What Happens When We All Can’t Breathe?

It’s 9:15 am on a Friday morning and I’m on a SEPTA bus heading to West Philly. I’ve been up off and on since 2 a.m. when my 18-month-old started screaming. When I finally fell back asleep around 4, my 5-year-old came into my room freaking out because he couldn’t figure out how to change out of his wet pajama pants – because he was trying to pull a shirt over his legs. My children have been dressed and fed and walked to school in the freezing wind, and I have headed back in the opposite direction to catch the bus.

I tried to explain to my five-year-old son why I couldn’t stick around school a little longer at drop off and why it was important for me to go to this protest. I told him that people wanted to build factories that would pollute the air and water because they thought it would make them money. He asked if they were going to jail. I said no. He told me he doesn’t want to drink brown water. I told him that was why I had to go. He asked me who else was going. I told him I had no idea. It was 9 a.m. on a Friday and most people had to be at offices or taking care of their children. It didn’t matter that I had mountains of work to do for my own business, mountains of laundry, or that it was “team day” at the gym. I had to be there for everyone else who couldn’t go – or simply wouldn’t go.

The crowd was diverse outside the Drexel University conference where investors and politicians were meeting to strategize on the best way to build new natural gas pipelines rather than fix the antiquated, leaking ones that already exist beneath our feet. Ways to convince the public that natural gas was the path to “energy independence,” even though much of that gas would be exported overseas. Ways to exaggerate the economic impact, dispute the health and environmental impacts, and ignore the fact that investing in renewable energy would create significantly more jobs and create a safe, sustainable infrastructure.

There were students, grandmothers, and activists who had traveled more than two hours from their rural communities already devastated by the effects of fracking. The crowd was white, black, Indian, and Asian. There were rabbis and doctors and business owners.

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Doctors took the microphone to point out the very real statistics on cancer clusters, birth defects, and the fact that more than 25% of the children in Philadelphia already have asthma (in my experience, an underestimate). Executives in blue suits and politicians with their handlers walked past us into the conference unfazed. After all, there were only 150 of us. Most people are still in the dark – or simply can not miss work to stand outside a West Philly campus with a sign.

The final speaker, who spoke on behalf of the faith groups, talked about the topic that has overtaken the media for weeks now: Black Lives Matter. It’s worth noting that fracking, oil pipelines, and refinery pollution disproportionately effect low income neighborhoods, and, yes, minorities. The asthma rates alone among black people are astonishing. These black lives matter too. 

Some people held signs that said “I Can’t Breathe,” the final words of Eric Garner when he was held in a chokehold by a police officer. I didn’t know how I felt about those signs. Should we be co-opting the mantra of another important movement? Was this inappropriate or completely relevant?

I certainly don’t want to take anything away from the current movement against racial inequality. But it is important for people to understand that pollution is also an issue of racial inequality (p.s. don’t miss the pro-fracking commercial in advance of this clip!) Truth: minorities suffer the most from industrial pollution.

There were 150 of us protesting the pollution of air and water for 1.5 million Philadelphians. Yet thousands across the country have marched day after day in protest to the racial inequality invoked by corrupt police. I’m not saying you shouldn’t be pissed off about Ferguson. And you should definitely be pissed off about Eric Garner. We want to avenge this man whose breath was unjustly taken by a chokehold. But we should also want to avenge all of our breaths taken by the chokehold of these corporations and politicians.

Today I had the opportunity to speak to brilliant, motivated people. We networked and brainstormed about ways to spread the word and get the truth out there. After all, the truth is what pushes us forward and sets us apart.

A few people, assuming I was there as publicist for a participating nonprofit, asked me who I was there representing. I simply said, “My children. All children.”

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