Critical Abolitionist Environmental Justice A Resource for Organizers, Scholars, & Incarcerated Comrades Created by Keala Uchôa
This resource is anchored in a deep commitment to strengthening and expanding the inclusivity of our movements. The Environmental Justice (EJ) movement is fundamentally concerned with toxicity. Yet, at large, the movement has not seriously considered the socioecological toxicity of the Prison-Industrial-Complex, leading to a narrow and incomplete conception of environmental justice and under-theorization of racial expendability (Pellow 2018; Thompson 2018). This also means 2.3 million incarcerated people with powerful insight are excluded or marginalized from the movement (Thompson 2018; Wagner & Sawyer, 2020). While environmental racism and carceral violence may only seem tangentially related to some, I argue that they are inextricable, mutually reinforcing, and work in tandem to maintain global racial capitalism and settler colonialism.
Indeed, as we will explore together, law enforcement and carceral institutions are forms of toxins themselves, as the former terrorize, surveil, and murder those marked for premature death, while the latter are socially and ecologically toxic to surrounding ecosystems, communities, and especially incarcerated folks through their construction and daily operations (Pellow 2018; Thompson 2018; "Prison Ecology Project"). Building off of and contributing to pivotal scholars working at the intersections of abolition and EJ studies/movement building, I argue for a capacious vision of environmental justice that would eradicate all forms of statesanctioned violence that restrict Black, Brown, and Indigenous breath, from particulate matter to prisons to pandemics to police. With Love & Light, Keala
Keala is a low-income, firstgeneration college student from the Bay Area. She is incarcerated impacted and some of her family members are undocumented, inspiring her political passions for EJ/CJ, PIC abolition, & decolonial studies. Her family on her father’s side is Afro-Brazilian.
Cover & Introduction Art by Keala Uchôa
TABLE OF CONTENTS
01 04 09 11 14
INTRODUCTION Introduction to Zine, main arguments for Critical Abolitionist Environmental Justice & author biography
ROOTS & CROSS POLLINATION Brief genealogies of the US Environmental Justice (EJ) & Abolitionist scholarly and political movements & re-historicization of the intersections of the movements
POLITICAL REPRESSION & BLOOD MONEY Policing an impediment to Environmental Justice & Climate Justice organizing
CARCERAL LANDSCAPES Visualizing the environmentally racist spatial politics of frontline EJ communities both within and beyond carceral institutions
TOWARDS CRITICAL ABOLITIONIST EJ Conclusion & References
Roots Brief genealogies of the Environmental Justice (EJ) & Abolitionist scholarly and political movements in the "United States"
Environmental Justice The Environmental Justice (EJ) movement is an international movement of frontline community members mobilizing against disproportionate, targeted exposure to environmental harms in their typically low-income, communities of color, known as environmental racism. EJ reconceptualized the environment as spaces where we work, live, play, learn, and grow, challenging traditional environmentalism that typically focuses on conservation and preservation; largely ignores questions of justice, equity, and racial colonial violence; and is historically and currently led by antiBlack and anti-Indigenous leaders. Traditionally, the ideological and political roots of the US EJ movement are traced to the US Civil Rights movement (Pellow 2018; Bullard 2020). Alongside the movement emerged Environmental Justice Studies (EJS), which is divided into two phases by scholars and historians: The “first-generation” was focused on documenting the existence of environmental inequality through the lens of race and class and the “second generation” studies that went beyond questions of distribution to incorporate a deeper consideration of theory and the ways that gender, sexuality, and other categories of difference shape EJ struggles (Pellow 2018 p. 21).
Environmental Justice EJ organizers continue to fight for a wide range of issues, including preventing the expansion of the fossil fuel industry and environmentally harmful facilities; equal protection from environmental harms; food justice; climate justice; accessible green spaces; against gentrification and displacement; healthcare access; economic justice; equitable “natural” disaster relief; and transportation justice.
Prison Industrial Complex (PIC) “is a term we use to describe the overlapping interests of government and industry that use surveillance, policing, and imprisonment as solutions to economic, social, and political problems" (Critical Resistance).
Prison-Industrial-Complex (PIC) Abolition is a political vision and movement that believes in and fights for a world beyond incarceration, policing, surveillance, cages, borders, and carceral logics (Critical Resistance, Kaba 2020). Contemporary PIC abolition is rooted in the Black radical tradition of insurgency and rebellion against chattel slavery and the transatlantic slave trade (Rodríguez 2016; 2019). Abolitionists argue that abolishing the prison-industrialcomplex is a continuation of and essential to actualizing the abolition of slavery, which was a “massive prison” that lives on through forms of anti-Black carceral violence (See Davis 2005; Berger & Losier 2018:20; Rodríguez 2019). Likewise, many decolonial scholars and organizers believe abolition is central to Indigenous insurgency from here on Turtle Island [North America] to occupied Palestine (Rodríguez 2019).
Abolitionist scholars and organizers demonstrate that punitive logics permeate all facets of our society, from institutions like education and psychiatric wards to our interpersonal and communal relationships. Thus, the primary work of abolition lies in rebuilding a new society rather than only dismantling our current institutions (Critical Resistance; Kaba 2020). Abolitionists want life-affirming resources and long-lasting transformative justice structures of safety, health, accountability, and harm-prevention rather than racialized, classed, and gendered institutions of punishment, policing, and incarceration (Kaba 2020).
Theories of Justice
Although admirable, EJ's theories of justice, whether distributive, procedural, or recognitional, are largely reactionary and center the state, proving to be limited in their improvement of “the environmental quality of vulnerable populations” (Pulido et al. 2016; Pellow 2018). Conversely, the critical abolitionist tradition embraces a more expansive conception of justice through organizing tactics beyond the state. Embracing an abolitionist framework within EJ would deepen our understanding of state power, racial expendability, and proactive avenues to enact more livable and just futures for all (Pulido et al. 2016; Pellow 2018).
Distributive Procedural Recognitional Transformative Justice Justice Justice Justice Instead of seeking a world without environmental harms, it seeks an equitable exposure to environmental harms and risks
Focus on processes of decisionmaking and the importance of including marginalized groups within those processes
Recognition of oppressed people as well as the unique issues that they face and the first step to procedural justice
Works to proactively transform the conditions that lead to harm of all kind
Despite the limitations of EJ at large, critical scholars, organizers, and community members have embraced transgressive perspectives and methodologies. Although the cross-pollination of environmental justice and abolition has not been elaborated, if we re-historicize the origins of EJ, an alternative, radical genealogy of the movement emerges. Indeed, our ancestors have been engaging with abolitionist environmental justice work since the inception of (setter) colonialism and chattel slavery through their resistance and preservation of ancestral relationships to the land, which we must learn from and expand upon to actualize an expansive sense of justice.
Harriet Tubman Rarely centered in environmentalist and environmental justice historiography, Harriet Tubman was an infamous abolitionist who escaped slavery and led many enslaved folks to freedom on the Underground Railroad. She was also a leading environmental justice leader for her time, according to historian Dorceta E. Taylor, as she utilized topography and botany on her freedom journeys (2011). For example, she felt the moss on tree trunks to navigate North since moss grows heavier on the northern side of trees, demonstrating how our connections to nature can be liberatory abolitionist tools (Thompson 2018:92; Taylor 2011).
Top Center Art by Josémanuel Hernández Canchola
Attica Rebellion The Attica Prison Rebellion was the largest in US history, resulting in the murder of 10 hostages and 29 inmates from an insidious raid by law enforcement (Berger & Losier 2018). On September 9th, 1971, prisoners spontaneously rebelled and seized control of the maximum-security prison in New York for four days. During negotiations with law enforcement, while holding hostages, inmates held captive at the prison demanded higher quality physical and mental health care, sanitary living conditions, and high-quality and nutritious food. Their demands were fundamentally environmental justice demands, as they contested the structural conditions of and deprivation of life-affirming resources within the prison environment that expose inmates to environmental harms and premature death ("The Attica Liberation Faction" 2011).
Black Panthers & Young Lords The Black Panther Party was an anti-capitalist political organization that contested anti-Black carceral violence in the late '60s and early '70s. Through food justice initiatives like their free breakfast program, community health clinics, and health treatments, they engaged in a radical form of environmental justice organizing focused on community approaches to safety and mutual aid (Thompson 2018). Similarly, the Young Lords were a Marxist political organization fighting for the self-determination of Puerto Ricans and all oppressed people during the same era. They expanded community health services, provided door-to-door lead poisoning testing, and advocated for sanitization services in their community in NYC (Ed 2011). The Principles of Environmental Justice established at the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit held in 1991 resemble the ten-point program of the Black Panthers and thirteen-point program of the Young Lords, suggesting a profound but under-theorized cross-pollination.
Political Repression Exploring the reciprocal relationship between policing, carceral violence & racial capitalism Since its origins in 18th and 19th-century slave patrols in the South and 18th-century labor-movement-crushers in the North, policing has served the interests of racial capitalism (Kaba 2020; Berger & Losier 2018: 20). Importantly, policing has not only been the work of the police (Berger & Losier 2018:20). From the horrors of the Red Summer of 1919 to the malicious bombing of MOVE members’ homes in Philidelphia in 1985, law enforcement, white vigilantes, and private security entities have worked in tandem to terrorize, silence, incarcerate, repress, and murder Black nationalists, anarchists, communists, anti-militarians, and decolonial activists (Berger & Losier 2018). Environmental and climate justice advocates challenging racial capitalism and settler colonialism face carceral violence and repression too, in recent years referred to as the “Green Scare'' (Pellow 2018: 168). For example, Indigenous, Black, and Brown water protectors at the No Dakota Access Pipeline [#NoDAPL] that began in 2016 were brutalized with environmentally harmful chemical weapons such as tear gas and pepper spray, arrested, and incarcerated as political prisoners, such as Red Fawn Fallis (Estes 2019). Likewise, as protests are intensifying in opposition to the Line 3 oil pipeline in Minnesota, law enforcement are employing increasingly violent tactics—on June 7th, 2021 US Customs, and Border Protection utilized helicopter rotor wash to attempt to quell protestors (Kraker & Frost 2021).
Blood Money The Fossil Fuel industry & carceral state are symbiotic. A recent investigation by Public Accountability Initiative and LittleSis found that “the same companies that drive environmental racism in Black and Brown communities through toxic and climate-changing pollution also fund police power” (Armstrong & Seidman 2020). For example, Energy Transfer Partners, which is one of the companies driving the Dakota Access Pipeline [which ends in Nederland, Texas], is a sponsor of the Friends of the Dallas Police (Armstrong & Seidman 2020). In some states, fossil fuel companies and adjacent industries have poured money into lobbying lawmakers to adopt legislation that criminalizes pipeline protests, like the Critical Infrastructure Protection legislation. Laws that increased criminal and civil penalties for pipeline protests passed in North Dakota, among other states (Cagle 2019). Carceral logics and institutions are not only tools of political repression and impediments to environmental and climate justice organizing—they too are socio-ecological toxins poisoning our communities inside and outside of carceral institutions alike.
A sinking cop car from Fossil Free Northwestern's 2020 Teach-In collaborative mural, organized by Josémanuel Hernández Canchola & Keala Uchôa
Carceral Geographies Visualizing the environmentally racist spatial politics of frontline EJ communities both within and beyond carceral institutions A traditional EJ analysis of carceral geographies may analyze the proximity of carceral facilities such as jails, prisons, and detention centers to low-income communities of color and contest their construction and operation based on this disproportionate, targeted exposure to undesirable facilities (Pellow 2018). The problem with stopping here is that this framework can (perhaps inadvertently) reinforce the white supremacist notion that incarcerated individuals are literal pollutants themselves, rendering them non-human and undeserving of breathable and livable spaces. It is not that incarcerated individuals are inherently criminal or contaminant, but rather that the carceral logics of white supremacy that criminalize, punish, and cannibalize Black, Brown, Indigenous, poor, queer, trans, incarcerated, and disabled people are endemically toxic.
Toxic Origins Contemporary carceral institutions and logics in the US originate from the technology that was developed to facilitate Black chattel slavery and settler colonialism (Rodríguez 2016; 2019). When the formal institution of chattel slavery was abolished in the US in 1865, the Thirteenth Amendment legally sanctioned the existing national practice of prison slavery, enabling slavery to live on through its afterlives as every iteration of anti-Black carceral violence (Berger & Losier 2018:20).
From the dangerous forced labor to extract fossil fuels under the convict-leasing system to the contemporary prison farms throughout the country, carceral institutions continue to expose incarcerated folks to heightened forms of environmental racism to extract their labor, systemically neglect their health, punish them, and displace the burdens of ecological waste and destruction (Pellow 2018; Berger & Losier 2018:23; Wells 1893; Ware 2018).
Contemporary Crisis The US carceral system, by design, is the largest on earth, holding 2.3 million people captive who are overwhelmingly poor and people of color (Sawyer & Wagner 2020). Nationally, the incarceration rate for African-Americans is five times that of white Americans, while the rate for Latinx folks is nearly twice that of whites (Pellow 2018; Sawyer 2020). Similarly, African Americans and Hispanics are exposed to 1.54 times more fine particulate matter than whites, respectively, in part resulting in the African American and Latino hospitalization rate for asthma to be three to four times higher than the rate for white people (Bullard 11-12). This is not a coincidence. Insidious practices such as redlining, predatory lending, and predatory zoning forced Black and Brown folks to live in communities in closer proximity to environmental harms, where governmental environmental regulations are often not enforced (Uchôa 2020). These same frontline EJ communities are targeted by law enforcement and hypersurveilled, too. Carceral institutions reflect the environmentally racist spatial politics of nearby frontline EJ communities, where, again, incarcerated people disproportionately come from. 12
Take, for example, Genesee County Jail in the infamous Flint, Michigan. Flint is a majority-Black community where the water supply is still contaminated with heavy metal neurotoxins, coliform bacteria, and lead after 7 years in some homes (Pulido 2016; Mahoney 2021). Inmates at the jail, too, were forced to drink toxic water although the jail staff enjoyed filtered bottled water (Pellow 2018). Or, the “nearly 600 federal and state prisons located within three miles of a Superfund site on the National Priorities List” (EJI 2017). Some facilities are even built directly on top or adjacent to toxic sites, such as the Victorville Federal Correctional Complex built on a previous military weapons storage area ("Prison Ecology Project"). Even if carceral institutions are located in seemingly benign areas, they still can expose inmates to heightened environmental harms due to their unsanitary conditions, deteriorating infrastructure, lack of adequate health care, innutritious food, and lack of environmental oversight (Ware 2018; Bernd et al).
From New Orleans to Florida, our incarcerated comrades are living at the intersection of heightened carceral violence, environmental racism, and the climate crisis, and are thus indispensable to envisioning and enacting a capacious sense of environmental justice (Pellow 2018; Thompson 2018).
PHOTO BY SARAH-JI RHEE, Courtesy of Coalition to End Money Bond 13
Towards Critical Abolitionist EJ Conclusion & References
""Who writes for prisoners?'," asks abolitionist and incarcerated comrade Stevie Wilson (2019). He tells us that often the work is not written for prisoners, but rather other academics (2019). The disjuncture between environmental scholars and movement organizers, as well as career academics in general, and incarcerated people is unacceptable. If we are serious about environmental justice and public health, we must center and engage with those most vulnerable to environmental racism and all other forms of statesanctioned violence. A critical abolitionist environmental justice approach should be rooted in Black feminist standpoint epistemology, which tells us that “knowledge that is generated by people who are closer to the experience they are analyzing will be more accurate than knowledge generated by researchers who claim to be objective or impartial” (Richie 2012). Incarcerated people are closest to their experiences and have valuable insights that will expand our notions of justice, liberation, health, and safety beyond the interlocking forms of racial colonial violence we live within. As activist scholars, organizers, community members, and incarcerated impacted individuals, it is our responsibility to engage with incarcerated folks to learn how we can meet their immediate needs while fighting the long-term fight for PIC abolition. To abolition in our lifetimes & a merry death to the carceral state! Thank you for learning, imagining, and dreaming with me Please send feedback to: email@example.com
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