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My Letter In Solidarity With Hunger Strikers In Chicago Protesting Environmental Racism

Thursday March 4, 2021

Dear Chicago activists fighting for environmental and public health justice,

Solidarity with the Southeast Chicago community activists courageously fighting against corporations trying to inflict attacks on already-struggling working-class and poor immigrant communities by attempting to open a new metal shredding plant in your neighborhood. The new plant would be put in a low-income Latino neighborhood that currently has two other industrial metal processing facilities, and is already reeling from the effects of industrial pollution, including pervasive amounts of asthma and respiratory medical issues. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the neighborhood surrounding the new scrapyard site is in the 95th percentile for diesel emissions, 90th for hazardous waste, and 80th for air pollution. Children living in the area are hospitalized for asthma three times more frequently than those who live near the scrapyard’s former location.

Socialist Alternative and my Council office stand in solidarity with your organizing, as you put your own lives on the line in a hunger strike to prevent the Reserve Management Group (RMG) from profiting at the expense of your community members. 

We desperately need more elected representatives willing to stand up unapologetically for oppressed people and against the status quo like Democratic Socialist Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez – who first penned a resolution supporting the hunger strike, then joined it himself, for “as long as it’s needed”.  

Elected representatives like Democratic Socialist Alderwoman Rossana Rodríguez-Sanchez supported the resolution. It’s also crucial that dozens of educators (members of the Chicago Teachers’ Union) joined Rodríguez-Sanchez, Sigcho-Lopez, and the community activists in a one-day fast as part of the protest movement. 

Meanwhile, despite empty words of support for the strike, the majority of the Chicago City Council shamefully voted to not even consider the resolution. Alderwoman Susan Sadlowski Garza, whose ward the metal shredder would be located in, was one of those who voted against it. Her vote to not consider Alderman Sigcho-Lopez’s resolution came only two weeks after she had claimed she supported the hunger strikers to these communities when she said: “I am deeply humbled by the commitment to activism shown by the hunger strikers advocating for public health. Our community has demanded to be heard repeatedly, and no person should have to starve themselves in order to have their concerns be taken seriously.”

This is of course par for the course for the Democratic establishment. Chicago Mayor Lightfoot expresses her own crocodile tears for what Chicagoans in the Southeast of the city are going through, but refuses to end the plans for the new facility, which she has the power to  do at any time. Instead, she says let’s wait and see whether the corporation is telling the truth about how supposedly safe their facility is. Spoiler alert: It’s not! 

RMG is already facing a whole range of EPA violations and a Federal department of Housing investigation for violating discrimination laws, after recently closing a similar facility in Lincoln Yards, a luxury development on the North side of Chicago, which is slated to receive $1.3 billion in City funds thanks to former Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a project which candidate Lori Lightfoot claimed to oppose, but which as Mayor she has done everything to encourage. In the far South side neighborhood where the new facility is slated to open, it is reported that a million pounds of toxins are already being dumped into the air every year. 

The actions of Alderman Sigcho-Lopez reflect what socialist elected representatives should be doing – calling out the political establishment for their ongoing attacks on working-class people and marginalized communities, and standing on the side of movements against these attacks. 

We have seen not only in Chicago, but also California and Texas, how these corporations put their profits above the lives of working-class people. Here in Seattle, just last week, for-profit corporation Puget Sound Energy’s outdated system resulted in a gas leak and fire, putting thousands in harm’s way and leaving thousands more without power. This was just a few years after PSE’s gas lines resulted in an explosion in Seattle’s Greenwood neighborhood that levelled three small businesses, injured 9 firefighters, and damaged dozens of surrounding buildings. 

It is true that recycling metals and other products is socially necessary. But just like the production and distribution of energy, it is too dangerous a process to be left in the hands of for-profit corporations. We cannot allow these corporations to put our lives and futures at risk for the sake of maximizing profits. We need to take these companies into democratic public ownership, to be run in the interests of working people, not profits for a few, and to fight for a Green New Deal jobs program that can provide a sustainable and actual future for the generations currently staring down the barrel of climate catastrophe. 

The situation in Chicago shows us once again we can have no faith in the corporate Democratic Party to be on our side. We need a fighting, movement-building approach based on our collective strength as the working class, and a new party to represent our needs. I stand with all those in Chicago fighting against the corporate environmental racism of RMG. 

Solidarity, 

Kshama Sawant, Seattle District 3 City Councilmember

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