Poor People's Campaign

March 2, 2021

A lifelong Chicago resident who has been on a hunger strike for 20 days to protest plans for a car-shredding plant said during the Poor People’s Campaign Moral Monday that race and poverty should not determine where the facility is located. 

“My community should not be denied the rights given to people in Chicago’s Lincoln Park because we are black and brown or because we are in the lowest income bracket,” Jade Mazon said Monday as she decried plans for a General Iron plant in southeast Chicago that would shred cars and metal.  

Mazon was one of several activists to speak Monday as the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival focused on environmental injustice, which is inextricably connected to poverty wages and systemic racism. She and five others are on a hunger strike to protest the relocation of the plant to their community.  

Other organizing struggles highlighted during the program were: Oak Flat in Arizona, Cancer Alley in Louisiana, the Byhalia pipeline in Memphis, the fight for clean water in Flint, Michigan, the utilities crisis brought on by a winter storm in Texas, Black farmers in Mississippi who are denied state and federal aid; and plans for the Rockwool insulation factory in Ranson, West Virginia. 

Speakers also included Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II and Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis, co-chairs of the Poor People’s Campaign. 

“Everywhere there is the pandemic prior to the pandemic of low wages and poverty, there’s ecological devastation and environmental injustice,” Rev. Barber said. “Everywhere there’s environmental injustice, there’s low wages and there is poverty. The truth of the matter is, the very people who are refusing to overrule the parliamentarian’s ruling and make sure that we pass COVID relief with $15, are the same forces that stand with corporations and against communities that are battling ecological devastation. And you have to understand this. These are not separate fights.  These are fusion battles, and we have to join them together. “ 

Rev. Theoharis said the wealth of U.S. billionaires has grown by $1.3 trillion since the pandemic began 11 months ago. 

“And, at the same time, that money, that wealth is in the pockets of many of the corporations that are doing the very polluting we’re talking about today,” she said. “It’s in the pockets of many of the same forces that are denying people living wages, that are offering our children unclean water to drink. But it doesn’t have to be this way.  So in order for us to be able to build the power, to change things, we know we have to push.  We have to push Democrats, Republicans, independents, to immediately enact a just COVID relief that includes a living wage of $15 an hour.  We need to expand union rights.  We need to build up our climate resiliency and infrastructure.  We need to raise and lift from the bottom so that everybody can rise.” 

Two Indigenous people spoke about injustices in Arizona and Minnesota. 

Vanessa Nosie of Apache Stronghold, said the group had gotten a small victory Monday when the U.S. Department of Agriculture pulled back on an environmental review that cleared the way for Oak Flat, a sacred Apache site, to be turned over to an international corporation for copper mining. 

The decision buys some time for a legal case but doesn’t protect Oak Flat forever, she said. 

“It’s a continued injustice that is happening to the Indigenous people as our religion has been disregarded and not even considered a religion and so we fight for our holy place, our sacred site,” she said.”It’s a fight for all people because if they can continue to harm our way of life and kill a religion, then no one’s religion is safe.  Everyone’s religion is at stake.”

In Minnesota, 21-year-old Nina Bergand, who is fighting the Line 3 pipeline, encouraged other young people to get involved. The pipeline would go through pristine areas where wild rice grows in abundance, she said. 

“I know if I can come from the east side of St. Paul growing up in poverty, growing up with not a lot, being able to see the world through your passion for your future,” she said, “It’s never too late to care about the coming generations.”

Catherine Coleman Flowers, founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, broke the sad news that the sister of Pamela Rush, an activist with the Poor People’s Campaign who died July 3 of COVID, also died of COVID three weeks ago and pointed out that Lowndes County, Alabama, one of the poorest communities in the state, has the highest COVID rates made worse by systemic racism and poverty. Pamela Rush had testified before Congress about the raw sewage that ran through her yard and how wild animals lived in her home. 

The same people suffering from COVID “are the same people that are suffering from poor wages. They’re living in poor homes,” Flowers said. “They’re living without infrastructure, and they’re living in conditions in the wealthiest country in the world that really can be compared to some Third World nations around the world. We have to do better in terms of the type of degradation this is causing not only on our communities but on our families that have been devastated and destroyed.” 

Sharon Lavigne of Rise St. James, which is fighting a Formosa plant in Cancer Alley in Louisiana, said her district has 12 plants and a nearby district has nine. 

“We’ve been drinking dirty water for years not knowing it was coming from industry,” she said. “And our soil … we can’t plant our garden anymore because the ground is contaminated and we can’t breathe the air.” 

Claire McClinton of Flint, Michigan, said families learned they had to fight for healthcare even after fighting for clean water, not poisoned by lead. 

“The lack of health care that we endured for being a poor community only escalated when the water was poisoned,” she said. “Therefore, health care has become one of the central issues in which we’re fighting on to have some semblance of restorative justice for what was done to us.”

A settlement being considered in court doesn’t take care of healthcare needs, she said. 

Calvin Head of Milestone Coop, a farmers’ cooperative in Mississippi, said minority and limited-resource farmers are fighting for a level playing field, not handouts. 

Floods and COVID have hurt farmers, he said, “but our troubles are beyond COVID and flooding. Those are situations that are beyond our control that we adjust to as much as possible. But the systematic structures that are in place keep us down and out of the loop nor do we benefit from any relief when it happens.  We were reading about $3 billion available to farmers, but then, when you open it up and you dissect it, a lot of the language seems like it’s written to keep us out of the benefits.”

Kathy Robinson, a co-founder of Memphis Community Against the Pipeline, is a fourth-generation resident of southwest Memphis. “We are telling big business that southwest Memphis has had enough of your pollution,” she said of the Byhalia pipeline. “We can no longer accept in 38109 what other communities dare not. We want our families to have clean air to breathe. And running a crude oil pipeline in the ground jeopardizes the confidence to do so.” 

Gusti Linnea Newquist, pastor of Shepherdstown Presbyterian Church in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, said a new pipeline to service the Rockwool plant caused an explosion that shook her home last September.  Pressurized gas from the old pipeline shot up 100 feet into the air, threatening the entire neighborhood with methane gas and carcinogens, she said.

“All of this because Rockwool says it will bring ‘high-paying jobs’ to the Eastern Panhandle,” she said. “But will local residents get those high-paying jobs? We demand corporations stop profiting off our resources while at the same time endangering our communities and we demand raising the minimum wage to $15 as part of the COVID relief package so folks don’t have to choose options that put their health at risk.” 

Penny Adrian of Austin, Texas, said her apartment building lost power on Feb. 14 as temperatures fell into the single digits and didn’t regain power until Feb. 19. At that point, the renters lost water because of frozen pipes that burst. Water service was restored on Feb. 21, but water still had to be boiled because of contamination.

Her family was able to stay with others who only lost power intermittently, she said. At least 86 people in Austin died during the freeze, she said, and the city hasn’t kept up with the number of unhoused people. 

“All of this proves that denying safe quality housing to our fellow human beings causes them to die a lonely painful death. It is a form of negligent homicide,” she said.

CONTACT: Martha Waggoner: [email protected]  | 919-295-0802