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Detroit - From “Promised Land” to “Sacrifice Zone”

Detroit held the “promise” of the good life for working class Black folks. Thousands of ancestors and elders fled terrorism in the South and in Detroit were able to make more money than ever before in and near the auto industry. The automobile industry in Detroit “promised” a life to Black people that no other industry or place had presented in that time.

Sacrifice Zone refers to Detroiters who have been redlined into areas surrounded by industrial pollution, provided little to no medical care or access, denied access to healthy food options and quite often watch friends and neighbors suffer or die from preventable health issues as well.

The same conditions that brought about the promised land-- massive opportunities in the industrial sectors-are now what make it a sacrifice zone- environmental domination by polluting industrial facilities. What has changed? Automation and the growth of the suburbs have depressed Detroit’s Black economies so much that we are no longer are reaping the benefits of the industrial behemoths. We used to be well paid and accepting of the environmental risks for the sake of industrial jobs. Now we are just “facilites’ host communities” and now suburban white collar workers travel through our communities so they can bring paychecks home to their own neighborhoods.

There are numerous struggles within Detroit’s Environmental Justice (EJ) landscape. Our communities face sickness by the dozens, hundreds, or thousands as we struggle to obtain even the most basic of human rights. Welcome to Detroit!

Environmental Justice

*48217- Detroit zip code 48217 is the most toxic in Michigan and third most toxic in the United States. The zipcode is surrounded by heavy industry, led by Marathon Oil Refinery, and also including Severstal Steel, US Steel, Detroit Edison Coal Plant, U.S. Gypsum (USG), and the Detroit Wastewater Plant (the single largest sewage plant in the U.S.) Many of the residents sleep with surgical masks to block toxins from tar sand refining that engulf their homes daily. It is common for Detroiters to wake up with low-grade headaches; many rely on asthma inhalers and deal with irritations and sores. Too often folks in 48217 exchange neighborly information about new diagnoses including kidney failure, autoimmune diseases and cancer — which usually brings about early deaths. After that, add to that the stress of constantly registering complaints to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) about pollution with limited response, and asking city officials for evacuation plans when neighboring suburbs received emergency warnings and evacuations.

*Incinerator- At the intersection of two of Detroit’s major freeways lies a smoking monstrosity. Detroit is home to the largest trash incinerator in the USA. By burning trash, the incinerator releases many chemicals that contribute to staggering rates of asthma and other respiratory ailments. These chemicals can include nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, dioxins, particulate matter, and lead. Detroit is known as the asthma capital of Michigan, where hospitalizations from asthma are 3-5 times the state average. What makes the situation worse is that the majority of the trash burned is from neighboring suburban counties. A 2015 report showed only 18% of the trash was from Wayne County (Detroit’s home county). 66% was from Oakland County (the 7th wealthiest county in the USA according to the 2010 census). The same suburbs built from white flight and resource extraction are now throwing their waste “away” and burning it directly into Detroiters’ lungs. Because of these dynamics, this struggle epitomizes environmental racism. Breathe Free Detroit organizing teach ins, press events, petitions, neighborhood block parties and more.

*Water shutoffs- In the spring of 2014, after the state forced the city of Detroit under emergency management, the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) began an aggressive plan to shut-off water to 1500-3000 Detroit homes per week. This ramped up shutoff program occurred at the same time that the Governor’s emergency manager was soliciting bids to privatize the water system.Despite public declaration of a state of emergency and even United Nations (UN) intervention, the massive violation of the human right to safe and drinkable water persists to this day. In 2014, the water department shut off a total of 30,064 delinquent residential accounts. It turned off 15,461 in 2015 and 30,496 in 2016, according to figures obtained by The Detroit News under the Freedom of Information Act.

In 2009, the People’s Water Board Coalition formed to protect Michigan water from high rates, privatization and inaccess. Detroiters are fighting for water to be recognized as a human right. A City residents already pay water bills that are nearly twice the national average. The city has responded with water assistance, which is a program where one missed payment results in instant shutoff. In a city with an official poverty rate of 40%, we need an income-related approach. Patients diagnosed with skin and soft tissue diseases were 1.48 times more likely to live on a block that experienced water shutoffs. We The People of Detroit is leading the city’s intervention in studying and responding to the public health consequences of these evil, punitive policies.

*Threats of water contamination - We have a hazardous water contamination threatening issue in Detroit and Wayne county. This environmental threat is called U.S. Ecology. The corporation US Ecology has been seeking permission from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) to expand its toxic waste disposal operation from 15,000 to 330,000 tons a day on Georgia Street in Detroit. The corporation transports, treats, and disposes of radioactive, chemical, hazardous and PCB waste from all over the country and then the liquid waste (arsenic, cadmium, cyanide, lead, etc.) is dumped into the Detroit public sewerage system. Our sewers are severely outdated and often result in massive overflows, that runs off into the Detroit River eventually leading into Lake Erie and affecting our primary waterways. The expansion is raising health concerns among our families, friends and those who live directly in the area. The facility is currently located within a mile of a number of schools, houses of worship, a hospital and even a senior center. One minor accident or fail in infrastructure could majorly contaminate the water and poison the entire city of Detroit, including surrounding suburbs that share the same water sources. Our outdated water and sewerage infrastructure in Detroit cannot handle the industrial polluting wastes that are being backed up into our river and waterways, so our drinking water is at risk even more now with the request for a tenfold expansion. Detroit’s water infrastructure needs adequate investment to help conserve and protect the environment, not another toxic polluter expanding its operation and putting more Detroiters health at risk.

*Food Justice - Detroit has been described as an urban healthy food desert for almost a decade now. A widely cited study of the Detroit found that poor black neighborhoods were on average 1.1 miles farther from supermarkets than poor neighborhoods with a low percentage of black residents. Detroit is also a city with vibrant food justice movements centered around issues of healthful food and social justice, which further enhances our utility as a model food system. The food justice movement is a combination of growing and consuming healthful food sustainably with an interest in achieving racial, economic and social justice. There are more than 1,500 farms in the city according to Keep Growing Detroit. The Detroit Black Community Food Security Network is a group of residents and organizations committed to building food security and food justice for black Detroit. They also operate an urban farm called “D-town Farm.” The activists are D-Town’s farmers who come from neighborhoods all over the city but gather at the farm to grow produce locally. Participation in the farm helps to provide access to food that is not linked to the neighborhoods the activists live in, or the food outlets our neighborhoods contain.

*Climate/ Emergency Readiness- Diasporic Afrikans here in the states are too often the most unprepared for any major disaster or even temporary disruption of basic services. Detroit’s #GetReadyStayReady Initiative educates, engages, and exposes community to various preparedness and resiliency skills and tools to thrive in times of crisis. In order to cultivate self-sufficient communities it is essential to implement family emergency preparedness. Our liberation is directly tied to our ability to be resilient and prepared for emergencies both natural and man-made.

*Just Transition- The East Michigan Environmental Action Council (EMEAC) has joined with Climate Justice Alliance, a nationwide coalition that seeks to advance leadership of indigenous, communities of color and other marginalized communities that have been historically dumped upon. Frontline communities such as Detroit have been located in the proximity of environmental pollution, industrial waste, toxic spills, explosions, and other harmful byproducts of the energy, waste, and production system we live under.

CJA’s Just Transition framework acknowledges that there are economic and political incentives beyond environmental racism that must be restructured. We must transition from being frontline communities and dumping grounds to leaders in this 21st century movement towards economic, environmental, and social justice. Each community will have to decide what institutions it will need to destroy, what must be transformed, and what should be built up in the future.

I end with these words from the Principles of Environmental Justice written First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991. These serve as a guiding light for our EJ struggles, and in addition, help us tie in our EJ work to the ongoing fight for self-determination.

WE, THE PEOPLE OF COLOR, gathered together at this multinational People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, to begin to build a national and international movement of all peoples of color to fight the destruction and taking of our lands and communities, do hereby re-establish our spiritual interdependence to the sacredness of our Mother Earth; to respect and celebrate each of our cultures, languages and beliefs about the natural world and our roles in healing ourselves; to ensure environmental justice; to promote economic alternatives which would contribute to the development of environmentally safe livelihoods; and, to secure our political, economic and cultural liberation that has been denied for over 500 years of colonization and oppression, resulting in the poisoning of our communities and land and the genocide of our peoples, do affirm and adopt these Principles of Environmental Justice:

The fight for Environmental Justice is at its heart the fight to control the land upon which we live. Joining the fight for EJ wherever our people live is an important precursor or training ground to the fight for our national liberation. This is our report from Detroit where we have seen the fight for fair treatment from the US government morph into the fight against national and international corporations and financial institutions who continue century-old attempts to exploit our bodies and our communities for their profits.

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