Striking for Environmental and Social Justice in Roanoke

David Flores

Sept. 25, 2019

On September 23, I attended the Climate Emergency: Tri-State Pipeline Strike in downtown Roanoke, Virginia. While affiliated with the Global Climate Strike week of action, the event in Roanoke was another milestone in the years-long and continuing struggle to prevent construction of natural gas pipelines through parts of North Carolina, Virginia, and West Virginia.                      

The day prior, my family and I attended a “Circle of Protection” event atop verdant Bent Mountain, which is home to a farming community and is part of the Roanoke River watershed, a source of drinking water for urban Roanoke. Bent Mountain and the greater Roanoke region are the site of multiple Native American burial grounds and other archeological sites that have been dug up and destroyed in the last two years to make way for the pipeline, so the event began with an acknowledgment of the original inhabitants of the land, their descendants, and current Virginia tribes impacted by the pipeline projects. Previous Circle of Protection events have been held elsewhere in communities affected by the pipeline projects, including Union Hill, a rural community of descendants of former slaves whose lives and livelihoods are threatened by a proposed pipeline compressor station.

Downtown on Monday, it was hot but not unusually so for late September. Still, no shadow was cast beneath the Wells Fargo building, which is the most prominent feature in Roanoke’s humble skyline, save the neon red and blue star atop Mill Mountain that shines from above by night. Our location was, of course, not coincidental. The Roanoke event brought hundreds of working-class Virginians, North Carolinians, and West Virginians, as well as other allies from farther afield, to spotlight the financial backing from Wells Fargo, SunTrust, and other banks for the Mountain Valley and Atlantic Coast pipeline projects, as well as the critical role that the financial industry plays in fossil fuel extraction. Indeed, many believe these pipeline projects, partially sidelined by several court decisions finding that state and federal agencies granted legally deficient permits, are a continued threat solely because of backing by bankers and investors.

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Speakers and attendees at the strike were eager to promote mutual support among communities across state lines and continued vigilance against corporate capture of elected officials and the backroom deals polluting industry often makes with local government and regulators. Several organizers and speakers challenged attendees to not only divest their own personal wealth from banks and funds that support fossil fuel and extractive industries, but to urge their friends and families to do the same. Attendees were also encouraged to contact the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) to urge it to issue an official stop work order, and to contact their Members of Congress to urge them to oppose legislative riders that would allow pipelines to cross the Appalachian Trail.

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Of course, Monday was more than a one-day climate or anti-pipeline protest. It was an opportunity to convene a growing coalition of working-class activists across three states who are focused for the long-term on building grassroots power to pursue social and environmental justice and dismantle systemic racism. Belinda Joyner and Ritchie Harding from Northampton County, North Carolina, made their way up the Roanoke River to share their struggle opposing construction of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline and a compressor station in their majority African-American community, as well as the proposed expansion of polluting wood pellet manufacturing.

Donna Chavis, a member and elder of the Lumbee Tribe of North Carolina, also spoke about the environmental impacts of resource extraction on indigenous communities in her state and focused on the cultural and social harms these projects inflict through the desecration of homelands, sacred spaces, and the remains of their ancestors. Chavis has dedicated her long career to social and environmental justice, serving on the planning committee for the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit, where the Principles of Environmental Justice were first penned in 1991. Another local leader who planned the day’s event is Desiree Shelley, a Monacan Indian and climate justice organizer with the organization Mothers Out Front.

Tying personal and organizational views together, over the course of the day, I heard a common desire to build upon the momentum of the climate strike and pipeline protests, with the goal of amplifying engagement with marginalized communities in the joint pursuit for social and environmental justice in Roanoke and elsewhere. Some also shared a vision of a movement that could bring thousands out into the streets for a general strike, bringing the status quo in cities like Roanoke to a screeching halt in the hope of finally triggering meaningful action on climate.

The event concluded with an impromptu march to Roanoke’s statute of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., bringing symbolic awareness to the disproportionate impacts of pipeline projects and climate change on indigenous communities and communities of color.

Read More by David Flores
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