LoganSquarist: Last Thursday night, hunger strikers and organizers from the Southeast side rallied with supporters at Kimball and Wrightwood, near Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s home. The rally marked an end to the monthlong hunger strike that received widespread support and press, all organized to demand that the mayor deny the permit necessary for a metal recycling plant to operate in the East Side.
The plant, General Iron, was formerly located in Lincoln Park but was pushed out of the neighborhood. It has a long history of pollution violations but its owners, Reserve Management Group, plan to open a new metal scrapper on the Southeast side near George Washington High School. This neighborhood is already home to much industry which pollutes the air. Residents ask why they should bear the burden of more pollution while the Northside frees up space for a billion-dollar development. Peggy Salazar, longtime activist from the Southeast side, said this hits on the three E’s:
Salazar: Environmental justice, environmental racism, and environmental classism.
LoganSquarist: Peggy Salazar also called on the Department of Health to deny the permit, noting that they have that power and should be using it. Jim Bloyd, from the Collaborative for Health Equity, also called out the Chicago Health Department.
Bloyd: I’m humbled to be here with the real leaders for public health in the city of Chicago. [Applause] Dr. Allison Arwady, the commissioner, is in the process of committing public health malpractice. Dr. Arwady’s own CDPH webpage states that air pollution contributes to increased risk of chronic disease, which is the leading driver of Chicago’s nine-year life expectancy gap between Black and White residents and decreases in life expectancy for Latinx population.
LoganSquarist: Other activists called out Mayor Lori Lightfoot. Loreen Targos did this while tracing the Stop General Iron movement back to Chicago’s racist history of redlining. This was the practice of denying certain neighborhoods financial resources like loans because the residents were people of color and/or poor.
Targos: The reason the mayor has not talked to these folks, but she has billionaires taking out full-page ads for her in the Suntimes, is that those people live in communities that were never redlined. If you go back to where their addresses are and where they are in the redlining maps, their neighborhoods were green and blue. They didn’t have foreigners living in them. They didn’t have Black and Brown people living in them. And those historical racist legacies endure to this day. Those people who live in formerly redlined communities have all the pollution in their neighborhood and don’t have a f— direct phone number to the mayor. But the people who live in the green communities, along the Gold Coast and the Northside and are billionaires — profiting from all of our collective labor — those people have a direct line to the mayor. She continues to not deny the permit and not to hear the call of human beings starving themselves for justice!
LoganSquarist: The Kid from Pilsen, an activist from Pilsen whose real name is William Guerrero and also took part in the hunger strike, criticized Lightfoot for failing to talk with strikers.
The Kid: The hunger strikers even went to confront her face to face. Now I’m not sure if you saw the video, but once they confronted her face to face she got in the car and she took off and that’s not right. She basically doesn’t care if the hunger strikers starve and that’s not right. I’m so upset that we have a mayor that doesn’t car about her people. That’s [inaudible: “crap”]!
LoganSquarist: Hunger striker Yesenia Chavez, a lifelong East Side resident, began her speech by calling all the women organizers from the Southeast side to stand shoulder to shoulder with her. Then, she did this:
Yesenia: There is one thing we all desperately need in order to function that we cannot stop doing. That one thing is breathing. Let’s try to stop breathing for seven seconds. Ready? Hold your breath.
[Seven second pause. Birds chirp. Yesenia exhales.]
It was a little tough, wasn’t it? You feel the difference almost immediately. So take a moment to reflect on the difficulties you had giving up breathing for seven seconds, and think of all the people who didn’t have the choice to breathe again after slowly being poisoned by their environment, ultimately causing their death.
I joined the Chicago Hunger Strike Feb. 8, 2021. Today is my 25th day. I was 134 pounds when I started. Today I’m 117 pounds. I never would have imagined my comrades and I would have lasted this long, or created international impact with our decision to join. I experience anxiety attacks. I experience doubt. Imposter syndrome, irritability, [Yesenia pauses, crying. Someone yells: “We got you!”] hunger pains, heart pains, various types of headaches, pains in my skull, random muscle spasms, chest pain, hair loss, weight loss, countless nights crying myself to sleep, worried I wouldn’t wake up.
I have said this before and I will say it again: one more death because of air pollution is one too many for us to accept. Period. [Applause]
LoganSquarist: After activists, hunger strikers, teachers, and organization leaders spoke, Pastor Matt Zemanick of Lebanon Lutheran Church took the mic.
Pastor Matt: And the fact of the matter is we are here to honor those who have died because of causes related to pollution. So this is a brief eulogy. And I begin any eulogy like I would in the Christian tradition, with some words of Jesus. One sentence: “blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.”
Crowd: Amen! [Applause, drum beats]
Pastor Matt: We are here because these deaths that have happened on the Southeast side because of pollution. People who have died at disproportionately high rates from COVID-19, people who have died of rare cancers, people who have died of asthma attacks, and the cumulative impact of these chemicals that are in our air, and our land, and our water. And we’re here to say that these deaths will not be in vain!
Pastor Matt: El pueblo unido! Crowd: jamás será vencido!
And we process. We process as a public declaration of our grief. We process to say enough is enough!
[Trumpet and drums play]
LoganSquarist: His words kicked off a procession led by organizers holding a symbolic wooden coffin and giant letters spelling “NO PERMIT.” As the crowd made its way down Kimball Avenue, neighbors stood on porches and leaned out of windows, curious to see the source of the noise. I watched one person yell “yeah, CPAC!” from their perch, demonstrating that some Logan Square residents didn’t know what the rally was about or understand what is going on on the Southeast side.
[Drums beat, trumpets play]
The people chanted as they made their way down Kimball.
Crowd: Stop General Iron! Deny the permit!
LoganSquarist: The procession stopped at the Kimball, Diversey, and Milwaukee intersection, where organizers set the coffin down and the crowd circled to block traffic. Organizers spoke, including two George Washington High School students. 15 year old Gregory Mill lamented the fact that a hunger strike was necessary to get the Mayor’s attention.
Mill: There’s no way in hell I should have to starve for a week to get Lori’s attention. [Crowd shouts, drum beats] There ain’t no way in hell my siblings shouldn’t want to go back to school because of fucking air pollution. It ain’t right. [Crowd: “It ain’t right!”] I am sick [pause] to my stomach. That we [inaudible] politics don’t realize what’s good for the people at the moment. There’s no way in hell we should be out here — in this cold — just for Lori to see us as human beings. As normal people on the same Earth that she is living on.
And all these people, blowing their horns, saying that we’re an inconvenience to them. Well guess what? I don’t give a fuck! [Crowd cheers, drum beats] I’m inconvenienced every day that I step outside of my house to this damn air pollution.
LoganSquarist: Fellow student Trinity Colón, a youth organizer who spoke to the specific struggle of student organizers during the pandemic.
Colón: Every day, I wake up worried. I wake up worried for Yesenia. I wake up worried for my teacher, Mr. Stark, who’s on a hunger strike. [Crowd cheers] I wake up worried for Oscar. I wake up worried for Kid. And it hurts. And hurts our students.
It’s hard every day, especially for the amazing student organizers right here. [Crowd cheers, drum beats] They are going to school during a pandemic. And not only that, but they’re facing the oppression that Lori Lightfoot is putting on them. First, she lets young people die and get beat up because of her cops. Then, she decides to send them back to school. And now she’s denying young people the right to breathe? What the fuck, Lori? [Crowd: “What the f**k?!”]
LoganSquarist: The crowd then made its way back to Kimball and Wrightwood. Before heading home for the night, organizers asked everyone to lay down for one minute in solidarity with those who have passed from health issues related to air pollution. The band played. Before the crowd dispersed and the noise died down, activist Crystal Vance took the megaphone and told Logan Square allies: “If you want a nice and peaceful neighborhood, tell your neighbor Lori to deny the permit.”
Featured photo: Zach Keltner