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Power Politics

Environmental Activism in South Los Angeles

Karen Brodkin

Publication Year: 2009

In the late 1990s, when California's deregulation of the production and sale of electric power created massive energy shortages a group of environmental justice activists, largely high school students, blocked construction of a power plant in their working-class Mexican and Central American neighborhoods. Power Politics is a study of a grassroots campaign where longtime labor and environmental allies found themselves on opposite sides of a conflict pitting good jobs against good air. Karen Brodkin analyzes how those issues came to be opposed and unpacks the racial and class dynamics that shape Americans' grasp of labor and environmental issues.

Published by: Rutgers University Press

Title Page

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Preface and Acknowledgments

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pp. vii-ix

This book tells the story of a successful grassroots campaign against building an electric power plant in a part of Los Angeles County already burdened with polluted air. Its heart is the story of how the environmental justice organization Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) and its youth group, Youth for Environmental Justice (Youth-EJ), went about...

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pp. 1-20

On Tuesday January 23, 2001, a school night, in the middle of statewide crisis-level energy shortage, some three hundred high school students and their parents marched from South Gate High School in southeast Los Angeles County to a meeting of the city council to tell their elected representatives that they did not want a...

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1. South Gate Transitions

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pp. 21-45

[The City Council] didn't want public housing because they didn't want blacks. And I said wait a minute. They are lying to you. We are taking block grant funds to put it into the infrastructure to clean up the streets and the potholes. The city is deteriorating. We have fourteen percent unemployment, General Motors is...

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2. Environmental Justice and Communities for a Better Environment

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pp. 46-58

I have to say that I wouldn't be the person I am with the political beliefs that I have had it not been for the fact that my parents divorced and my mother remarried in 1956, and this was in Texas. She married a black man. I was seven years old. I remember the first time I saw him I kind of did a double take because his skin...

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3. Creating an Environmental Justice Campaign

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pp. 59-75

Jairus Ramos, Alicia Gonzalez, and Geyman Hernandez were among some ten to fifteen environmental activists in Huntington Park High School's environmental club. Jairus and Alicia were graduating, and they felt a particular desire to recruit more members and to find ways of keeping up with people who left. They...

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4. Sunlaw’s New Pollution Control Technology

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pp. 76-94

The story of Sunlaw Energy Corporation begins in the mid-1990s, at about the time Henry Gonzalez and Albert Robles were starting to get on each other's nerves in South Gate (chap. 1), and Carlos Porras and CBE were getting acquainted with Huntington Park residents and their mountain of concrete (chap. 2). Robert Danziger...

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5. The Perfect Storm: South Gate Politics and the Makings of a Pro-Plant Coalition

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pp. 95-112

A third interpretation of the struggle over the power plant is seen through the lens of local politics. In it, the struggle is not about the power plant at all but rather about South Gate residents organizing to get rid of a corrupt politician—one who happens to oppose the power plant and who is effective in manipulating...

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6. Finding Traction at South Gate High School

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pp. 113-134

When CBE and Youth-EJ reconnected with a group of socially engaged teachers at South Gate High School, things began to change. The teachers brought together activists in search of a constituency and high school students who were looking for something they couldn't yet name. Until this point, most of the Youth-EJ activists...

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7. Going Public

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pp. 135-157

Environmental justice activists were about to encounter one of the wild cards that are facts of life for popular social movements, namely, that the playing field of grassroots politics is shaped by political forces that have little to do with their concerns. Between December and January, two separate fights were developing among local...

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8. Sudden Death

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pp. 158-187

Before mid-December, CBE and Youth-EJ's primary effort was to publicize the plan to build a power plant—explain its health dangers and explain Sunlaw's choice of site as part of a larger pattern of environmental racism—and to discover whether there was significant community opposition to the plant. By the time South...

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pp. 188-206

Most environmental justice struggles do not succeed, and of those that do, few win rapidly or decisively. So we must ask: Why were environmental justice activists in South Gate able to stop the power plant? To answer this question we need to return to the three different explanatory stories that different actors told about...

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pp. 207-211

Between March and November 2001, when Sunlaw officially withdrew its application, California's political climate was beginning to change. The rolling blackouts continued during the summer of 2001, as did the state's efforts to stave off increasingly severe statewide energy shortages, including efforts to bail out the failing and...


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pp. 213-219


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pp. 221-228


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pp. 229-242

E-ISBN-13: 9780813548487
E-ISBN-10: 0813548489
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813546070
Print-ISBN-10: 0813546079

Page Count: 256
Illustrations: 3 tables
Publication Year: 2009

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Environmental justice -- California -- South Gate.
  • Hispanic American high school students -- Political activity -- California -- South Gate.
  • Sunlaw Energy Partners (Firm).
  • South Gate (Calif.) -- Environmental conditions.
  • Student movements -- California -- South Gate.
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