Southeast Siders arrested while protesting for clean air: ‘We have nothing to lose anymore’

By Valentina Pucarelli, Photojournalist

After protesting in the rain for at least two hours on Friday in demand of clean air, four Southeast Side activists were arrested in front of what they believed to be Chicago Department of Public Health commissioner Dr. Allison Arwady’s home in Lincoln Park.

“We’re not gonna leave until they deny the permit or they arrest us,” said Olga Bautista, executive director of the Southeast Environmental Taskforce, minutes before being detained by police. “We have nothing to lose anymore, if [General Iron] comes into our neighborhood, it’s going to hurt people, it’s going to kill people.”

On the night of Dec. 10, after over a year of campaigning against the permit that would allow the relocation of General Iron from Lincoln Park to the Southeast Side, Bautista, Oscar Sanchez, Lauren Bianchi and Matthew Zemanick were detained for blocking traffic in the North Side neighborhood.

General Iron, a metal scrapper owned by Reserved Management Group, was shut down in Lincoln Park in 2020 after several environmental violations.

Their plan to relocate to the Southeast Side, a predominately Black and Latinx neighborhood already burdened with air pollution, was met with resistance from several community members.

Sanchez, the co-founder of the Southeast Youth Alliance, started campaigning in late 2020 to stop General Iron from moving to his neighborhood.

“We’ve been very active about addressing environmental racism,” Sanchez said. “We’ve done protests, town hall meetings, community input sessions, educated community, it’s escalated to a hunger strike, and now we’re here looking to hold the commissioner directly accountable for their actions.”

Chuck Stark, a biology teacher at George Washington High School and one of the people who participated in the 30-day hunger strike in March, said General Iron would emit up to 14 tons of particulate matter every year if allowed to operate.

“Most of that particulate matter will be blown toward George Washington High School, a place where I already experience students who are missing school because of respiratory issues,” Stark said. “I’m not cool with that.”

More than 100 protesters and supporters met at Jonquil Park, 1001 W. Wrightwood Ave., and marched to what they believed to be Arwady’s house near the park chanting “Ain’t no power like the power of the people cause the power of the people don’t stop,” and, “If we don’t get it, shut it down.”

Trinity Colon, an 18-year-old senior at George Washington High School who has advocated for environmental justice on the Southeast Side since she was 16 years old, led the rally with other George Washington High School students.

“We’re not going to stop until this permit is denied,” Colon said.

The CDPH and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are in the process of conducting a Health Impact Assessment on recycling facilities on the South Side.

The investigation is happening in response to a letter U.S. EPA Administrator Michael Regan wrote to Mayor Lori Lightfoot in May asking to pause the approval of the General Iron permit due to “significant civil rights concerns.”

Sanchez said they have presented data on the harmful impact of moving the facility to the Southeast Side, as well as the disparity between the North and South Side of Chicago like the 30-year life expectancy gap during Health Impact Assessment Public Engagement sessions the CDPH hosted for community input. Sanchez said the process is invalid because the South Side community is not being involved in the investigation.

“We are in a [phase] that is only community input so it seems like we’re doing the same process we did last year, and it’s a redundant process,” Sanchez said. “We just need this permit to be denied.”

All four of the organizers arrested during the protest on Dec. 10 were released a few hours after being arrested.