Photo by Vanessa Charlot

A Unity Forged in Fire


PHOTOGRAPH BY Vanessa Charlot

This year truly cemented a unity between the racial and environmental movements. Individuals have been working on bridging this divide for decades, but they finally saw major success in 2020. The Frontline features an interview with Monifa Bandele, who’s been advocating at this intersection for decades.

Racism is the real pandemic that is killing us. Photograph by Vanessa Charlot, during a protest against police brutality on June 15, 2020, in St. Louis, Missouri, earlier this year in light of George Floyd's killing.

Some events in 2020 (like the pandemic) are exclusive to the year, but others have been brewing for decades—like the police abolition and the environmental justice movements. For far too long, the same communities experiencing violence from police have faced violence at the hands of polluters. This year brought these two issues together in an unprecedented public manner because of how COVID-19 has continued to disproportionately kill people of color around the U.S., in part, due to the air they breathe.


This year has completely changed the face of the environmental movement. It’s forced groups to come to terms with their own racist histories and pushed them to speak out against the violence Black people face every day—including in green spaces. It’s a unity forged in fire—a unity that brings together myriad issues the world needs to collectively address.


Welcome to The Frontline, where environmental justice has always been racial justice. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. Today, I’m chatting with Monifa Bandele, the senior adviser for strategy, policy, and equity at Moms Uprising, a network championing women’s rights and maternal health. She’s worked at the intersection of race, health, and policy for decades and has plenty to share about the work that set in motion the environmental justice success this year saw.


This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.


You’ve been working within this racial and environmental justice space long before it really fell at the heart of the environmental movement this year. Tell me a bit about your work and how it bridges this divide.


I specifically work on deconstructing mass incarceration and dismantling the criminal legal system, and I have been doing this work for over two decades. One of my earliest campaigns was the killing of Amadou Diallo, here in New York where I live. Amadou Diallo was a young Black immigrant man who was shot 41 times by the NYPD in 1999.


In 2000, we pushed for many of the reforms that people want today: We wanted special prosecutors. We wanted to end protections that the police had. We have been calling for these incremental reforms for a long time and learned over the past 20 years that they don’t stop Black people from dying at the hands of police. There’s been a ban on chokeholds since the 1990s, yet the NYPD still strangled Eric Garner to death. 


So, this total reimagining of public safety—the call to defund the police, really pushing for an invest-divest model that includes environmental justice—has been at the heart of our work for a very long time, but it especially accelerated out of the Ferguson uprising. Coming out of Ferguson, we formed a coalition called the Movement for Black Lives. In the span of six years, we’ve been able to build up an infrastructure that has over 150 Black-led organizations that work on all kinds of issues, including climate justice issues, land issues, health equity issues, and the racist criminal legal system. Having that infrastructure has helped us to have a very intersectional policy platform called the Vision for Black Lives. It touches on many of the issues that impact our community—from housing to healthcare to climate. We’ve been able to bring together organizers that have been working in silos on these issues under one big umbrella.


How do you think that this year shifted how the environmental movement centers race? How do you think that the culmination of all these events this year shifted the way the environmental movement operates and thinks of itself within this racist infrastructure that has allowed the killing of Black people for so long?


The work was always being done. What we had this year was a heightened level of infrastructure in place. When our coalition partners in Minneapolis put out a call around George Floyd, we could act in cities across the country. When we decided collectively to do a mass mobilization for Juneteenth—raising awareness around Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Tony McDade, and George Floyd—we were able to put mobilizations in every single state in the nation. That came from coordination and infrastructure built over time. One of the things that the media will have you believe is that it was just something that happened, that there was something in the air that caused millions of people to be in the streets. Actually, that took a lot of work.


Our environmental justice folks are Black activists that have focused on issues of the environment going back for as long as I can remember. I remember being a child in New York and hearing about the MOVE organization that was bombed by the Philadelphia police. These were Black naturalists. They were environmental justice activists. A lot of the things that folks do now, like composting, were a part of MOVE’s mandate to protect the earth.


We also have greater coordination with Indigenous folks. We’ve done a lot of work this past August with NDN Collective and the Land Back movement. What has happened is greater coordination between forces both within the Black movement, as well as between the Black and Indigenous movement, which makes Black climate justice voices louder because we’re in coordination with folks that are working across issues. 

“COVID-19 laid bare all the inequities in society. Period.”



It feels like there has been this disconnect between the mainstream, like the media but also non-Black folks, and the movement around the continued work and impact of what you all are advocating against. Do you think that this awareness that exploded this year—I’m talking about on social media, I’ve just seen so many people who were not at all activated in years prior being activated this year—do you think that this could have been possible without the COVID-19 pandemic?


Oh, COVID-19 laid bare all the inequities in society. Period.


You didn’t have to draw a whole lot of pictures. You didn’t have to use a whole lot of anecdotes and analogies. People were living the disparities (people who hadn’t previously). There are always people in the community who are like, “I need care, not police. Don’t remove my kids from my homes because I don’t have enough food or heat. Give me food and heat.” There were always people who understood that, but now that reality was opened up to a larger group of people. More people were exposed to the disparities in our budgets. It made the demand to defund the police just so much easier for people to see.


The pandemic confirmed the inequities that we knew existed to people who I think needed to feel it; they needed to see it up close. The other thing that happened was the disregard—the way that the leadership on the national and state level handled the pandemic illustrated disregard for poor people, for people of color, and for Black people.


Another event that really stood out this year was when Christian Cooper faced harassment in Central Park by a white woman making false allegations that he was attacking her. We have this Black birder just trying to enjoy nature. It really stood out to me as another example of the way society creates unsafe spaces for Black folks even in cities like New York that are often thought of as incredibly progressive. What was your reaction to this event?


It was interesting. You know, these types of incidents happen all the time. Black people experience policing by the police, white people, school systems, hospital systems—every day of our lives. And it has consequences, right? Police do come. Police do arrest. They incarcerate and kill people basically at the word of someone claiming to be in distress because they are trying to control a Black person, control Black bodies.


This Black man enjoying nature also made us think again of MOVE. The women and men who survived the MOVE bombing were incarcerated back in the eighties. They just began to get out of prison last year. Here, you had people calling police saying, “This is disruptive. These people in their homes being environmentalists is affecting me.” Right? The police come, they bombed the house, burned down the whole block, and the residents have spent decades in prison. For those of us who know how dangerous a phone call to the police can be—how detrimental, both in the moment and over time—it’s so triggering. It was so triggering to see the Christian Cooper situation. It was infuriating because 20, 30 years ago, he could have been someone who spent decades in prison following the antics of this woman.


We have to uplift that. Black folks have been down for environmental justice for as long as Black folks have been here in the United States. But that activism has been siloed because these mainstream organizations were so white-dominated. It did not look at the myriad ways that people engaged in climate justice and environmental justice and land protection. It’s not that, all of a sudden, Black people are concerned about the environment. Black people were concerned about the environment and were attacked because of it.


Any kind of activism that white people do, when Black people do it, it’s more dangerous for us. And we’re less visible in doing it. In all of these different movements, Black people play an important leadership role in growing them and in implementing the campaign, but the consequences for our activism is very different.


The visibility this year seems to be the silver lining in all of this. Folks are finally starting to understand and celebrate Blackness in a way that wasn’t always so visible. I’m thinking about events like Black Birders Week and Black Marine Scientists Week, as well as organizations like Intersectional Environmentalist. The celebration of Blackness in the environmental space—in environmental science, in particular—was needed for a long time. I think it made room for healing this year, too.


Yes! Juneteenth! States and cities have made it a holiday when we’ve been talking about Juneteenth for decades. Again, it didn’t happen overnight. A lot of great stuff came out of Ferguson. We started saying Black Lives Matter, and people hated that worse than they hate Defund the Police.


This has been brewing. The protests over the summer were a spark that exposed all of that injustice going on and gave it even more fuel. Over the course of the 2010s, from Trayvon Martin to Mike Brown, people have been throwing down.


Where do we go from here? The work doesn’t end, right?


We have to really unblock this lack of imagination that exists with our leaders, our policymakers. We don’t want to go back to what there was pre-COVID. We want a childcare infrastructure. We want a real public safety infrastructure that keeps everybody safe. We want to make sure that we have a care economy where if you have a mental health crisis, that you get someone who has expertise in solving a mental health crisis and not someone with a badge and a gun. 


Our leaders are stalling this beautiful movement. What we’re going to have to do is to continue to push them. We’re going to have to build more power. We’re going to have to organize them and bring people into those positions of power who share our vision, who share our enthusiasm, and who share our optimism. We already have some coming in: Congresswoman Cori Bush, who comes right out of our movement. We have Jamaal Bowman who’s also coming in dedicated to climate justice. 


I just want to underscore that we don’t want to go back to normal. We refuse to go back to normal. Normal for us meant George Floyd, meant Mike Brown, meant Breonna Taylor, meant a Black maternal mortality rate where Black women die at four times the rate of white women. Normal meant the climate crisis. 


Going back to normal is not a win. That’s not where we want to go.

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