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OpEdNews Op Eds    H3'ed 6/4/20

Racism, Police Violence, and the Climate Are Not Separate Issues

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From New Yorker

Having a racist and violent police force in your neighborhood is a lot like having a pollution-emitting factory in your neighborhood.
Having a racist and violent police force in your neighborhood is a lot like having a pollution-emitting factory in your neighborhood.
(Image by Photograph by Jim West / Alamy)
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I find that lots of people are surprised to learn that, by overwhelming margins, the two groups of Americans who care most about climate change are Latinx Americans and African-Americans. But, of course, those communities tend to be disproportionately exposed to the effects of global warming: working jobs that keep you outdoors, or on the move, on an increasingly hot planet, and living in densely populated and polluted areas. (For many of the same reasons, these communities have proved disproportionately vulnerable to diseases such as the coronavirus.) One way of saying it is that money buys insulation, and white people, over all, have more of it.

Over the years, the environmental movement has morphed into the environmental-justice movement, and it's been a singularly interesting and useful change. Much of the most dynamic leadership of this fight now comes from Latinx and African-American communities, and from indigenous groups; more to the point, the shift has broadened our understanding of what "environmentalism" is all about. John Muir, who has some claim to being the original modern environmentalist, once explained that "when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe." He was talking about ecosystems, but it turns out that he was more correct than he knew: the political world is hopelessly (and hopefully) intertwined with the natural world. So, for instance, living in a community with high levels of air pollution impairs human bodies -- it raises blood pressure, increases cancer. But so does living in a place with a brutal police force. As one study recently put it:

"When faced with a threat, the body produces hormones and other signals that turn on the systems that are necessary for survival in the short term. These changes include accelerated heart rate and increased respiratory rate. But when the threat becomes reoccurring and persistent -- as is the case with police brutality -- the survival process becomes dangerous and causes rapid wear and tear on body organs and elevated allostatic load. Deterioration of organs and systems caused by increased allostatic load occurs more frequently in Black populations and can lead to conditions such as diabetes, stroke, ulcers, cognitive impairment, autoimmune disorders, accelerated aging, and death."

Or, to put it another way, having a racist and violent police force in your neighborhood is a lot like having a coal-fired power plant in your neighborhood. And having both? And maybe some smoke pouring in from a nearby wildfire? African-Americans are three times as likely to die from asthma as the rest of the population. "I Can't Breathe" is the daily condition of too many people in this country. One way or another, there are a lot of knees on a lot of necks.

The job of people who care about the future -- which is another way of saying the environmentalists -- is to let everyone breathe easier. But that simply can't happen without all kinds of change. Some of it looks like solar panels for rooftops, and some of it looks like radically reimagined police forces. All of it is hitched together.

Passing the Mic

Nina Lakhani is the environmental-justice reporter for the Guardian. Prior to that, she was a freelance reporter whose work took her to many parts of the world, including Central America, where she chronicled the sad story told in her new book, "Who Killed Berta Ca'ceres?" The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Why was Berta Ca'ceres killed -- what fight was she involved in?

Berta Ca'ceres was murdered after leading a long campaign to stop construction of an internationally financed hydroelectric dam on the Gualcarque River, in Rio Blanco, western Honduras. The Agua Zarca Dam was among scores of environmentally destructive mega projects in indigenous territories sanctioned by the post-coup government, without the legally required consultation. The Gualcarque is considered sacred by the indigenous Lenca people, who rely on the river for food, medicine, water, and spiritual nourishment. The proposed dam would have diverted the river from the Rio Blanco community, who are mostly subsistence farmers, ruining their sustainable lives and forcing them to migrate to towns and cities -- or the U.S. -- in order to survive. The community asked Berta, who was the coordinator of the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (copinh), to help them stop construction of the dam through peaceful actions. This unleashed a wave of terror against her and the community, which included harassment, defamation, trumped-up criminal charges, and dozens of threats. But they couldn't silence her, so they killed her, on March 2, 2016.

Somebody pulled the trigger -- but who was behind that person?

Berta was hated by the powerful network of political, economic, religious, and military elites that controls Honduras. We know that a hit squad, a group of poor young men, were paid to murder Berta: a gunman shot her dead in her bedroom, close to midnight; another shot Gustavo Castro, a Mexican environmentalist and dear friend of Berta's, who was staying at her house. He was injured, but survived by playing dead. Also present was the getaway-car driver and a former special-forces sergeant, who was coordinating the mission at the house. The trial, which took place in late 2018, convicted those four and three others, whom I'd describe as middlemen. Don't get me wrong -- they played important roles. But those who paid for and ordered the murder have not been prosecuted, even though the court ruled that Berta was killed because her actions were delaying the dam construction and costing the Honduran company building the dam, desa, money. David Castillo, the former executive president of the company, and a U.S.-trained former intelligence officer, is the only person so far accused of masterminding the crime. He's been in prison, awaiting trial, for 27 months. But the evidence strongly suggests that other company executives, who are members of one of the country's most powerful clans, should be investigated -- yet none have even been formally questioned. [desa has denied that Castillo or anyone else at the company was involved in the crime.] The possible role played by any state officials -- police, military, judges, prosecutors, and politicians -- before, during, and after the murder has never been investigated.

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Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books, including The End of Nature and Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. A former staff writer for The New Yorker, he writes regularly for Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, and The (more...)
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