Break Free: Day of Environmental Justice Action

On Saturday May 14, 2016 about 200 Minnesotans gathered to head down to Break Free Midwest in Whiting, Indiana. Break Free was a global month of action that brought people from six continents around the world disrupting fossil fuel sites to demand change to the way we live, on oil refineries from Indiana to the Niger Delta, coal plants from Australia to Turkey, fracking sites from Colorado to Brazil.

We sent Co-Canvass Director Tecara Monn, the canvass team: Steven Dancy, Lovie Franklin, Nia Harris, Frederick Johnson, CeCe Monn, Nyijaah Monn, Craig Nunn, Payton Williams, and my activist mama Margaret Richardson. We joined champions of environmental justice like Mahyar Sorour of MPIRG, Nicole Ektnitphong of YEA!MN, Jess Alexander of Working America and his family, and all the people of MN350. 

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After a rough ride including two bus malfunctions and some jazzercise, we and over 250 activists and community members crammed between pews on the floor in the the First Lutheran Church of the Trinity in Chicago the night before the action. On Sunday, we were on the buses by 9:00am to be a part of the action at the British Petroleum oil refinery in Whiting, Indiana. 

Whiting Park is a stark contrast  to the beauty of Lake Michigan. This massive industrial giant was a visual reminder of why this action was needed here. The day began with a Water Ceremony, the blessing led by Raven R. Roberts and the Potawatomi / Miqma Chicago Uptown Chapter, with flute music by Bill Buchholz. We all gathered around in a circle, took part in the sacred practice of smudging, and listened to those speak on the importance and vitality of water. 

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It was cold and windy for much of the time, but when the rally began the sun was shining bright and high. We picked out a nice spot on the hill and listened to activists of color speak on the importance of this action and the need to carry on the transition to a racially and economically just clean energy future. Payton, a youth activist, suited up as a marshal with Mahyar leading the way for the march. 

The march began out of the park, past Lake Michigan and towards the refinery. The crowd of people had expanded to 400 at this point with so much art, banners and handmade drums to lead the charge. We marched 2 miles to the refinery passing the gigantic smoke stacks, the eternal burning gas flares. During the action, 41 activists got arrested that afternoon. They were peaceful, and they knew what they were risking. Between the train tracks and the entrance of the refinery surrounded by police cars and police in riot gear, they sat in a circle singing, one by one taken into custody. They received a trespassing citation and were released later that night while the rest of us were on the way home.

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During the day we also saw a family standing on the porch with a “We support BP” sign. It was an important reminder that we cannot only focus on shutting down an oil refinery for these are someone’s livelihoods; but that we must voice the transition to renewable energy also includes an employment component that for these communities surviving in the haze of oil production, their jobs are the future of solar and wind energies.

However, the expectation of transferring to a completely different occupation is not lost on us environmentalists. That is why we are pushing on the government at all levels, and industries responsible for leading this transition to ensure that jobs of a greener economy comes to Whiting too. The extraction of natural resources, the exploitation of workers, and the degradation of our planet has always been a part of the industrial corporate model. The rest of us who don’t see our bank accounts growing by the millions are not the ones reaping all the rewards of oil production, in fact we get most of the negative externalities.

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This action put into perspective what a fuller picture of environmental justice needs to look like.We’re all facing our own challenges, but it’s critical in this fight that we see ourselves speaking up as much as we need each other to. I believe this is clearer than ever to the environmental movement. We only keep this going together.


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