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13.7: Contemporary Environmental, Racial and Gender Justice Movements

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    • Mario Alberto Viveros Espinoza-Kulick & Kay Fischer

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    21st Century Movements

    Many of the core issues faced by earlier generations of activists still dominate our social world today: police brutality, war, environmental destruction, racism, gender inequities, healthcare, sovereignty, and education. Movements in the 21st century are different because we also face different challenges like Climate Change, and utilize distinct tools and technologies that are specific to our time period, like social media, Internet technology, and digital art. Ultimately, the successes and victories of these movements are still being decided today, by activists, social movement organizations, advocacy coalitions, governments, corporations, counter-movements, and countless other stakeholders. It will be up to individuals to participate and become leaders for these movements to determine if they continue to grow, and succeed in achieving justice and liberation.

    Environmental Justice

    Environmental justice is a common issue for movements led by communities of color and Indigenous peoples. Centuries of settler-colonialism have assaulted the land and separated Indigenous peoples from their traditional homes, cultural sites, and ecological niches. Related, environmental racism describes the pattern of environmental hazards having a disproportionate impact on communities of color. For example, the concentration of industrial waste from factories and refineries tend to pollute the air and water of low-income communities of color. In 2017, CAUSE (Central Coast Alliance for a United Sustainable Economy) led organizing efforts in Oxnard, California to prevent the building of a power plant and after years of fighting along with other community organizations managed to defeat the initiative and help enable cleaner air. The community, according to CAUSE, is home to over 85% people of color of a total of 200,000 population. Structural violence maintains its systemic force by both producing health disparities in the environment and disconnecting communities from systems of care and support that offer protection from these harmful effects. Environmental justice movements work to address the overlapping systems of environmental exploitation and racism.

    Native American and Indigenous communities approach environmental justice in tandem with struggles over sovereignty and self-determination. Land Back movements have been influential in amplifying calls for Native people to be reunited with their traditional homelands. This includes both the surrender of private lands owned by individuals and corporations, as well as the restoration of land rights based on generations of treaties between the U.S. government and Native American tribes.

    The NDN Collective has been a champion for Land Back movements and staged high-profile demonstrations in support of these goals. While Land Back emphasizes the harm of unrightful land ownership, Indigenous movements for the environment also focus on stewardship and the interrelations between the land, water, air, and environment as a whole. Water Protectors have become active leaders in the movements against multiple large pipeline projects in the United States, including the Dakota Access Pipeline and Line 3. See also "Standing Rock - Protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline" under Chapter 4.

    These movements provide opportunities to stop the ongoing project of settler-colonialism, restore and support Indigenous sovereignty, and begin a process of healing between the people and the land. For example, the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust is a project started by Corrina Gould and Johnella LaRose, along with other Native activists. The project is led by urban Indigenous women and advocates for the traditional Ohlone lands in northern California that are threatened by development and encroachment. You can learn more about their project and current initiatives on the Sogorea Te' Land Trust website online. In Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\), you can see an example of this type of activism in a poster of support for #NoDAPL, which reads: “We Are Not Protestors. We Are Protectors” - Iyuskin American Horse. Stop the Dakota Access Pipeline.

    Protestors marching and with horses
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): We Are Not Protestors. We Are Water Protectors. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0; Nicolas Lampert via JustSeeds)

    Racial Justice and Gender Justice

    Racial justice struggles in the 21st century have taken a prominent role in political and cultural life, ranging from representation in politics and media to everyday people taking to the streets, sharing their opinions on social media, and engaging with new content and new perspectives. The Black Lives Matter network formed in 2013 by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi to coordinate protest movements in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Rekia Boyd, among others. While the group responds specifically to the issue of police officers killing unarmed Black people, it also has become a platform for a range of cultural conversations about race, racism, and politics internationally. In 2014, the African American Policy Forum launched the campaign #SayHerName to bring attention to the Black women, girls, and femmes who are targeted by police violence. The growing Black Lives Matter and Say Her Name movements also elevated calls to defund the police, abolish prisons, and address systemic racism in all its forms. For more context on these issues, you can revisit Chapter 10.

    The 21st Century has also seen increased anti-Asian violence and discrimination, including following the September 11 terrorist attacks (9/11) and the COVID-19 pandemic. After 9/11, the “War on Terror” amplified racist sentiments toward Arab, Arab American, Muslim, South Asian, and Southwest Asian people in the United States, as well as a generalized increase in xenophobic sentiment and anti-immigrant discrimination. See more on post-9/11 racial profiling of these communities in Chapter 10. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, individual people and political leaders have actively sponsored anti-Asian lies that scapegoat Asians and/or Asian Americans for a global public health crisis. While hatred and bigotry spread, at the same time, people have come together to stand up in support of their own communities and in alliances against xenophobia.

    From an intersectional perspective, gender justice has also taken an important role in 21st century movements and politics. Gender and patriarchy deeply impact racial justice, and addressing racism is central to enacting gender equity and feminism. The Women’s March, which was formed in 2016, sought to bring this vision of intersectional feminism to the center of the mainstream women’s movement, which has often been critiqued for not challenging white supremacy and capitalist exploitation. These dynamics were seen in the #MeToo movement, which centrally focused on high-profile sexual predators like Jeffrey Epstein, who targeted celebrities and other affluent or middle-class women. Despite this media focus, farmworker activists and other groups utilized this same tag and movement momentum to seek justice for survivors of sexual and gender-based violence outside of the entertainment industry. Similarly, the #MMIWG2S movement brings attention to the transnational issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirit people. In the United States, in particular, activists have also brought attention to the disproportionate murders of Black and Latina/x trans women. Trans rights remain an important part of larger struggles for gender justice and intersectional liberation. In Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\), there is an activist poster showing the faces of Black trans women, along with the text, “Black Trans Lives Matter” #saytheirnames.

    A poster picturing the faces of Black trans women surrounded by flowers
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Black Trans Lives Mater- Say their name. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0; José 'Primo' Hernández via JustSeeds)

    Sidebar: Linda Sarsour and the Women's March

    Sarsour at a podium wearing a yellow hijab, smiling
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Linda Sarsour at the 2016 Festival of Faiths "Sacred Wisdom, Pathways to Nonviolence" panel discussion. (CC BY 2.0; Festival of Faiths via Flickr)

    Linda Sarsour is a Palestinian Muslim American activist and organizer from Brooklyn, New York. She served as a national co-chair of the Women’s March and a co-founder of MPower Change, a Muslim digital advocacy organization that works toward race, social, and economic justice. The Women’s March in 2017 ended up being the largest single-day protest in US history at the time.

    Upon Trump’s victory the day after the presidential election in 2016, women across the nation were connecting online to plan a Million Women’s March for the day after Inauguration Day in January of 2017. According to Sarsour’s memoir, We Are Not Here to Be Bystanders: A Memoir of LOVE and RESISTANCE (2020), Vanessa Wruble, founder of OkayAfrica, noticed that all the people conversing online were white and reached out to a trio of women of color who “can organize in their sleep”: Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez, and Linda Sarsour (pp. 201-202). These three women ended up being national co-chairs of the Women’s March alongside Bob Bland. They first changed the name of the march to simply the Women’s March since the Million Women’s March “echoed the name of an action” (p. 202) led by Black women in Philadelphia twenty years ago. Sarsour explains that the white women organizers weren’t aware of the earlier march but in their ignorance, had offended African American women who saw this as co-opting the name of a march about the “empowerment of Black women” (p. 202). Sarsour continues, “This kind of miscommunication was why the organizers needed women of color in the mix, not just Carmen, Tamika, and me, but a whole roster of brilliant Black and brown women who now joined us at the table” (p. 202).

    Sarsour discusses some of the challenges they faced while organizing the march, particularly from “white women in our group [who] were not used to answering to a fierce, bristling ball of fire in the body of a petite Black woman” (p. 204) referring to Tamika’s leadership. The co-chairs pushed for a diversity of speakers who would speak to a broad audience and made sure that the march wasn’t only about expressing rage, but also about “demanding change” (p. 204). In addition to gender issues, Sarsour and women of color organizers made sure that central to the vision of the march was that they were fighting for “the right for everyone to live freely and practice their religion and have economic, racial and social justice” (p. 205). They applied an intersectional framing to this vision, including the voices of people affected by immigration policies, environmental racism, and structural violence.

    Sarsour and other women of color in the organizing group were accused of being divisive when intersecting racial justice with gender issues and some women of color were concerned that white women were feeling alienated. However, Sarsour reminded organizers that the…

    concern itself was problematic, because centering the experiences of marginalized women was not about upsetting white women; it was about helping them to recognize how they were consciously or unconsciously aiding and abetting the very patriarchy that they claimed to be fighting against (pp. 206-207).

    On January 21, 2017, millions across the nation and the globe joined companion marches. Sarsour described that the excitement was tangible in Washington, D.C., but what moved her the most was that many were carrying posters of an image by artist Shepard Fairey of a Muslim woman in an American-flag hijab. Sarsour wrote, “My skin tingled at the sight of her, because in my country, on this day, a Muslim woman in a hijab had become a potent symbol of American freedom” (p. 211). Seven million people marched that day, and 1.2 million were in Washington. When Sarsour spoke on the stage, she brought her mother and her three children. She stated, “Assalamu alaikum, may peace be upon you, brothers and sisters….I stand here before you unapologetically Muslim American, unapologetically Palestinian American, unapologetically from Brooklyn, New York” (Democracy Now!, 2017; Sarsour, 2020, p. 212). When reflecting on her speech and the other women who marched and spoke on that stage on that historic day, Sarsour wrote in her memoir:

    We had put the forces of hate and division on notice that we were marching to center stage, and they’d better get ready because the reckoning was here, and we would bring our sisters, mothers, and daughters along with us, and the men who were our allies, and together we would change the world (p. 213).