connor aren’t near it.

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