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“We Can’t Afford to Wait for the DNC”: Why Black Lawmakers Organized an Environmental Justice Forum

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The first-ever Presidential Forum on Environmental Justice takes place tonight in Orangeburg, South Carolina, where six presidential candidates will take to the stage at South Carolina State University. African-American communities and people of color on the frontlines in South Carolina have been fighting for justice in the face of extreme environmental racism for years. We host a roundtable with local leaders and environmental justice advocates to talk about the significance of the event, the issues their communities face and the 2020 candidates’ platforms on environmental justice. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators, Melanie Campbell, president of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and Mustafa Ali, former head of the EPA’s Environmental Justice Program, join us in Orangeburg.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We’re broadcasting from South Carolina State University, here in Orangeburg, where tonight, on this very stage, the first-ever Presidential Forum on Environmental Justice will be held. Democracy Now! will be broadcasting and live-streaming beginning at 6 p.m. Eastern. I’ll be co-moderating with former EPA official Mustafa Ali, who is still with us, a former EPA official, formerly with the Hip Hop Caucus, now vice president of the National Wildlife Fund. And we’re joined by South Carolina state Representative Gilda Cobb-Hunter, who represents the city of Orangeburg in South Carolina. She’s also the president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators. And Melanie Campbell joins us, president of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation and the convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now!



AMY GOODMAN: So, Representative Cobb-Hunter, you are a first. You’re the first woman to represent Orangeburg in the South Carolina state Legislature, and you are representing black state legislators around the country. Talk about why environmental justice is important to you, and why you are hosting tonight’s event, tonight’s first-ever forum.

REP. GILDA COBB-HUNTER: Well, thanks, Amy, for having us. And we really appreciate the support of Democracy Now!

It’s important to NBCSL for a variety of reasons. We have total dysfunction, in the opinion of state legislators, at the federal level. And so, when we talk about the issue of environmental justice, climate change, all politics is local. And when we can’t get action on the federal level, that leaves us as state legislators to make sure that whatever remedies, whatever mitigation is there, that we are in a position to try to get that done. NBCSL, along with the Hispanic Caucus — and we will be joined tonight by the president of the National Hispanic Caucus — what we recognize is that the issue of environmental justice impacts black and brown communities. And so we represent these communities. We think it’s important for us not to wait on Congress, not to wait on a president, but for us to use the power we have as state legislators and take action.

And I would just echo Mustafa’s point. We are very pleased that six of these candidates who want to be president thought this issue was important enough to not just talk the talk, but to walk the walk. And we welcome them to South Carolina’s only state-supported historic black college and university at South Carolina State. Welcome to Bulldog Country.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Gilda Cobb-Hunter, how does it work in a state legislature around issues of environmental justice? I mean, we know about ALEC, the right-wing organization, that writes legislation, particularly in state legislatures —


AMY GOODMAN: — for state legislatures, and one by one, following a trend in the country to cut back on regulations. How do you deal, as the head of the NBCSL, the national caucus of black legislators, in responding?

REP. GILDA COBB-HUNTER: Well, a part of it is what we’ll do here tonight. My role as president, in my view, is increasing members’ awareness of issues that impact our constituents. We all know the routine issues that all of us care about and all of us are working on. But when it comes to an issue like environmental justice, the awareness of black legislators, in our view, is not what it should be. And so, a part of our goal and a part of what we think is important is increasing our awareness. ALEC has a very strong footprint here in the South Carolina Legislature. They spend money. We have members who are in the national leadership of that organization.

AMY GOODMAN: This is the American Legislative Exchange Council —


AMY GOODMAN: — presenting model legislation.

REP. GILDA COBB-HUNTER: Present — and in some cases, in some states in our group, we’ve had people who didn’t even remove the name ALEC, just kind of came in, dropped it. And so, we’ve got to be vigilant. And we’ve got to stay focused on this issue. And so, a part of what I see us needing to do — and that’s why this forum is so important, because I’m told from the frontline communities that there has never been this kind of event, which makes it even more appropriate that it’s here at South Carolina State. We’ve got to just — the way you deal with ALEC, I believe, the best way to eat an elephant — pun intended — is one small bite at a time.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Mustafa Ali, how do you see ALEC playing out in legislatures around the country?

MUSTAFA ALI: Well, they have a particular view that they’re trying to push. And that’s why it’s so important for us to really educate folks and engage them in the civic process and in the legislative process, so that they understand that they have power and that they can help to frame out. So, environmental justice organizations, public health organizations, civil rights organizations, all coming together to deal with these impacts that are happening inside of our communities, can balance out those who might not necessarily have the best intention for our communities.

AMY GOODMAN: Melanie Campbell, you represent the largest voting bloc within the black community, and that’s African-American women. Talk about your organization, both the roundtable as well as the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, and what you’re trying to accomplish.

MELANIE CAMPBELL: Well, first of all, thank you, Amy, and thank you to my colleagues here. And it’s good to be back on this campus. I was on this campus in 2008 on a rainy day in February working on getting out the vote with our Black Youth Vote! program. And so, it’s always good to be back here in Orangeburg; in South Carolina, but haven’t been in Orangeburg in a little while. But so, thank you all for the invitation to work with you all on this project.

Well, the national coalition has been around for almost 44 years. It’s a coalition of national organizations, not just African-American, but labor and other kinds of civil rights and social justice organizations. Black Women’s Roundtable is our women and girls power-building arm, and it’s really like the glue for the organization. And I say that because when you talk about the black vote, black women, we’re the secret sauce to move the black vote. And that’s because of our voting strength and the fact that we influence our families and all of our significant others. So, when you say there’s a big surge in the black vote, that’s because black women didn’t just show up, because we’re going to show up, but we’re going to also encourage our families and our communities to do that. We also are, many times, leading a lot of the work and becoming more unapologetic about demanding respect for that, whether it’s the Democratic Party or progressive community, to understand that we’re not just a voting bloc, we are also leaders in this space. This issue around — and so I appreciate Mustafa and — I was going to say “Congresswoman.” I’m channeling that.

REP. GILDA COBB-HUNTER: No, please, don’t start that.

MELANIE CAMPBELL: Don’t start no mess, right?

REP. GILDA COBB-HUNTER: Please, please don’t.

MELANIE CAMPBELL: My sister friend Gilda, for what they’re doing here. This issue, we see, when it comes to environmental justice, is critical when you talk about issues impacting health and issues impacting economic justice, because of the impact it has on our communities. And so, our young people — who are just a little bit younger than us, right? — who demand that this be a critical issue in this election.

AMY GOODMAN: Why is environmental justice so critical, especially for people in the —

MELANIE CAMPBELL: I grew up in Florida. I grew up along the coast of the Atlantic, big, big city called Mims, Florida. And so, growing up around — we knew we had hurricanes, growing up. You know, you didn’t have to leave home. My mother passed away three years ago. And we would always have to worry. Now they have to — most of the time, they have to leave. I have a brother that’s still there, who, most of the time, he has to get on a plane and fly up there in Virginia and get away. You can’t stay anymore, because it’s so much — it’s very different from what had happened 30 years ago or 40 years ago. What’s happening now is real impact in our communities. I can remember growing up where orange groves were beautiful. Everybody had orange groves. It was a part of the economy. If you couldn’t — if you didn’t have a job, you can go pick oranges and make a living. Right? You can’t do that. Those things have been destroyed by the climate change and other kinds of things. Damu Smith — I’m going to channel —

MUSTAFA ALI: Yes, my mentor.

MELANIE CAMPBELL: — was one of my best buddies — right? — who really educated me down in Cancer Alley, Louisiana.

AMY GOODMAN: Damu Smith was an early — it’s, in fact, where I met him —

MELANIE CAMPBELL: Right. OK, yes, yeah.

AMY GOODMAN: — at one of the first conferences.

MELANIE CAMPBELL: He took us on the bus.

AMY GOODMAN: Cancer Alley, Baton Rouge and New Orleans.

MELANIE CAMPBELL: And back in the day, so I’ve been around this for a while. Connie Tucker, who’s another sister. I lived in Atlanta for 20 years. My current sister who keeps me on this is Felicia Davis with HBCU Green Fund, understanding that this issue is not a side issue. It’s very much intricately a part of what’s dealing with even issues around wealth building and how that impacts our communities.

AMY GOODMAN: And do you feel like the candidates are addressing these issues? How do you get them to focus?

MELANIE CAMPBELL: I will say that we are — our Black Youth Vote! young people are having these debate watch parties, and they’ve been doing these polls. And they look for who they want — who won, which I won’t get into that, but they also say what are they not hearing. And environmental justice and climate change are key. They’re not the number one, but they’re high, like number three or something like that. Consistently, every month, they host these things. And that’s what they’re telling us. And so, young people are saying — demanding that. And so, the candidates that don’t get that are going to miss getting that Generation Z vote and that millennial vote this year.

AMY GOODMAN: Representative Gilda Cobb-Hunter, ReGenesis, explain what that project is, because South Carolina is not only ground zero for the problems but also for solutions.

REP. GILDA COBB-HUNTER: Right. And before I talk about ReGenesis, if I could, Amy, just pick up on the point that Melanie made about the young people and what candidates — which candidates are speaking to the vote, to this issue. That’s a part of why NBCSL is here sponsoring this event, because we can’t afford to wait for the DNC or the RNC to bless this and say, “OK, we’re going have a debate.” This issue impacts our communities. We thought it important to step up and say, “You know what? DNC, RNC, y’all don’t want to talk about climate change? Guess what. We don’t need your permission to talk about climate change. We’ve got a vehicle that we can use to talk about this issue.” And it is important that these Democratic candidates understand how this issue resonates with young voters, with progressive voters, with seasoned voters. This is an issue whose time has come, and it’s not going away.

The one candidate that consistently spoke to the issue is no longer in the race, and that’s Governor Jay Inslee. All of them do the photo ops. All of them talk the talk. They all have the talking points. But whether or not there’s specificity in how they can get it done, which is what ReGenesis is doing here in South Carolina, has done — we’ve got a lot of people who are academic who talk about environmental justice. But we have in Spartanburg, South Carolina, under the leadership of my former colleague Harold Mitchell, a project called ReGenesis, that has reclaimed and revitalized that entire community. And he’s done that in spite of, I would add —

AMY GOODMAN: So, he got $20,000, EPA environmental justice grant —

REP. GILDA COBB-HUNTER: And leveraged it, yes. Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —to help clean up these contaminated sites.

REP. GILDA COBB-HUNTER: Yes. Leveraged $20,000 into several million, has a community that has now — that once was a wasteland, that once was the home of a fertilizer plant. He is working —

AMY GOODMAN: This was called Devil’s Triangle because it was so polluted.

REP. GILDA COBB-HUNTER: Exactly, exactly. And again, what is important to understand is, what we need to be lifting up are people who are on the ground working, not people theorizing about it, not people who are just — well, I’ll just say ReGenesis is a project that is the role model. And to pass on just a tidbit I don’t think a lot of people know, because heroes are very rarely recognized in their own hometown, ReGenesis and its founder — Harold Mitchell has gone to Taiwan. He is known internationally as, again, somebody who doesn’t just talk about it, but who actually does something. And that’s the point of the platform that will be the point of your questions and Mustafa’s questions tonight to these candidates who are showing up: What are you going to do specifically?

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Mustafa Ali, I mean, you have South Carolina. It’s the — you’ve got the primaries and caucuses first in New Hampshire and in Iowa. These are two of the whitest states.


AMY GOODMAN: And then you have a large African-American community in South Carolina, why this is so significant. I mean, so much attention is paid to the whitest states in this country simply because they’re first in the primary system. It means all the candidates are gearing their plans to those states.

MUSTAFA ALI: Well, you can’t take our vote for granted.


MUSTAFA ALI: If you want our vote, you better show up. So, it sends a signal to folks. People want to see you and touch you and hear firsthand what you have to share. So, if you are willing to spend time in New Hampshire and in Iowa sitting down with folks, I appreciate that. You need to be in the South. You know that there are folks who are going to vote, and you need to actually solidify that vote by sharing with them the realness of what your vision is. What is your policies? Talk to them about their kitchen table issues and how it’s going to be addressed. So, if you are not sitting down with Mrs. Ramirez in her kitchen or Mr. Johnson on his back porch having some conversations, as well, then people may not think that you’re as serious as you say you are.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you all for being with us. This is only the beginning, as we, tonight, hold this forum. Mustafa Ali, former head of the environmental justice program at the Environmental Protection Agency, former leader of the Hip Hop Caucus, now vice president of the National Wildlife Federation; Gilda Cobb-Hunter, president of the National Black Caucus of State Legislators; and Melanie Campbell, president of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, also convener of the Black Women’s Roundtable.

Mustafa Ali and I will be co-moderating the first-ever Presidential Forum on Environmental Justice here at South Carolina State University in Orangeburg tonight. If you have questions for the candidates, please write to us at Democracy Now!'s Twitter, Instagram, Facebook. We'd love to hear from you. Again, we’ll be live-streaming and broadcasting on stations around the country starting at 6 p.m. Eastern Standard Time. Our website is

When we come back, the Orangeburg massacre. It was February 8, 1968, that South Carolina Highway Patrol officers opened fire on black students here at South Carolina State University who were protesting a segregated bowling alley. The patrolmen killed three and wounded 28. We’ll hear more. Stay with us.

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