By Randy Cunningham, Chair – Coal and Energy Committee NEO Sierra Club Group.
In September, the City of Cleveland finally threw in the towel on its proposed Ridge Road incinerator. Words cannot express the joy of a campaign well fought, and well won. The campaign against the proposed Ridge Road Incinerator had all the elements to it. It inspired a neighborhood-based rebellion against a boondoggle of a proposal pushed by City Hall. The passion of the rebellion surprised everyone. In a conversation I had with my councilman, retiring Ward 16 Councilman Jay Westbrook, he said that it had been at least 20 years since he had seen an issue generate as much interest and backlash as this one had. The campaign was a dream come true for advocates of environmental justice, since the neighborhood that was in the bull’s eye of emissions from the incinerator had all the demographics – working class to poor, with large minority communities. What added an incentive for me is that I was not fighting for some distant rain forest, I was fighting for my own neighborhood. The proposed incinerator would have been a 10 minute walk from my house – practically within sight of where I live.
The city had the power and the prestige of a popular mayor – Frank Jackson – backing it. It had the usual retinue of experts and consultants that threw facts, figures and lies at us. But we had some resources too. We had the experience, the bitter experience, of neighborhoods that have been suffering from and fighting against pollution for years. One neighborhood organization that joined the opposition had been fighting against pollution since just after World War II. We had experienced activists who had come up with community organizing movements in Cleveland. We had environmental activists who brought 30+ years of experience in understanding the often obtuse language of regulatory reports, and technical documents. But most of all we had a populace that had already been poisoned enough by pollution, and was determined not to be poisoned more.
We won with raucous public meetings that drew hundreds, with street corner picketing in the bitterest weather, with yard signs and with smart campaigning that put the absurdity of the proposed incinerator on public view. We have to thank Citizen Action, the Sierra Club, Environmental Health Watch, councilman Brian Cummings, Larry Cornet – our technical whiz kid, some of the Occupy Cleveland kids that put a zing into our protests, Sandy Buchanan, Chris Trepal, and Kim, Anne, Susan, Rowena, Claudette, Stu, Steve, Mary Jo, Daryl and too many others to name here. We also must thank the people of the Lee-Harvard area who went through much the same fight twenty years ago, and gave their cross town support for our effort. Thanks to those city councilpersons who expressed their dissent against the project as well. Thank you, former Congressman Dennis Kucinich for your stalwart support.
Activists and activism don’t get much respect in American society. We are a little too rowdy, a little too loud, and we do not fit into an era of “go along to get along.” But activism is the pulse of democracy – in America and around the world. I hope to never see a day when it is not upsetting the status quo, asking embarrassing questions, comforting the afflicted, and afflicting the comfortable. If anyone doubts the power of activism, take them to Ridge Road in Cleveland and show them where an incinerator that would’ve poisoned the neighborhood was not built. Activism works.