ArticlePDF Available

Police Power and Particulate Matters: Environmental Justice and the Spatialities of In/Securities in U.S. Cities



When we revolt it's not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe " – Black Lives Matter sign, attributed to Frantz Fanon 1
Police Power and
Particulate Matters:
Environmental Justice and the
Spatialities of In/Securities
in U.S. Cities
Lindsey Dillon and Julie Sze
“When we revolt it’s not for a particular culture. We revolt simply because, for
many reasons, we can no longer breathe”
– Black Lives Matter sign, attributed to Frantz Fanon1
n December 2, 2015, San Francisco police officers shot and killed 26-year old
Mario Woods in the city’s Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood. Woods was Afri -
can American and carrying a kitchen knife; his body was ultimately riddled by 20
bullets. His death should be understood as an effect of the systematic vulnerability of black
lives in the U.S., part of the lived, embodied experience of racism which the Black Lives
Matter movement powerfully critiques. “Black Lives Mat ter is an ideological and political
intervention in a world where Black lives are systematically and intentionally targeted for
demise,” write the movement’s organizers on its website. “It is an affirmation of Black folks’
contributions to this society, our humanity, and our resilience in the face of deadly oppres-
sion.”2 These words speak to geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s study of the prison-building
boom in California, and her definition of racism as “the state -sanctioned and extralegal expo-
sure of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.3 We suggest in this paper that
the Black Lives Matter movement addresses racism in the U.S. as an embodied experience of
structural, environmental insecurity. We explore this embodied insecurity through the every-
day act of breathing and, specifically, the conditions through which breath is constricted or
A significant literature has explored the contradictions of “securit y,” and in particular how
discourses and practices of “national security,” “homeland security,” and other contempo-
rary key terms render some people radically insecure. This literature focuses on the recent
expansion of state surveillance and other forms of police power in everyday spaces in the
U.S. and other Western democracies, through what some call “an emerging geography of
securitization in everyday life.”4 The domestic use of drones, tanks, and other military weap-
ons in U.S. cities, and new forms of biometric identification and surveillance (and “dataveil-
lance”) technologies are examples of domestic policing practices that create internal borders
14 | English Language Notes 54.2 Fall/Winter 2016
and war-like relations within the nation-state.5 As urban theorist Steven Graham demon-
strates, a histor y of racial violence frames many of these security practices.6 For example,
features of the “new military urbanism” were developed as colonial technologies or used in
recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and now are deployed in the metropoles. He writes that
homeland security practices “designate communities as dangerous and risky, delineate safe
zones from targeted bodies, invoke the pre-emptive strike on city streets.”7 In other words,
state security practices also produce landscapes of insecurity.
And yet, the lived experience of the “city as a battlespace” precedes the contemporary,
so-called “war on terror.”8 Take a police raid in Los Angeles in 1985 in which an armored
vehicle and motorized battering ram was used to knock open the front room of a supposed
drug house.9 What the police found after knocking down the front wall of the house were
three children and two women; a male resident, not home at the time, was later arrested
under suspicion of selling cocaine. The local NA ACP chapter protested the armored car and
battering ram by stating, “We don’t need new weapons to be tried out on us.” An ACLU law-
yer commented that “these weapons may be appropriate for a battlefield, but not to serve
an arrest warrant.”10 Mike Davis has written about the militarization of Los Angeles in the
1980s through the “Manichean treatment of space,” considering the rise of gated suburbs
with private security forces and the increased use of SWAT teams in South Central Los
Angeles as two sides of the same coin.11
This family’s experience can also be approached through what Katherine McKittrick calls
“black geographies.12 Through this concept—as an analytical framework and histori-
cal method—McKittrick refers to the ways black subjects and black lives are displaced or
absented in both material and imaginative space. Black lives become displaced—rendered
insecure—through physical and social marginalization (such as incarceration or gentrifica-
tion); through the naturalization of black bodies in some spaces and not others (some people
are “out of place” while others belong); and through the erasure of black knowledge and
experience from scholarly disciplines.13 McKittrick notes that black writers have histori-
cally used spatial categories as a way of challenging dominant narratives and asserting the
agency and specific geographies of black subjects. Think, for example, of “the middle pas-
sage,” “the underground railroad,” bell hook’s “margin” and “homeplace,” or Paul Gilroy’s
“the Black Atlantic.” Impor tantly, these spatial categories do not simply mark sites of dispos -
session; they are not simply critiques of power. They also point us to other ways of knowing,
to sites of potentiality and to other world-making practices. For McKittrick, the concept of
black geographies is also an affirmation of a different sense of place – of resistance and
social struggle, and of creative expression. Black geographies are thus meaningful sites
through which to imagine more just and humane worlds.14
McKit trick develops the concept of black geographies, in part, through Frantz Fanon’s writ-
ings. Here we turn to Fanon, and specifically to Fanon’s geographies, as a bridge between
McKit trick’s work and our assertion of breath as an important spatiality through which to
critique contemporar y relations of power and to imagine a better world. In reading Fanon
as a geographer, we turn first to The Wretched of the Earth, to the passage in which Fanon
Dillon / Sze | 15
describes the Manichean segregation of colonial space. He writes, “the colonist’s sector
is a sector built to last, all stone and steel.” The colonized sector, on the other hand, is “a
world with no space, people are piled up on top of each other, the shacks squeezed tightly
together.15 In the segregated city Fanon describes, it is difficult to breathe. We note sig-
nificant differences between the colonized cities that Fanon concerned himself with and
segregated cities within the U.S. However, this passage speaks to the mutual constitution
of urban environments, social difference, and embodiment – including health outcomes and
forms of violence.
In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon deepens our understanding of racism as an embodied
experience. He explores the lived experience of blackness in large par t through a psychoana-
lytic framework, yet his description of the experience of objectification also conveys a sense
of physical violence, particularly in the chapter, “The Fact of Blackness.”16 This violence is
evident in the feeling of being “fixed” and confined by the white gaze and by colonial cate-
gories and in the repeated theme of amputation. We find Fanon’s writing on the embodied,
often violent experience of antiblackness relevant for thinking about the physical insecurities
of Mario Woods and others on US city streets.
Thinking about racism as a lived, embodied experience also opens connections with the
environmental justice movement, which has challenged racialized exposures to industrial
pollution and consequent health inequalities. Environmental justice research originated in
the United States in response to racial justice movements which sought to remediate ele-
vated conditions of pollution exposure and its negative health effects. The research spans
a number of interdisciplinary locations (including sociology, public health and legal studies)
and is increasingly a global phenomenon, with significant overlaps with climate justice.17
In the following two sections, we bring environmental justice literature in conversation with
critiques of anti-black police violence, as a way of understanding the multiple ways that rac-
ism becomes embodied in the US today. We write in conversation with McKittrick and Fanon
in order to tell a different or alternative genealogy of security and insecurity through the lived
experience of blackness in the US. In solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, we
focus on breath and breathing—that essential act of life which is often constrained or denied
to people of color. If “breathing spaces”18 in the US today are racialized geographies, we
believe they are also key sites through which to explore alternative, more just worlds.
Toxic Ecologi es in Bayview Hunters Point
A short walk from the site of Mario Woods’s killing in San Francisco is the Hunters Point
Naval Shipyard. Jutting out from the southeastern corner of the city, the shipyard is a Super-
fund site and is today undergoing environmental remediation for a subterranean stew of the
toxic byproducts of militarization, including heavy metals, volatile and semi-volatile organic
compounds, pes ticides, PCBs, petroleum, and asbestos.19 It is also the site of a former naval
radiation laboratory, which operated between 1946-1969 and was connected with nuclear
weapons tests at the Marshall Islands and the desert lands of the US southwest. The lab
left radioactive waste in buildings and in the ground, including cesium-137, radium-226, and
16 | English Language Notes 54.2 Fall/Winter 2016
The Bayview Hunters Point neighborhood, which surrounds the Hunters Point Naval Ship-
yard, is a mixed industrial and residential place. Historically one of San Francisco’s African
American neighborhoods (a legacy of postwar racial segregation), it is a key site of the city’s
civil rights and environmental justice movements. Today, Bayview Hunters Point is racially
diverse, a population that is (according to US census categories) composed predominantly
of African Americans, Asian Pacific Islanders, and Latinos. It is one of the poorest neighbor-
hoods in San Francisco: 18% of the population lives at or below the poverty line, while the
unemployment rate in Bayview Hunters Point is 14%, twice the average for San Francisco
as a whole.21 In addition to the naval shipyard, Bayview Hunters Point has housed San
Francisco’s heavy and noxious industries since the late 19th century and currently contains
one-third of the toxic brownfield sites in the city, including underground leaking fuel tanks
and the remains of chemical and metals manufacturers, along with many current hazardous
waste-producing industries, the city’s sewage treatment plant, and a large waste transfer
station.22 Until recently, an oil-fired power plant operated near the shipyard, sending emis-
sions of nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and volatile organic compounds
into the atmospheric space of several public housing developments nearby. As one woman
testified in a letter to the city at torney in 1995, as part of an environmental justice campaign:
“The air pollution in Hunter’s Point is so bad I can’t hang my laundry outside. I’ve
tried and it gets so filthy that I have to wash it again… I have breast cancer… How
many girls who go to school across the street… from me will grow up and become
victims of breast cancer because of the filthy air they breathe? If filth sticks to
my sheets as they dry in the “fresh” air, think about the filth that adheres to the
lungs. I can wash my sheets but I can’t wash my lungs.”23
Her words speak to a feeling of environmental insecurity, of how the involuntary but nec-
essar y act of breathing—of life—renders her vulnerable to premature death. Anthropologist
Tim Choy writes about the “many means, practices, experiences, weather events, and eco-
nomic relations that co-implicate us at different points as ‘breathers.’”24 In addition to poor
indoor qualit y from substandard housing stock (an effect of the city’s informal policy of
“deferred maintenance,” rather than individual behavior), Bayview Hunters Point residents
breathe in diesel particulates from nearby freeways, trains, idling trucks, and emissions from
the sewage treatment plant.25 The asthma hospitalization rate for Bayview Hunters Point
residents is four times that of the San Francisco average, leading local medical researchers
to call it an “asthma epidemic.”26 In Bayview Hunters Point, the act of breathing is insepara-
ble from histories of racism, urban planning, and industrial and military waste.
In August 2000, an underground fire at the toxic Hunters Point Naval Shipyard added a new,
material complexity to the atmosphere, par ticularly for residents of public housing develop -
ments near the old military base. The fire, which burned for nearly a month, emanated from
the site of the shipyard’s landfills, which contain asbestos, indus trial chemicals, and radio-
active waste.27 Residents of the public housing developments repor ted respiratory problems
– the military’s waste constricted their breathing – as they watched the fire’s occasional but
eerie, yellowy- green smoke climb into the air, near their homes. Based on air sampling data
Dillon / Sze | 17
collected two weeks after the fire, the California Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease
Registry (ATSDR) concluded that Bayview Hunters Point residents would only have experi-
enced (what they called) “short term” health ef fects, such as “burning, itchy or water y eyes
and sinuses, headache, nausea, breathing difficulty and asthma-like symptoms.28 Against
the ATSDR’s conclusion that the fire was an inconsequential event, many Bayview Hunters
Point residents connected this experience of physical vulnerability with a long history of
environmental injustice and racism in the city. We also note that the fire and its aftermath
made the often invisible relations of breathing visible, as it became a site through which
Bayview Hunters Point residents challenged the US Navy’s neglect of the shipyard’s environ -
mental hazards, and the ways the residents have been left vulnerable to its toxic effects.29
“I Can’t Breat he”: From Met aphor to Materiality and Back Again
When Eric Garner was murdered by N.Y.C. police officers on a “quality- of-life” offense of
selling loose cigarettes and put in an illegal chokehold, he pleaded thus with the officers: “I
can’t breathe.” Garner, who suffered from asthma, repeated “I can’t breathe” eleven times.
The violent encounter represented one of the worst instances of the abuse of police power,
the only new element being that it was caught on cellphone video and widely disseminated.
The mantra “I can’t breathe” became—and remains—a common chant in the Black Lives
Matter and anti-police brutality movements. It became a meme, worn on T-shirts by high
profile black athletes (LeBron James and Kobe Bryant), supported by entertainers like Jay-Z
and even President Obama. The phrase “I can’t breathe” encapsulates a broader critique
of police violence and it also resonates with an environmental justice and public health
standpoint. As we demonstrate in this paper, the history of how and why “I can’t breathe”
emerged as a critique of the state-sanctioned insecurity of African Americans in the US is
part of the same history of racial health disparities critiqued by the environmental justice
movement. Here, we focus on asthma.
Garner’s asthma is distressingly common for black communities. According to recent federal
health data, African Americans were 20 percent more likely to have asthma than non-His-
panic whites in 2012; African American children had asthma death rates 7 times that of
non-Hispanic white children.30 Asthma is a complicated disease and has become a signature
environmental health issue for urban communities of color. These communities throughout
the U.S. face elevated exposure to pollution, especially air pollution.31 This, in turn, is an
outcome of the history of urban renewal in the U.S., through which federal highway policy,
the active destruction and forced removal of working class and black communities (often by
highway building, which leads to air pollution), produced a racially-structured metropolitan
space. In 1961, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights referred to these distinct patterns of
racial segregation in postwar cities as a “white noose” around the inner city, another pow-
erful metaphor that references both lynching as a historical racialized practice and the meta-
phor of racism as figuratively constricting an entire community around the neck.32
Asthma remains a central concern of contemporary environmental justice activism. In New
York City, racial disparities saturate occurrences of asthma. Child asthma rates reach 25
percent in some communities of color, four times the average rate across the city. Asthma
18 | English Language Notes 54.2 Fall/Winter 2016
contributes to overall levels of poor health, high stress, and premature death for many.
Low-income women of color in particular are often blamed for these rates, due to individual
prenatal exposures or what is deemed poor housekeeping, that some say lead to asthma. In
response, environmental justice activists in New York have pushed back at public rallies and
in campaign documents by emphasizing the environmental factors at play in the disease.33
Drawing on their critiques, we think about asthma as a specific embodiment of racial and
gender inequalities in the US.34
Asthma is an individualized and group disease where racial disparities remain stubbornly
high, and through which lives and life chances are heavily constrained. Asthma is shaped
by factors—political, racial and technological— that are both external and internal to bodies,
and that hit racialized communities particularly hard. B reath, and the racialized difficulties of
breathing, are therefore both real in the sense of the Eric Garner’s asthma and an effective
symbol of neglect. News accounts reported that Garner’s asthma, as he lay on the ground,
was ignored by the medical first responders, who thought he was “faking it.” At the same
time, prosecutors in the Grand Jury trial settled on his asthma as one of the main factors in
his death.35 In addition to asthma, Garner suffered from hypertension and diabetes, other
environmentally-related illnesses common in low-income communities of color.
Although the City medical examiner ruled Garner’s death a homicide, the officer who put
Garner in the chokehold was not prosecuted. Garner’s asthma, hypertension, diabetes, and
obesity were all listed as factors that contributed to his death. We pause here to note that
Garner’s body was already vulnerable to police violence, in par t, because of these pre- ex-
isting health and environmental conditions. And yet, although these chronic illnesses were
recognized as contributions to his premature death, they were understood as an individual
rather than a social problem, that is, as an embodiment of race and racial residential segre -
gation in the US.
Moreover, the physical chokehold on Garner— the direct, overt violence by the police—was
not recognized as a factor in his premature death. In a sense, then, the state criminalized
Garner’s own body: his chronic illnesses and his socially-produced difficulties in breathing
became the causes of his death. We find this criminalization of embodiment similar to the
ways Michael Brown’s body, in Ferguson, Missouri, was described as a “demon” and like
“Hulk Hogan” by the police officer who killed him – racist stereotypes that deprived Brown
of his humanity. Whereas Brown’s body was too dangerous, Garner’s body was too sick
(though the officer also feared him as large and menacing). In other words, the state individ-
ualized and blamed them for their own deaths, rather than situating them within a broader
political geography of race and racism in the US.
In the renewed attention to police violence in the context of Black Lives Matter, mainstream
accounts of air pollution and its differential exposures have refocused attention to this
classic environmental justice concern. For example, an article in the Washington Post was
titled, “The racial divide in America is this elemental: Blacks and whites actually breathe dif-
ferent air.”36 Charles Blow, the New York Times op-ed columnist, wrote about a problem of
environmental contamination and environmental racism in his Louisiana hometown entitled,
Dillon / Sze | 19
“Inequality in the Air We Breathe.”37 He writes at the end of this piece: “Of all the measures
of equality we deserve, the right to feel assured and safe when you draw a breath should
be paramount.”
In this vein, we interpret the phrase “I can’t breathe” as condensing the histories of per-
sistent patterns of pollution and police violence, both which have denied breath and healthy
breathing spaces to low-income communities of color. In this sense, the inability to breathe
can be understood as both a metaphor and material reality of racism, which constrains not
just life choices and opportunities, but the environmental conditions of life itself.
African American poet Langston Hughes’s 1938 poem “Kids who die,” published in a Com-
munist-backed pamphlet, gained renewed attention in 2015 when an activist group released
a YouTube video with actor Danny Glover’s reading of it over images of Ferguson and pro-
tests of police brutality.38 Shared widely as an eerily prescient statement on our contempo-
rary moment, the poem begins:
This is for the kids who die,
Black and white,
For kids wi ll die ce rtainly.
The old and rich will live on awhile,
As always,
Eating blood and gold,
Letting ki ds die.
That ver y same year, Hughes published “Let America be America Again.” This poem is quite
long and many others have writ ten on it. Here, we want to end by focusing on his imagery
of breath in the third stanza:
O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is fre e,
Equality is in the air we breathe.
(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in the “homeland of the free.”)
In this poem, “the air we breathe” symbolizes the promise of equality. In our contempo-
rary moment, it also reflects the reality of racial difference and the state of unfreedom.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor referred to the breath as a marker of racial dif fer-
ence in her recent dissenting opinion in Utah vs. Strieff (2016): “We must not pretend that
the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are ‘isolated.’ They are canaries
in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this
Similarly, we suggest that the phrase “I can’t breathe” points to the embodied insecuri-
ties of black lives, but also simultaneously asser ts the humanity of a population to which
20 | English Language Notes 54.2 Fall/Winter 2016
human-ness—and life—has been historically denied. In this sense, the act of breathing is
an intimate geography that points to multiple forms of racism as well as creative forms of
Lindsey Dillon
University of Cal ifornia, Santa Cruz
Julie Sze
University of Cal ifornia, Davis
1 The full quote, “It is not because the Indo-Chinese has discovered a culture of his own that he is in revolt.
It is because ‘quite simply’ it was, in more than one way, becoming impossible for him to breathe,” is from
the concluding chapter of Black Skin, White Masks (1952). Fanon is referring to the rebellion against French
colonialism in Southeast Asia. The decolonial connections between Fanon’s original words and how they
have circulated on the streets of US cities is important, but beyond the scope of our paper.
2 See
3 Gilmore, Ruth Wilson. Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007), 28.
4 Amoore, Louise. “Algorithmic War: Everyday geographies of the War on Terror.” Antipode 41 no. 1 (2009):
5 Amoore; Graham, Stephen. Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism (London and New York: Ver-
so Books, 2011); Graham, Stephen. “Cities and the ‘War on Terror.’” International Journal of Urban and
Regional Research 30, no. 2 (2006): 255-276; Neocleous, Mark. War Power, Police Power (Edinburgh:
Edinburgh University Press, 2014).
6 Graham, Cities Under Siege.
7 Amoore, “Algorithmic War,” 3.
8 For others who write about the militarization of policing prior to 9/11, see: Neocleous, War Power, Police
Power; Kraska, Peter B. Militarizing the American Criminal Justice System: The Changing Roles of the Armed
Forces and the Police (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2001); Davis, Mike. City of Quartz: Excavat-
ing the Future in Los Angeles (London and New York, Verso Books, 2006). For a different, though related,
literature on risk in the “global south”, see as examples: Roy, Ananya. “Subjects of Risk: Technologies of
Gender in the Making of Millennial Modernity.” Public Culture 24, no. 1 66 (2012): 131-155; Zeiderman,
Austin. “On Shaky Ground: The Making of Risk in Bogotá.” Environment and Planning A 44, no. 7 (2012):
9 Patricia Klein and Stephanie Chavez, “Pacoima Leaders Protest Police Use of Battering Ram,” The Los An-
geles Times, February 9, 1985, retrievable at
lice-battering-ram; this case was also discussed by Maegan Ashley Miller in an unpublished paper delivered
at the Association of American Geographers meeting in 2015, “Bringing Down the Hammer: Securitization,
Militarization, and the 1980s War on Gangs in Los Angeles.”
10 Ibid.
Dillon / Sze | 21
11 Davis, City of Quartz.
12 McKittrick, Katherine. Demonic Grounds: Black Women and the Cartographies of Struggle (Minneapolis,
University of Minnesota Press, 2006).
13 Finney, Carolyn. Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the relationship of African Americans to the
Great Outdoors (Durham: UNC Press Books, 2014); Moore, Donald S., Jake Kosek, and Anand Pandian,
eds. Race, Nature, and the Politics of Difference (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2003); Col-
lins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment
(Routledge, 2002).
14 Following McKittrick, sociologist Simone Browne intervenes in surveillance studies by locating blackness
“as a key site through which surveillance is practiced, narrated, and enacted.” Through her readings of the
diagram of a slave ship, of branding irons as biometric identifiers, and other tracking technologies of trans-
atlantic slavery, Browne writes an alternative genealogy of surveillance through an archive of black geogra-
phies. As she puts it, “rather than seeing surveillance as something inaugurated by new technologies, such
as automated facial recognition or unmanned autonomous vehicles (or drones), to see it as ongoing is to
insist that we factor in how racism and antiblackness undergird and sustain the intersecting surveillances of
our present order.” Browne’s concept of “dark matter” refers to the ways racism structures contemporary
surveillance practices in ways that have gone unrecognized within surveillance studies.
15 Fanon, Frantz. The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 2004), 4.
16 This chapter is also translated as “The Lived Experience of the Black.” See Wynter, Sylvia. “Towards the
Sociogenic Principle: Fanon, Identity, the Puzzle of Conscious Experience, and What it is Like to be ‘Black.’”
National identities and Sociopolitical Changes in Latin America (2001): 30-66.
17 Sze, Julie and Jonathan London, “Environmental Justice at the Crossroads,” in Sociology Compass 2 (4):
1331-1354 Retrievable at 2008.
18 Mitman, Gregg, and Stephen Bocking. Breathing Space: How Allergies Shape our Lives and Landscapes.
(New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 2007); “The Asthma Files”, retrievable at http://theasth-; Choy, Timothy K. Ecologies of Comparison: An Ethnography of Endangerment in Hong Kong
(Durham: Duke University Press, 2011); Kenner, Ali. “Invisibilities: Provocation.” Invisibilities, Field Notes
series edited by William Girard, Cultural Anthropology website, June 15 (2013).
19 “Hunters Point Naval Shipyard” (US Environmental Protection Agency), no date, retrievable at http://yo-
20 “Final Historical Radiological Assessment” (US Navy), 2004, retrievable at
tal_documents/radiological/hps_200408_hra.pdf; Dillon, Lindsey. “War’s Remains: Slow Violence and the
Urbanization of Military Bases in California.” Environmental Justice 8, no. 1 (2015): 1-5.
21 “Your Neighborhood At A Glance: Bayview Hunters Point and Visitacion Valley” (San Francisco Depart-
ment of Public Health, 2012), retrievable at
22 “Targeted Brownfields Assessments, Bayview Hunters Point” (US EPA, 2012), retrievable at http://sf-; “A Toxic Inventory of Bayview Hunters Point”
(Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, 2004), retrievable at
23 Rechtschaffen, Clifford. “Fighting Back Against a Power Plant: Some Lessons From the Legal and Organiz-
ing Efforts of the Bayview-Hunters Point Community.” Hastings W.-Nw. J. Envt’l L. & Pol’y 3 (1995): 407;
also see Ramo, Alan. “Hunters Point: Energy Development Meets Environmental Justice.” (1996).
24 Choy, Ecologies of Comparison; also see Choy, T. and Zee, J., 2015. Condition—Suspension. Cultural
Anthropology, 30 (2), pp. 210-223.
22 | English Language Notes 54.2 Fall/Winter 2016
25 Kloc, Ken. “Air Pollution & Environmental Inequity in the San Francisco Bay Area.” (Golden Gate Uni-
versity of Law, Center on Urban Environmental Law, 2011); “Community Health Status Assessment” (San
Francisco Healthy Homes Project), no date, retrievable at
26 Thyne, Shannon M., Joshua P. Rising, Vicki Legion, and Mary Beth Love. “The Yes We Can Urban Asth-
ma Partnership: a Medical/Social model for Childhood Asthma Management.” Journal of Asthma 43, no. 9
(2006): 667-673.
27 “Health Consultation: Parcel E Landfill Fire at Hunters Point Shipyard” (Agency for Toxic Substances and
Disease Registry, 2009), retrievable at
disc; “EPA Faults Navy for Handling of 4-Week Landfill Fire”, The Los Angeles Times, September 12, 2000,
retrievable at
28 “Health Consultation”
29 Dillon, Lindsey. “Race, Waste, and Space: Brownfield Redevelopment and Environmental Justice at the
Hunters Point Shipyard.” Antipode 46, no. 5 (2014): 1205-1221. On invisible relations of breathing, see
Kenner, “Invisibilities.”
30 “Asthma and African Americans” (U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services, Office of Minority Health) no
date, retrievable at
31 Julie Sze, Noxious New York: The Racial Politics of Urban Health and Environmental Justice (Cambridge:
MIT Press, 2007).
32 Robert Self, American Babylon: Race and the Struggle for Postwar Oakland (Princeton: Princeton Univer-
sity Press, 2005).
33 There is a large medical and public health literature on health disparities and asthma. Much less work is
from the sociological perspective on asthma but for a general overview, see Cara Chiaraluce, “The Politics
of Asthma: Disease Frameworks & Direct Action” in Issues and Controversies in Science and Politics ed. B.
Steele. (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications. 2014) and Julie Sze, “Gender, Asthma Politics, and Urban
Environmental Justice Activism,” on New Perspectives on Environmental Justice: Gender, Sexuality, and
Activism, ed, Rachel Stein (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2004) 177-190 and Mittman.
34 “Embodiment” is a term the public health scientist Nancy Krieger uses to talk about the ways “our bodies
tell stories about – and cannot be studied divorced from – the conditions of our existence.” Krieger, Nancy.
“Embodiment: a conceptual glossary for epidemiology.” Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health 59,
no. 5 (2005): 350-355.
35 Al Baker, J. David Goodman and Benjamin Mueller, “Beyond the Chokehold: the Path to Eric Garner’s
Death,” The New York Times, June 13, 2015, “
36 Max Ehrenfreund, “The Racial Divide in America is This Elemental: Blacks and Whites Actually Breathe
Different Air.” The Washington Post, December 4, 2014 Retrievable at
37 Charles Blow, The New York Times, “ Inequality in the Air We Breathe?” Jan. 21, 2015. Retrievable at
38 Christopher Mathias, The Huffington Post, August 10, 2015. Listen To The 1930s Poem That Is The
Perfect #BlackLivesMatter Tribute, Retrievable at
39 Here Sotomayor cites The Miner’s Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Democracy
(2002), by Lani Gunier and Gerald Torres. In this book, Gunier and Torres describe race as a canary in the
coal mine – that which indicates a broader, more systemic problem. They write, “Those who are racially
Dillon / Sze | 23
marginalized are like the miner’s canary: their distress is the first sign of a danger that threatens us all” (11).
The danger they refer to is the threat to justice and the democratic process. Importantly, as they also note,
canaries worked as indications of a larger threat because they were suffocated by noxious gases in the mine
and died. The last lines of Sotomayor’s dissent reads, “They are the ones who recognize that unlawful police
stops corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives. Until their voices matter too, our justice system
will continue to be anything but.”
... Recent environmental justice work has instead argued that we must see current environmental racism in historical context as the product of racist land use and planning, and have argued for rigorous theorizations of race beyond policy-oriented definitions (Pulido 1996b;Pellow 2016). As these scholars point out, race and racism are not static but rather are consistently in circulation and reproduction, in tandem with shifting geographies of environmental pollution (Tuck and McKenzie 2015;Dillon and Sze 2016;Ranganathan 2016;Ranganathan and Bratman 2019). ...
... Geographer Ruth Wilson Gilmore has used this framing to define racism as the "production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death" (2002,28). While Gilmore theorizes from deep study of the prison industrial complex, her definition of racism can also encompass environmental injustices: group-differentiated exposure to polluted air and water is inseparable from the death-dealing effects of police violence or geographies of incarceration (Ahuja 2016;Dillon and Sze 2016;Pellow 2016). In other words, chemical toxicity-its differential nature and connection to premature death, its ability to "get under the skin" , 3)-can be seen as a form of racism working through the materiality of the body. ...
California’s arid San Joaquin Valley was once inundated by lakes and wetlands. Through settler colonial discourses of contamination, a network of canals and aqueducts drained these lakes and wetlands in the late nineteenth century. Now, the Valley’s air and water are contaminated by pesticides, nitrates, and hydrocarbons from oil extraction and large-scale agriculture. Building from archival research and participant observation with environmental justice activists, this paper bridges settler colonial and critical Indigenous studies, work on racial capitalism, and feminist science studies to investigate logics of contamination in the production of private property through hydraulic projects. California’s hydrologic history shows that ideas of contamination were contested alongside emergent ideas of the racialized body. Hydraulic infrastructure, then, was not only an economic project but functioned within a larger logic of contamination that further articulated racial formations and settler sovereignty claims. Yet chemical contamination can also induce futurities, intimacies, and collectivities in powerful ways, as environmental justice activists in the valley consistently highlight. I argue that a critical analytic of contamination can trace how racial categories are ecologically produced and reconfigured, not only through differential relationships to land, but through changes in the land itself.
... The study sites comprise cities with a significant history of organizing and activism related to environmental and racial justice concerns (O'Neill and VanDeveer, 2005;McKendry and Janos, 2015;Dillon and Sze, 2016;Ngo, 2022), and as a result, various municipal departments, policies, and non-profit organizations have been established to address longstanding environmental injustices facing neglected and oppressed communities (Pearsall and Pierce, 2010; City of San Francisco Commission on the Environment, 2018; City of Seattle, 2023a). While both cities have progressive-leaning political histories, their demographic profiles vary according to population density, racial composition, education, and household income (U.S. Census Bureau, 2021) (Table 1). ...
Full-text available
Introduction There is a growing demand for urban forest management that prioritizes genuine community involvement, acknowledges power imbalances within society, and embraces the principles of environmental justice. To assess current initiatives and share better/best approaches, examining how environmental justice principles are applied in urban forest planning and practice is crucial. This study aims to understand the perspectives of urban foresters on the factors that either facilitate or impede the attainment of environmental justice goals. Methods Interviews were conducted with urban foresters from non-profit organizations and municipal government in San Francisco, California, and Seattle, Washington. The interviewees were asked to identify and discuss their tree planting and maintenance strategies, public engagement protocol, and inter-organizational collaboration processes. To provide a contextual understanding of environmental injustice in the study cities, the historical racist practice of neighborhood redlining was examined alongside current tree canopy cover, locations of environmental hazards, and the spatial distribution of persons of color and those living in poverty. Results The findings revealed that urban forestry professionals in each city approached environmental justice in distinct yet complementary ways: San Francisco prioritized distributional justice, while Seattle focused on elements of procedural and recognitional justice. The Race and Social Justice Initiative in Seattle and Proposition E in San Francisco have been instrumental in identifying and addressing inequities in urban forest planning and practice. Discussion/conclusion Creating fair and inclusive urban forestry practices that prioritize disadvantaged neighborhoods has been a difficult task for both cities. Acknowledging and addressing past policies and cultural perspectives that have led to marginalization is crucial for building trust with these communities. Moving forward, prioritizing recognitional justice in urban forest planning and management should be a top priority.
... In the US, the policing of drugs is much heavier in black communities than in white ones, and it has been argued that this is driven in part by race and in part by economic interests (Lynch et al., 2013). The policing of minorities has given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement, which highlights how police violence disproportionally affects minority communities (Dillon & Sze, 2016). Similar processes exist in Europe, and in the Nordic countries it has been argued that the policing of minorities, and in particular police stops and controls, can increase feelings of exclusion. ...
Deprived neighborhoods in Sweden in which criminal networks have a negative impact on local residents are labeled as “vulnerable neighborhoods” by the police. The method used by the police to classify such neighborhoods is largely based on perceptions, which raises issues of subjectivity and potential biases. The present study explores the characteristics of such neighborhoods based on registry data on socio-demographics and crime. The study employs data in the form of a grid of 250 x 250 meter vector grids (N=116,660) with data on population, foreign background, employment, age characteristics, household type, and eight types of crime. Generalized mixed-effects models of vector grids nested in municipalities were fitted to analyze the characteristics of vector grids classified as vulnerable (N=1678). Several variables are significantly associated with a vector grid being classified as vulnerable, with the proportion of the population that is foreign born, and the proportion with foreign-born parents, being the strongest predictors. In addition, we consider whether there are systematic differences between municipalities and develop a model based on regression coefficients to predict whether a vector grid is vulnerable. The model reclassifies 39.8 percent of the vector grids, identifying locations that statistically resemble vulnerable neighborhoods but are not classified as such, and vice versa.
This article contributes to the growing literature bringing together environmental justice (EJ) and abolition, offering the Charles Roundtree Bloom Project in San Antonio, Texas, as a case of abolitionist EJ praxis. I argue that the Bloom Project disrupts capitalist and colonial relations, even if only provisionally, through radical space- and place-making that allow alternative worlds to emerge. “I can’t breathe” has been an embodiment and structure of feeling that reflects the historical patterns of policing and pollution across racialized geographies in the United States and connects historical patterns of racial capitalism and colonialism. I suggest that the Bloom Project is a model of how we can move from “I can’t breathe” to imagining and growing worlds where we can breathe. By foregrounding the work of the Bloom Project, this article moves away from analyses primarily focused on highlighting the ways that low-income communities of color are toxic and toward the ways that communities are imagining and practicing alternative ways of being, embodying the worlds they desire. I demonstrate how abolitionist EJ praxis contributes to the liberation of carceral geographies and toxic ways of relating to ourselves, each other, and the more-than-human world by providing alternative relationalities based on affirming and sustaining lifeways.
The “canary in the coal mine” metaphor is used by the chemically sensitive community to make sense of and crip spaces containing low-levels of toxic atmospheric petrochemicals. This article reflects on the technocultural genealogies entrenched within the metaphor. A by-product of the imperial exotic bird trade, canary companion species played a formative role in early technoscientific understandings of toxic exposure starting in the nineteenth century as animal sentinels in coal mine rescues. Chemically sensitive people mobilize the canary metaphor to situate themselves within toxic environments as sentinel and experimental subjects, potentiating a feminist knowledge about chemical disability. Identifying as a human canary underscores how consumer commodities are universally structured for the chemical capacities of able-bodied male subjects, revealing gendered and ableist technocultural logics. The metaphor may also conjure a universal form of sacrificial life that ignores how canaries and self-identifying chemically sensitive people are differently situated in the colonial surround of racial capital. Canary knowledges arise from practicing metaphor as meaning and method—they offer a trajectory for crip-led community practices to build more capacious knowledges of exposure by extending anti-colonial and anti-racist commitments towards relational productions of accessibility. Reclaiming technoscientific experimental subjecthood can thus encourage new collective possibilities to address the global onslaught of chemical violence.
In this article, I address a set of recent publications that explicitly critique U.S. environmental justice (EJ) movements and scholars for looking to the state for protection from environmental harm. These publications have argued that U.S. EJ movements and scholars have become preoccupied with seeking justice through state institutions instead of through other routes of change, that they do so principally through overly cooperative practices that cede the terms of debate to the state, and that engaging with the state inherently perpetuates injustice. Their arguments make important, incisive contributions to EJ studies and raise sobering questions about EJ activists’ engagement with the state. In this article, I highlight some of these contributions, but I also critique their arguments on two grounds: First, drawing on various studies, I argue that these publications’ empirical characterizations of EJ activism understate the diversity of tactics EJ activists use. Second, I argue that they treat the state as a wholly and inevitably repressive instrument of capital, and that this leads them to make politically problematic recommendations that dismiss the ways in which states also serve other ends, can be made to do so more meaningfully, must be made to do so, and are being made to do so. Reductionist characterizations of the state too easily dismiss the prospects for change through the state—including reforms that are modest but nevertheless reduce harm as well as “nonreformist reforms” that more fundamentally support justice, all of which can be pursued through both collaborative and confrontational practices. I draw on recent theoretical and empirical research from political ecology, political geography, and Native American and Indigenous studies—scholarship that treats the state in a more relational fashion and which intersects with or exists largely outside of EJ studies—to theorize my arguments and provide illustrative examples.
For 100 days in 2015, performance artist Nut Brother dragged a vacuum cleaner through Beijing and formed the collected smog particles into a solid brick. Dust Project brings into sharp relief the harm related to the necessary act of breathing and the effects of anthropogenic climate change. As air quality declines, breathing marks the everyday entanglement with particulate matter and its attendant violences as a performance of endurance.
Full-text available
Prisons and jails around the globe are sites of heart-wrenching, stomach-turning violence and brutality, perpetrated by the governments and corporations that build and manage them. We briefly outline each chapter within this report, which links the ways laws and policy have impacted or created conditions of environmental injustice in prisons, jails, and detention centers in the U.S. and abroad. Chapter 1 considers the driving forces behind the troubled relationships between Indigenous peoples and dominant systems of law, and how those conflicts and collaborations produce conditions of uncertainty and precarity for Indigenous communities. Chapter 2 the author predicts an increase in demands for prison climate change litigation as the impacts of climate change are expected to increase. This emerging body of law presents many new challenges and opportunities for addressing the links between climate-driven severe weather events, unconstitutional conditions of confinement, and the struggle for basic human and civil rights. Chapter 3 focuses on the ways in which the US government has imposed a system of intensified incarceration on global South nations in the western hemisphere with emphasis on Haiti as a case study. This process exacerbates already precarious social, economic, and environmental conditions in these communities, and reveals disturbing linkages among U.S. foreign policy, policing, criminalization, and imprisonment. Chapter 4 explores Italian state violence against incarcerated persons during the Covid-19 pandemic and reveals critical and deeply concerning intersections between government oppression and the production of health disparities, while raising the importance of resistance movements among imprisoned populations. Privitera makes a strong case for the ethic of indispensability, which directly confronts the logic of expendability or the idea that people who are behind bars should matter less, should be devalued, and should be forgotten. Chapter 5 asks, “What if we focused on habilitation, uplifting, and humanizing rather than demoralizing and dehumanizing?” and takes a critical look at our carceral system, with emphasis on rehabilitative programs in the U.S. and abroad.
Particulate matter (a key contributor to poor air quality) was central to the most far‐reaching deregulatory actions of the Trump EPA and as such became a key mechanism through which fossil fuels saturate and racialise deregulatory knowledge. This article introduces particulate matter as a problem of fossil fuel combustion and leading cause of death that—given well‐known racial disparities in exposure—is at the heart of today’s racist politics of breathing. It then traces particulate matter through the Trump EPA’s efforts to remake regulatory science, including through expansive measures not directly about air quality. It is not just that particulate matter is an effect of deregulation but that it served as a mechanism for a wider deregulatory apparatus. The article then elaborates on the significance of particulate matter in the suffocating nature of racism to argue that these actions entrench racist calculations of whose lives matter within the EPA’s regulatory apparatus.
As the birthplace of the Black Panthers and a nationwide tax revolt, California embodied a crucial motif of the postwar United States: the rise of suburbs and the decline of cities, a process in which black and white histories inextricably joined. American Babylon tells this story through Oakland and its nearby suburbs, tracing both the history of civil rights and black power politics as well as the history of suburbanization and home-owner politics. Robert Self shows that racial inequities in both New Deal and Great Society liberalism precipitated local struggles over land, jobs, taxes, and race within postwar metropolitan development. Black power and the tax revolt evolved together, in tension. American Babylon demonstrates that the history of civil rights and black liberation politics in California did not follow a southern model, but represented a long-term struggle for economic rights that began during the World War II years and continued through the rise of the Black Panthers in the late 1960s. This struggle yielded a wide-ranging and profound critique of postwar metropolitan development and its foundation of class and racial segregation. Self traces the roots of the 1978 tax revolt to the 1940s, when home owners, real estate brokers, and the federal government used racial segregation and industrial property taxes to forge a middle-class lifestyle centered on property ownership. Using the East Bay as a starting point, Robert Self gives us a richly detailed, engaging narrative that uniquely integrates the most important racial liberation struggles and class politics of postwar America.
Military bases are extremely polluted places, often contaminated with industrial wastes along with the various chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons of war. Today many former bases are converted to civilian use, a process requiring extensive remediation. The reuse of military bases involves extracting toxic sediments as well as the sedimented histories of war and military violence. This article examines questions of environmental injustice at two base conversion projects in San Francisco—at Naval Station Treasure Island and at the Hunters Point Naval Station—using Rob Nixon's (2011) concept of “slow violence.” Slow violence emphasizes the dispersed and slow moving forms of environmental disaster and toxic suffering, expanding the spatialities and temporalities by which we might understand environmental injustice. In relation to Hunters Point and Treasure Island, the concept of slow violence suggests that these base conversion projects are not simply “cleanups,” or breaks with the military's violent past, but are productive of new geographies and temporalities of toxic risk.
This paper advances the concept of “waste formations” as a way of thinking together processes of race, space, and waste in brownfield redevelopment projects. Defined as formerly industrial and contaminated properties, in the 1990s brownfields emerged as the grounds for new forms of urbanization and an emerging environmental remediation industry. Through their redevelopment, the twentieth century's urban wastelands—environmentally degraded, economically divested, and often racially marked—have become sites of investment, resignification, and value formation. The concept of waste formations provides a critical framework on the ways these socio-ecological transformations rework twentieth century urban inequalities—in particular, the articulation of waste and toxic waste—and the ways they produce new geographies of environmental injustice through the displacement of toxic waste to newly waste-able spaces. This paper develops an analytic of waste formations and applies it to the process of brownfield redevelopment at the Hunters Point Shipyard in southeast San Francisco.