On Tuesday, April 4, Rachel Thunder testified before a Senate committee at the Minnesota Legislature in support of SF1853, which would help fund the efforts of the East Phillips Neighborhood Institute (EPNI) to buy the Roof Depot building in East Phillips (a neighborhood bordered by Midtown Phillips, Corcoran and Seward in south Minneapolis).
This testimony was the latest push in a years-long struggle by East Phillips’ residents to realize a vision known as the East Phillips Urban Farm. As the name suggests, the project would include an indoor urban farm, which would provide much-needed fresh food in a food desert. The project goes beyond the name, however, and would feature a solar array, actually affordable housing, cultural markets, jobs training and more.
Instead of this community-led plan, the City of Minneapolis wants to consolidate three Public Works sites there — a plan called the Hiawatha Campus Expansion Project. The city wants to demolish the Roof Depot building, which sits atop arsenic-laden soil from a former Superfund site, and move its entire diesel truck yard there.
Thunder, who is Plains Cree First Nations and a member of the American Indian Movement (AIM), was one of the Indigenous leaders who prayerfully occupied the Roof Depot site on February 21. This occupation protested the demolition scheduled later that month. Days later, a judge granted an injunction on the demolition, delaying the city’s plans. On May 9, the Court of Appeals will hold a hearing on the injunction. The court’s ruling will either continue to delay demolition or allow it to proceed.
The IPCC Links Colonialism to Climate Change
Amid this hyperlocal struggle, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released its latest report, which synthesizes its three major reports from 2021 and 2022. IPCC reports reflect the most up-to-date scientific consensus on the state of the climate crisis.
This latest series of IPCC reports was the first to mention “colonialism” by name, stating that colonialism has made the impacts of the climate crisis worse. Per the synthesis report, “[climate] vulnerability is exacerbated by . . . historical and ongoing patterns of inequity such as colonialism, especially for many Indigenous Peoples and local communities.”
Along with slavery, colonialism is also a major cause of climate change itself. BP got its start as the “Anglo-Persian Oil Company” as part of British exploitation of Iran’s oil. British colonization of Nigeria was also linked to coal. Today, companies are disrupting ecosystems across Africa in search of more fossil fuels. The speed and disregard for national sovereignty has prompted comparisons to the “Scramble for Africa,” a period when European countries rapidly colonized the continent. Journalist Amy Westervelt has covered oil colonialism extensively on her podcast Drilled.
The Red Nation, a coalition working to advance Native liberation, highlights U.S. settler colonialism’s role in the shift to “domestic” natural gas following the oil war in Iraq. They draw attention to Keystone XL, Dakota Access and Line 3, pipelines that all cross Indigenous land. Beyond pure fossil fuels, colonialism facilitated the Industrial Revolution’s massive extraction of resources.
The United States, of course, is built upon slavery and colonialism. European and U.S. settlers stole the land and its resources from Indigenous peoples. By 1600, European colonialism was responsible for the deaths of more than 50 million Indigenous people. The devastation was so total and sudden, it actually changed the world’s climate hundreds of years ago.
The system of colonialism is linked to today’s climate change in many ways. I best connect them in basic terms. To do or make things has costs. For example, a car needs materials to be built, it takes work to build it and it needs fuel to run. These processes take time, work and money. However, these are not the only costs. Two other costs are greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and pollution.
Colonialism is just one system of distributing the costs and benefits of making and doing things: It forces these costs onto other peoples and areas. Colonizers do not directly bear the costs themselves. When you get all of the benefits and bear none of the costs, there is no reason not to continually increase and expand. And it is precisely this that has led to ever-increasing GHG emissions and the climate crisis.
Today, the United States exploits other nations and peoples in slightly more sophisticated ways. But colonialism remains — and the IPCC indicates it is one of the major barriers to addressing the climate crisis. The United States still has colonies in the form of Puerto Rico, Guam, American Sāmoa and others. The United States itself remains a settler colonial nation, sitting atop the stolen land of hundreds of Indigenous Nations.
At a March 25 event about the Roof Depot struggle, historian Nick Estes noted that colonialism is pervasive in the Twin Cities, and East Phillips is a prime example. In the mid-1900s, the U.S. government moved to a new form of its genocidal system: termination. The government wanted to end the federally-recognized status of tribal nations. To do so, it coerced and tricked Indigenous people on reservations to move to cities, including Minneapolis. The government promised people jobs and education that rarely materialized.
By the 1960s, Minneapolis was home to many Indigenous individuals who were often unhoused as they could not find employment. In response, AIM succeeded in establishing Little Earth in 1973. Little Earth was the first Indigenous-preference public housing complex in the country, and it remains the only one to this day. However, it is no coincidence that the city of Minneapolis located Little Earth in the Arsenic Triangle, by highways, and by industrial polluters.
The City’s Plan for East Phillips is Colonialism
Transportation and manufacturing are vital to any society. But one of the costs of these things is pollution. And this city has deliberately forced the pollution from transportation and manufacturing onto people in places like East Phillips.
The cost of this pollution is illness and death. People in East Phillips have some of the highest rates of asthma, lead poisoning and heart disease in Minnesota. Asthma is directly linked to concentrated pollution and vehicle emissions. Thunder noted this powerfully in her testimony: “Fine particles from air pollution contributed to deaths of adults 25 and over at a 37% higher rate than seen on average in the metro, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.”
Yet the city wants to add more traffic and pollution to the neighborhood in the form of the Hiawatha Campus Expansion Project. All Minneapolis residents benefit from the services that Public Works provides. But the city wants East Phillips to bear nearly all the costs.
This is a plan to steal health and life from East Phillips. It is a plan to save that health and life for wealthier, whiter parts of the city. It is a plan rooted in colonialism.
In doubling down on U.S. colonialism, Minneapolis is also stealing future well-being from its residents. The city is utterly unmotivated in transforming its transportation in a way that would mitigate and adapt to climate change. Individual cars are massive GHG emitters and simply switching to electric cars is not sustainable either. Buses, trains and bikes can dramatically reduce our city’s GHG emissions.
Mass public transit would also reduce air pollution, and it would free up significant space in our city. This space could become tree-covered walkways and bike lanes, rain gardens, parks and restored native habitats. These natural areas would make Minneapolis more resilient to climate change. They would reduce the urban heat island effect that our asphalt and concrete amplify. They would also absorb more stormwater than impermeable cement surfaces, which would help prevent flooding.
Certainly, the climate crisis is worst in the Global South, and worst for poor, BIPOC and houseless neighbors here in the Global North. They face some of the most extreme impacts of climate change, and they have been plundered of the means to recover from and adapt to them.
Even so, extreme climate events have already affected everyone in the Twin Cities metro area. We’ve just lived through an especially brutal winter, with more freeze-thaw cycles than we’ve experienced in past years. These winters will become worse and more common as our winters get wetter. That means more injuries from slipping on ice, more car accidents, more potholes (which affect cyclists, as well as cars), more heart attacks shoveling, and more flooding. The heat waves in the summer will become even more intense. Energy costs will become higher. Droughts will become worse. Wildfires will become more extreme, and the smoke will blow our way and pollute our air.
Taken one by one, each event can be managed. Over time, they accumulate into ongoing catastrophe.
While colonialism forced its environmental havoc onto colonized peoples, and while it is similarly forcing climate havoc disproportionately onto those peoples, it has created a climate monster that colonizers cannot themselves avoid.
To fight the climate crisis, therefore, we must fight colonialism.
One step we can take is to oppose the Hiawatha Campus Expansion Project. In doing so, we will truly be following the science, as reflected in March’s IPCC report. And in doing so, we will weaken one of the strongest barriers to addressing the climate crisis.