Pollution, Police, Pandemic: How the fight for Black Lives in Minneapolis connects Anti-Incineration and Police Abolition

Kyra Brown — Zero Waste Organizer at the Minnesota BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) Environmental & Climate Justice Table and volunteer with Black Visions Collective — enjoys a moment in the sunshine in Powderhorn Park. Source: Nancy Musinguzi.

Kyra Brown — the Incinerator and Zero Waste Organizer at the Minnesota BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) Environmental & Climate Justice Table and a volunteer social media wizard for Black Visions Collective (BLVC) — walks out of the doors of the Holy Trinity Lutheran Church and COVID testing center into the bright sunshine and the cement-trapped heat of SouthEast Minneapolis. Wearing a tank top and a black-and-white striped face mask with their dreads in a top knot, Kyra heads down East 33rd Street towards their home in the Seward neighborhood. As a community organizer working with BLVC — an important voice in the Minneapolis uprising- Kyra has been getting tested regularly to avoid putting their family and friends at risk. This precaution is just another part of Kyra’s new normal since the uprising following the murder of George Floyd in the fifth month of the international COVID-19 crisis.

In the week before the uprising, Kyra had been unpacking boxes from their recent move, hanging out on House Party, and working with the BIPOC Table to shut down the HERC incinerator, which has been polluting Minneapolis’s Black population for decades.

Every year Hennepin Energy Resource Center (HERC) emits 1.5 million pounds of emissions, including dozens of toxic pollutants and 300,000 pounds of greenhouse gases. Source: MinnPost, photographer: Peter Callaghan.

Built in 1989, Hennepin Energy Resource Center (HERC) is located downtown, adjacent to North Minneapolis, where the most of the state’s Black population was segregated through decades of racist urban planning, racial housing covenants, and other discriminatory policies. The trash incinerator — owned by Hennepin County and operated by Great River Energy — produces 1.5 million pounds of emissions annually, including heavy metals like lead and mercury, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide (NoX), sulfur dioxide, dioxin (a cancer-causing chemical in Agent Orange), and dozens of other toxic pollutants, which pour over and seep into the homes and schools within its miles-wide plume radius. These mostly invisible air pollutants cause or exacerbate health conditions ranging from asthma and bronchitis to heart disease and cancer. Unsurprisingly, residents within a few mile-radius have the highest rates of asthma hospitalizations in the state. Now in the midst of an international pandemic, those who live in close proximity or downwind of the invisible plumes of polluting facilities like HERC are even more likely to sicken and die from COVID-19 . HERC’s pollution is likely one reason why Kyra and other nonwhite Minneapolitans are more likely to live shorter lives than their white counterparts.

The majority of Minneapolis’ Black residents live in North Minneapolis, with Hispanic residents concentrated in the South and and Asian residents in East Saint Paul — all downwind of the HERC trash incinerator. Source: University of Minnesota’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity.

The BIPOC Table is a coalition of Black, indigenous, and people of color organizations and activists building an environmental justice movement in Minnesota. Within the coalition Kyra and organizer Nazir Khan, spearhead Incinerator Working Group dedicated to ending incineration in Minnesota and moving the state to zero waste. The working group includes activists from Fresh Energy, Black Visions Collective, Community Power, MN Youth Climate Strike, COPAL, and the North Star Chapter of Sierra Club, in addition to community members, who have been working against HERC for decades. They’ve developed a grassroots campaign that, Kyra explains, is intentionally tied to liberation and built to last through the closure of HERC and every other Minnesotan incinerator.

Six years ago Kyra hadn’t given much thought to environmental justice problems. “When I was first introduced to the environmental movement as a whole, I was told recycling is important. That’s not the way it was going to get me,” says Kyra with a smile in their voice. Like many people of color, Kyra was unmoved by messaging that put environmental issues above all else. After all it’s difficult to prioritize the needs of vaguely defined “planet”, “environment” or “ecosystem” over your own immediate needs and those of your family and community. “The initial thing that let me see how important EJ [environmental justice] was was being able to work with different Black organizers and Indigenous organizers and seeing how much it is tied into liberation.”

Kyra was 21 on the cold night in November 2015 when Jamar Clark was shot by a police officer while handcuffed and lying on the ground. Kyra, who had already gone on a march organized by the Minneapolis Chapter of Black Lives Matter, joined the group of frontline organizers to pursue justice for Clark. “That was how I was introduced to the scene of Twin Cities organizing,” says Kyra. Working within that group — during and after the initial campaign for Clark was where they first saw the intersectionality between Black issues play out. “People were working towards health issues, environmental justice, and transportation justice while also considering racial justice as well.” Then they witnessed the Flint water crisis unfold. “What really tipped it for me … [was] hearing about Flint and lead in the waters in Saint Paul.” For the first time, Kyra saw the real impact of environmental problems on Black lives.

Kyra has been organizing for Black lives — both in a professional and personal capacity — ever since and now works for the BIPOC Table. Kyra no longer sees the fight for Black lives as separate from environmental issues. As Kyra points out, the same populations that breathe HERC’s toxin-infused emissions have been hardest hit in Minneapolis by the COVID pandemic. They are also the same populations most likely to be attacked and killed by police officers. And they are Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people.

Black Visions and Reclaim the Block hold a community meeting with leaders and Council Members in June to chart the path forward together after the murder of George Floyd. Source: Kyra Brown.

Kyra’s work continues to reflect the intersectionality of these issues. A few nights after George Floyd was murdered, Kyra got a call from a friend at the Black Visions Collective. “They literally called me one night and was like ‘I need help because there’s a huge influx [of social media activity]’”. Since then, Kyra has worked on BLVC’s digital #DEFUNDPOLICE, helping to shape the Black Lives Movement calling for cities across the country and the world to defund and abolish police departments and prison institutions that systematically and disproportionately inflict violence on Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BLVC: Twitter; Instagram; Facebook). Currently, Kyra is working to make sure the initiative to change the Minneapolis City charter — to allow for the abolishment of the police force — is on the ballot in November. Though the Minneapolis city council announced that they would abolish the Minneapolis police department, the city’s recently finalized only removed 1.5 million of the 45 million dollar police budget. BLVC is calling on the city’s Charter Commission “#letusvote so Minniapolis residents can have the power to decide” whether or not they want a police force.

Kyra (right back) at the #DefundMPD march in June with BVLC Executive Director Kandance Montgomery (front center) and organizer Miski Noor (back left). Source: Kyra Brown

As this abolition work progresses, Kyra and the BIPOC Table are rolling out their own social media campaign to educate Minneapolis residents on the intersections between shutting down HERC, protecting communities against COVID, and ending police brutality. Kyra explains that it will feature the stories of Black residents of HERC-impacted neighborhoods as well as share facts and articles about the pandemic, environmental injustice, and state violence. This is the next step in creating a powerful grassroots campaign to hold Hennepin County, Great River Energy, and the Minneapolis government accountable for HERC’s impact on Black Lives.

“It’s all one type of cycle…a huge cycle of interconnected injustices.” But Kyra explains that popular education — what we learn in school as children — and what we learn as adults through popular media doesn’t take into account the corporations and government bodies that are “actually responsible for the environmental injustice”. Kyra and the BIPOC Table intend to change that.

This piece was written by Vivian Breckenridge, Failing Incinerators Project Coordinator at GAIA US Canada (@GAIAUS_Can).

A global network of organizations working to end waste burning and promote zero waste as a holistic solution towards environmental justice and sustainability.