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Why the Law?

A recent victory by activists in the Georgia Sea Islands to preserve their community is one example of the many and, I’ll submit, strategic challenges that confront the fastest-growing movement that involves people of color in the country today the environmental justice movement.

Race, Poverty & the Environment readers are accustomed to reading about the latest EJ victories: in Kettleman City, in Albuquerque, in Tucson, in Oakland. Communities of color have been successful in fighting incinerators, groundwater contamination, lead poisoning and other environmental hazards and their connection to real people's lives. The courageous efforts of the Sea Islanders to stem the tide of unwanted and devastating development that endangers their land and culture is a recent addition to this impressive list of victories.

The Sea Island struggle is indicative of recent fights that have been waged by oppressed communities:  A tactical alliance of an indigenous community organization (read: colored) with a larger environmental or preservationist institution (predominantly white with a very few speckles of color) to pool resources to fight a proposed plan or in response to some documented environmental problem in the community. In more instances than not, the strategy employed by these initiatives has been a legal one, utilizing state or federal environmental laws and regulations to win the community's demands. Every time a corporation is brought to its knees is an occasion to celebrate. However, we must ask ourselves, "What implications does this strategy have for building the movement?"

I was once told by an organizer friend of mine that lawsuits are a tactic to be used during a fight when you want to (a) end the campaign and move on to another issue, (b) inspire your members by showing that you are not afraid to take on these bastards, or (c) force the hand of your opposition to react to your initiative during a stalemate.

In none of these instances, I remember, is a lawsuit a strategy for winning a fight. It is always a tactical move. So where does this penchant for legal struggles come from? Indigenous community organizations normally don’t have lawyers (some don’t even have paid staff) on their payroll; environmental organizations do. I would argue that the alliance of community organizations with the proliferating Environmental Law Centers around the country has resulted in legal strategies for winning environmental justice fights, to the detriment of direct-action, community-oriented strategies.

The political implications are serious. A legal strategy affects how the issues that confront a community are stood. For example, the fight by the Sea Islanders was framed as a “preservation” issue in order to employ a variety of zoning and endangered species laws to delay development.  This cut on the issue fails to show the racial and class character of the developer's strategy, something organizing for community control and equitable development would do to a much greater extent.

In addition, a legal strategy takes the fight away from arenas in which people can have some direct influence—their politicians, local development company offices, residences of the CEO, bank offices, etc.—to a place where they don't, in some chamber controlled by a judge where only the lawyers are allowed to speak (and only in English). This strategy does not facilitate the building of a cohesive, imaginative and militant base of people willing to employ various tactics on the opposition. This has great implications on how deep our organizational base is, and how leaders get developed.

Strategic Questions

The more important strategic questions for the movement go beyond mere choice of strategic options to employ. The questions that continue to nag me are these: Is the Environmental Justice movement constrained, both ideologically and pragmatically, by its “environmental” frame? Do the crucial strategic fights always have to have an environmental cut? Do the race-and class-based analysis of the EJ framework transfer to other organizational fights? Finally, are the alliances being developed a benefit or a hindrance to the further political development of grassroots indigenous organizations? There are probably a few other key questions to raise to come up with lessons to refine the EJ framework in its efforts in building a strong movement for justice.

One initiative which may point to such is contained in Ron Nixon’s description of the Penn Center's Preservation School. Creating a collective process wherein Sea Island indigenous leaders can explore the many dimensions of the key issues confronting their community, and hash out a long-term vision based on these discussions, will necessarily create, I think, a strategy for change firmly rooted in the Island’s political, social, and economic conditions. Such a framework will allow indigenous communities to engage the developers in different ways.

During the past decade the EJ movement has been able to mobilize thousands of ordinary citizens to confront local and power structures, mostly on questions of equitable standards of environmental protection—going after regulatory agencies and policies. It has inspired a new generation of activists of color to the ranks of organizations in both rural and urban settings. It has also been able to link previously-isolated organizations into a more potent force for radical change, and in doing so affected the landscape on which environmentalism is framed. But let's keep our eyes on the key question: How wide is our base of organized, conscious, and militant organizations with deep roots in the community, and how ready are they to battle on many fronts? And finally, are the current strategies helping that base or not?

Environmental Justice and the Law  |    Vol. 5 No. 2 & 3  |  Fall 1994/Winter 1995


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