The Global African: Climate Awareness & Update on Puerto Rico

Telesur’s The Global African will look at a unique tour bus of musicians, actors, activists and poets are bringing awareness of climate change’s disproportionate affect on people of color & we give an update on Puerto Rico.

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Story Transcript

BILL FLETCHER, HOST, THE GLOBAL AFRICAN: Today on The Global African we’ll talk about a bus tour raising awareness on the issue of climate change. We’ll also give an update on the economic crisis facing Puerto Rico.

That’s today on The Global African. I’m glad you joined us again. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. Don’t go anywhere.

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FLETCHER: A unique bus tour containing musicians, actors, activists, and poets has been visiting major cities to bring awareness of climate change’s disproportionate effect on people of color. The People’s Climate Music “Act on Climate” national tour is stopping in cities like New Orleans; Brooklyn; Chicago; Ferguson, Missouri; and Washington, D.C.; where they’re hosting concerts to provide a space where young organizers and activists can be inspired and collaborate for justice.

We will talk to participants of this bus tour right now.

We’re joined for this segment with Reverend Lennox Yearwood and the De’Vontre Miller.

Reverend Yearwood is the CEO of the Hip Hop Caucus, a nonprofit that uses hip hop culture to encourage student involvement in democracy. He’s also an organizer of the People’s Climate Music “Act on Climate” national tour, which we’ll be discussing today.

Also joining us: De’Vontre Miller. He’s a Baltimore native who’s on the Hip Hop Caucus’s Baltimore’s Leadership Committee. He’s also an active advocate for climate change reform.

Thank you both for joining us on The Global African.

YEARWOOD: Thank you for having us.

DE’VONTRE MILLER: Thank you for having me.

FLETCHER: Pleasure.

So let’s just jump into it. This tour, where did this idea come from? What’s the objective of it?

YEARWOOD: Well, the idea for the tour is simply that we believe that poverty and pollution is the same thing, and the only way that we can have climate justice is through social justice. And so this tour brings about more awareness and advocacy of the issue, plus it uses culture and uses our community.

So the tour started in New Orleans on the ten year anniversary of Katrina, and went from New Orleans to Ferguson, from Ferguson to Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and then throughout many other cities, but then kind of came through Charleston, South Carolina, where we actioned about climate change at Mother Emanuel Church, where the murder took place with the white supremacist, and then went through Atlanta and Birmingham, and back up to D.C., where we had a little bit of a resistance with the Congressional Black Caucus, as we were calling on them to divest from fossil fuels and no longer take money from fossil fuel companies. But really it’s really about how we can organize our communities to fight poverty and pollution at the same time.

FLETCHER: Give us some examples of some of the people that are involved in the tour.

YEARWOOD: Well, the tour uses, I mean, celebrities and the communities, people like De’Vontre from Baltimore. We came to Baltimore because we wanted to link not only with the climate justice issue, but also Black Lives Matter, so we can show things like Freddie Gray and how he had lead poisoning, and other EJ issues regarding in Baltimore, how many coal-fired power plants are here in this area in Baltimore causing asthma, and how we can shape that. And so we use artists who are here locally, and celebrities, to artists nationally like Antonique Smith, to Malik Yusef and others to come out there. And Malik Yusef is the five-time Grammy Award winner, produced for Kanye West. And Antonique Smith, she played Faith Evans in the movie called Notorious. So we’re using artists and that, but also use the movement.

FLETCHER: De’Vontre, how did you get involved in this?

MILLER: Well, getting involved, I’m a part of Frank Johnson Media and WPB networks. And Frank Johnson is the ambassador for the national Hip Hop Caucus in Baltimore, which is the Baltimore Hip Hop Caucus. So hearing when he told us about the Act on Climate Tour and what they were doing and just informing the communities in Baltimore about what’s going on with the climate and the change, I was definitely interested in being a part of it. So I joined right on.

FLETCHER: And how do you see the issue of climate and the day-to-day issues that people in Baltimore are facing?

MILLER: I see it day-to-day, because when I grew up in Baltimore–and I know a lot of people in Baltimore. And just from, as Reverend Yearwood stated, lead poisoning in Baltimore, and also just the way people act in Baltimore, it’s very different. And when we found out, we went to a school called Benjamin Franklin. And finding out that they were trying to put an infirmary right behind the school was just the shock for me, because it shows that we don’t even look at certain parts of Baltimore anymore. And that’s a part of Baltimore, which is Sparrow’s Point, and we didn’t even know that it was happening. And it was just a shocker for us that grew up here, because we don’t even look at them–it’s like a whole different city and a whole different world out there. And knowing that that’s what they’re going through on a day-to-day basis, trying to fight against that, it was definitely eye opening for us.

FLETCHER: Reverend Yearwood, this the tour and the larger work, before we started this, we were just to speaking briefly about the so-called big greens, the more traditional environmental groups. What has been your relationship with the more traditional environmental groups? And how do they look at the orientation that the Hip Hop Caucus is trying to advance?

YEARWOOD: Well, first let me just say that I just want to give a shout out to the environmental justice history in this country from those from Damu Smith to–.

FLETCHER: Longtime Washington, D.C., [crosstalk]

YEARWOOD: Most definitely, activist,–

FLETCHER: Activist.

YEARWOOD: –who also broke down silos, that was for peace and then connected that with climate as well. Dr. Bullard out in Houston. Dr. Beverly Wright was out there, who’s in Dillard, Louisiana. Even Dr. Ben Chavis, his years in North Carolina, I think. So I just want to make sure that there’s always been a history, a long history of people of color being concerned about the environment. It is not new. And I think that’s important, because I think that if you look at just the modern-day environmental movement, you will just say, well, this is a mostly white elite movement based upon the coast, either on the West Coast of the East Coast, or primarily in Vermont, and usually wearing Birkenstocks. And so I think that there’s a change here, which that always wasn’t the case.

But there is a shift that I think that you do see now more people of color being engaged in this issue and combine the issue, because it’s just–it’s a viable mechanism. They’re recognizing, pretty much post-Katrina, they saw that poor people and poor people of color are being left behind in the richest country in the world, that we have to take care of ourselves, that it’s good to have a quote-unquote FEMA, but we need to have our own PEMA, our own people’s emergency management agency, where we can take care of ourselves.

But when we’re looking past hurricane Katrina, why was Louisiana called “Cancer Alley”? What was with the water runoffs or the landfills or all those kind of things that were put in those communities?

So I think that with the big greens, we came into this process. We’re looking at how we can speak for ourselves, which was the mantra of EJ movement, speaking for ourselves. And so we came into this movement literally how we can speak for ourselves, but also how we can connect the dots and make more people aware of this issue. And I think that’s where we are now. And I think this tour allowed for that to take place.

FLETCHER: And here in Baltimore, are you–is there a particular campaign that you’re undertaking within Baltimore and organizing people around?

MILLER: Yes. We actually did a school tour. I don’t know if you heard about it. It’s called Solutions for Bmore with the Hip Hop Caucus. And that’s one of our campaigns where we’re getting the solutions for how we can better our society in Baltimore, starting with the young people, bringing the young people and bringing the older generation together as one and finding out those solutions that we can change Baltimore.

FLETCHER: Now, was it about a year or so ago there was a big controversy around an incinerator–

MILLER: Mhm. Yes.

FLETCHER: –here in Baltimore?

MILLER: Yes.

FLETCHER: Were you involved in that whole struggle?

MILLER: We actually just finding out about it. We were not involved, because we didn’t even know Benjamin Franklin had even those problems until, as I stated before, when we did the Hip Hop Caucus tour, Act on Climate. Finding out about it, it was a shocker, because we didn’t even know anything about it. And I’m glad that we came in at this point, because now we can help them out with anything that they need, with trying to fight against the incinerator being put in Baltimore.

FLETCHER: So one of the things that was noteworthy in that dispute was the counterposing of jobs and the environment, just as we’ve seen in the Keystone pipeline.

MILLER: Yeah.

FLETCHER: Right? And I was actually in a meeting with some trade union folks, and the meeting was very divided between those that felt they needed to oppose the incinerator and join with community groups that were opposing it and those that were in favor of the incinerator and said that the incinerator had met the EPA requirements and this whole thing was being blown out of proportion, and that what was at stake was a lot of jobs. And so I was just wondering, either or both of you, using that as an example, I mean, let’s unpack it a little bit. What are your thoughts?

YEARWOOD: Now, what we believe is this, is that clearly that is a false argument. It’s a false argument because if you have people who are getting sick, they can’t work. If we have folks who are being hurt by the pollution that is being caused or they’re getting cancer and then dying, then, listen, if you’re dead, there is no job when you’re dead. And so ultimately we want to be there for our community.

And also, the communities that De’Vontre and them are talking about, we don’t like the fact that you’re putting these, the things that hurt our community, in our community. Coal-fired power plants as an example, 68 percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of coal-fired power plants. In some places, actually, like Chicago, literally it’s a mile. It’s literally feet away from playgrounds where these pollution is being emitted next to children who are playing.

So that argument of a job at the cost when we can transition to clean energy jobs–we can have–there are actually more jobs in that sector if folks are investing in that. So they can have more jobs and more not even jobs, but also entrepreneurs in that sector as well for young people of color.

FLETCHER: The relationship between the environmental justice movement and the movement for black lives, I’m just curious how you’re both looking at it, whether you’re having strategic discussions with other people in the movement, because I mean, I realize that there have been, like, platform type statements made by people in the movement for black lives around a variety of issues. But the reality is that it really does focus on racist violence and police lynchings. That’s the thrust of the movement. What is–how is it that you’re looking at what you’re doing in relationship to that movement?

MILLER: Well, I say they both relate together. Although it’s about police violence, Black Lives Matter may be about police violence and lynchings and things like that, it still goes hand-in-hand, because if you’re not healthy, with all the things that are going on with health concerns and all of that, it’s killing black lives. So if it’s killing black lives, black lives matter, because the black lives need to be healthy in order for them to live.

YEARWOOD: And I’ll just add this to that. I think that being killed by the badge in that whole process is an injustice that our community has seen for many years and needs to fight. It is not new, from Jim Crow to now. And we must stand up. And particularly those are using the badge as a leverage to get away with murder is wrong.

At the same time, those who are using the board room as a leverage for murder is also wrong, those who are sitting around in board rooms, who are putting things in our communities that are also killing our children. Eric Garner is a great example of this. Eric Garner is somebody who–even Staten Island had the most trees of any borough in New York, still received an F air quality grade and had acute asthma. And even though he died because of an illegal chokehold, if he had not–and he was saying, “I can’t breathe”, he still was dying because of asthma. What’s important to note is that most of Eric Garner’s children also have asthma. So not only are you killing Eric Garner through one means–he could’ve died through a chokehold or through the asthma–but you’re also killing his entire family as well. And so I think this is the reason why they clearly are linked together.

FLETCHER: But what do we have to do at the level of strategy to make these real mass movements? Because even though we can demonstrate around the country different struggles that have taken place around environmental justice, the movement, at least among African Americans, on environmental justice does not compare with the response that Black Lives Matter and the movement for black lives was able to generate in addressing police violence. How do we build more of not simply a consciousness, but a movement towards activism around this? Because one of the big concerns I have, it seemed like there’s really nothing that we can do. And I’ve seen this in a lot of different constituencies, where people are feeling overwhelmed by the scale of the crisis, such that they end up–they may use good rhetoric or not, but they often engage in denial or in action. So there are people doing the work that you’re doing. There’s environmental justice activists all around the country that are engaged in the good struggles. There’s a climate justice alliance which brings together a lot of environmental justice. Right? But the level of a mass movement, I haven’t seen it. So I’m wondering, like, well, what do we do?

YEARWOOD: This goes back to your big green question. The big green question is that they have used the melting ice and the polar bear kind of as an example. When people, when they don’t connect with that, ’cause it is too big–they say, well, I can’t just can’t deal with that–when it comes down to people putting pollution in your community, coal-fired plants, [incompr.] landfills in your communities, then they get outraged knowing that you’re doing this because they feel you’re the path of least least resistance. That becomes a little different, when you can point out to them. And then also when we go to the CBC and we say, listen–

FLETCHER: Congressional Black Caucus.

YEARWOOD: –Congressional Black Caucus–and we say, hey, you’re taking money from Shell and British Petroleum and Chevron and you’re taking money from all these entities that are actually polluting our communities, at the same time discussing that you want to pass a clean power plan that–it doesn’t jive together.

And so I think that once you bring that awareness out and you tell folks what’s happening, they become outraged quickly and then begin to move to action. I don’t think that has happened. And I think that’s what we’re trying to do. I think the EJ movement is moving along that road just saying that this is the problem, you should be outraged. We’re moving forward and saying, yes, you should be outraged, but now take it from Black Lives Matter. Let’s move to the streets and let’s move to action.

FLETCHER: Reverend Yearwood, De’Vontre Miller, thank you both very much for this conversation.

YEARWOOD: Thank you. Thank you for having us.

FLETCHER: Glad to have you, very much so. Thank you.

Thank you for joining us for this segment of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. And we’ll be back in a moment, so don’t go anywhere.

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FLETCHER: In our last segment on Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, we touched on the factors that led to its decade-long recession, population loss, and the neoliberal factors causing the Caribbean island’s crisis. In April, Puerto Rico’s governor, Alejandro García Padilla, characterized the debt as “unpayable”, calling it a “death spiral”, and saying further, “I would love to have an easier option. This is not politics. This is math.”

On August 3, the island defaulted on a $58 million payment, giving no alleviation to the $72 billion debt.

On Thursday, October 8, Puerto Rico’s representative in Congress, Pedro Pierluisi, who holds no voting power, announced plans for a bill that would authorize the U.S. Treasury Department to repay the bonds. This outcome can only suggest more austerity policies, as evident in Greece, Detroit, and other cash-strapped areas suffering the great brunt of the 2008 global financial meltdown.

This is what we’ll be exploring in this segment of The Global African.

We’re joined now by David Galarza from New York, who is an activist and a communications specialist in the public sector union movement. He’s been active in environmental and police brutality struggles and in issues dealing with his homeland, Puerto Rico.

David, welcome to The Global African.

DAVID GALARZA: Bill, thank you so much for having us.

FLETCHER: Our pleasure.

So let’s just take it from the top. What is the current situation? I mean, we’re told that there was a default, yet very little information in the mainstream media. And frankly, David, Congress, the U.S. Congress, just doesn’t seem to be treating this like a crisis.

GALARZA: Well, the current situation, in terms of the economic crisis in Puerto Rico, is not unlike the current situation with the status of Puerto Rico. It’s in limbo. They don’t know what to make of it, because as a 100-plus-year-old colony of the United States, Puerto Rico has always been given second-class citizenship status. We have a member of Congress that has a voice but no vote. We have some 3.5 million Puertorriqueños living on the island that really have no say in terms of what’s being done in Congress. We do have three members of Congress that are of Puerto Rican descent that have been trying to at least raise the issue of Puerto Rico. But by and large Puerto Rico’s fate as a colony of the United States means that it doesn’t really get the kind of attention that a Detroit would get or any other municipality or town or state in this country. And it is a grave crisis, not unlike what’s happened in Greece, not unlike what’s happened in Spain, not unlike what’s happened in Argentina. And it’s got a lot of the same ugly players.

FLETCHER: So the people of Puerto Rico, seems to me, are being stepped on repeatedly by government, as well as finance. There have been demands for further and further austerity, which is actually not new. So what’s happening on the ground? Are people fighting back?

GALARZA: On the ground in Puerto Rico people are fighting back because of, again, the long-term colonial relationship that Puerto Rico has had with the United States. It’s not like a situation like in Greece or not a situation like in Spain where people are out on the streets in massive quantities and numbers, because there is still federal money flowing to Puerto Rico, there are still all kinds of different federal programs, though they are cutting back on many of those as well in Puerto Rico. So there are certain sectors, like the labor sector, the independent sector, and different civil society groups that are slowly but surely coming together.

Here in the diaspora what we now have for the first time: more Puertorriqueños living in places like New York and Orlando and Hartford and Philadelphia, Chicago, etc. We’ve also seen a number of different organizations and groups and coalitions sprout up. Also, here in New York, where I’m very active, we have a call to action on Puerto Rico which has been linking up with other organizations, like the Hedge Clippers and different organizations they work with, to hold the hedge fund vultures that are preying on Puerto Rico accountable, be it John Paulson or being the folks associated with other groups on Wall Street and on Sixth Avenue and on Park Avenue.

FLETCHER: Are there debates going on in Puerto Rico or within the Puerto Rican diaspora about how to balance this immediate fight around the austerity issue and the longer-term status question?

GALARZA: [snip] try to find ways to bridge our common struggle, whether you be a statehooder or a Commonwealth person or an independentista, and just address the issues at hand.

Right now we have a massive exodus of Puertorriqueños leaving the island. That whole stereotype about Puerto Ricans being lazy? Hundreds of thousands are leaving because they need to find work. And so they’re winding up in places like Florida and New York and Connecticut and so forth. We have a massive brain drain going on in Puerto Rico. The cream of the crop are leaving from the University of Puerto Rico and being snapped up by NASA and other science and technology companies out West in Colorado and Arizona and so forth. We have a massive crisis right now with health care. We have a massive crisis right now going on with education.

And all these things need to be addressed in a way that’s inclusive of everyone irregardless of a lot of their political background or ideology, but by the same token also showing why it’s important for us to finally achieve independence as a nation, because a lot of these problems are rooted in the fact that, for instance, we can’t form our own trading partners. Not too long ago I was in a room in the Caribe Hilton when a former governor, Sila Calderón, was being inaugurated. Hugo Chávez was in that room before he became the Hugo Chávez that we knew and many of us love. And he offered at that point to give Puerto Rico discount oil. And that’s discounted petroleum. Of course, the U.S. put the kibosh on that, because, again, we can’t form our own trading partners. Right now, gas and oil is at an all-time high in Puerto Rico, and they charge a tax upon that, too. Having an ability to pass our own laws, create our own trading partners, be accepted into the family of nations, something that we as a country, as the United States, tries to promote across the seas–you know, how many Puertorriqueños have died in struggles and wars around the world for that notion of liberty that we don’t enjoy ourselves?

FLETCHER: Alright. Well, David Galarza, thank you very, very much for joining us on The Global African.

GALARZA: Thank you. Thank you so much.

FLETCHER: And thank you very much for joining us for this episode of The Global African. I’m your host, Bill Fletcher. And we’ll see you next time.

End

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