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Activists March Through McKinley Park to Demand Environmental Justice

Around 100 activists and community members marched through McKinley Park on Saturday to demand an end to environmental racism, divestment from the Chicago Police Department, and an investment in environmental and other social programs to benefit residents. The action was one of five protests that took place on Saturday throughout Chicago.

Activists march through McKinley Park to demand environmental justice. Photo by David Keeling.

“Our collective liberation is the achievement of just and equitable public health and safety,” wrote organizers with Sunrise Chicago, who helped organize the protest. “For this, we must divest from police in order to creatively invest in communities, resources, and policies that truly protect us. A Green New Deal is an example of true protection.”

Demonstrators first rallied at the corner of the park near a statue of President William McKinley before marching about two blocks to the MAT Asphalt plant, located across the street from the other end of the park.

Activists calling for environmental justice rally at the edge of McKinley Park, across the street from the MAT Asphalt Plant. Photo by Aaron Cynic.

At the rally, organizers with McKinley Park Mutual Aid asked the crowd to reimagine what “safety” in communities looks like.

“Safety does not mean more police in our communities. Safety means a community full of resources and opportunity,” said Stephanie, a McKinley park resident and organizer with the group. “Safety means having basic needs met like health security, food security, job security, universal healthcare. Remember issues like poverty and violence are created… we cannot continue to punish our communities for the choices our leadership and government are making. We’re asking that those in power make better choices.”

Chicago spends 40 percent of its operating budget – well more than $4 million per day – on policing. Amarita, a member of the Southwest Environmental Alliance and resident of nearby Pilsen, asked the crowd how so much money can be going to fund the Department but so little to other programs to help members of the community.

Activists rally in McKinley Park to call for divesting from the Chicago Police Department and investment into environmental and social programs. Photo by Aaron Cynic.

“That’s about $1.8 billion a year to fund CPD, but there’s no money to fund the Department of the Environment, fund our neglected schools, fund the west and southwest side communities, reopen mental health clinics – there’s no money,” they said.

Residents of McKinley Park and nearby neighborhoods, along with environmental activists, have been fighting the plant’s presence since it was constructed in spring of 2018. The asphalt plant, which produces hot mix asphalt, sits across the street from the sprawling park as well as many homes, businesses, restaurants, schools, and churches.

“It’s clear the community does not want MAT Asphalt here,” said Amarita. “We want MAT out of McKinley Park and for the city to reestablish the Department of the Environment, but the City says there’s no money.”

The City disbanded the Department of the Environment in 2011 as a cost-cutting measure. A 2019 investigation by the Better Government Association revealed that the dismantling of the department coincided with a major pass for polluters in the years that followed. According to the investigation, hazardous material inspections fell by more than 90 percent between 2010 and 2018, air quality inspections dropped by nearly 70, and solid waste inspections by more than 60. Since then residents have been told to direct the city’s already extremely overtaxed 311 system.

McKinley Park residents and even some local elected officials were blindsided by the asphalt plant’s construction in 2018. When the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency issued a 1-year construction permit, residents were given no notice.

“No one should find out about a potentially hazardous industrial development occurring in their own backyard once construction has begun,” Assistant State Senate Majority Leader Tony Munoz told Block Club Chicago in April of 2019.

Back at the rally, after a meditation session and chalking messages on the pavement in the park, demonstrators marched around the edge of the park towards MAT Asphalt.

A brief standoff occurred after police took one protester into custody for no obvious reason.

Police and protesters in a brief standoff after a demonstrator was detained during a rally and march in McKinley Park. Photo by Aaron Cynic.

“Our friend was just taken into custody for absolutely no reason,” said a person who identified themselves to the crowd as Emily as they circled up after major tensions began to ease. “I’m a little in shock, because we do everything we can to keep each other safe. Nothing like this should happen. We came out here to share a vision of a world we’re fighting for and this is everything we’re fighting against.”

A Chicago Police Officer stands with a baton at the ready during a demonstration in McKinley Park. Photo by Aaron Cynic.

Emily also mentioned an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory passed around on social media about the protest earlier in the week, which was retweeted by an account representing Alderman George Cardenas. Cardenas deleted the retweet within hours, blaming it on an alleged “staff member” as they were “in the process of informing the community of a demonstration planned in the Ward,” and added that “it did not represent his views.” But such rumors on social media could have contributed to a large police presence as well as a perception that protesters had malicious intentions, which they did not, said Emily.

Demonstrators in McKinley Park at a protest for environmental justice. Photo by David Keeling.

“We’re here to be in community, to speak out against environmental racism, against police violence. There’s a lot that we need to do…We’re here to tell MAT asphalt we can’t have these toxic pollutants in our communities,” they added.

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