By Robert Shobe, Beniteau Resident and Organizer at Detroit People’s Platform
Imagine growing up in a vibrant, close-knit community that is a safe place to raise a family. For years you’ve watched your neighbors grow and thrive in a historically Black neighborhood until a multimillion-dollar construction deal is on the table without any warning or input from you or your neighbors. The corporation holds a press conference on this construction announcement, and only days later, people in power — from corporate leadership to elected officials — rob your community of their land and begin to overlook your needs, disregard your health and safety, and push out the residents that once made up the place you call home.
This is my story. This is the impact of the environmental racism enacted by Fiat-Chrysler, and their inadequate attempt to protect the residents of the neighborhood they severely destroyed.
My name is Robert. I am a 58-year-old longtime Beniteau, Detroit, resident. I am a homeowner, a taxpayer, a father, a cancer patient and one of many people exposed to dangerous air pollutants from a nearby Fiat Chrysler plant every day.
Like many of the residents in Beniteau, Detroit, I have lived here for most of my life. The community I’m a part of is made up of elderly, second-generation Black homeowners with pre-existing conditions and high-risk for COVID-19. Pollution takes a deadly toll on Black people who are exposed to more toxic air pollution than white people. And according to a study, white Americans disproportionately cause air pollution from their service and product consumption. By creating a plant factory in the neighborhood that releases hazardous air pollutants, Fiat Chrysler has worsened our health during the pandemic.
When criticized about the impact of Chrysler’s plant expansion on the local community, they consistently refer to their “Detroiters first-in-line” jobs program. But creating a program for people to work for a company that is harming the health and environment of local residents does not negate Chrysler’s anti-Black, racist corporate behavior.
After George Floyd was murdered, Chrysler CEO, Michael Manley, sent an email to employees claiming that he “emphatically rejects the prejudice and hatred” Black Americans still face in this country. But the fact is, Fiat Chrysler has received roughly 400 million dollars in tax abatements to cover the costs of the plant, which means that Detroiters and other residents across the state are helping to finance this multi-billion dollar corporation — and yet they fail to address the minimal request from mostly Black, elderly, 2nd-generation homeowners for environmental protections for their homes.
Chrysler is taking our tax dollars and destroying our health, our homes and our community. This is a clear reflection of their willingness to profit from environmental racism.
What’s happening in Beniteau isn’t new and Chrysler is no stranger to racism in the workplace. Historically, environmental damages to marginalized communities are overlooked. Just northwest of here in Flint, residents were demanding clean water until last year. What’s happening in my neighborhood is just another case of environmental racism that myself, community members and other organizations have been fighting against for years.
For some time now, I have worked with my neighbors and the Detroit People’s Platform (DPP) to push Chrysler to provide adequate health protections and enforce noise reductions, but our demands have gone unheard. In April 2019, Fiat Chrysler agreed to a community benefits agreement that mandated they renovate 60 nearby homes in a way that would leave me and residents better protected from the increased emissions. As of this moment, they have repaired only a handful of those homes.
We won’t forget that this was intentional from the beginning — there was no opportunity for residents in the neighborhood to have an input, and there were no environmental or construction reports completed to show how much the plant would impact us.
The community members of Beniteau, Detroit, and I deserve to be heard, and a corporation that recently merged with “the fourth-largest automaker in the world” has the resources to meet our demands. We need money to make repairs and replace roofs, windows, furnaces, air filtration systems and other tools to keep us safe and breathing clean air — and we deserve the opportunity and payment to relocate if desired. I refuse to watch my community continue to be ignored and pushed out while Fiat Chrysler actively seeks to secure a new air pollution permit to expand its Jefferson North and Mack Avenue complex, which would increase emissions and pollution in Beniteau, if approved. This is unacceptable.
I think it’s time the world knows that Chrysler doesn’t respect their neighbors.
That’s why I’m taking a stand with Detroit People’s Platform, my community and racial justice organizations like Color Of Change to urge Chrysler to commit to a renegotiation of additional environmental and health protections for those of us who will be most impacted by the expansion of Fiat Chrysler’s North Jefferson Plant in Detroit.