Last December, police shot Mario Woods, a black man carrying a kitchen knife, 20 times. In May, police shot Jessica Williams in the same Bayview neighborhood. She was an unarmed, black mother of four. The City’s work to reform the Police Department is clearly necessary, but police aren’t solely to blame for the suffocating living conditions in neighborhoods like the Bayview. According to professors at UC Davis and UC Santa Cruz, the environment also plays a role.
In a forthcoming paper, professors Lindsey Dillon and Julie Sze argue people and place both matter when thinking about racism. They connect the stark violence of police brutality with the slow violence of choking pollution. In this way, the professors echo the broad conversation Black Lives Matter raises about all the ways black lives are deprived of basic human rights and dignity.
“We don’t see police violence as separate from pollution in the way U.S. cities have developed,” Professor Lindsey Dillon told me. She has worked with groups in Bayview-Hunters Point for about a decade. “They are all part of people’s daily experience. It’s how racism is lived in the U.S.”
The paper focuses on Bayview-Hunters Point, the heavily polluted neighborhood where both Woods and Williams-Nelson were shot. Residents live atop a “subterranean stew” of military byproducts, radioactive waste and underground leaking fuel tanks. They inhale hazardous diesel particulate from nearby freeways, trains and idling tucks.
These and other environmental concerns act as another type of violence in the neighborhood. The asthma hospitalization rate in Bayview-Hunters Point is four times higher than the San Francisco average. Heart disease and cancer are common. Marie Harrison with Greenaction, an organization that fights environmental racism, told me that before cancer took her husband, eight other men on her block in the Bayview died of the disease. Two more were diagnosed later.
“There’s something environmentally wrong here,” she said to me.
Yes, something is wrong when one neighborhood suffers high cancer rates. It’s similar to one race suffering high rates of police violence. The empty storefronts on 3rd Street, the lack of neighborhood stores selling healthy food and the stained, “free” mattress dumped on the sidewalk are all signs San Francisco has deprived the Bayview and its residents of protection and dignity.
“You can’t have protection unless you are protected all the way around,” Harrison told me. “There is a toxic issue, there is a violence issue and there is a have-and-have-not issue. Honestly, unless you’re able to connect all these things, you’ve missed a mark.”
I asked Harrison what The City should do for Bayview residents. She listed several “easy, simple fixes,” like prohibiting trucks from main streets, slowing development and requiring developers to install double-pain windows and air filtration systems in homes around new projects.
But the proud grandmother who moved to San Francisco in the early 1960s reflected a lot on her life in the Bayview. We talked about her father’s strong work ethic, her mother’s rules, how she raised her children and how nice it felt to have neighbors who cared. She painted a picture of a community, not a statistic.
Etecia Brown, a 26-year old Bayview community organizer and fourth-generation resident, also painted a picture of a neighborhood rich in culture and history. Brown said when her family came to California it “was like striking gold” and she described the satisfaction Bayview residents feel seeing their family name on street signs.
“The Bayview for a lot of families symbolizes freedom and access,” she told me. “It was black-owned and it was a safe haven for the community. People owned their own things. They shopped within the community.”
It’s possible for the Bayview to be a safe haven again if The City doesn’t limit its response to only reforming the Police Department. Protection shouldn’t be piecemeal or patronizing. It should create space for communities and residents to breathe freely and flourish.
Robyn Purchia is an environmental attorney, environmental blogger and environmental activist who hikes, gardens and tree hugs in her spare time.