Reclaim the Land
Building a Campaign to take on the Critical Energy Infrastructure hub
In his 1963 speech, a “Message to the Grassroots,” the late Malcolm X famously declared that all revolution is based on land: “Land is the basis of freedom, justice, and equality.” An anti-capitalist Black revolutionary, Malcolm recognized that racism and white supremacy in America are material issues. Constructed over time, they depend on a racial capitalism built through the exclusion and control of Black people on land stolen from Indigenous nations, and maintained through the continuous labor and dispossession of oppressed communities.
In this moment of mounting crises, Malcolm’s words remind us that land is at the root of what we must overcome to achieve racial and climate justice. From the Covid-19 pandemic and rising unemployment, to police violence and terror against Black people and marginalized communities, and to the many localized crises climate change has already begun to unleash over this long, hot summer—each is embedded in geographies of racism. As Paul Bothwell, a Boston community organizer, reminds us: “Some neighborhoods are ‘fed’…others are bled.”
Confronting these crises requires we remember the history of the land—the legacies of disinvestment; the continuum between redlining, gentrification, and climate impacts; and the real decisions that make “sacrifice zones” of communities. Reclaiming this history must be the root from which we build our movements and challenge these structures head on.
At Center for Sustainable Economy, we have spent the past year organizing with our allies to stop the Zenith oil terminal and the Global Partners facility in Columbia County from bringing trainloads of crude oil from the largest sacrifice zone on the planet—the Alberta tar sands. Passing through numerous communities along the rail lines to Columbia County and Portland, oil train traffic has skyrocketed in recent years, posing significant risks especially to low-income and marginalized communities like Linnton and the historically Black neighborhoods of North and Northeast Portland and St. Johns.
Indeed, defeating these terminals alone is not enough to overcome the immense burden that communities face from the fossil fuel economy in Portland. To do so requires challenging the underlying environmental racism and unjust land uses that have shaped this area.
The Zenith terminal is situated in, and Global Partners’ trains pass through, a little known part of Northwest Portland called the Critical Energy Infrastructure (CEI) hub. This six-mile stretch of land north of Downtown, between Forest Park and the Willamette River, sits along the Portland Harbor Superfund Site and is home to over 90 percent of the fossil fuels consumed in the state of Oregon. Millions of gallons of gasoline, crude oil, fracked gas, and other toxic chemicals are brought by pipelines, barges, trucks, and oil trains each year, where they are stored in hundreds of “tank farms” on earthquake-vulnerable soil along the Willamette River. The area poses immense and immediate health impacts to the adjacent communities of Linnton and St. Johns – from air pollution to spills, explosion, and heat islands. Further, if the magnitude 9.0 Cascadia earthquake strikes Portland, as is likely in the next 50 years, the CEI hub could become the largest oil spill in history. Although these risks are enormous and well known, polluting industries and government officials have done little to ensure the infrastructure is safe.
This silence can be understood as a continuation of the long history of environmental racism and injustice that defines the area. As Sarah Taylor, a community leader from the Linnton neighborhood describes in an interview on KBOO’s Locus Focus, the entire North Portland harbor was transformed over time from community use into an industrial sacrifice zone for the City of Portland. The wetlands and Chinook village sites of Kittredge and Guild’s lake were filled with soils from the West Hills to create the NW Industrial Area that would become the CEI hub, displacing Chinese immigrant families and small farmers. Later, during WWII, African American families moved to the Guild’s Lake Courts federal housing project as part of the Great Migration from the South, and built ships for the war. Unlike their fellow workers, many of their houses lacked electricity and amenities. After the Vanport flood of 1948, which displaced thousands of diverse, low-income families, African Americans were forced through Portland’s racist exclusion laws to move to the only other Black neighborhoods, both in North Portland: Albina and Guild’s Lake. Just three years later, in 1951 Guild’s Lake was declared an industrial area—the CEI hub—and families were again evicted to make way for the industries and fossil fuel infrastructure that exists there today.
This history is important. Understanding the decisions that were made to condemn, exclude, and disinvest in the communities that lived and live still on this land are the grounds from which we can begin to imagine and call for what we need. We need a just transition away from fossil fuels so communities and the climate can be safe. We need a working waterfront defined by good jobs, clean energy, and healthy ecosystems. We need community access to a river that is protected from chemicals and pollution. And we need sovereignty over this land restored to the Indigenous nations who stewarded it over millennia.
The seeds of this vision have grown from decades of struggle as folks have organized to stop industrial expansion and win a just Superfund cleanup, and CSE’s work on the River is just beginning. Last Fall, with our allies, we advanced a new policy called Fossil Fuel Risk Bonds to hold fossil fuel companies in the CEI hub financially accountable for the risks they pose to the City of Portland and Multnomah County and its residents. As we watchdog these efforts, we are also beginning to share our experience with other organizations and elected officials on the West Coast as they too plan to move away from fossil fuel infrastructure. Now, and over the coming years, we’ll ramp up our efforts to win this transition in Portland by organizing with and supporting our partners at Portland Harbor Community Coalition, Occupy St. Johns, the Portland Harbor Community Advisory Group, and allies in the climate movement, as we collectively advance, and eventually win a community plan for the future of the CEI hub and River.
We’re grateful to be coming together already, supporting a group of river advocates, residents, and organizers called the Braided River Campaign. Join us.
Elijah Cetas (he/ him)