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Power Politics

Power Politics: Environmental Activism in South Los Angeles

Karen Brodkin
Copyright Date: 2009
Published by: Rutgers University Press
Pages: 256
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  • Book Info
    Power Politics
    Book Description:

    In the late 1990s, when California's deregulation of the production and sale of electricpower created massive energy shortages a group of environmental justice activists, largely high school students, blocked construction of a power plant in their working-class Mexican and Central American neighborhoods.Power Politicsis a study of a grassroots campaign where longtime labor and environmental allies found themselves on opposite sides of a conflict pitting good jobs against good air. Karen Brodkin analyzes how those issues came to be opposed and unpacks the racial and class dynamics that shape Americans' grasp of labor and environmental issues.

    eISBN: 978-0-8135-4848-7
    Subjects: Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface and Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-xii)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-20)

    On Tuesday January 23, 2001, a school night, in the middle of statewide crisis-level energy shortage, some three hundred high school students and their parents marched from South Gate High School in southeast Los Angeles County to a meeting of the city council to tell their elected representatives that they did not want a power plant built in their city. They were referring to Sunlaw Energy Partners’ plans to build the 550-megawatt Nueva Azalea power plant in their predominantly Latina/o working-class city. The major television networks dispatched helicopters and ground crews to cover the events, which were broadcast on the...

  5. Chapter 1 South Gate Transitions
    (pp. 21-45)

    Southeast Los Angeles County is the industrial heart of Southern California. It includes parts of the city of Los Angeles, the ports of San Pedro and Long Beach, and a multiplicity of small towns, one of which is the city of South Gate. Beginning with oilfields in the 1920s, and exploding during World War II with heavy manufacturing industries, Southeast Los Angeles remains today the industrial core of Los Angeles County, and the county remains the major West Coast manufacturing center of the nation. In the last thirty years, big changes in demography and economics have left their mark on...

  6. Chapter 2 Environmental Justice and Communities for a Better Environment
    (pp. 46-58)

    Carlos Porras grew up in Texas in the fifties and early sixties, and learned about politics in the Chicano movement of the late sixties and seventies. Porras knew racism firsthand, not only from whites toward Chicanos but from also fellow Chicanos toward African Americans.

    I have to say that I wouldn’t be the person I am with the political beliefs that I have had it not been for the fact that my parents divorced and my mother remarried in 1956, and this was in Texas. She married a black man. I was seven years old. I remember the first time...

  7. Chapter 3 Creating an Environmental Justice Campaign
    (pp. 59-75)

    Jairus Ramos, Alicia Gonzalez, and Geyman Hernandez were among some ten to fifteen environmental activists in Huntington Park High School’s environmental club. Jairus and Alicia were graduating, and they felt a particular desire to recruit more members and to find ways of keeping up with people who left. They were also deeply involved in the planning discussions for the second Youth in Action six-week training camp an annual organizing effort to involve more high school students in environmental justice activism, scheduled for the summer of 2000.

    The organizers’ first priority was to find students who wanted to participate in the...

  8. Chapter 4 Sunlaw’s New Pollution Control Technology
    (pp. 76-94)

    The story of Sunlaw Energy Corporation begins in the mid-1990s, at about the time Henry Gonzalez and Albert Robles were starting to get on each other’s nerves in South Gate (chap. 1), and Carlos Porras and CBE were getting acquainted with Huntington Park residents and their mountain of concrete (chap. 2). Robert Danziger and his associates at Sunlaw Energy Corporation were trying to build a better pollution control system for their small power plant in the neighboring city of Vernon. With Vernon to the north, Huntington Park in the middle, and South Gate to the south, the cities adjoined one...

  9. Chapter 5 The Perfect Storm: South Gate Politics and the Makings of a Pro-Plant Coalition
    (pp. 95-112)

    A third interpretation of the struggle over the power plant is seen through the lens of local politics. In it, the struggle is not about the power plant at all but rather about South Gate residents organizing to get rid of a corrupt politician—one who happens to oppose the power plant and who is effective in manipulating naïve voters. In this interpretation, South Gate residents and public employees support the power plant in no small part because their allies in fighting corruption support the plant and their enemy opposes it.

    Although Sunlaw had a broad base of support for...

  10. Chapter 6 Finding Traction at South Gate High School
    (pp. 113-134)

    When CBE and Youth-EJ reconnected with a group of socially engaged teachers at South Gate High School, things began to change. The teachers brought together activists in search of a constituency and high school students who were looking for something they couldn​’t yet name. Until this point, most of the Youth-EJ activists came from Huntington Park, where CBE had been active longest. Hoping to engage students from other schools, the students and Angelo Logan began following up on Yuki Kidokoro’s contacts and put flyers in teachers’ mailboxes about bringing environmental justice workshops to their classrooms. Because she felt that “a...

  11. Chapter 7 Going Public
    (pp. 135-157)

    Environmental justice activists were about to encounter one of the wild cards that are facts of life for popular social movements, namely, that the playing field of grassroots politics is shaped by political forces that have little to do with their concerns. Between December and January, two separate fights were developing among local constituencies. The first battle pitted Albert Robles against the coalition of his enemies (which included Sunlaw). The other battle was that of environmental justice activists against Sunlaw. By January 2001, these battles began to commingle.

    Unbeknown to the students, there had been a great deal going on...

  12. Chapter 8 Sudden Death
    (pp. 158-187)

    Before mid-December, CBE and Youth-EJ’s primary effort was to publicize the plan to build a power plant—explain its health dangers and explain Sunlaw’s choice of site as part of a larger pattern of environmental racism—and to discover whether there was significant community opposition to the plant. By the time South Gate High students led the march to the city council, it was clear that community opposition did indeed exist and that a grassroots movement was taking shape. By this time too, a locally based anti-Robles movement had also emerged, if not in the streets then in the kinds...

  13. Conclusion
    (pp. 188-206)

    Most environmental justice struggles do not succeed, and of those that do, few win rapidly or decisively. So we must ask: Why were environmental justice activists in South Gate able to stop the power plant? To answer this question we need to return to the three different explanatory stories that different actors told about the power plant controversy. Each story highlights different facets of the struggle and attempts to explain different things. Each explanation of the controversy throws different elements into relief, gives us a fuller picture of what was going on, and helps explain why things turned out as...

  14. Epilogue
    (pp. 207-212)

    Between March and November 2001, when Sunlaw officially withdrew its application, California’s political climate was beginning to change. The rolling blackouts continued during the summer of 2001, as did the state’s efforts to stave off increasingly severe statewide energy shortages, including efforts to bail out the failing and ultimately bankrupt utilities with taxpayer money. But, with the election of President Bush, a Democratic governor and legislature were up against a conservative Republican administration. The latter refused to force suppliers to sell to California or to impose rate caps on wholesale prices.

    As the situation worsened and the options continued to...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 213-220)
  16. References
    (pp. 221-228)
  17. Index
    (pp. 229-242)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 243-244)