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Intersections of Police, Racism, and the Environment

Updated: Jul 15, 2021

 For some context, check out this article, White Privilege in the Environment, from our former Development and Communications Director, Briana Villabolos. In it you will find some bedrock for this discussion: what intersectionality is, what white privilege is, and the necessity of social justice in the environmental movement.

Late last week, EPIC released our statement of support for the Black Lives Matter movement and made a pledge to further intersectionality in our own environmental community by providing educational resources, platforms for these discussions, and concrete actions. One of the small actions we took within our statement was to endorse certain California legislation for creating improvements on the ground in our state without police intervention. While we endorsed these reforms, we also wrote in support of the eventual abolishment of the police and carceral system as a whole. 

However, some might not find an obvious connection between environmentalism, racism, and policing. Where does this connection begin and how does abolishing the police and carceral system pertain to environmentalism?  As a whole, the history of police brutality, intervention, and imprisonment within environmentalism is long and complex—so much so that we cannot get to the entire history or validity of these connections in this post and instead will continue to examine this in more depth in the near future*. For now, I will provide a (very) brief overview of where these connections arise currently and historically. 

DAPL Protest 2017. Photo by Peg Hunter, Flickr.

First of all, the origins of policing in the United States arose from racism, resource extraction, and economic control. The creation of policing in our country arose from the needs of landowners and owners to maintain economic order in their labor sectors. To be more blunt, the earliest found origins of police in the United States were the Night Watches and Slave Patrols, which were created to uphold the economic order of slavery by recovering and punishing slaves for their owners. This is obviously a simplistic version of a long history of policing but regardless, it remains the same: policing originated through one of the most racist policies of all, slavery. Police have been protecting and upholding economic corporate rights over the civil rights of human beings since their very creation.

Secondly, those most violently affected by policing in this country have been Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color who are most often at the front lines to protect their communities from environmental degradation, as they are disproportionately the ones that bear the brunt of industrial production and waste placement. This is not something that only occurs in the past and it is not merely a historical injustice, but one that is a current and dangerous issue. 

Remember Standing Rock? It provides a vivid example of this violence. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe challenged the the Dakota Access Pipeline, put forward by the Dallas based corporation, Energy Transfer Partners, because the proposed project would have built an oil pipeline underneath their land and water. In what exploded into a massive grassroots movement across the country, Indigenous Peoples—more than 300 recognized tribes were documented at the site— were the ones on the front lines protecting their land and community and they were met with extraordinary violence by the police and the state in order to protect the economic rights of an oil company. Again, we see police violently upholding the economic rights over civil rights of human beings, especially when they happen to be a marginalized group. 

This should not be normalized. But it is. Despite extreme violence by the police, hundreds of arrests, thousands of people putting their bodies on the line, and hundreds of thousands of petitions and signatures, the pipeline is still being built, although the tribe has continued to challenge it. Would this pipeline be built if it did not run through a tribal reservation and instead through a white suburb? Perhaps, but most likely not. 

There are many more examples of these types of overt and covert environmental racism that are continuously supported and upheld by the police and the carceral system as a whole. We will continue to discuss these intersections in more depth in the upcoming months. We look forward to hearing your thoughts and questions on these matters and to working toward learning together. 

*Many of you, our wonderful members, are veterans of the 1990’s “Timber Wars” and participated in direct action and on the ground protests where people were often pepper sprayed, assaulted, and jailed as a result. Without putting your bodies on the line and standing up for the trees, much of the incredible old-growth forests that are left in Northern California would have been completely decimated. We would love to hear your stories of what you experienced during that time, please email rhiannon@wildcalifornia to share your perspectives and experiences. 

We would also like to give a shout out to the younger folx still doing the work on the ground to protect the forests here in Northern California and experiencing police obstruction, brutality, and imprisonment, and to acknowledge that the fight for these trees is not over. 


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