Davey D interviews Minister Christopher Muhammad, leader of the Stop Lennar Action Movement, on Hard Knock Radio
Davey D: A lot of things going on in the Bay Area, in particular San Francisco Hunters Point economic development. A lot of mischief-making taking place there. I wanted to talk to somebody who has their foot and ear to the ground, Minister Chris from the Nation of Islam. He is no stranger to our show and has been knee-deep involved with the struggle that’s going up in Hunters Point. Minister Chris, how are you?
Minister Christopher: Fine, Davey, always good to be with you and your listening audience.
DD: Before we get into some of the economic struggles – and I’m sure this is all going to tie in – I’m hearing some very troubling stuff. One, I’m hearing that developers are showing up at meetings with loaded pistols and things like that trying to intimidate people like yourselves who would be there in opposition to what they’re trying to do.
Then I read some article briefly – I didn’t get a chance to go deep into it – but they said the police were following you all. What is going on? How serious is this struggle going on in HP?
Minister Christopher Muhammad and Bro. Mark Muhammad give disturbing accounts of hostile actions taken by the Lennar Corporation. On February 18th, 2010 at a community townhall meeting, a hired gunman from the Lennar Corporation refused to stop recording when asked to, and one thing led to another.
MC: Well, you should know that the struggle here in San Francisco in Hunters Point is very great and very intense unfortunately because you have the economic and political establishment of San Francisco who have joined together and confederated together to take the last area that African-Americans primarily and poor people in general live in this City. And they’re trying to gentrify and redevelop this area at the expense of the indigenous population of poor people.
And because of the great economic landscape and benefit that this area offers to greedy developers who have bought many of the political leaders in this City, you have a situation now where we are standing in the way of billions of dollars of redevelopment. And so unfortunately we have earned the ire and angst and anger of those big money developers, particularly the Lennar Corporation, who, unfortunately and painfully, are backed Mayor Gavin Newsom, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the ranking Sen. Dianne Feinstein and all of the pressure that these powerful people can bring to bear on a poor community.
DD: What is it that you’re fighting for?
MC: Well, part of the development was right next to a housing community where there are public housing residents, we have a school, there are Section 8 housing, low-income housing and it’s right next to a parcel of land that was formerly the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. This is significant because the Naval Shipyard is where African-Americans primarily were recruited to come to in San Francisco and other parts of the Bay Area in World War II to provide a cheap labor pool for the military. The bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki were assembled right here at Hunters Point.
It’s also a place where African-Americans were experimented on by the U.S. Navy in Tuskegee-like experiments where they tested radiation and its affects on human beings – tricking African-American workers into cleaning ships that they radiated so that they could study the effects of radiation and cancer on human beings by using African-Americans as guinea pigs during this period.
And so today, Brother Davey, the highest rate of cancer probably in the country is right here in Hunters Point as is the highest rate of asthma anywhere in the country – right here in Hunters Point. And now that former Naval Shipyard, which was closed, has become an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site, where some of the worst chemicals, some of the worst radiological elements to be found in the world, were buried right there in Hunters Point.
Some parts of Hunters Point Shipyard are so toxic that the Navy has determined that the compounds and chemicals that are in the ground there they don’t even know the full composition, because some those compounds have mixed with other compounds and have produced chemicals the likes of which they have never seen before. But we do know uranium 235 is out there, other chemicals, other radiological elements and what they call volatile organic compounds.
And it’s in this context that the City, backed by the political leadership, got the bright idea that they wanted to develop the Shipyard and put homes – million dollar homes – on toxic land. And when we learned about it, the Lennar Corporation, which was contracted by the City – it is the second largest home builder in the country – this corporation started digging and grading in the Shipyard.
And unbeknownst to the community of children, elderly and poor people, they were digging right into what they call naturally occurring asbestos and exposed this community – with intent – to asbestos, chromium, lead, antimony and all the other chemicals where now poor people are suffering from nosebleeds, rashes, respiratory problems in addition to asbestos and other things that have been impacting this community.
And it is in this context that we stood up and demanded that the community be healed, that the community be tested and that Lennar be held accountable for its actions. And unfortunately to this point Lennar, along with the backing of the City and County of San Francisco, has tried to stifle this effort and tried their best by any means necessary to stop us even to the point of threats and intimidation.
DD: When this is brought up to some of the elected officials, whether it’s Mayor Newsom or Pelosi or anybody, what exactly do they say to you?
MC: What they’ve done is they try their best to spin this, because the people you’re talking about, Davey, are people of great ambition, great political power. Newsom at one point was trying to run for governor, but unfortunately this issue dogged him on the campaign trail and he had to drop out of the governor’s race because the community raised questions with him all over the state of California regarding Lennar and its rogue activities.
So what they tried to do initially was ignore this and hope that it went away. And then when it didn’t go away and the community kept raising concerns of the people, then they tried to discredit the leadership, which of course includes myself and the multi-cultural, multi-racial coalition that has come around this mission.
Black, White, Latino, Asian, Pacific Islander – all of us have come together and have held this coalition together for the last four years on the issue of environmental justice. So we’ve formed a formidable mobilizing effort that has forced the political leadership (to listen).
And you can’t disconnect the political leadership, Davey, from the money crowds of Downtown, Nob Hill, Pacific Heights developers who back the politicians, finance the campaigns and they’re the ones who have determined that his project must go forward by any means necessary. And they have forced the Environmental Protection Agency to capitulate. They’ve forced other regulatory bodies to bow.
They’ve forced the Health Department in San Francisco to this day not to test one human being in Bayview Hunters Point even though we have brought to them documented cases of illnesses and nosebleeds – school children, elderly – yet they refuse to do what is right because they fear that if the word got out and the exposure of this situation became known, that it would impact or have an adverse impact on this development. And ultimately this impacts the political standing of those persons that you named.
So it’s been a great fight because you’re battling forces and those forces have the ability to plant stories in the Chronicle, they have the ability to plant stories in the Examiner or on television, so what you’re doing now is you’re fighting. And thank God you have a radio station such as KPFA, the Bay Guardian, you have other independent truth-seeking outlets that give this community a way to get this information to the masses of the people. But were it not for that and shows like yours, it would be very difficult because corporate-owned media unfortunately is part of this effort to discredit and destroy the community’s efforts to get environmental justice.
DD: That’s the voice of Minister Chris out in San Francisco talking about the economic and ecological battle that is taking place in the Bayview Hunters Point district. As I’m sitting here and listening to you name off the opposition that you guys have been contending with, two things ran through my head. First of all, there’s been a very sizeable and very vocal movement around the issue of “green” jobs and there’re all types of organizations that have popped up here in the Bay Area – the Green for All, the Grind for the Green and green this and green the other. They have the big Green Festival that takes place right there South of Market, so there’s all this green stuff.
And one of the challenges that I’ve always seen with this is that they’re always like: “How do we get people of color involved? How do we get people of color involved?” And it seems like the fight you guys are having has been a fight that has always gone on in our communities from the day that I was growing up in the South Bronx to all the way now as an adult being here and seeing what people are dealing with: cleanup situations in Richmond, seeing what people have been dealing with in West Oakland and of course what you guys are dealing with in Bayview Hunters Point.
I bring that all up to say if I could see all these organizations that are showing up on TV and getting a lot of accolades, how are they fitting into this fight and are they aware of it? Do they talk to you? Because it would seem like the green-for-all type of crowd, this should be a front and center issue, because people of color are fighting it, you’re in the area where people of color live and that seems to be the big challenge – making sure that we have a seat at this table. This seems like the perfect opportunity, so what’s the connection between what you all are doing and all the work that they’re doing?
MC: Well, you have to separate some of those environmental organizations from maybe the corporate and governmental effort to get a handle and control over green technology and green jobs, which by and large is a business cottage industry that has grown that has at its root and core not necessarily environmental justice but opportunities for businesses and communities or economic interests to take advantage of the growing consciousness of people desiring to improve their environment.
So what you have, Davey, is with many environmental organizations and activists, unfortunately, even though Black people and people of color have been the biggest or greatest victims of environmental injustice, by and large this issue has never been a focus of the leadership in the Black community. It’s never really been a focus of the brothers and sisters on the ground.
Our focus has been from our vantage point just basic survival issues, so that the whole idea of green and waste management and making sure that environments are healthy and safe, those have been issues that we as Black people by and large have disregarded as significant, even though it was very significant.
DD: Well, the reason I brought this up was to two things. The first time I ever went to anything that was based around the environment was at Bayview Hunters Point. You might remember when I worked at KMEL I used to go the Opera House, where you guys would have stuff in the early ‘90s. There might even be some YouTube tapes on that.
So I bring that up to say that my introduction to this ecology fight or environmental fight was in Bayview Hunters Point and since we’ve seen this thing explode with all the green talk.
The other reason I bring this up is because what I’ve also noticed is that around the country you have a lot of developers who have adopted green standards and that’s a good thing. And what I was afraid would happen is that you might get a Lennar Corporation saying we got lots of jobs in the community for people to put solar panels on the buildings we’re going to build in Hunters Point and maybe even hire people that are really your constituents and never ever address these root causes and underlying issues that you started off talking about. The health disparities, the types of experiments going on with lack of healing – all this stuff could be overlooked and then you would have somebody saying we’re a green corporation. What are they trippin’ off of?
MC: I think it’s important to understand the context. See what happens is green by and large is a buzzword to attract people back to urban areas where there might have been toxic issues or environmental issues. In order to attract a certain quality of persons back into the urban centers, cities are “going green.”
But in truth cities are moving the indigenous populations out of areas and in order to attract people back into these areas, they’ve got to assure people that these areas are safe. So when they offer green jobs, those are not necessarily for the indigenous population. Those jobs are really for the new population that’s going to “re-people” these communities.
And so the people who presently live in the community, they’re disregarded. There are no real standards for cleanup of those communities while those people live there.
So in Bayview Hunters Point, the issue is, yes, cleanup – but at what cost? In other words they’ll clean it up but they’ll clean it up at the expense of the current population, and that’s the problem you’re having.
That’s why we have something we call the toxic triangle, which includes Richmond, West Oakland and Hunters Point, because wherever you find these developments, particularly around areas that are former shipyard areas, where there were brownfields, areas where there were industrial parks. Now developers have decided that these areas can be gotten for pennies on the dollar if not for free and turned over to big money greedy developers – the people who live in these areas exposed, cleanup taking place that disregards the health and wellbeing of the current population.
Also there’s a connection between redevelopment and gang activity, redevelopment and shootings, redevelopment and conflict between neighborhoods – because one of the quickest ways to depopulate communities is by encouraging conflict between young people. As the conflicts escalate, the people begin to demand heavy law enforcement response and then that justifies wholesale young men particularly being locked up.
One of the quickest ways to depopulate communities is by encouraging conflict between young people.
And once you lock up wholesale the young men from West Oakland, North Richmond or Hunters Point, then you can relocate the women and children and then get those communities very inexpensively, turn them around, redevelop them and in a few years re-people them and encourage people to come back with the whole notion of green technology – environmentally safe, environmentally correct – as well as a cottage industry for young college professionals etc. to come and be a part of that. So that’s where you have that whole area being directed toward this whole notion of development.
I want to say this point though: A lot of your environmental organizations depend on city, county, state government funding. They also depend on big money foundations. So you’re dealing with corporate entities that finance many of our larger environmental organizations and interests, so many of them are political and politically sensitive to the political landscape.
So nobody wants to offend a mayor who is funding your program. Nobody wants to offend a Rockefeller Foundation or some other entity that’s providing you $100,000 a year to your budget. But they don’t want you to stir up the pot when it comes to certain developments in certain areas.
So this becomes a challenge, particularly since African-Americans and people of color have not been engaged in the environmental arena. It has produced in some respects a paternalistic attitude towards communities of color, where outside entities seem to know what’s best for the people who live there.
But the beauty of our effort here in Hunters Point is the fact that you have an indigenous population of people of color who have taken the lead in this fight, and I’m happy to say other allies from smaller organizations, more organically-developed organizations, more entities that are more purely motivated and independents have joined on in this fight.
But the larger groups who know the truth of what we’re fighting unfortunately are more mindful of not offending Nancy Pelosi or Barbara Boxer or Dianne Feinstein or Gavin Newsom, so they’re afraid to stand with this grassroots effort because they might offend those who have some control and influence over their budget.
DD: Very sobering words and it underscores the nastiness of politics in ways that I think people really need to understand – that when we take on these fights we’re going to have to have some very sophisticated strategies, make sure we’re able to do the things that we need to do because nothing is for free.
And it seems like when you do get stuff, as they say, “More money, more problems.” And part of those problems is that when you get a big chunk of money, somebody is going to hold you accountable – and it’s either going to be the community that you’re supposed to serve or it’s going to be the people who wrote the check.
And I’m not sure we’re always prepared to really engage it in the way we are – even as truthfully and bluntly as you just did – in laying out what the political realities are for a lot of people. To me, I just thought it was a natural connection between the two.
MC: Well, it is a natural connection. I think the problem you’re having is the fixed element of greedy corporate interests that has influenced the political landscape so that anyone running for office, you have the same fight that you have with the criminalization of youth and people of color.
We would not realize or we think when people speak about being tough on crime they’re sincerely motivated about reducing crime, but in fact they’re pushing a party line from the lobby interests of the police unions, the prison guard unions, the corporate development unions and lobbyists. So really you pass laws that sound good but your motive is to do the bidding of those who finance your campaign.
Many of those political people have told us privately, “Look, we know you’re right but if I stand with you and support these efforts, they will target me and get me out of office in two years.” So you’ve got great fear on the part of political people. You’ve got ambitious people who are looking for the next office to continue in order to be successful in the political arena that say money is the mother’s milk of politics.
So when you have a developer, Davey, that has targeted like Lennar does communities all over the country, Lennar’s MO is to come in and buy politicians, buy regulators, buy people of influence. In Hunters Point, many of the preachers have been put on payroll; many of the nonprofit organizations are on payroll – many of them have been bought and paid for. So when it comes time to raise their voice, the voice is muted because you now have been bought by companies like Lennar who can come in, they’re wired, they have a way of doing business and they literally will bankrupt you.
Lennar’s MO is to come in and buy politicians, buy regulators, buy people of influence.
Why is Vallejo bankrupt? It’s because Lennar went in and promised Vallejo they were going to redevelop the Mare Island Shipyard and the City is still waiting on the resources from a promise that Lennar made. So Lennar has a track record of intimidation. They have a track record of buying hungry and greedy politicians. They have a track record of buying greedy leaders or organizations in the community.
So when you rise up and challenge a big entity like Lennar, you are taking on everything that is wired and connected to Lennar, including Nancy Pelosi and Dianne Feinstein, who all have interests in the development through family members, through business associates.
So when we talk about the magnitude of this fight, the number one thing a community needs is truth on your side. Make sure you’re fighting the right fight. And then once you know you have truth on your side, you’ve got to have leadership that loves truth, loves the people and is willing to make whatever sacrifice is necessary to stand on truth and is willing to make whatever commitment is necessary to fight until truth is victorious.
You have to have people who are willing to put their life on the line, personally sacrifice time, money, energy, effort. And you’ve got to have a commitment to a cause bigger than yourself.
Those are the kinds of persons that can lead movements and challenge entities and force powerful principalities to bow down to the will of the people. You need patriots; you need people who are committed to a cause and are willing to commit themselves for the long haul. And if you’re willing to have that Erin Brockovich, Cindy Sheehan, Dr. Martin Luther King-type spirit, then you’re willing to put your life on the line to see something happen for the good of people. Then you will prevail because the arc of the universe is long, Dr. King said, but it bends toward justice.
DD: Man, you really hammered it home and gave us a lot more to think about this afternoon – just how politics works. And I don’t think we fully understand it. I don’t fully understand it all the time. I’m glad you were able to connect the dots with us, giving us a lot to think about. And also the solution, which is that we always have to stand for truth. And that’s the bottom line, because when it gets confusing, that’s all you really do have is the truth. How can we help you out?
MC: Well, we meet every Thursday. We have a Town Hall meeting here in San Francisco at 195 Kiska Road in Bayview Hunters Point every Thursday evening at 7:00 where we come together and organize and inform the community on what’s going on. We also have Town Hall meetings in Oakland every Saturday at 4:00 at Olivet Missionary Baptist Church, 807 27th St. at San Pablo, Oakland. You can reach us at (415) 971-3951.
The Stop Lennar Action Movement is the name of our coalition. It’s made up of organizations and individuals – we’ve connected with others who are fighting this same fight. And I can tell you frankly, Davey, we are winning. Lennar and those who stand with Lennar are learning that they have messed with the wrong community.
So I’m happy to tell your listeners, “Thank you for your support, but you should know the fight that we’re in is a fight that we feel very good about.” And any support they can give us by coming and hearing more about this fight and whatever they can do to help stand with us, we certainly look forward to any support that comes from your listening audience.
Hard Knock Radio is broadcast every weekday at 4 p.m. on KPFA 94.1 FM, streamed at KPFA.org and archived there for the following two weeks. The interview transcribed here was broadcast April 14, 2010. The audio file is posted below.