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From Richmond to Gaza: Bay Area Environmentalists Speak Out Against the War

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A woman with a black shirt that says "Free Palestine" holds her left hand up in the air in a fist.
Amaani Cassim marches in Downtown San Francisco on Nov. 12, 2023. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

It has been more than 120 days now since the start of Israel’s bombing of Gaza, following an attack by Hamas that began on Oct. 7.

The death toll in Gaza is now more than 27,400 people — NPR reports that most of the dead are women and children, citing Gaza health officials. Approximately 1,200 people in Israel have been killed since the beginning of this tragedy.

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On Oct. 25, the Richmond city council was the first city in the U.S. to call for a Gaza cease-fire resolution. In late November, Oakland’s leaders voted unanimously on their own resolution, followed by supervisors in San Francisco. While much of the debate around these measures has centered on the horrors of the war and the loss of life, Bay Area’s climate and environmental leaders — both in the streets and in elected positions — have been at the center of the push for these solidarity resolutions.

Two Bay Area environmental organizations — the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) and Communities for Better Environment (CBE) in Richmond — were integral in organizing the effort in Richmond.

They argued that on top of the loss of life, war has tremendous impacts on our climate and environment. “Global militaries are the world’s largest industrial polluters,” said Keala Uchoa, Richmond youth organizer at CBE in Richmond, pointing to a recent study that shows that militaries account for almost 5.5% of global greenhouse emissions annually.

Three activists wearing white masks hold up a black banner that reads "No more California money for Israel's crimes."
Keala Uchoa and others stand behind a banner that reads ‘Ceasefire Now.’ (Courtesy of APEN)

People in Gaza are already vulnerable to the effects of climate change, she argued, and live in a region that is warming twice as fast as the global average. On top of that, bombs are destroying farmland and carbon sinks like forests that purify the air. “All of those things compound to create a very deadly climate [and] environmental situation,” Uchoa added.

On Jan. 23, the Hayward City Council voted to divest its shares of companies with ties to Israel, including Caterpillar, Chevron, Hyundai and Intel. Hayward is the first city in the Bay Area to take such a measure.

Councilmember George Syrop lobbied for it and made an environmental case. “Why do we spend years and millions of taxpayer dollars trying to fight climate change, just to have Israel’s bombs that we pay for emit more CO2 than 20 countries combined, accelerating an unlivable future for all of us,” he said, referring to a recent estimate led by researchers at Queen Mary University of London.

The scientists calculated the carbon emissions from aircraft, tanks and fuel from other vehicles and emissions generated from the manufacturing and detonation of bombs, artillery and rockets.

“As Hayward being a climate forward city, I don’t know why we’re investing in Chevron in the first place,” Syrop said.

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From Richmond to Gaza: fighting for environmental justice

Richmond resident Katherine Lee comes from a family of refugees who fled the Laotian War.

Her family’s history is one reason she joined in organizing for the call for a cease-fire back in October. Those experiences are “very real for what’s happening in Palestine,” too, she said.

Lee is a senior Richmond youth organizer at APEN. Her family’s history is only part of it. Lee grew up around the Chevron refinery in Richmond, one of the largest polluters in the state, breathing the fumes it releases into the air. “It’s just a constant thing in our environment that we have to really fight [for],” she said.

Chevron is also one of the largest energy companies to work in Israel, bringing the government billions of dollars in revenue annually. APEN has called for a boycott of Chevron locally, saying it is a fight for the environmental rights of both Richmond residents and Palestinians.

The facility released nearly 3 million metric tons of planet-warming gas emissions in 2022, according to an analysis from the San Francisco Chronicle.

Pollutants released by refineries can cause respiratory problems and chronic health issues. A UCSF-led community health assessment of Richmond found that the childhood asthma rate in Richmond is double the national average. People with existing heart or lung disease, diabetes, older adults, children, and people of lower socio-economic status have a greater risk of particle pollution health effects.

A woman holds a microphone and wears a yellow sweatshirt.
Katherine Lee, APEN youth organizer, speaks at an action. (Jen Rocha)

“Our local fights for environmental justice and destabilizing Chevron and ultimately decommissioning the refinery are connected to international solidarity work with Indigenous people, including the Indigenous people of Palestine,” Uchoa said. “There’s a sacred relationship between Indigenous people and the land that they belong to.”

“Not only are we losing thousands and thousands of human beings, but we’re also losing so many knowledge bearers of the land and of culture. And the land is feeling that,” she said.

On Feb. 3, hundreds of protesters marched in front of the Chevron facility in Richmond to call for a cease-fire in Gaza and for the company to divest from Israel. They’re asking for the public to boycott Chevron fuel until they do so.

In a statement responding to the protest, Chevron said it respects the rights of individuals to express their viewpoints peacefully.

Aisha Mansour is Palestinian from a small village called Al-Walaja in the West Bank. She currently lives in Oakland, but some of her family still reside in Palestine. Mansour was one of the “Bay Bridge 78” protesters who shut down the westbound lanes of the Bay Bridge on Nov. 16, demanding a cease-fire.

“That was an amazingly powerful day. Not just because of what we’re able to accomplish, but also just the massive amount of support from people that we were able to feel,” said Mansour, communications director at Honor the Earth, an Indigenous-led environmental organization known for their advocacy against fossil fuel pipelines. “I didn’t expect it. I thought people would be frustrated, maybe rightfully so. But they got it. They got that it was bigger than them. And that was amazing.”

Mansour is motivated, in part, by the impact the war has had on her community. In December, she attended a funeral for seven people killed by a bomb in Gaza, family members of one of her Palestinian community members in the Bay Area. “Our families are being killed,” she said.

Aisha Mansour speaks at a Bay Bridge 78 press conference in San Francisco in December. (Savannah Kuang)

Legacies of past war and conflicts

The environmental impacts of war often lead to the displacement of people, whether it’s in Gaza, where Palestinians are relocating to the south of the territory, or Vietnam, Iraq and Ukraine. “You have the immediate contamination of the sites where fighting occurs,” said Logan Hennessy, a professor in the School of Liberal Studies at San Francisco State University. “But then you also have the exodus of people. And the exodus also creates other environmental issues and problems.”

In Ukraine, Russian attacks on industrial sites, including factories, fuel depots, and nuclear power facilities with potential radioactive waste storage, could result in water contamination that might linger for decades or even centuries, said Hennessy, who teaches classes on international development and resource justice, as well as forest ecology and conservation.

The U.S. used chemicals such as Agent Orange in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia during the Vietnam War to defoliate millions of acres of forests and farmland. This was not only harmful to the environment, it also could have caused cancer, birth disorders, and life-threatening health complications for generations to come.

Similarly, Israel’s use of white phosphorus in the recent bombardment in Gaza not only burns the flesh of humans it touches, but these chemicals will contaminate the soil for decades and are also an air pollutant.

In the case of Gaza, these displacements can strain vital resources like food, water and medicine as millions of Palestinians relocate. “You have a second wave of environmental impacts that then have cascading effects,” he said.

It makes sense that organizing efforts for moving towards better, cleaner, and more just environments here in the Bay Area have solidarity with other communities facing similar problems anywhere, Hennessy said.

“We’re not going to achieve any kind of progress, environmentally speaking, in terms of climate change by just focusing on only local issues,” he added. “The movement here for environmental justice is deeply connected to any kind of continued environmental impact we see anywhere.”

A woman with a white mask on stands in front of a black banner and infront of a sign that says cease fire now.
Ayesha Abbasi, APEN state organizer holding up a banner that reads ‘Ceasefire Now.’ (Courtesy of APEN)

History of Bay Area environmental movements against war

Environmental organizations, such as APEN, have been involved in anti-war efforts long before the war in Gaza. The group made activism against what they described as former President George Bush’s “war agenda” in Iraq and Afghanistan central to their environmental campaigns.

An annual report from the organization about the Iraq war in 2003 (PDF) stated that APEN’s “longer-term agenda for environmental justice that ensures basic needs such as housing are met, that rights of workers, women, girls, are valued and addressed, decision-making rests in the many, rather than an elite few. Our work is both global and local.”

A few other Bay Area environmental organizations opposed the Iraq War, including San Francisco’s People Organizing to Demand Environmental & Economical Rights (PODER), Bay Area Coalition for Headwaters, West County Toxics Coalition in Contra Costa County, and more. In 2008, these organizations participated in anti-war protests at Chevron in San Ramon.

The Sierra Club opposed an invasion of Iraq in 2003. While Bay Area environmental organizations like APEN and CBE are calling for a cease-fire in Gaza, noting the destruction the war is causing to humans and the environment, the Sierra Club in California has not taken any stance on the matter.

“It’s been incredibly disappointing to see the continued silence of some of the bigger green organizations like Sierra Club and others that have a really strong influence in Washington,” said Ayesha Abbasi, state organizer at APEN.

The Sierra Club in California did not respond to an email asking for a statement about the war.

To Abbasi, ensuring that everyone can live in a healthy environment where they can thrive should be the vision for the future, “whether it’s in Palestine or Richmond,” she said.

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