The chemical plants that make up the Louisville neighborhood known as Rubbertown have been around since World War II, when the federal government selected the city to satisfy an increased demand for rubber.
Now, almost 80 years later, as Louisville has been rocked by daily “Black Lives Matter” protests, Black leaders and activists remember the city’s decades-long struggle for environmental justice. With Louisville’s history of segregation and smokestack pollution, the demonstrators’ rallying cry of “I can’t breathe”—George Floyd’s last words before his death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer in May—has long resonated here among Rubbertown residents choking on polluted air.
Responding to calls for environmental justice, Louisville enacted a landmark toxic air reduction program in 2005 that has dramatically reduced air pollution. But some neighborhoods still suffer from dirty air and shorter lifespans.
Environmental justice arose as an issue in Kentucky this spring in the aftermath of Floyd’s death and that of Breonna Taylor, killed by Louisville police in March, as the state Rep. Charles Booker made a late surge against front-runner and retired fighter pilot Amy McGrath in Tuesday’s Democratic primary. The winner will challenge Senate Majority leader Mitch McConnell in November. Booker, 35, grew up in the shadow of the Rubbertown smokestacks, and made environmental justice part of his campaign, along with support for the Green New Deal and other progressive causes.
“The communities that have been marginalized and harmed the most have to be in a position of decision making and lead the way forward,” Booker said. “I am encouraged, as painful as this moment is. We have to look at this holistically.”
InsideClimate News Southeast Reporter James Bruggers wrote this week about how Louisville’s long quest for environmental justice still animates that city’s politics—and played a role in the Kentucky primary.
INSIDE InsideClimate News is an ongoing series of conversations with our newsroom’s journalists and editors. It’s a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into reporting and crafting our award-winning stories and projects. Watch more of them here.