Environmental Justice vs. Empire

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Three views on why the construct of imperialism is useful in framing environmental injustices—both past and present, local and global. Authors examine race, poverty and environmental issues from historical, geographical and political perspectives.

Power of Place and Space

Local dimensions of imperial economic and development policy

The word “imperialism” is back on the radar of political discourse, after lying dormant for many years, thanks to the Bush administration’s willingness to throw the weight of the United States around with abandon. Imperialism is a useful word. Just as the concept of “internal colonialism” was helpful to people thinking about power and injustice in the 1960s, imperialism can be brought home to good effect for today’s activists and movement leaders. But as an analytical term, it needs to be deepened beyond sweeping statements like, “U.S. imperialism is ravaging the globe”—which are so broad as to be mere slogans—if we are to apply it to conditions of race, poverty and the environment in California and nationwide.

Imperialism is, above all, a geographic term: the power of one place over another. In the modern world, it came into use to describe the power of the great European countries over far-flung empires in Asia, Africa and the Americas. That power was expressed most clearly through political control of territory, or colonization, but it pertained as well to the domination of trade, taxation of the people, land takeovers and extraction of natural resource wealth. Such exploitation was economic in the broadest sense and not confined to the state and government power. The British Empire was created to advance the cause of capital accumulation, not simply to bring glory to Queens and Admirals.

Internal Conquests
But imperialism can operate at many scales (geographic areas) and need not be thought of only as external domination. The United States was formed as a continental empire by conquest, which devoured large pieces of the land across the center of North America and absorbed them into one nation-state. This still explains much of the misery of Indigenous Peoples, whose land was stolen and cultures nearly decimated in the process of Euro-American expansion [see “Stolen Resources,” p. 9]. It pertains to the tension that underlies Mexican-Anglo relations to this day, due to the historic memory of U.S. conquest of one-third of Mexican territory in the war of 1844-46. That conquest was motivated in large part by the attraction of vast lands for agriculture, mining and timber. California was the great prize of the Mexican war, yielding up its gold to fuel the appetite of the growing American economy for money in circulation.

California and particularly San Francisco then turned around and projected their economic might across a regional empire up and down the Pacific Coast, and stretching across the Pacific. This constituted an urban imperialism that sucked the wealth out of the countryside in many forms: silver from Nevada, wood from the Northwest, beef from Southern California, sugar from Hawaii, and commercial and financial profits from every direction.

Cities are huge consumers of natural resources to this day. The tentacles of cities like Los Angeles and Denver reach out hundreds of miles to gather water, electricity and building materials, and thousands of miles to garner their supplies of oil, gas and food. When we speak of the United States gobbling up a quarter to a third of the world’s natural resources today to feed its vast appetite for materials and energy, we should remember that a state like California or a city like San Francisco has its own geography of extraction. The legacy of this has been the ruin of many distant places—from Nevada’s ghost towns to Chevron-Texaco’s oil wells in Ecuador—by mines, clear cuts or oil spills.

This kind of imperial economic conquest and exploitation operates all the way down to the level of neighborhoods and municipalities within today’s huge metropolitan cities. We hardly notice it, but the urban landscape is littered with sites of resource extraction, like the sulphur mine in the Oakland hills, or New Almaden above San Jose, which still leaches mercury into the estuary and makes offshore tuna and crabs dangerous to public health. We also suffer Silicon Valley’s past leakage of cleaning fluids into the groundwater, a legacy of the conquest of Santa Clara County by the electronics industry. The people of Contra Costa County live with the deadly emissions of several refineries turning distant petroleum into locally-consumed gasoline.

Real estate is a critical dimension of internal imperialism, as well. When San Francisco and other Bay Area cities wanted to expand their business, industry, transportation or housing, they eagerly conquered new space by such devices as filling in the bay, bulldozing hillsides, and even removing the dead outside the city limits to claim the cemeteries. After World War II, the downtown real estate operators looked to the surrounding neighborhoods, potential office and commercial space—that is, if the people and old buildings could just be removed. This development marked the era of “urban renewal” projects that devastated historically working class, poor neighborhoods around downtown San Francisco, such as the Western Addition, South of Market, and North Beach, driving out many of the poor and people of color. That process of internal conquest continues to this day, as in the dot-com explosion that made over South of Market, chipped away at the Tenderloin, and encroached on the Inner Mission, leaving many more homeless. A similar process leveled much of central and west Oakland after the war—with a comparable targeting of black neighborhoods—and continues through Mayor Jerry Brown’s campaign to gentrify the central city.

The People Behind Empire
Of course, these instances of local, internal imperialism are not just about places, but about people. Imperial powers are not just national or local governments, but the people behind them. Powerful people, rich people, and most often, in the American case, white people. The Bush Team is not the exception but the rule in that regard. We may think of California politics as more liberal, and the Bay Area as far more liberal than the nation; but when it comes to those at the top of the local business and political hierarchy, their command over space and place is just as fierce and unrelenting as any Bush incursion into Iraq.

The litany is long of business and political leaders in the Bay Area who have led the conquest of local real estate and urban supply lines for profit and prosperity. Among the most famous of the dynasties over the years are the Phelans, Hearsts, DeYoungs, Knowlands, Pardees, Swigs, Shorensteins and McEnerys. This is not a matter of leading individuals or families, however, but of the leadership of a class. The bankers still need their gleaming skyscrapers, professionals their loft condos, electronics moguls their electricity supply, rich suburbanites their water, business travelers their expanded airport (by bay fill, of course). This class of people is not confined to downtown, by any means, but lives and works throughout the metro area. They guard their geography well, with gated communities like Blackhawk, mansions hidden in the woods in Marin, carefully drawn boundaries like Piedmont. Would that the poor had such privileged access to space and power over their homes and workplaces. They live within the empire but without it at the same time.

R. A. Walker is professor of geography at the University of California at Berkeley. He is the author of several articles about the San Francisco Bay Area. His latest book, The Conquest of Bread: 150 Years of California Agribusiness (The New Press), will be out in October.

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Stolen Resources

Continuing threats to Indigenous people’s sovereignty and survival

“Imperialism and colonialism are not something that happened decades ago or generations ago, but they are still happening now with the exploitation of people....The kind of thing that took place long ago in which people were dispossessed from their land and forced out of subsistence economies and into market economies—those processes are still happening today." —John Mohawk, Seneca, 1992

The history and struggles of Indigenous peoples within the United States is inseparable from the story of European imperialism. From militarism and policies of genocide, to religious indoctrination and cultural assimilation, the tactics of imperialism were developed from the blood of Indigenous peoples. While Indigenous tribal nations survived the expansionist policies of the British, Spanish, and later the American empires, the majority of the pre-colonial Indigenous populations did not. The legacy of those policies is embodied in the laws and attitudes that still affect modern generations of Indigenous peoples in the United States.

Ever since Pope Alexander VI’s 1493 Papal Bull “Inter Caetera” called for the subjugation of America’s “barbarous nations” and Indigenous lands, first colonial and then successor empires have forcibly and violently oppressed Indigenous peoples—as a “race” of people. But the religious imperatives of conversion and annihilation have only been replaced by contemporary forms of oppression: assimilation, development schemes, privatization of land and water, and now economic globalization. The nation-state economic elites and transnational corporations have replaced the earlier conquistadors and colonists as the beneficiaries of stolen Indigenous lands, knowledge and resources.

Loss of Land, Sovereignty
Through a number of treaties and agreements with the U.S. government in the 18th and 19th centuries, Indigenous tribes relinquished control of territory and agreed to retain much smaller tracts of land. In return, the government promised protection, education, health care and other forms of compensation. The government made many promises, including one major agreement that became known as the “U.S. trust responsibility.” Under this framework, Indigenous lands or reservations were to be held in “trust” for the tribes and protected by the United States. As trust territories, tribal lands are recognized as separate from U.S. domestic lands.

However, during the 1950s the U.S. Congress actively sought to end that special relationship with Indigenous tribes. A massive relocation project seduced many tribal members to move from their economically depressed reservations into cities with the promise of jobs and opportunity. Once in the city, tribal members found themselves without the promised prosperity or the security of tribal life. Some returned home but many stayed in the cities and became known as “urban Indians.” Today, near 55 percent of the total U.S. Indigenous population resides off reservation, with a high percentage living within low-income areas of the cities.

The U.S. “Termination Era” policy of the mid-1940s to mid-1960s presented Indigenous peoples with another challenge to their survival. The policy was meant to assimilate tribes into the mainstream society irrespective of their history, culture and unique political relations with the United States. Some tribes, such as the Menominee in Wisconsin and the Klamath in Oregon, were offered money if they agreed to sell their lands and terminate their treaties and agreements with the government. By selling lands, Indigenous tribal nations gave up the protections insured by the treaties. The tribes would also no longer be sovereign entities. Some tribes did choose to sell their territory, with catastrophic consequences to their peoples. Termination, however, was a failed policy. In 1970, President Nixon heralded the beginning of a new era in which Indian self-determination, without termination, would be the guiding principle for government policy regarding Indians.

Environmental and Economic Exploitation
Shortly after Indigenous reservations were formed, abundant natural resources were found to exist upon these lands: timber, minerals, petroleum, fur bearing habitat, fish and water. Following the treaty-making era, the U.S. government sought to gain direct access and control over the remaining Indigenous natural resources. Oklahoma, where many Indigenous tribes were sent through forced relocation, was abundant in oil. The Black Hills in South Dakota, sacred to the Lakota nation, had gold. Coal reserves were discovered in the homelands of the Dine’ (Navajo) and Hopi nations in Arizona, and the Crow nation in Montana. The last frontier within the United States was Alaska, where the government and its timber and petroleum corporate partners negotiated one of the biggest land grabs in modern history.

Indigenous territories have been used to: locate mega hydroelectric dams, mines for uranium, coal, copper and other metals essential to U.S. industry; conduct nuclear weapons testing during the Cold War; site petroleum wells and pipelines and other energy producing facilities; and dump municipal, industrial, federal and military toxic and radioactive waste.

11-1 Page 11 Image 1 With rare exceptions, these developments have not directly benefited Indigenous peoples. Indeed, Western forms of production and business development have forced Indigenous peoples to depend on the U.S. cash economy and to implement Indigenous-based capitalist initiatives while their traditional economies collapsed. Territories where Indigenous peoples live are resource-rich and serve as the base from which governments and corporations extract wealth; yet they are also areas where the most severe form of poverty exists.


For instance, within the Black Hills region of South Dakota where rich deposits of gold and other minerals were found in the 1800s, none of the Lakota tribal members of Pine Ridge reservation benefited. In the 1868 treaty by the United States and the Lakota Sioux nation, the U.S. government recognized the Black Hills as part of the Great Sioux Reservation, set aside for exclusive use by the Lakota Sioux people. However, after the discovery of gold in 1874, the government confiscated the land. To this day, ownership of Black Hills remains the subject of a legal dispute between the government and the Lakota Sioux. The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is home to:

  • the poorest county in the United States
  • an unemployment rate of 80 percent
  • life expectancy of 48 years for men; 52 years for women
  • the highest infant mortality rate in the country.

Current Crises and Pressures
The ecosystems of Mother Earth are in crisis. We are experiencing an accelerating spiral of climate change and global warming. Caused by the excessive buildup of heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere—in particular carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of oil, gas and coal—climate change threatens virtually every segment of the biosphere and human society.

Yet climate change doesn’t affect everyone equally. Indigenous peoples, from the Arctic and worldwide, and others who rely on the land and water for food and culture are most threatened by these weather changes. Indigenous peoples, people of color and ethnic groups, small island countries, women, youth, coastal peoples, fisher peoples, poor people, the elderly and the ecosystem are suffering the impacts of the fossil fuel economy at every stage of its life cycle—from exploration, production, refining and distribution, to consumption and disposal of waste. If consumption of fossil fuels, deforestation and other ecological devastation continues at current rates, it is certain that climate change will result in increased temperatures; sea level rise; changes in agricultural patterns; increased frequency and magnitude of “natural” disasters such as floods, droughts and intense storms; epidemics; and loss of biodiversity.

Mainstream society’s lack of environmental concern disrupts the ability of Indigenous peoples to protect their traditional territories. Indigenous communities are finding it difficult to maintain sustainable economic systems, to practice their traditional ceremonies, and to preserve their hunting, gathering and fishing cultures. Indigenous spiritual and cultural practices depend upon access to their traditional lands, including historically and spiritually significant sites. Some Indigenous tribal cultures derive their family clan or kinship identification from particular plants, habitat, fish and food groups. Yet mineral and mining extractions, flooding of lands from mega-hydro dams, and toxic chemical contamination of traditional food systems seriously affect their deeply ingrained spiritual and cultural relationship with the ecosystem.

In the eyes of many Indigenous spiritual leaders, the source of these pressures can be traced to the long historical processes by which humans have become increasingly alienated from the Mother Earth. This results in an alienation from self, community and nature. The alienation has roots in imperialism and colonialism, and is currently being exacerbated by economic globalization, initiatives of free trade, privatization and development policies that have no tie to nature. These trends propel an unsustainable concept of the natural world as “property,” and therefore a commodity to be exploited freely, and bought and sold at will. This paradigm has resulted in disharmony between human beings and the natural world, as well as the current environmental crisis threatening all life. It is totally incompatible with a traditional Indigenous worldview.

Indigenous People Take Action
Indigenous peoples from the United States and throughout the world are expressing their concern about the agenda of economic globalization and imperialism. Indigenous tribes’ inherent rights to sovereignty and self-determination are undermined by the World Trade Organization (WTO) and by most free trade agreements. Whether through environmental degradation; biopiracy and the patenting of Indigenous medicinal plant and seed knowledge; or the militarization and violence that often accompanies development projects, the impact of these agreements is disproportionate and devastating to our communities.

The Indigenous Environmental Network and other U.S.-based Indigenous non-governmental organizations are challenging the WTO by applying Indigenous rights- and human rights-based approaches that redefine principles and practices in regards to trade and development. We envision a “sustainable communities” paradigm, a transparent and democratic process, as well as alternative worldviews and models of development. The Kimberly Declaration and the Indigenous Plan of Implementation, developed at the Indigenous Peoples’ International Summit and the World Summit on Sustainable Development, affirmed the vital role Indigenous people play in defining this new paradigm.

Indigenous peoples of the United States and the world—especially, those that still maintain and practice their land-based cultures—are a threatened people. But Indigenous peoples are fighting for all life put in jeopardy by corporate globalization and its agenda for world domination and control. Indigenous peoples from the United States and global community believe that they can offer viable alternatives to the dominant export-oriented economic growth and development model. Indigenous peoples sustainable lifestyles and cultures, traditional knowledge, cosmologies, spirituality, values of collectivity, reciprocity, respect and reverence for Mother Earth are all crucial in the search for a transformed society where justice, equity and sustainability will prevail.

Tom B.K. Goldtooth (Mato Awayankapi) is director of the Indigenous Environmental Network in Bemidji, Minnesota. He was an Indigenous delegate at the third World Water Forum in Kyoto, Japan in 2003, at the fifth Ministerial meeting of the WTO in Cancun, Mexico 2003, and at the fourth World Social Forum in Mumbai, India 2004. He is active on many other environmental and social justice organizations, such as Honor The Earth Campaign and Just Transition Alliance.


Article Sources

American Indians, American Justice, Vine Deloria, Jr. and Clifford M. Lytle, 1983.

American Indian Holocaust and Survival: A Population History Since 1492 (Civilization of the American Indian), Volume 186), Russell Thornton, 1990. Bali Principles of Climate Justice, June 2002. http://www.wrm.org.uy/actors/WSSD/Bali.html

Ecocide of Native America: Environmental Destruction of Indian Lands and Peoples, Donald A. Grinde and Bruce E. Johansen, 1995.

Five Hundred Years of Injustice: The Legacy of Fifteenth Century Religious Prejudice (1992), Steve Newcomb http://ili.nativeweb.org/sdrm_art.html

From the Ground Up: Environmental Racism and the Rise of the Environmental Justice Movement, Luke W. Cole and Sheila R. Foster, 2001.

“Greenhouse Gangsters vs. Climate Justice,” a report by CorpWatch, November 1999. Indigenous Peoples’ Seattle Declaration, Third Ministerial Meeting of the World Trade Organization, November - December 1999. http://csdngo.igc.org/Indigenous/indig_seattle.htm

Indigenous Peoples and the World Summit on Sustainable Development, Tebtebba Foundation (Indigenous Peoples’ International Centre for Policy Research and Education), 2003

International Cancun Declaration of Indigenous Peoples, Fifth Ministerial Meeting of the World Trade Organization, September 2003. http://forestpeoples.gn.apc.org/Briefings/Indigenous%20Rights/cancun_decl_sept03_eng.htm

Menominee Termination and Restoration: Indian Country, http://www.mpm.edu/wirp/ICW-97.html

Resource Rebels: Native Challenges to Mining and Oil Corporations, Al Gedicks, 2001.

Struggle for the Land: Indigenous Resistance to Genocide, Ecocide, and Expropriation in Contemporary North America, Ward Churchill, 2003

The Corporate Planet: Ecology and Politics in the Age of Globalization, Joshua Karliner, 1997.

The New Resource Wars: Native and Environmental Struggles Against Multinational Corporations, Al Gedicks, 1993.

The Rights of Indians and Tribes, Stephen L. Pevar, (3rd Edition, 2002).

The State of Native America: Genocide, Colonization, and Resistance (Race and Resistance), Edited by M. Annette Jaimes, 1992.

The Way It Is, Spiritual Leader Corbin Harney, 1995.

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Indigenous peoples are fighting for all life put in jeopardy by corporate globalization and its agenda for world domination and control.

Grassroots Internationalism

Broadening struggles for self-determination and human rights

11-1 Page 13 Image 1In late February, veteran civil rights, anti-war and labor organizer Eric Mann sat down with Race, Poverty & the Environment to discuss social justice strategies in a global context, and the potential for working class people of color to lead an international movement. Mann is a veteran of the Congress of Racial Equality, Students for a Democratic Society, and the United Auto Workers. He is presently the director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles. His latest book is Dispatches from Durban: Firsthand Commentaries on the World Conference Against Racism, and Post-September 11 Movement Strategies (available from www.amazon.com).

RPE: Transportation justice and environmental justice are some of the primary issues that the Labor/Community Strategy Center and Bus Riders Union have been working on for the past 15 years. What do you see now as the biggest challenges for working class people of color in Los Angeles? Are they the same as 15 years ago or different?

Eric Mann: The political, economic and social conditions have gotten worse. The right-wing control of the country and the courts is a massive challenge. For example, in 2001 the Scalia/Rehnquist court, in a 5-4 decision, overturned 30 years of civil rights law in the Alexander vs. Sandoval decision. Sandoval, a Latina from Alabama, sued the department of motor vehicles, arguing that their “English only” tests discriminated against her based on race, and was prohibited by Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which bars state and local governments that receive federal funds from discriminating based on race. The federal district court upheld her challenge, and the attorney general of Alabama appealed to the Supreme Court. Instead of dealing with the issue on its merits, the Court used that case to make a radical right-wing argument, i.e. that Congress never intended Title VI to be used by “private parties”—civil rights groups, impacted plaintiffs—but only by the attorney general. The majority ruled that private parties could still bring cases if they could prove “intentional discrimination.” But it prohibited the long accepted grounds of “disparate impact,” a standard by which plaintiffs only needed to document the racially discriminatory impact of a governmental policy regardless of intent. The overturning of the right to bring disparate impact cases challenging environmental racism, and all forms of racism, is a major setback for grassroots groups, low-income people and civil rights law.

The second setback for the EJ movement has been the deterioration of white liberal—and I would even say white radical—anti-racism. I am a product of the Black-led mass anti-racist consciousness of the 1960s. But over the last 20 years, I’ve seen white people turn away from affirmative action, and retreat into the comfort of predominantly or even all-white social structures. In Los Angeles, the Bus Riders Union (BRU) has built a movement of several hundred active members, thousands of on-the-bus supporters—overwhelmingly Black, Latino and Asian/Pacific Islanders—and a few dedicated anti-racist whites. And yet, we have received virtually no support from “the White, Westside liberals” or the white “anti-globalization movement” that challenges corporate abuses all over the world but cannot relate to an actual working class, people of color led movement.

RPE: So how do those two problems that you point out—the right-wing leaning of courts and the decline of white support—affect working class people in Los Angeles?

Mann: Black, Latino and Asian peoples, isolated and under attack, are far more likely to fight back if they feel support from white allies and the federal courts. If you go to court and win, as the BRU did, it reaffirms that the country has a policy to rectify past racism and generates more grassroots activism. But if your case is thrown out of court, and if white liberals turn on you, there’s a negative impact on movement building—not irreparable, but significant nonetheless.

11-1 Page 14 Image 1 Then we have the third, perhaps most controversial challenge [for working-class people of color], which is the growing hostility of significant segments of the Black and Latino middle and upper classes toward the Black and Latino poor. For instance, in 1994 in Los Angeles, the Strategy Center and Bus Riders Union sued the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transporation Authority (MTA) for running a separate and unequal mass transit system. This system consisted of a dilapidated rail system that served the urban working class (94 percent of all MTA passengers), and a pork barrel suburban rail system that served a far smaller, more white ridership.

Given that we won a temporary restraining order to prohibit MTA plans to cut out the monthly bus pass, and eventually won more than $1 billion in new clean fuel buses, you would think that the entire Civil Rights, Democratic Party, and Black and Latino Establishments would have rallied to our cause. Just the opposite. Many of them, such as Supervisor Yvonne Braithwaite Burke, City Councilman Richard Alatorre, Supervisor Gloria Molina, and then-CEO Franklin White were defendants in the case, charged with the racist policies we were challenging. Why? Because the Black and Latino professional classes saw rail construction as a gold mine for contracts to build rail stations; to get minority set asides with larger white construction companies; and for Black, Latino, and women architects to get long overdue government contracts. They wanted billion dollar rail lines even if it destroyed public transportation for 400,000 low-income bus riders of color. So we’re starting to see a growing class divide inside communities of color.

Now here’s the good news. Working-class-of-color communities are growing, and occupy the most strategic position in the major urban centers of the empire—New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Atlanta, Oakland/San Francisco, Houston and Los Angeles. The problem is one of political consciousness and movement building. Can working-class communities of color transition from an objectively oppressed group to a strategically pivotal group in order to lead a broad united front of the entire working class? And then can they lead a national liberation movement of Blacks, Latinos, Asian/Pacific Islanders of all classes that attracts progressive and anti-racist whites? In our work at the Strategy Center and BRU we target the hotel, garment and service workers; women and children on welfare; and high school and community college students facing overcrowded classes, limited opportunities and police harassment that begins their entry into the prison industrial complex. Our goal is to build a force led by the working class of color that can then re-approach middle class allies. That’s why our focus within communities of color is on the working class of color. Over time the Bus Riders Union has built a multi-class and multi-racial alliance, with the working class of color at its core.

RPE: Anti-racism and anti-imperialism have always been inherent to the Strategy Center’s mission. And we’re talking about it at Urban Habitat as not just a global challenge, but a challenge at local and regional levels. How do you see imperialism playing out in the lives of the working class communities in Los Angeles?

Mann: We see imperialism as a worldwide system of U.S. monopoly capitalism that begins in the United States and spreads its tentacles all over the world. My reading of U.S. history analyzes the United States as a white settler state based on conquest, genocide against Indigenous people, 300 years of slavery, and the stealing of half of Mexico. This is not “ancient history” but the material, cultural and psychological foundation of the United States today.

So, when organizers are working in East Los Angeles or Richmond or Fruitvale, [predominantly low-income, people-of-color communities in California], we see how Blacks and Latinos continue to suffer from the policies of imperialism that exploit and oppress them. There are more people in maximum security prisons, kids coming home to apartments that are far more over-crowded, and domestic workers working excruciating hours. Children in Los Angeles are exposed to more air toxins and carcinogens in the first two months of their lives than even the toothless Environmental Protection Agency recommends for a lifetime. So many young kids working at barely-above-minimum-wage jobs, with the system offering them a future as a security guard, prison guard, soldier or prisoner. With rents going up by 10 or 15 percent a year in some areas, the question is, how are these Black and Latino and Asian families living? And the best answer, I understand, is not very well.

There are some who see the United States as “capitalist” and what it does outside its borders as “imperialist.” But imperialism is a unified system; it exists inside and outside the U.S. borders. In my view, the dominant white culture is not just more privileged, but is literally an oppressor nation. As such, Black and Latino peoples, who are now being incarcerated at appalling rates, have the right to equality, and to challenge discrimination and racism. They also have the right of self-determination as an independent oppressed people able to shape their own destiny.

So at the Strategy Center, what we’re trying to say is, you know who the best allies of the Black, Latino and Korean communities in Los Angeles are? Brazil, China, India, Argentina, Cuba…

RPE: South Africa?

Mann: Absolutely, South Africa. We think if oppressed nationality working people see their plight and strategic placement in an international context, and see the Third World liberation movements as the main force in the world with which they can ally, those working people can see themselves as part of an international majority movement. This is not “solidarity work” that abandons the struggle for environmental justice and human rights inside the United States but rather, a movement that thinks about re-approaching the struggle within the United States from a more strategic position with greater leverage and stronger allies.

RPE: That brings me to your book, Dispatches from Durban, in which you write about South Africa and internationalism. Talk about why you felt that the World Conference Against Racism (WCAR) was so important and what the connections are between that and the work you do at the Strategy Center.

Mann: The World Conference Against Racism was a truly amazing experience. Dispatches tries to rescue that experience from an historical “white-out.” We had no illusions that the WCAR would pass binding resolutions by nation-states against the crimes against humanity of Europe and the United States. But the resolutions of the non-governmental organizations (rejected by the governments) were very militant, called for reparations, and called for self-determination for the Palestinian people. That’s why the United States’ [delegates] walked out.

What I saw was the power of anti-racism as an ideology in the midst of a racist world.

Sometimes people in the movement need to look internationally for sources of inspiration, new ideas, and a world where the United States culture is not the dominant culture. Out of the work at WCAR, the Strategy Center initiated a Reparations discussion group, and out of that we formed our Community Rights Campaign to challenge the racism of the Prison Industrial Complex. A year later we returned to South Africa for the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) and, hearing the horror stories of the Organization of Small Island States and the flooding that threatens their civilizations, we formed our Clean Air, Clean Lungs, Clean Buses campaign to dramatically reduce the number of cars on L.A. roads, and protect the lungs of inner city children and the future of the planet from greenhouse gases.

RPE: What is the responsibility of people-of-color justice organizers to fight racism and imperialism? How can they think about their responsibility as U.S. citizens?

Mann: As we speak the U.S. war of aggression in Iraq has led to murders of civilians, the torture of prisoners, the deaths of U.S. GI’s, ecological disaster, and U.S. GI’s returning home mentally and physically ill. The war has diverted more than $150 billion for an occupation of a conquered people while U.S. schools, hospitals, mental health clinics and veteran’s administration facilities are falling apart at the seams. Given this context, how can we separate “international,” “national” and “local” struggles? The Strategy Center believes that you can’t build a movement in oppressed nationality communities without finding programmatic connections between people’s immediate suffering and oppression; a more ideological strategic narrative; a commitment to leadership development and movement building; and an international strategy. Generating on-the-ground campaigns with hard-hitting demands is critical to consciousness-raising, but also to winning real changes in policy.

11-1 Page 16 Image 1 These efforts need to be combined with explicit political education. I have always felt that Black people and Latino immigrants, with whom I work the most, are internationalists at heart. They love talking about Africa. They talk with great emotion about global warming, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, immigrants coming from Mexico to a land that was once theirs, or U.S. interference in the Salvadoran election. When we reported back from our trips to WCAR and WSSD, and when Manuel Criollo and Cynthia Rojas reported back on their recent trip to monitor the elections in El Salvador, our members were thrilled to have the discussions. We find, as organizers, that a more internationalist/anti-racist/anti-imperialist politics allows us to recruit and retain members for the long haul.

RPE: What about the issue of capacity? What are some of the barriers for environmental justice and social justice organizations fighting imperialism?

Mann: One of the greatest contradictions is between the acceleration of right-wing hegemony and the weak state of left movements. On the one hand are the rapid advance of global warming, the rapid pace of deterioration of Antarctica and Samoa, and the massive rise of conspicuous consumption and the SUV culture. On the other hand, there’s no comparable growth of a hard-hitting environmental movement that can radically restrict greenhouse gas production. At the Strategy Center, as just one example, we pride ourselves on the growth of our membership, but this work is arduous and exhausting. We’re picking up the most dedicated people in fives and tens, and general supporters in the thousands, when the need is for hundreds of thousands—if not millions—of people to get involved.

The second challenge, I think, is that with the decline of a world Left and the loss of any belief in a master narrative and comprehensive strategy, “grassroots organizing” has often been restricted to narrow, issue-based specialties. Each group fights a good fight, but doesn’t see itself as part of a broader movement, let alone an international one.

The third dilemma is that even at events like the World Social Forum, it is hard for U.S. organizers to develop concrete alliances with social movements in Asia, Africa and Latin America. I wish that there was a more clear international campaign—where we could all meet someplace, plan a set of demands, and say, “you go back to your community to raise these demands against Texaco or Shell or the World Bank, and then we’ll meet next year in Rio or Johannesburg, not just for a conference, but for an organizers’ movement.” I’m dreaming of a new Left international, which doesn’t exist right now, but which our organization, and this interview, is trying to help bring into being.

RPE: So what are the next steps? What are some key things that anti-imperialists must do now?

Mann: I think that every grassroots group should discuss what percentage of its time is spent on political education among its members. For example, you can show films such as the Battle of Algiers, one of the greatest revolutionary films, or Rising Waters, about global warming and the effect on the small island nations, and discuss the implications for your work with your members. Haskell Wexler, an academy-award-winning cinematographer, has produced a beautiful 110-minute, feature-length documentary about our work, Bus Riders Union.You can perhaps pick a book, such as Dispatches from Durban, and see if staff members can read and discuss one book together. (Both Dispatches and Bus Riders Union are available at www.thestrategycenter.org)

At our National School for Strategic Organizing we offer a six-month intensive political education program. We have the Thursday night group in which we bring guest speakers and reports from international trips. Would it be possible for grassroots groups to set aside one evening a month for political education discussions among key members and staff? Otherwise we run the risk of organizing and activism jumping ahead of any social theory guiding the work.

Another next step focuses on demand development. Our Clean Air Campaign is putting forth the demand to reduce L.A.’s 8 million cars to 4 million, which is what I call an agitational demand. Obviously that demand is not winnable in the present, but we’re saying that’s what needs to happen to achieve a 50-percent reduction in emissions to reverse global warming before human consumption destroys the planet. It’s an agitational demand to raise consciousness, and someday it will be turned into an action demand—what we are actually fighting for in terms of social policy. Another next step is to pick certain human rights issues that directly challenge U.S. policy, such as the movement to get the United States out of Iraq, or demanding a full federal investigation and international observers to protest and remedy the recent lynching of Roy Veal, a Vietnam Veteran in Wilkerson County, Mississippi.

At the BRU, the planning committee has been working for a year to update our principles of unity and mission statement. After three monthly general membership meetings at which more than 100 members discussed the statement word by word, our statement included the following language: “We see ourselves as part of an international movement to stop the U.S. government from intervening in the internal affairs of sovereign nations and to support the movements for self-determination inside and outside the United States.” Practicing what we preach, we have built our organization from the beginning with an internationalist perspective.

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Working people can see themselves as part of an international majority movement