Remediation, Repair, and Reparations in San Francisco
This paper considers a reparations-based framework for environmental justice, focusing on the remediation of a former military base in San Francisco. The neighborhood surrounding the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard was originally constructed as war worker housing, and it provided homes for thousands of African Americans leaving the Jim Crow south for a better life in cities on the West Coast during and after World War II. In the postwar decades, the predominately Black Hunters Point neighborhood struggled against different forms of state-sanctioned racism, such as police killings and the abandonment of public housing and other infrastructure. The devaluation of Black life in Hunters Point, including toxic exposure to industrial and military pollution, exemplifies how the afterlives of slavery became part of the geography and political ecology of U.S. cities.
Since 1991, when the U.S. Navy announced it would clean up the Hunters Point Shipyard and transfer the land back to the city of San Francisco, neighborhood residents have sought to influence this process—to have a say in what remediation means and who the land is remediated for. In the process, they have struggled against both the military and state environmental agencies, for whom remediation is primarily a technocratic project of reducing and managing toxic risk. For nearly two decades, residents have insisted that remediation at the shipyard is not simply an abstract, technical problem solved through quantitative risk assessments or computer models. Rather, they have demanded a fuller, more expansive notion of remediation which includes acknowledgement and accountability for past and present harms linked to the military base and its toxic legacies. Additionally, they have argued that remediation at the shipyard must take into account the history of racial segregation and environmental exposure in the neighborhood. Collectively, their critiques and demands outline a reparations-based, rather than risk-based, framework for environmental repair.
As historian Robin Kelley has written, throughout U.S. history, social movements for reparations were “never entirely about money,” rather they pursued broad strategies “to radically transform society.” The Movement for Black Lives’ “Reparations Now Toolkit,” includes a demand for reparations “for the wealth extracted from our communities through environmental racism, food apartheid, housing discrimination, and racialized capitalism.” In this paper I argue that reparations can also include the transformation of ecologies and infrastructures. The politics of remediation of the Hunters Point Naval reveals how remediation could be a process of urban environmental repair and reparations for the spatial and ecological legacies of chattel slavery and U.S. war.
Kelley, Robin DG. Freedom dreams: The black radical imagination. Beacon Press, 2002.
The Movement for Black Lives. 2019. “Reparations Now Toolkit.” Retrievable at https://m4bl.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Reparations-Now-Toolkit-FINAL.pdf.
Lindsey Dillon is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at UC Santa Cruz. She is also affiliated with the Community Studies Program, the Environmental Studies Department, and the Science and Justice Research Center. She co-founded and serves on the steering committee of the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative. Her research and writing is deeply engaged with political ecology, feminist geography, critical race theory, and science and technology studies.