Thousands of activists gathered in Detroit to perform mass demonstrations on Tuesday afternoon, just hours before the opening of the second presidential primary debate. The effort, spearheaded by Frontline Detroit, a coalition of organizations made up of members deeply impacted by pollution and environmental racism, produced demands for addressing the pervasive environmental and economic injustices that have plagued Detroiters for decades.
Given the fact that four out of 10 of the candidates in the first debate called the climate crisis the “greatest geopolitical threat to the U.S.,” and that the UN has named climate change as the “defining issue of our time,” one might be perplexed that only 18 minutes out of 240 were dedicated to talking about climate in the first set of debates combined. Pope Francis has repeatedly used the term “climate emergency” to highlight the issue’s insidious urgency. While CNN has since announced its decision to host a climate crisis town hall in recognition of its dearth of coverage, the DNC has been dragging its feet.
“I’m demonstrating because the public needs to be aware of the severity of conditions … [both] the carbon emissions and economic conditions [in Detroit],” says Guy Williams, president of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice. DWEJ recently released a Climate Action Plan for the city in aneffort to uphold its part of the Paris Agreement.
Williams identifies as a Christian and shared that he was first called into environmental justice work in 1990 during the NAACP leadership summit, from which the famous Jemez principles for organizing were established.
“The communities that bear the brunt of the poisons are communities that tend to be short on political power, and they’re often poor communities short on economic power. Those are the places that Jesus went for his ministry … to bring hope and healing,” says Williams.
“Right now, the levels of water are so high [in the Detroit river], behaving as a tidal estuary … lakes are at all-time highs, coming inland from the river. Now it’s a new normal."
"It used to be that when it rained, it was fairly gentle; every now and then there was a big blustery [rain]. Now it feels reversed; we have huge downpours and then there’s nothing. It taxes the infrastructure in an entirely different way."
The action resulted in an alignment of union and labor organizers, black lives matter activists, and frontline environmental justice groups demanding triple-bottom-line sustainability in the city of Detroit, using the Green New Deal as a rallying point and framework. Activists banded together to highlight place-based, hyper-localized issues such as the ongoing Flint crisis, Detroit’s constant water shutoffs, rapid cultural gentrification and displacement, lead and PFAS chemicals in Michigan drinking water, the danger of Enbridge Line 5, and deadly levels of toxicity in Michigan’s most polluted zip code, 48217. They hope to complicate the idea that Detroit is “making a comeback,” a phrase based on a dangerously narrow and racist narrative.
Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) and Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.) came out to support the demonstrations. Environmental protection is among Tlaib’s top four campaign focuses.
“Want to see what doing nothing on climate justice looks like? Then #visit48217 in my district,” she wrote over Twitter.
“Come and talk to residents of #13thDistrictStrong who are survivors of cancer or lost loved ones. Debate later, act now.”
Levin noted the impact of climate change on his district. “We are having flooding and I think it will get worse,” he told Sojourners.
“I’m worried about pollution and species extinction but climate change is the granddaddy of them all. I’m here demonstrating because we have to move way faster and more comprehensively … we’ve waited until the deluge to do anything about it, [and] now the massive disruption of human life is coming fast unless we decarbonize the economy.”
Levin says his faith is at the heart of his environmental activism. He cites Micah 6:8 as an influential text for him to advocate for climate justice. “Justice shall you pursue … do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with my God.”
Residents of 48217, those living in what is considered the most polluted zip code in the state and the third most polluted in the U.S., invited the Democratic presidential candidates to their neighborhood for a firsthand look at the toxic pollution that stifles the community.
“It’s one thing to hear about it; it’s another to actually be in the presence of it, to smell it, to experience it for yourself,” says Rev. Alex Hill, a long-time resident of 48217 and pastor of New Mt. Hermon Baptist Church of 31 years. Yet, despite the constant stream of lip service from top candidates about listening to and being informed by the felt needs of frontline communities for climate solutions, only Washington Governor Jay Inslee, whose signature campaign issue is climate, kept to his commitment to visit on Wednesday morning.
“White people champion climate change but it’s us, the people, who are suffering the impact,” says local resident and organizer Theresa Landrum. Inslee has visited three times since June and his listening sessions in the community has formed the foundation of his ambitious new climate justice plan, which includes equity screening for all federal policy proposals.
82 percent of the 48217 in Southwest Detroit is black, and 44 percent live under the poverty line. This community is caged in by over 20 polluters including Ford, Marathon Oil, EES Coke battery and U.S. steel, and is further split by the I-75 freeway. The cumulative exposure is 87 percent higher than the rest of Michigan. Alarming rates of asthma, cancer, and respiratory illness have been found in numerous studies.
“There’s not a household that I know of in the 48217 zip code that has not been touched by cancer,” says Rev. Hill.
Jacqueline Vandergriff, lifelong resident, says she saw Marathon oil refinery continuously expand over decades. “It grew and grew and they allowed money to take control over the environment.”
Communities all across the nation are still being consistently capitalized upon by big oil and gas and then abandoned by the government to bear the burning consequences alone. Today, decisions to drill, dig, and burn in underprivileged communities mirror a deliberately racist practice known as redlining that dates back to the 1930s. The building of I-75 is no exception, its expansion cutting through the center of 48217.
Still, frontline communities in Detroit haven’t given up hope in demanding their right to clean air and inviting leaders to come to their community to see for themselves what environmental racism looks like. For many, it’s their faith – faith in God and faith in the life-giving power of community-building – which wakes them up in the morning to continue the fight.
“The work of Jesus Christ is to be concerned about mankind, not just in terms of [people’s] spiritual needs but holistically, and often the church only focuses on the spiritual aspect,” says Rev. Hill.