There’s Something in the Air: Chicago’s Hunger Strike Against Environmental Racism

One year into the pandemic, nearly all of us have become extremely cautious with our health – and rightfully so. A single cough today would send you into a frenzy, but residents of Chicago’s Southeast Side have had to be on guard about their health for decades. Take Nicole Hernandez for example. Earlier this year, she was diagnosed with lupus, an auto-immune disease which causes healthy cells to attack one another. Her doctor’s first question was if she ever worked with chemicals. The answer was no, she hadn’t. 

But, she did live on the Southeast Side, in Illinois’ largest industrial corridor and one of the most polluted areas in the state. 

And now the city of Chicago is allowing a new scrapyard metal plant to be built in Hernandez’s neighborhood. This decision will only exacerbate the already poor health conditions of the 10th Ward’s residents and demonstrates the City’s neglect for this community which is 59% Hispanic/Latinx and 25% Black

The prevalence of conditions like asthma and lupus in this part of Chicago comes as no surprise since the Calumet Industrial Corridor has long been home to companies that pollute and contaminate the Southeast Side’s air, water and soil. Since 2014, more than 75 businesses have been investigated by the Chicago Department of Public Health and the Illinois EPA to ensure compliance with the Clean Air Act. This law regulates emissions of hazardous pollutants by stationary sources, like factories, and mobile sources like trucks. Despite these enforcement proceedings, the Southeast Side is still considered “overburdened” by and “highly vulnerable” to pollution, according to the State of Illinois’ 2020 Air Quality and Health Report. The Southeast Side is also home to two EPA Superfund sites: Lake Calumet and the Schroud Property. Superfund sites are areas that are so highly contaminated that they require cleanup by the federal government through an EPA fund.

There is no question that the high concentration of pollution in the 10th Ward has detrimental health effects for the residents living in and around it. A report by the Alliance for the Great Lakes published in January of this year found that the rate of coronary heart disease and COPD are disproportionately higher in the Calumet Industrial Corridor than in other parts of Chicago. According to the City of Chicago, the rates of these diseases in some communities can be ten times greater than others. In addition, the area is medically underserved, with less access to health and wellness resources than other neighborhoods. The US has a long history of neglecting communities of color. Couple that with harmful policy decisions and you’ve got the perfect conditions for environmental racism. 

Map featured in the Alliance for the Great Lakes Databook on the Calumet Industrial Corridor

In a disheartening continuation of this history of environmental racism and neglect, the Illinois EPA and city government approved the building of a new scrapyard metal plant in the summer of 2020. 

Just last year, a metal scrapyard owned by General Iron was forced to shut down its location in a predominantly white, northern neighborhood. Residents complained about its high levels of pollution. In fact, the company was investigated in 2018 by the EPA for excessive pollution emissions and failure to operate with the correct licensing permit. Now a scrapyard with the same parent company as General Iron has somehow managed to get approval from the City of Chicago to relocate to the low-income, Latinx and Black neighborhood of the Southeast Side. 

The fact that General Iron was kicked out of a white community for pollution but has been approved to relocate to a predominantly Latinx and Black neighborhood makes this a classic and obvious case of environmental racism. 

General Iron Industries plant in 2009. Photo taken by Patrick Houdek

In light of the City of Chicago’s disregard for the public health of their residents of color, the people of the Southeast Side decided they had enough. They abandoned their plates and took to the streets to demand change

After months of attending public comment sessions to no avail, the hunger strike began on February 4 with three community activists: Breanna Bertacchi, Chuck Stark and Oscar Sanchez. They abstained from solid foods and suffered through high blood pressure, extreme headaches and severe fatigue in an effort to force Mayor Lori Lightfoot to deny the metal scrapyard the permit it needs to begin shredding. Yesenia Chavez, another hunger striker, documented her symptoms and feelings daily on Twitter:

The strike grew, in large part because of Twitter and local media coverage of the protestors. At its peak, there were nearly 100 hunger strikers. There were even some Chicago politicians, like Alderman Byron Sigcho-Lopez, who decided to temporarily participate in the strike to increase pressure on the Mayor. Allies in other cities and other states also had their own day-long hunger strikes in solidarity with Southside community organizers. 

After roughly 30 days, the strike officially came to an end on March 4 due to the limited response from the Chicago government. On the last day, protestors staged a vigil and a “die-in”. They carried a fake casket, dressed in all black and marched through Mayor Lightfoot’s residential neighborhood. There was a turnout of more than 200 people. Even after ending the hunger strike, community members have promised to continue fighting. 

Tweet by photographer Karina Mireya showing the hunger strikers die-in

The government’s response to the protestors has been a mixed bag. At the local level, Mayor Lightfoot released a letter to community activists on February 23, in recognition of their protest and their concerns but made no promises to deny the permit to General Iron. The EPA however, has agreed to investigate claims filed by two community organizations, Southeast environmental Task Force (SETF) and the Chicago Southeast Coalition to Ban Petcoke, that the Illinois EPA discriminated against the predominantly Latinx and Black 10th Ward to preserve the health of the white community up north. As early as April, a federal judge may temporarily block the opening of the scrapyard plant. 

While some may interpret the end of the hunger strike as a ‘failure’, the aforementioned investigations and legislative processes seem, to me, to provide a glimmer of hope. The pressure applied by protestors and community activists is what brought the case of General Iron and the Calumet Industrial Corridor into the media spotlight. Although there has been no definitive ‘victory’ yet, the traction that the hunger strikers were able to gain is promising. 

The battle against environmental racism is far from over, from the Flint water crisis to Louisiana’s cancer alley, Latinx and Black communities are routinely, and intentionally neglected and subjected to pollution by the very governments that are supposed to protect them. Whatever happens in Chicago will set the tone for future fights against environmental racism in this country. A win for the 10th Ward would be a win for us all.