Landscapes of Violence

Recent protest movements have highlighted the ongoing racial and environmental destruction caused by our industrialized society. The actions of supposedly Democratic governments are disgraceful and a painful reminder of our broken capitalist system. A system that has caused, and continues to cause, such injustices cannot solve them, and we must work together to imagine better alternatives. The fundamental issue is not about whether our production is unsustainable, or whether our methods of resource extraction are harmful, but rather who has power over these processes. When power extends too far, allowing those who wield it to insulate themselves from the consequences of their actions, all production management decisions will be tainted by it, and the result is disaster. 

In Minneapolis this Tuesday, protesters occupied a former industrial site in an attempt to prevent its demolition. The site, located adjacent to a facility producing arsenic, had been described by experts as being potentially contaminated. Per the Minnesota Department of Health, “The [adjacent] site was used from 1938 — 1963 to produce and store arsenic-based pesticides. Contamination was discovered in 1994 during reconstruction of Hiawatha Avenue. High levels of arsenic were found in soil on the site and in the groundwater underneath the site.” Significant construction on the site would release arsenic and other pollutants into the air and, as one activist described, “… [cause] skin lesions, yellowing of the skin, and skin cancer, bladder cancer, [and] lung cancer.”

Knowing this, the city council had previously tried to block the project but faced opposition from newly empowered Mayor Jacob Frey, despite his previous statements against  construction on the site. Among the demonstrators, there was a significant presence from the American Indian Movement (AIM), an organization with a long history in Minneapolis. East Phillips — the location of the site — is also home to the majority Indigenous Little Earth housing development and a highly diverse population. The neighborhood has been zoned for industrial use and, as a result, faces contamination from high concentrations of industrial waste. Consequently, residents suffer from some of the highest rates of heart disease, lead poisoning, and asthma. Protesters rightly see the planned construction of a new public works building on this site as a continuation of the legacies of Indigenous genocide and racism. In the words of East Phillips resident Nicole Perez: “We can’t stand any more pollution. You know, our kids are sick, our elders are sick, and we can’t do this, we’re gonna fight.” Signs and banners also expressed solidarity with a similar movement more than one thousand miles away. 

The protest signs also speak of Atlanta, where the world watched (though U.S. media seemed hesitant to cover) the mounting opposition to the planned construction of a police training center on potentially hundreds of acres of wooded area, directly affecting the surrounding communities which are disproportionately black and low-income. The murder of environmental activist Tortuguita by Atlanta City police, in what they erroneously described as a shootout, marked a new reality for those of us who prefer that our local ecology not be bulldozed in favor of training police to surveil urban environments. For one, it marked the first reported direct killing of an environmental activist in the history of the U.S., which seemed to be the natural conclusion of the slow push since the early 2000s to criminalize ecological and animal rights organizations and their supporters. The open contempt with which those in power regard the communities they represent is evident in the descriptors used and charges levied at protesters, up to and including “domestic terrorism.” The Guardian reported: “In Florida, South Dakota and Oklahoma, for example, a ‘riot’ is considered to be any unauthorized action by three or more people, while in Florida, Oklahoma and Iowa drivers who injure protestors blocking traffic, a common tactic used by environmental activists, are given legal immunity. In Arkansas, an ‘act of terrorism’ is considered to be anything that causes ‘substantial damage’ to a public ‘monument,’ which could include graffiti. Across 17 Republican-controlled states, protesters face up to 10 years in prison and million-dollar fines for offences.” 

The goal of this legislation is clear: to reproduce the systems of legal, extralegal and vigilante violence which have attacked environmentalist movements in the rest of the Americas. Because the worst affected by industrial production, deforestation, and climate change will always be those with the fewest institutional resources (poor people, people of color, indigenous people, etc.), these blights cannot be properly addressed without understanding the enduring systems of racism, capitalism, and colonialism that continue to enable them. Thus, attempts at solving these issues through the establishment of supposedly green campaigns and megaprojects by government agencies and corporations ultimately perpetuate the same problems that they aim to fix. 

These projects are flawed because they are conceptualized around and therefore require the same extractivism and dispossession as the industries they are supposed to replace. New pushes for electric cars, for example, rather than better public transportation or less car-centric city planning, has sparked a lithium rush. Already, demand for the rare metal has resulted in the attempted overthrow of entire nations, ushering in openly corrupt and racist governments. Indigenous people throughout the Americas, still scarred from previous extractivist industries (to say nothing of the history of land dispossession) face renewed land grabs and new open-pit mines. For example, salt flats in Chile — home to many Andean native groups — and havens for endangered species, are being destroyed by a lithium extraction water-intensive method called brine extraction. In northeastern Nevada, the proposed lithium mine in Thacker Pass would lay on the site of a 1865 massacre of 31-to-70 Paiute tribe members. In a cruel twist, as part of the campaign to establish the mine, government officials and the Nevada Lithium Corporation deny that any killing occurred there: acknowledgement of potential remains on the site might grant it federal protections that ecological importance or sacredness would not.  

Ultimately, the systems of violence used by corporations and governments operating in their interests that have brought us to the point of global crisis cannot get us out of them. We cannot expect those in power, least affected by the decisions they make, to prioritize the wellbeing of those most affected. Thus, to truly bring about change, we must fundamentally change the structure of our society, the way we build and live our lives, and the way we make our most important decisions.

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