By Gloria Walton and Elizabeth Sanders
This Saturday, the U.S. will see divergent paths for our future as hundreds of thousands march in the streets taking part in climate marches nationwide. One path is old, dirty, poisonous, dying. The other is youthful, life-affirming, the future. We have a choice, and on Saturday, we’re making it clear which path we’re taking.
One vision clings to the past of this nation, wistful for an America defined by a legacy of domination by the white and wealthy over people of color and poor people, manifested in an economy designed to exploit every available resource- our bodies, our water, our air, and the earth itself. This misguided viewpoint is rising again, welled up from the White House, spilling over all corners of the country, and at the end of this month, pooling in a demonstration of white nationalists and their hateful rhetoric in Pikeville, Kentucky. A neo-Nazi organization will be marching through the coal country town embracing the old dying vision of America.
Our vision on Saturday insists on a bright future for all of us. One with solutions growing from the people, rooted in the idea that the jobs we have, the energy we use, the food we eat, and the air we breathe should be clean and healthy, for our families and for the earth. This vision will rise on April 29 at the People’s Climate March, when Americans from coast to coast, in coal country, south Los Angeles, Washington DC, the plains of the Midwest and around the country will march for this better path.
We come from places that, on the surface, look very different. South Los Angeles is a neighborhood of 750,000 people- larger than Atlanta and Cincinnati combined- nearly all of which are Black and Latino. Resilient people who’ve followed their vision of a better life from Central and South America as well as the south and eastern United States, rooting their stories here. With freeways on all sides, our home is physically defined by concrete, with most of our families living closer to oil wells and fracking sites than to parks and green space.
Eastern Kentucky, by contrast, is a rural place. Families spread over Appalachian valleys and mountainsides, generations tied to the land, and more recently, what lies underneath it. Corporations hungry for profit have torn coal out of the earth, buried rivers under their slough, and chained workers to an industry that is destroying our planet as fast as it is destroying our bodies.
Our homes share this history of disinvestment, perpetrated by decades of decisions valuing the wealth of a few over the health of the many, manifested in the exhaust and coal dust in the lungs of our loved ones. In 2014, Gallup and Healthways ranked the communities with the lowest the health and well-being index - Eastern Kentucky and South Los Angeles topped the list.
Now, the federal government wants to offer us more of the same. President Trump has already eviscerated the Clean Power Plan, promised massive tax breaks to extractive corporations and the billionaires who run them, and made a spectacle of a press conference promising Kentucky coal miners they’d be going “back to work”, with no real path to do so. Their plans: double down on the brutal shortsighted extractive past, or push us toward an industry equally poisonous to our communities. Plans have been made to build a giant federal prison in eastern Kentucky, being sold with the same promise of “jobs now.” born out of the same horrific philosophy that people and the earth they inhabit are expendable. Torn out of the ground, burned, and embedded in human lungs, or torn from families, caged, and left to whither and distend. And in both cases, the jobs that are created are they themselves poisonous- a short term paycheck that costs health and humanity, and places worth on your ability to destroy land and diminish people.
In South Los Angeles, the offerings are similar. Twenty-five years ago, a predominantly white jury acquitted the four white police officers who were caught on video brutally beating Rodney King - one horrific, poignant example of the decades of disregard and systemic disinvestment in our black and brown lives. Oil extraction, over-policing, the war on drugs, the evisceration of child care, health care, and income assistance programs. The uprising that followed the verdict- burgeoning with demands for something different- not just freedom from the racist pressures of the police, but quality, life sustaining jobs, neighborhoods that were truly safe, and the ability to define our own future- lasted three days in the streets. Its echoes are still felt today - and so are the injustices that fueled it.
This president’s first 100 days has shown nothing for our black and brown families- doubling down on racist policing practices, terrorizing immigrant families, gutting environmental justice regulations, tearing health coverage away from people, and promising tax breaks to the corporations that underpay and over-pollute our neighbors.
But from Kentucky to Los Angeles, we also share a resilient vision--a community that knows what we want, and what we need to get there. We each have had thousands of conversations, in living rooms in places like Pikeville and Inglewood, and they have articulated what it would take to transition to an economy that works for everyone- for water that’s safe to drink, air that’s safe to breathe, and good jobs that allow our families and communities thrive. In the past 25 years, SCOPE has built a base of thousands of climate conscious voters, building power and community block by block with black and brown communities speaking for themselves on what they need and what solutions must look like- and winning. With the RePower LA coalition, we’ve created real training programs that are connected to quality, life affirming, jobs upon completion. We’ve heard from our members that solutions must address the common barriers to employment in low-income communities of color, like the need for supportive services including childcare subsidies, transit options, and case management. And we’ve built a base of support among labor unions, progressive elected officials, and environmentalists to build the power to win.
Kentuckians for the Commonwealth has been doing our homework too. Launched on April 19th, the Empower Kentucky plan is the culmination of hundreds of house meetings across the state, asking Kentuckians the simple question “what do we need our energy future to look like?” Matching the expertise of that lived experience with some of the nation’s leading experts on clean energy production, pollution, health and demographic data, we’ve produced a plan- and bolstered a movement- that can transition Kentucky to a place where our workers, families, land, air and water are protected and thriving. In addition, we’re launching a campaign called “Our $444 Million”, naming all the ways we could improve the lives of Kentuckians by redirecting the massive amount of money that’s slated to construct the prison. This is the new vision: trust the voices of the people, and we’ll build solutions together that work for everyone.
On Saturday, these two divergent visions will come into clear view. In Washington DC and around the country, the People’s Climate March will bring together hundreds of thousands people, naming that the only way out of the current calamity is to trust the voices of low income people of color, and demand investments and solutions like affordable housing, public transit, life affirming jobs, and stopping damage to the climate. When the voices of hatred, yearning for a return to a poisonous past, gather in Kentucky on Saturday, we’ll be there to confront them. When our families stand up in South Los Angeles and commemorate the past and shape a different, prosperous future, we’ll be there to celebrate them. And if the forces of complacency put the entire planet in peril as they refuse to follow the lead of our communities, we’ll be there in Washington DC and across the country, to march together right through them and demand to be heard.
Gloria Walton is the President and CEO of SCOPE, based in South Los Angeles and Elizabeth Sanders is the Chairperson of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.