Hunger Strikers Fight for All Chicagoans

Breanna Bertacchi interviewed by Rory Gilchrist

Seven days ago a group of activists started a hunger strike to fight to stop the city from allowing a toxic General Iron metal shredder from being built on Chicago’s Southeast Side.

Over the past several months, organizers have escalated the fight to try to stop the construction of General Iron’s toxic metal shredder in your ward. You and three others have taken up a hunger strike as a clear escalation, and one with significant personal risk to it. What was your thinking around the urgency to bring attention to this and to take on that risk?

I started getting plugged into organizing last summer. Despite Covid, the organizers put on safe, socially distanced demonstrations left and right. The urgency that comes now is the decision that is looming over us. The city had a public comment period open until the 29th of January, and we as a group took as many opportunities as we had to voice our opinions, to cite previous violations that General Iron had been issued in Lincoln Park, and to call on community members who’ve been fighting this fight for years prior. We decided to escalate as a group. The escalation came from the fact that despite all the demonstrations the permitting process was still going through. [Chicago Department of Public Health] did ask that General Iron resubmit, with some new statistics I believe; but still being invited to resubmit is an indication that the city’s willing to let them have a second shot. 

So this escalation came with a lot of assessment of the personal risk and how the group would manage and support those who chose to put themselves on the line, what we could do to ensure safety in a global pandemic, how we would ensure we as the strikers have all the resources we need in place, what would happen in case of emergency, and things like that. We felt that there is a strong risk-benefit ratio on the need to escalate at this point. We’re not getting any clear signs that the mayor, Dr. Arwady, or the CDPH have any intention of hearing the community members. So we’ll continue to get louder until we are heard in that process, and this is the next step.

You’re several days in now to a hunger strike. What’s your mental health like, what’s your physiological health like? How does it feel to be several days into a hunger strike?

I don’t want to be doing this. As much as I’m responsible for my actions and decisions, I feel driven to this based on the city’s actions. And I have felt so much support from my immediate community that I wasn’t expecting. Again, I’m relatively new here. I haven’t organized to this extent before. Of course I’ve never done a hunger strike before. But this has very much shown that when the city turns its back on community members, we’re the only ones that are able to see each other, validate our struggle, understand and be empathetic, and provide for our needs from a ground level up. That’s also a part of mutual aid. It goes hand in hand with combatting a capitalist society. Being a neighbor saying, “I’ve got an excess of this, do you need that? Okay!” And I love that. I get so juiced for that. 

So in my mental health I feel okay—I’m lucky to have access to mental health resources—a little spacey at times, but that was something that was happening already, in a pandemic, so that’s not new to me. I’m a little zany. I am hungry. I did catch a cold. We’re reporting to the other hunger strikers on a daily basis. Someone sends a “good morning” text, someone sends a “good afternoon” text. And we’re just chatting about all the weird stuff that goes on with our bodies, what vitamins work. 

I mean, I’m not going to call it fun, but it’s uplifting, it is encouraging that other people are in the struggle with me. If things change, we do have the capacity to say, you know, “I feel unsafe beyond a certain point”—that consent is a vital part. But being committed to this extent, to a certain level of endangerment in a pandemic, being welcomed into that, being seen and received by other community members is a level of intimacy I was not expecting that has motivated me every day when I wake up. I still get chills thinking about it. And it reflects that at the end of the day we’re the only ones who have each others’ backs right now. We don’t know where our alderwoman is. Our mayor is still in support of General Iron. My peers are the ones who reflect back to me my values. And that does so much to give me drive. 

In the past two days Garza-—after five days of the hunger strike—has come out and finally talked about the issue by advising the city to delay the permit until the Federal EPA has time to conduct an investigation. However, this is not any part of our demands. The mayor has just reported that she “hears our concerns,” but also has made no notion of stopping the final city permit. We are encouraged to continue in this strike until our full demand is met—for the city and CDPH to formally deny the permit.

Your alderwomen, Sue Garza, ran as a progressive with strong environmental credentials. Is there something Alderwoman Garza might be able to do to help you, on the basis of her campaigning, or has she made her position, through her silence, very clear?

I think it is clear where she lies. There are people who are directly in contact with her office, and they’d report to us if she was even acknowledging us. And as far as I can tell there isn’t anything. And that’s frustrating.

Her silence speaks volumes, and it’s not in our support. That’s frustrating. She also put out amendments to the mayor’s air quality ordinance, one that was less stringent on environmental regulations for polluters. So we’re getting this pattern where she’s running as a progressive, where she claims to be in defense of our interests, yet her policies and positions in critical moments like this are not. I don’t enjoy her silence every day, and I know that we are asking everyday, “Where is she, have you heard anything?” All we can say right now is that everyone else is also seeing her silence. Her lack of a clear position, her lack of support of this speaks to itself.

Could you say a little bit more about what the leadership you look for is like, in contrast to what Alderwoman Garza is doing? 

We’ve got United Neighbors of the 10th Ward, we’ve got SEYA, we’ve got a lot of really strong community organizers down here. If some of our energy were freed up from having to defend our community and defend our rights for equal access to resources and safe, educational, geographic areas . . . a lot of space could be freed up to opening food pantries, to enhancing our green spaces, to programming, to arts. I mean those things do exist here! Our community is extremely resilient. We’ve got a lot of youth arts programs. Our green spaces are so popular in the summer. Everyone likes to go fishing and swimming. We are already doing things like food pantries, mutual aid, clothing drives with our neighbors, youth scholarships, and encouraging community clean-up. I know that after the [rebellion] in the summer, when a couple businesses in key blocks got brought down, there were just community members saying: “This is my block. If you need help or want to help, give me a call.” They put their phone numbers out on social media. That’s beautiful to see and I know we’ll continue to do that. And if we weren’t so busy defending our community, a lot more of that might exist. But the blueprint’s there. We do take care of each other in this space. 

Is there anything else Chicago as a whole doesn’t get about the 10th ward, the Southeast Side? Are there misconceptions we have?

I am relatively new to this community, and for the first two or three years that I lived here I knew almost nothing about the 10th ward. I knew where it was geographically, I knew it was big. I didn’t know the important historical context, economic context of this region. So I’ve been learning about the steelworkers’ mills, the long history of labor movements and how instrumental that was to the city. And then slowly I began to learn about the Coalition to Ban Petcoke and the work that they’ve been doing for a long time. I’m not sure what generalizations other people in the city might hold. 

My particular block, on an off-street, I have a lot of truck traffic—twenty trucks a day. This is because this is often categorized as an industrial region. My neighbors and other community members voice concerns about the noise and point out how this isn’t the standard around the city. A residential block in Wicker Park doesn’t have this, or Hyde Park, or Rogers Park. We need to analyze why this is the baseline. There’s a history that caused it to be that way. Our community deserves better. There are employment opportunities here, but they can be shifted to clean, green jobs. I know our alderwoman and mayor justify permitting by saying, “This is an industrial ward, you guys have those jobs,” but it shouldn’t be this hard to transition them to green jobs.

So to come back to your question: there’s this generalization that dirty industry is just how this ward is. But it doesn’t have to be this way, and it’s racially driven permitting that keeps it that way. Holding the mindset that it’s unfortunate, but not our problem is absurd because air  travels! It might be more our problem right now because it’s concentrated here. But on a windy day, it’s going to be the North Side’s problem too. I think it is important that we’re already experiencing the long-term pitfalls of that: increased medical burden, quality of life, all of the impacts this has on education and developmental and behavioral outcomes too. And that’s not isolated to just us. Other communities will be touched by this. The Hilco [smokestack demolition] in the summer—that didn’t just stay in Pilsen, that moved. Other communities were impacted. 

On a windy day, the Southeast Side’s pollution is going to be the North Side’s problem too.

One of the key sticking points here is that the facility would be located right next to a school, where young minds are learning how to live in the same Chicago all together. And you mentioned that the noise pollution, the poor air quality doesn’t just stay in one spot. Can you speak to how it registers with you that a young generation will be dealing with this burden for a very long time?

It’s hard to imagine the city is considering putting the metal shredder where they are. Granted, it would affect the whole community anywhere, but it’s even more insensitive that they’re considering placing it across the street from a school, one that, from what I’ve heard, could use upgrades as it is. They don’t have great sound barriers, the windows don’t have the tightest seals because they’re outdated. From the outset, that school is at a deficit to a North Side school, and we’re already surrounded by industrial sites, and you’re going to add another one across the street. So, it adds another crummy realization that . . . it’s profit over people. Lightfoot’s budget really didn’t do anything to help anyone, except the police. But if she’s trying to fill in that nine-year life expectancy gap between Black and white community members, putting another polluter across the street from the school is going to exacerbate that. It’s going to make it ten years, twelve years, starting with our youth.

My background is research. So I hopped on PubMed, and there are so many published articles on the effects of noise pollution on ADHD, on focus, on developmental and behavioral kinds of stuff, among staff and faculty as well. Even if there’s banging above a certain threshold of hertz or decibels, it can have effects on concentration, impacts so many different behavioral components. And it becomes a cycle, where you have administrators or maybe the mayor trying to justify cuts, saying, “Their test scores aren’t good enough.” If you keep putting industries in this neighborhood, scores will continue to drop. Behavioral reports are going to increase, things like that. Kids aren’t going to be motivated to sit and learn in a classroom that has a truck going by every twenty minutes that sounds like an explosion. Or, there is an explosion! God forbid they continue to have environmental violations.

So, the location of it specifically highlights that the interest is in whatever profit the city can make on environmentally racist permits—not the quality of life of the kids, the caretakers of the kids, the well-being of the families, and their ability to go outside and have fun. On hot days, we have bad air quality advisories on our phones. That stems from the industries that are here. A kid can’t go out and have fun and play in a baseball field with their friends or even go outside and walk their dog. It stinks. No one’s going to have fun in the summer when they’re not in school. It’s something they live with every day. There aren’t ways to escape that.

With the Chicago Teachers Union fight also making headlines this week, amid the pandemic, amid the polar vortex, amid the twelve different crises we’ve got going on as a city, what do you see as the value of solidarity, seeing each of these struggles as related while giving each the space and attention to be recognized for what it is?

It has been encouraging to see the teachers’ union has been able to give us visibility—much more so than the alderwoman has done. With all the planning they’re doing right now, they have space and time to acknowledge that teachers in forgotten wards are worth the struggles that individual workers across the city are experiencing. I do think they dovetail, with the common theme of people wanting to be safe, to feel validated over and above what profit they bring in. I see the mayor opening up businesses and wanting to get schools reopened. I see wanting a sense of normalcy. But we have to be realistic and acknowledge it’s not safe. Not being a teacher but having a few peers that are, it’s encouraging to see those individuals can take a side-step and have compassion for our struggle, which is also that we want to be safe. We want to be safe in our communities, we want to be safe doing our jobs, we want to know our neighbors doing their jobs are also safe. We don’t want employers creating conditions that endanger workers. They’re our neighbors. So I think the administration needs to listen more. [We deserve] safety, equal air, equal access, not getting exposed to a virus when there is a vaccine.

Breanna Bertacchi is a research professional, a member of United Neighbors of the 10th Ward, and a resident of South Chicago.

Rory Gilchrist is a freelance agent provocateur working in sustainability, public health and planetary health whose writing has also appeared in Chicago DSA’s Red Star Bulletin. They are a campaign coordinator for Democratize ComEd and serve on the steering committee of DSA’s Ecosocialist Working Group.