Trashed and Toxic

West Oakland Community Fights Back

The gorging gut of capitalism necessitates excessive production and consumption as well as devastating unsustainable environmental damage. Industry proliferates, millions are spent to convince a gullible public to consume, and the profits line the bulging pockets of the rich. Many Industries — oil, automobiles biotechnology — are detrimental to the environment while providing scant comfort or enjoyment for the humans they supposedly serve.

Collectively, industry and the acceptance of an industrialized society has created a standard of living that is destroying the planet. Destroying it quietly for those who reap the benefits of this unsustainable lifestyle and destroying it glaringly for those who do not.

Zip code 94607, West Oakland, is the ultimate example of a local community that does not benefit from the luxuries afforded by industry, but suffers from its waste products. Its the ultimate example of environmental racism.

The oldest district in Oakland, West Oakland is home to 23,475 residents. It began as a vibrant and diverse working class community based around what served as the final stop on the TransContinental Railroad. By the mid-1900’s the population consisted of mostly African American residents and West Oakland became known as a center of black cultural and social activism — it was called the Harlem of the West.

After World War II and the subsequent economy boom, the government implemented “Federal Renewal Projects” for West Oakland. This meant freeways and additional industry that was to be the beginning of a physical fragmentation of the community that would continue to the present day.

By the 1980’s, residents of West Oakland had to live with numerous toxic brown-fields, high lead concentrations, illegal dumping and massive industrial activity. Their home contained the Port of Oakland and the Oakland Army Base, with massive railway yards, freeways and constant truck traffic to serve the port and base. Neighborhoods were broken up by freeways and factories, with housing contaminated by lead built right next to industrial facilities. The neighborhood had a higher rate of exposure to toxic materials than in the almost any other community in Alameda County.

There are many negative environmental crises currently afflicting the area. Between January and June of 2000, the City of Oakland removed 263 tons of illegally dumped garbage from the streets. This was three times more per capita for West Oakland residents than for residents in the rest of Oakland. Nearly 82% of area residents live near an industrial area. In 1998 West Oakland generated six times more toxic chemicals than the rest of Oakland combined. There are higher incidences of asthma within the zip code area 94607 than in the rest of Alameda County. (See graph).

In 1998, 34,103 pounds of toxic air releases were reported by the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) (See graph) Keep in mind that TRIs only account for half of the toxins and pollutants discussed. Point sources such as automobiles, local business (Laundromats), and residences are not included in these numbers.

In response to these and other economic and social problems (a lack of civic engagement, the lack of sufficient public transportation, etc.) the community formed a partnership to address the crisis. 7th St/McClymonds (a local community activist group) and Pacific Institute (a local research organization) joined forces to developed the Environmental Indicators Project (EIP). The project aims to answer questions raised by disadvantaged communities by conducting research to promote revitalization.

Aman Bloom, a West Oakland resident and EIP Neighborhood Committee member note, “The impact on me came from the overall sum of the indicators. This project proves that there is a socially-responsible community of researchers whose interests coincide with the grassroots and who can take part in the process of improvement without taking control.”

This community driven project functions democratically with the residents deciding what needs to be measured or reported to further their own community goals. In the beginning the most important part of this process was choosing the indicators. As it is used in this research project, an indicator (like rates of asthma) is a measurable result of pollution. The community then can organize to reduce the indicator by going after its causes.

West Oakland residents defined quality of life in their community as “the economic vitality, the strength of the social institutions, the well being of its members and the state of its environment.” Most similar projects focus on environmental threats on a larger scale, such as asthma rates for entire cities or states rather than asthma rates within a city’s zip-code. This project is one of the few neighborhood projects that show such glaring environmental racism on a neighborhood scale. A scale that often goes unnoticed.

The work that has been done has made information available and understandable for the general public. The Environmental Indicators Project is the beginning of a strong local community movement against environmental racism. It has engaged and activated its residents and is providing them with the means to improve their community.

Out of the project, the Clean Air festival was born, with over 600 attending a demonstration in front of Red Star Yeast (a major West Oakland polluter) in 2001. Countless community groups are working on all of the indicator projects. They are providing an inspirational example as well as a working model of community activism that often goes unnoticed in a time when globalized struggles are at the forefront of our vision.