Newsletter: Talking Environmental Justice with Tennessee Legislator Justin J. Pearson

Tennessee state representative Justin J. Pearson at the White House, April 24, 2023.
Source: White House Instagram Story.


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Tennessee State Rep. Justin J. Pearson became a progressive star during “the Tennessee Three” controversy this spring, when Republicans in the Volunteer State voted to remove him and another black legislator, Justin Jones, from elected office. They were accused of violating decorum to join demonstrators in the statehouse demanding common sense gun control laws in the wake of the mass shooting at Nashville’s Covenant School on March 27. The power play backfired however, as Pearson and Jones were thrust into the national spotlight, amplifying their voices as the hashtag #NoJustinsNoPeace trended on Twitter.

Pearson was already attracting national attention after co-founding the environmental justice group Memphis Community Against the Pipeline in 2020. Now known as Memphis Community Against Pollution, MCAP (an Anthropocene Alliance member), succeeded in stopping oil giant Valero Energy and partners from running the Byhalia Connection Pipeline through South Memphis. The good will Pearson earned in the community during MCAP’s fight against the pipeline then propelled him to the Tennessee State House.

I caught up with Justin on May 24 to talk about his work in Tennessee and the struggle for environmental justice across the country and the world. Here’s an excerpt from our conversation.

GS: I gotta ask – is the Tennessee Republican delegation racist or just stupid? Didn’t they know that trying to unseat young Black state representatives wasn’t a good look?

JP: The Tennessee Republican Party is operating as a mobocracy. Instead of a democracy where people rule, the mob mentality rules, which is venomous and evil at its roots. And we have a system of people who abuse their power and authority for their own gain and the gain of their corporate lobbyists. They perpetuate the harm of white supremacy, racism, bigotry, and patriarchy, as part of [bringing] their own demise.

GS: Were there hints they wanted to get rid of you guys even before the gun control protest, and were just looking for a pretext?

JP: They have taken issue substantially with things Rep. Jones and I have said and done in our committees, and on the House floor when we were demanding that laws be more just. There’s always ire when we stand up and talk about poor people, or queer people, or looted communities. It’s never well received there.

GS: Alright, let’s go back to how you wound up in the Tennessee State House, through your work with MCAP. One of the pipeline developers you fought admitted that South Memphis was chosen for the location because it was deemed a “point of least resistance”, since it’s a lower income community of color. Was there a pivotal moment or two in the fight against the Byhalia pipeline you could identify that helped turn the tide?

JP: Well thanks for asking. The Byhalia Connection Pipeline was one of the most racist and environmentally unsound projects I’ve ever heard of, though a lot of the projects that these fossil fuel companies are promoting fall in line with that. They hunt communities that have been historically hurt, disadvantaged, and oppressed and they exploit them before the community has true information about what the ramifications are — their land stolen, their water at risk, and their air polluted.

We were fortunate in so many ways, blessed in so many ways in the Byhalia Connection Pipeline fight, not just by the people power portion of it but really by God’s timing. Because there was a delay in their ability to construct the pipeline and move it forward because of Covid-19. There was also a meeting in the community they were forced to have — after calling our community the path of least resistance — by Dr. Barbara Cooper, our state representative.

One pivotal moment happened at our first rally. I was pretty intentional about making sure that people in the community were able to speak and have their grievances heard by whoever was listening in the community, or elected officials. And at the end of that meeting, Marie Odum spoke. She was the daughter of Clyde Robinson, who had become one of our key plaintiffs in the fight against the pipeline, a landowner we worked closely with on the eminent domain cases.

She got up and she told how they were taking her father to court to try to take his land. That was a really big moment for us. Because finally after a lot of searching, we found somebody who was directly impacted. All of us were being indirectly impacted by the building of a pipeline, breaches in the clay layer, all these [technical] things. But we hadn’t had somebody who had paperwork associated with the pipeline companies taking their land. So that was a really big moment…and then Mrs. Scottie Fitzgerald was also really important; she was the second landowner. So having people proximate in the fight… was a big deal… and that helped us obviously to start to build our case against these pipeline companies’ eminent domain claims.

Another big moment was when we learned that the pipeline company needed the county government to give them land to build the project. This is why it’s just so important to find out where these things are being routed, so that communities can resist appropriately. They had to get the county government to sell them land. We learned about that on a Thursday, and the vote was going to happen on a Monday. We had to organize and galvanize our entire coalition and so many more people to prevent the sale of the land. And so, a very critical moment for us was when we were ultimately successful in preventing the land from being sold to the pipeline developers, which disrupted their ability to choose any route they wanted.

Members of the Byhalia Connection Pipeline Campaign. July 2021. Photo: MCAP

GS: Do we need a national campaign for environmental justice like Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign, but focused on environmental threats to health and safety for low income, Black, Brown and Indigenous Americans? What would that look like?

JP: I believe there is an environmental justice movement growing and building across our country that is hope-giving in so many ways. And to your point, the environmental and climate justice movement has to be turned into a more formidable coalition that unites across the country, across the issues that we all deeply care about. Because if you care about climate justice, you care about racial justice; you do care about economic justice, you do care about social justice, for all of those things are intertwined. And who is it that is carrying the burden of pollution? It is the poor.

GS: I’ve covered environmental justice and environmental racism issues all over the country and have found that it often really boils down to a class war on the poor. Would you agree with AOC [U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and other progressive leaders that this pursuit of profit “at all human, environmental and social cost” — which she and others call “late stage capitalism” — is incompatible with environmental health and human wellbeing?

JP: Yeah, that’s 100 percent true. There is an amazing book that talks about this incompatibility… This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein. She relates it so very well — that an exploitative, extractive endless capitalism cannot create a sustainable and safe environment, climate, and ecosystem in which all of us can thrive. They are wholly incompatible, and it requires us to change the way that we are living and expecting one another to live, if we are going to survive on this planet together.

GS: But what is the formula for taking on the oligarchs and Big Polluters?

JP: It’s building a people-powered movement that is both politically active and engaged in the process of registering people to vote and getting out the vote. It is also being engaged outside of election time. See that’s the thing: While laws are passed [because of what happens] on election day, you have to be present, aware and woke to what’s going on outside of election day… It is not just having an informed electorate as it relates to voting, it’s an engaged electorate all year round.

And if we do this in our communities and build that infrastructure through nonprofits, coalitions, and organizations who have political and social power, then we’re going to be able to continue to advance. A community of coalition that is engaged and whose relationships are built on action and activism, including attending, and speaking out at hearings. Building that coalition obviously helps to engender successes. But it also helps you to [remain] a power block when you experience some losses, or sometimes when you don’t advance as far as you’d like to. Having that community is still powerful, so that you don’t fall all the way down.

Originally published, June 27Counterpunch.

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Greg M. Schwartz

Greg M. Schwartz

Greg is an award-winning investigative reporter who specializes in covering environmental justice issues with a track record for shining a light on crooked science and regulatory capture. He has a Master's degree in Journalism and Mass Communication from Kent State University in his native region of Northeast Ohio, where he also served on the May 4th Task Force. He has spent most of his adult life in California, where he's also a freelance music journalist with a preference for socially conscious rock 'n' roll bands.

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