More than 100 black-clad protesters, many of whom had flown in from across the country, marched in a traditional Louisiana funeral procession from Freedom Plaza to the White House Tuesday. They held signs with the names of loved ones lost to illness due to the industrial pollution that runs rampant in Louisiana’s Cancer Alley.
Debra Ramirez walked about half a block behind the rest of the march, occasionally stopping to rest. A great-grandmother from Mossville, Louisiana, Ramirez struggles with knee problems and had a heart attack just last year.
“I’m determined to make it, I don’t care if I’m the last one,” Ramirez said to a woman marching beside her. “This might be my last march, but I’m going to make it.”
As she walked, Ramirez held an ornate black umbrella and a sign that featured a “death tree” with more than a dozen names of those who had passed on its branches. She’s been involved with the fight for environmental justice in the region since the 1980s.
When she did arrive at the march’s endpoint in front of the White House, Ramirez spoke alongside other advocates to a crowd of protesters that included Louisianans, Texans and others from out of town alongside many DMV locals. The group gathered behind a fake coffin reading simply “R.I.P.”
“I was the last one to get here, but I’m going to be the last one standing,” she said over a megaphone. “All the governmental entities, all the presidents, everybody knew that we were being poisoned. They knew that our people were dying. They knew that they were killing our children.”
The protesters held huge banners demanding President Joe Biden declare a climate emergency and stop approving all fossil fuel projects. Pollution from oil and gas production, as well other industries like plastics production, disproportionately harms Black communities. Cancer Alley, a stretch of land between Baton Rouge and New Orleans, includes more than 150 of these polluting facilities.
Last month, a Louisiana judge blocked a new, huge plastics plant from being built. That victory came after years of organizing from the faith-based environmental justice group Rise St. James, which co-led Tuesday’s D.C. protest alongside the People vs. Fossil Fuels coalition. Shamell Lavigne recalled how that fight began in her mother Sharon Lavigne’s den in 2018.
“Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards basically greenlit that plastics plant, and we know from the other plants already located in St. James Parish, that it was going to basically kill us,” Shamell Lavigne said. “We were like, ‘we have to do something. And we cannot allow this $9.4-billion plastics plant to come into our community.’”
Rise St. James has grown since then, and attracted support throughout environmental and climate justice communities. Rise St. James regularly partners with groups all along the Gulf in Louisiana and Texas impacted by industrial pollution. These areas, like Cancer Alley, have been called “sacrifice zones” because of the high levels of pollution-related illness.
“Our lives are at stake,” Lois Booker Malvo, a resident of Lake Charles, Louisiana and a two-time cancer survivor, said to the crowd. “Stop using us to make money and destroying our lives! We are sick and tired of being killed by industry.”
In spite of the exhaustion and anger, the protest found room for joy—a necessity in continuing the fight. After the speakers finished, the D.C.-based band Too Much Talent played as the crowd sang.
“Victory is mine,” they sang, led by Rise St. James’ Sharon Lavigne. “Joy is mine.”