Yes, we can say their names: George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Trayvon Martin and far too many more, people of color who were killed or mistreated by the racist criminal justice system. Black people and people of color experience daily threats to their lives due to institutional racism and exploitation in this country, a reality that is not always evident to someone who hasn’t had that experience. While our country’s long history of racial injustice and violence makes this fact unsurprising, it was and is horrible and it is unacceptable.
I have always believed in the power of social movements to create lasting change. Collective action has, in several very important moments in our country’s history, forced forward necessary changes to its laws and its norms, resulting in the bettering of many lives. I am lucky to have lived through a few of these moments, and I believe that this is one of them. I wholeheartedly support the Black Lives Matter movement and the progress they are fighting to create.
Just as communities of color are often targeted by institutional systemic racism, they also find themselves vulnerable to environmental health hazards at disproportionately higher rates than White Americans. Over our nearly 40 year history, our work has shown us that environmental justice is deeply interwoven with racial justice, and we at CHEJ have and will continue to be committed to equity for all races. We know the people and communities who are forced to live in America’s Sacrifice Zones — communities that are in the 70th or higher percentile for cancer and respiratory related illnesses. They are Black, Latino, Indigenous Native Americans and White. What they have in common is that they are almost always poor, and the air they breathe is always toxic. They did not choose to live with this exposure, but they are forced to suffer from pollutants spewing from factories, power plants, and other sources. Currently, many of these communities battle staggering infection rates due to COVID-19, which is worsened due to their pre-existing respiratory illnesses caused by many of these pollutants.
We hear the cries of George Floyd, Eric Garner, and more saying, “I can’t breathe.” There are many other silenced voices also pleading for their lives, who reside in these Sacrifice Zone communities. They, too, are being stripped of their rights to breathe clean air. Many times they are the same communities often preyed upon by a violent, racist criminal justice system and other forms of systemic institutional racism. Together, they represent compounding effects that continue to oppress and disenfranchise Sacrifice Zone communities and to a larger degree, disproportionately harm communities of color across our nation. We must do something now to stop it. We must work together, all of us, to ensure that everyone, and especially vulnerable communities, have the right to freedom, justice, and equality, including the right to breathe clean air. To the Black Lives Matter movement: know that we are with you in this fight, we are standing beside you, and we support you fully.
Lois Gibbs, Founder of CHEJ, June 2020