King Ahab said to Naboth, “Give me your vineyard. It’s prime real estate right next to my palace. I want to develop it into a vegetable garden. I’ll even compensate you for it.” Naboth replied, “God forbid that I give you the land God gave to my ancestors and me!” Ahab went away depressed. When Ahab’s wife Jezebel asked him why he was moping, Ahab told her that Naboth had refused to give him his land. Jezebel asked, “Don’t you have the power to do whatever you want?” She told Ahab to get over himself and that she would take care of it. Using Ahab’s credentials Jezebel instructed the city council to frame Naboth with a false accusation. Finding him guilty of cursing God and the king, Naboth was stoned to death by the power holders in his own city. As soon as Jezebel heard that Naboth was dead, she told Ahab. Without asking questions, Ahab took possession of Naboth’s land.
– A paraphrase of 1 Kings 21:1-16
For a moment, the uprisings in response to the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody put Baltimore in the national spotlight. With the indictment of six police officers the protests have quieted, the news cycle has largely moved on and Baltimore is beginning to return to “normal.” However, this “normal” is one that has been defined by deep inequality and poverty, of which aggressive and racialized police tactics are just one symptom.
In recent history the Great Recession exacerbated what was already a housing crisis in Baltimore, where there are now approximately 40,000 vacant homes. The response to the city budget crisis resulting from the financial crash was to impose austerity policies. Communities struggled against cuts to vital public services such as fire stations and recreation centers. As Free Your Voice leader Destiny Watford explained in the wake of the riots, the deeper root questions are not being asked — about how issues like aggressive policing, the housing crisis and austerity policies are deeply interconnected. The violence of the rioters correlated with structural violence that defines their day-to-day reality.
“Give me your vineyard for money; or else, if you prefer, I will give you another vineyard for it.”
One of the ways that this structural violence manifests itself is through violence against Earth and the communities closest to it. In Baltimore there has been a multi-generational trend of sacrificing communities and creating dumping zones. The low-income neighborhood of Curtis Bay in southeast Baltimore is heavily industrialized, including a medical waste incinerator, a coal terminal across the street from the public park, multinational chemical company facilities, and an auto terminal. Many of these sites are in violation of the federal Clean Air Act or Clean Water Act. As a result of the pollution caused by such high levels of industrialization, residents have experienced elevated rates of heart disease, respiratory disease and lung cancer. In fact Baltimore has one of the highest death rates from air pollution in the country.
In southeast Baltimore there is also a history of relocating nearby communities because of industry. To quote an environmental history of the these neighborhoods, “Literally, the houses are tucked in among gas tanks and smokestacks, bordered by brownfields and illegal dump sites on every side, which in turn are encircled by the polluted Patapsco River.” Despite promises of compensation and jobs, the devastating effects of dispossession, poor health, pollution and even death are evidence that failed development, promoted by both the government and business, has by no means compensated Curtis Bay and the surrounding communities for what they have suffered and lost.
“The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance.”
In the midst of the devastation that profit-driven development has inflicted on communities and the environment, there is a movement led by those most directly affected. This movement is not only talking back to the powerful, but is also organizing to transform its communities. What is underway now is a community-driven process toward development alternatives that are fair and rooted in a deep respect for the land and human rights. For the past three years the students of Free Your Voice, a human rights committee of United Workers, have struggled to end the construction of a trash-burning incinerator less than a mile away from their school, Benjamin Franklin High.
In 2010 a site in Curtis Bay was approved for the country’s largest trash-burning incinerator, to be built by the company Energy Answers. In addition to the devastation that the land and community in Curtis Bay is already experiencing, the incinerator would burn 4,000 tons of trash a day. It would release 240 pounds of mercury and a 1,000 pounds of lead into the air every year. The incinerator would make Curtis Bay a dumping ground for the trash not only from Maryland, but also from neighboring states.
This year, leadership from Free Your Voice has successfully delayed the construction of the incinerator. The Baltimore City government and the Baltimore School Board, in addition to public entities in surrounding counties, have terminated their contracts with Energy Answers — despite at one time being strongly supportive of the incinerator.
The victories of Free Your Voice and United Workers are the direct result of their organizing model, which places political education and leadership development at its core. For example, the incinerator campaign began with a year’s worth of study into the plans to build it, as well as the history of Curtis Bay and the surrounding neighborhoods. More recently, Free Your Voice has begun to explore how to use Bible study to connect with the faith community.
In April 2015 Free Your Voice and United Workers organized a Bible study in Curtis Bay. After Free Your Voice members introduced the incinerator campaign several people responded with righteous anger, asking, “How could something like this be happening in our community and we didn’t even know about it?!” Building on that energy, the participants studied 1 Kings 21:1-16 together, almost immediately drawing parallels between the incinerator campaign and the biblical text.
Like Naboth, Curtis Bay was offered a development deal, but there was no real option to say no. Both Ahab and Energy Answers tried to make a bad proposition, one that would only benefit the already wealthy, look good. While Naboth appealed to the sacredness of the land, Curtis Bay residents appealed to democratic decision-making processes and community control of their land. But like Ahab and Jezebel who resorted to dirty politics, a backroom deal resulted in a trash-burning incinerator being classified as renewable energy. Politicians ignored the law that prohibited an incinerator being built within a mile of a school. Like Naboth who was stoned to death, power politics around land have also had death-dealing consequences for the residents of Curtis Bay. Through the parallels that the participants were able to draw between the Bible and their own situation, they were inspired to connect in deeper ways to the incinerator campaign and draw on their moral authority as faith leaders in the struggle for the human right to clean air.
The struggle against the incinerator is also a struggle for community access to and control of land, and for the very sacredness of the land itself. Greg Sawtell, a leadership organizer with United Workers, has described land as the “beating heart” of the incinerator campaign. There is a need to transform the logic not only of disposable things, which orients the construction of a trash-burning incinerator, but the same logic that also makes people and communities disposable.
As support for the incinerator continues to wane, Free Your Voice and United Workers are exploring renewable energy alternatives such as a solar cooperative on the proposed site of the incinerator and a waste recovery project. This struggle is not just one for cleaner energy, but also one to see how all the issues faced by the community are interconnected. It is impossible to consider the struggle in Curtis Bay in isolation from the housing crisis or the austerity politics in Baltimore. Likewise, Baltimore cannot be considered in isolation from cities across the country that face similar conditions. Eco-justice can become one lens through which to explore the interconnectedness of the many issues that confront communities today.