Op-Ed: To Protect Our Environment, We Must Protect Our Democracy

Protesters in Santa Monica tell Obama no to Keystone XL. (Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

serves on the Sierra Club Board of Directors and is a New York League of Conservation Voters Board Member.

We at the Sierra Club are proud to describe ourselves as the nation’s largest grassroots environmental organization. Across the country, our 2.1 million members and supporters are engaged in some of the toughest fights imaginable against some of the most powerful adversaries on the map.

In Detroit, our activists are organizing to stand up to Marathon Petroleum and its filthy tar sands refinery, which is dumping pollutants into the air our families breathe when it isn’t bursting into flames and endangering nearby homes and businesses. In Nebraska, we’re working with ranchers and farmers who don’t want their land seized and ruined so that big oil companies can build the dirty and dangerous Keystone XL tar sands pipeline in their backyards. And, in Nevada, we’ve stood side-by-side with the Moapa Band of Paiutes, who’ve had enough of a nearby coal plant poisoning the air and making their kids sick.

At the heart of everything we do is our belief in the power of people to stand up to big polluters, big corporations, and big bullies who’d rather we just shut up. We are emboldened by our numbers, and we are empowered by the rights at the core of our democracy. We know that the best tool we have to protect our air, our water, our communities, and our families is our votes.  

Sierra Club members know that an assault on our voting rights is an assault on our environment. It’s simple: To protect our environment, we must protect our democracy.

The fundamental truth that our votes are our voices was one of the driving forces behind the March on Washington that brought hundreds of thousands of Americans to our nation’s capital 50 years ago. Leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr., who demanded equality before the law, and the millions who joined that call, recognized that when Americans are shut out of the right to vote, our representatives are no longer representative and our politicians are no longer accountable.

But it is not just those pushing for change and progress that recognize the power of the vote—it is our adversaries as well. They know that shutting us out means muzzling our calls to action and shelving our priorities.

Much has changed since Dr. King told us of his dream from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. But, frighteningly, much has stayed the same. For millions of Americans, the right to vote is under assault. This summer, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, decimating one of the Civil Rights Movement’s most important achievements and revoking the federal protections that keep local jurisdictions from passing unfair restrictions of voting rights. It’s not an abstract threat. Across the country, at least 80 pieces of voter suppression legislation have been introduced since then.

What’s worse is that so many of the Americans targeted by suppression efforts are the same ones already subject to assaults on their air and water. In Texas, where low-income communities of color are fighting the tar sands refineries that are poisoning their families, discriminatory new voting laws are on the books.

Of course, it’s no coincidence that the same interests pushing these dirty policies are pushing dirty politics. The Koch brothers—fueled by extensive oil profits—have funded nationwide networks advocating for voter suppression laws across the country.

In the fight for a clean environment and a strong democracy, we don’t just have common enemies, we have common goals. The fight for a healthy planet begins with a healthy democracy that lets Americans speak out to protect our air, our water, and our communities from polluters who’d prefer that no one go to the polls at all.

As an African-American civil rights activist and Sierra Club environmental leader, I have direct expertise in how political rule-making can harm an entire segment of our society. Environmental legislative injustices occur when Americans are denied the freedom to elect candidates of their choice due to everything from voting suppression laws to political gerrymandering. Environmental and Civil Rights leaders, like myself, came together in Albany, NY in the Arbor Hill v. Albany County case to protect voter rights; and we are here to affirm the power of this relationship to preserve these civil rights gains for future generations.

That’s why Sierra Club members and supporters will be among the thousands commemorating the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington this week. It’s why we are organizing to fight voter-suppression laws across the country. And it’s why we are joining the call to demand Congress take action to restore the Voting Rights Act. Nothing short of the future of our planet is at stake.

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