By Cailan O’Leary, Fall 2020 Intern at 350Vermont and UVM ‘21 Environmental Studies major

A country built upon the enslavement of Afrikan people and genocide of Indigenous people cannot claim to have a justice system free of biases, prejudices and racism. The roots of this nation lie in white supremacy, colonization and violence. The early conservation/environmental movement was built upon the extirpation of Indigenous people and poor white people for the creation of National Parks to benefit well-off white people. The justice system in the United States and the environmental movement still exercise the acts of racism, white supremacy and colonization. Often seen as separate issues, police violence and pollution go hand in hand. To combat these issues rises the Defunding the Police movement, and the Environmental Justice movement. 

This past summer protests sprang up across the United States and around the world calling for justice for black people murdered at the hands of the police. Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, Rayshard Brooks and countless other black people have fallen victim to police officers serving an institution predicated on racism and white supremacy. Police officers began in the South as slave patrol. They were some of the earliest forms of policing in the United States, when black people were considered property who had to be returned to their masters if caught running away. Today, Black people are three time more likely to be killed by the police than white people, though Black people comprise 13% of the population and white people account for 73% of the total U.S. population.

The police pollute black neighborhoods with violence, but also through noise pollution created by cars, helicopters and sirens, light pollution from flood lights placed in high crime areas and emissions from police cars that are constantly driving in these neighborhoods. Studies demonstrate that Black communities face twice the health risk of breathing polluted air. Zoning laws in the U.S. are racist and force Black people and other people of color to live near industrial facilities and factories. For these community members, it is difficult to get justice if there is a toxic spill, or if the water is contaminated by a company because they are already seen as disposable because of the color of their skin and/or their socioeconomic status. People of color and low-income residents can’t rely on the justice system to help them with these types of situations because the justice system has failed them. The pollution of police officers creates anxiety and fear coupled with industries disproportionately polluting Black communities, creating an array of health problems such as cancer and respiratory illnesses. 

Defunding of the police calls for these funds to be redistributed towards other services that will benefit communities who have suffered violence and death at the hands of the police. It calls for funding education, community agriculture, affordable housing, mental health services, healthcare, a livable wage and other programs that would help to serve and uplift the most vulnerable people in our communities. Money could be reallocated to fund a Green New Deal, or Renew New England Framework, climate legislation that focuses on the creation of jobs, investing in education and healthcare, and addressing the needs of low-income communities and communities of color while actively mitigating climate change. 

Herein lies the often-overlooked connection between the environmental justice movement and the Black Lives Matter movement. You cannot have environmental justice, or climate justice without addressing systemic racism and the defunding of police. Like the slave patrol was created to retrieve property (black people), the police today are enforcers of pollution and protectors of property that pollute our environment (companies and the fossil fuel industry). A 2020 report conducted by the Public Accountability Initiative and LittleSis, a nonprofit corporate and government accountability research institute, exposes how oil and gas companies are funding the police in major cities around the U.S., on top of the $155 billion spent annually on policing across the country by state and local governments. These funds aid in the militarization of police and enforcement of violence against people seen across the country, where police violated peaceful protesters with tear gas, pepper spray, flash bangs and rubber bullets. While dressed in military-grade riot gear, the police enforced violence and incited terror against innocent people. The report exposed top polluters of the fossil fuel industry such as Chevron, Shell, Marathon Petroleum, Valero and Hilcorp and two top financiers of the fossil fuel industry, JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo, as contributors to the violent policing system through donations made to police departments in NYC, New Orleans, Atlanta, Houston, Salt Lake City and Charlotte, on top of the violence and harm they create from fossil fuel emissions. It came as no surprise that the police used violence against peaceful protesters who were protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) in 2016, because one of the financiers of the DAPL is Marathon Petroleum.

When it comes to environmental justice, activists cannot negate the ties white supremacy has to policing and pollution. In the words of Tamara Toles O’Laughlin, 350.org North America Director, “Are you willing to hold accountable all of the systems built off white supremacy—from the fossil fuel industry to racist policing to the prison-industrial complex—in defense of the planet?”