Banned Books Back! & We Are All Sacrifice Zones

Featuring Libertie Valance, Cindy Barukh Milstein, and Nicole Fabricant

by Kate Horgan
Published: Updated:
The Project Censored Show
The Official Project Censored Show
Banned Books Back! & We Are All Sacrifice Zones

In the first half of the show, Libertie Valance and Cindy Barukh Milstein join host Eleanor Goldfield to talk about how a small coop bookshop in Asheville, NC came to be the keeper of more than 20,000 youth books banned in Florida, the emergence of the Banned Books Back! initiative, and how a growing connection of people across state lines are finding creative ways to circumvent the rise of book bans. Next up, professor, author and organizer Nicole Fabricant joins the show to talk to us about Curtis Bay: a sacrifice zone microcosm, one that is mirrored all over the nation and indeed the world. Nicole highlights how primarily black and brown communities are overburdened not just by pollution and corporate malfeasance but by the need to become their own scientists, doctors and advocates. She shares powerful stories of autonomous youth organizing, and how we are in fact, all sacrificed to corporate greed.



Libertie Valance and Cindy Barukh Milstein work at Firestorm, an anarchist co-op bookstore in Asheville, NC. Their bookstore accepted 22,500 copies of books banned from Duval County elementary schools, and are donating the books to families in Duval County. Many of the banned titles feature Black, Brown, Asian, Indigenous or LGBT characters. More information is available at the bookstore’s web site. Nicole Fabricant teaches at Towson University in the Baltimore area. She’s the author of Fighting to Breathe: Race, Toxicity and the Rise of Youth Activism In Baltimore.

Video of the Interview with Libertie Valance and Cindy Barukh Milstein

Video of the Interview with Nicole Fabricant

Below is a Rough Transcript of the Interview with Libertie Valance and Cindy Barukh Milstein

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Eleanor Goldfield: Thanks so much for joining us, y’all, at the Project Censored radio show. We’re very glad right now to be joined by Libertie Vallance and Cindy Barukh Milstein. Libertie grew up in Southern Appalachia and is a founding member of the Firestorm Collective in Asheville, North Carolina.

They have been involved in radical projects from open source software to mass mobilizations for nearly 25 years. At Firestorm, their current focus is on coordinating and facilitating community events.

Cindy Barukh Milstein is a diasporic queer Jewish anarchist and long time organizer, especially of do it ourselves spaces and imaginative alternatives.

They’ve authored and edited numerous books, ranging from Try Anarchism for Life to Rebellious Mourning and the forthcoming Constellations of Care, Anarcho Feminism in Practice.

Thanks both for joining us so much.

Libertie Valance: Yeah, thanks for having us. Thanks.

Eleanor Goldfield: So, Firestorm, for those listening who have not had the privilege of being there, is a rad co op bookstore in Asheville, North Carolina. It’s not a huge operation, and it’s certainly not like a chain of bookstores, and yet y’all came to be the keepers of more than 22,000 books, which includes some 47 titles banned by the Duval County Public School System in Florida, a school system where 70 percent of students are not white and 40 percent of students are poor.

Can you explain how these books came to y’all?

Libertie Valance: Yeah. Do you want me to start with them? Okay. So, a pretty weird story. There isn’t really anything we did to make it happen. It was sort of a coincidence. But a contractor who was tasked with removing the books from the school system was getting in touch with bookstores apparently in the southeast looking for a new home for these titles, and not having much luck.

And I guess progressively reaching out to bookstores further and further away from Duval County, but kind of specifically contacting queer and trans owned bookstores or progressive bookstores. And by the time that he had contacted us, we were told basically, you have a week to make the decision on this,

Libertie Valance: and if you say no, the books are going to be pulped. So it put a lot of pressure on us to say yes.

And of course, we were excited about the possibility, just as we were sort of horrified by the implication of all these books that had been really stolen from kids. And so that was the genesis of the project. From there, there’s a lot of brainstorming around what to do with the titles, and it pretty quickly became clear in conversations that we were having both internally and with friends outside of our collective, including Milstein, that the correct thing to do with these books was to try and get them back to kids in Florida.

Cindy Barukh Milstein: Yeah. We were actually staying at a mutual friend’s house who has another independent anarchist bookstore in the Atlanta area. Didn’t at the time, but we were at a book fair, and I remember us, we’re just hanging around the house after the book fair about Libertie going, “Oh, we’ve got these books, I’m not sure we’re going to, you know, we have to think of some creative way to think about getting them back.”

And so we started throwing out ideas, and I just got more and more excited, both of us seeing the potential out of this horrible situation where the state that has by far the most amount of book banning that relates to clearly so much horrible legislation and policies and implementation of those policies, such as Duval getting literally just scared of these titles and deciding they wanted to not accept these huge books, which are basically new.

So yeah, we’re just thinking what do you do at this moment of rising fascism, in which book bans are connected to attacks on humans , you know, people of color, queer people, trans people, a lot of other people.

Anyway, long story, we’re just sitting around the table, we started getting enthused about the idea of how to make this project get books back to kids in Florida, but also think about connecting it to what’s going on in the world right now, specifically in Florida.

But anyway, it was just kind of this conversation. And then I was like, Oh, I’d love to help with that. But it kind of got delayed because Firestorm was doing another huge project, which was renovating a space and moving so, fast forward then Firestorm asked if I would help out. It’s been great. And we sat around doing a lot of brainstorming, as you mentioned, to come up with this idea of Banned Books Back! as a title which is kind of an homage to Bash Back, which was queer and trans and other non gender conforming folks who were like, we don’t have to take the attacks on us sitting down, we can fight back and resist, and the sort of sub tag, which is “trash fascism, not books” to kind of get at the fact that these books would basically be destroyed if they were not sent back to kids hands in Florida.

Libertie Valance: Yeah, and we’ve got some of the books here that we could actually share and show you, just a few that we grabbed from our samples box. Here’s

Libertie Valance: a poetry collection by a Palestinian-American author that’s targeted at a middle grade audience.

Cindy Barukh Milstein: Just relates to another book, a second book on Palestine.

Kind of an older title.

Libertie Valance: Yeah. Got some copies of The Night Diary, which is actually one of our, a staff favorite. And then an enormous number of books that are focused on LGBT history, or individuals. So, here’s a book on the Stonewall Riots, another, another one that was actually already a bit of a staff favorite, Julian is a Mermaid, folks may be familiar with. And some books on radical organizing history, like Memphis, Martin, and the Mountaintop on the Sanitation Workers Strike, which, of course, covers the assassination of King in both prose and poetry.

So, it’s a really a range of books, and some of them have content that’s very powerful, and some of them have content that’s very benign, and it’s almost difficult to kind of guess as to why they were removed.

Cindy Barukh Milstein: Yeah, I think that’s what’s been kind of poignant is we started coming to the conclusion that some of the books you have no idea why they would even be objectionable. Some of them are just kind of basic stories that a lot of people look to fondly and warmly about the history of the United States, like the Civil Rights movement, you know. And because they’re written for kids, they’re very, you know, I was looking at one of them yesterday that was talking about desegregation and it kind of ends with, wow, it’s so great to be in a classroom with a whole bunch of other kids who look all different ways together. And that’s the end, you know, and we’re just like, wow, that simple message that it’s okay to be around other people that don’t look like you is a threat.

Eleanor Goldfield: So basically it seems like anything that doesn’t uplift a white cis, a white supremacist, cis American exceptional perspective is dangerous.

Libertie Valance: Yeah, it is really striking that so many of these books seem to have been removed simply to erase the identities of the protagonists or the authors. You know, we’re a radical bookstore. We stock a wide range of things, including some kids books that I think are genuinely pretty subversive.

A lot of these are books that we would not have ever put on our shelves. They’re titles that perhaps aren’t written as political or social interventions. They’re just simply stories that are written for children about other children, whether they’re Native American or black or queer.

It drives home the point that I think any representation outside of that kind of cis, heteronormative, like white supremacist, Christian supremacist identity really don’t have a place right now in the Florida school system.

Cindy Barukh Milstein: Yeah. Yeah, I was looking at one the other day too that was looking at different ways people celebrate their holidays in their own tradition and whether you’re Muslim or Jewish or black, you know, it was like all these simple, and there’s a book that we found a few copies of that’s about Ramadan. And so, yeah, even books about folks coming from other places, Southeast Asia, India, and just how they feel about trying to fit in and make friends, kind of just the basic stories.

I was really struck by a lot of them are just like, and now I have friends that are different than me. So again, they’re not, there are very few of these books that are anywhere near radical or explicitly subversive in the way that people might understand, or that the far right might understand when they’re like, oh, these books are banned for a reason, you know, and you look at them, they’re just kind of the, a lot of them are the warmest and fuzziest of messages if you are not someone who’s a white cis, christian, often male, yeah, heteronormative…

Eleanor Goldfield: I’m just thinking from a personal perspective. I mean, I’m in Baltimore and we have a rad bookstore called Red Emma’s here. And I take my son there. He’s two. And there are a lot of books that are not, they don’t have characters that look like him, but I love these books. They’re great. I’m not offended by him reading a book about Indigenous people saying we’re water protectors. That’s such a rad message. And it’s so important. What kind of absolute monster would I be if I’m like, that’s offensive. What? That’s so absurd. But that’s the United States.

So, I’m just curious. I was thinking about this when y’all were speaking. You got these books from Duval County. Are there more on the chop block? Like, is Firestorm now like this beacon of send your banned books here and they will be redistributed?

Libertie Valance: We don’t know if anyone else will do that, but like I said, because we didn’t create this opportunity, we just sort of seized on it, and as a result, it’s not necessarily something that we can recreate, or it’s not a model. It’s not Food Not Bombs, we can’t be like, every city should have a Banned Books Back, because, you know, step one is acquire thousands of books for free so, I don’t know how we repeat that. But, you know, certainly, if anybody wanted to send us more books, we would do our best to get them out into the world.

Cindy Barukh Milstein: I think the other thing it points to, though, is, and I feel really proud of this, about this project, taking situations that are horrible and coming up with an imaginative response to it that highlights both the contestation of the horrific shifts that are going on on this continent, that were already in progress but are worsening, but also offering people a vision of some other way to relate to each other and to live and so I really appreciate this project because it’s, you know, us brainstorming to come up with a creative response that doesn’t hide the fact that this is connected to attacks on, not just books, but ultimately people’s bodies and lives and cultures.

And we do that in a way that is so, for lack of a better term, positive or good news. I mean, I’ve been so struck by just hundreds and hundreds of people that are like, this gives me hope. This makes me feel a sense of promise. We’ve been especially heartened, because everything’s gone back to Florida, is people writing and saying, there’s so many of us fighting here. Thank you for recognizing that. Thank you for recognizing. Thank you for creating this project.

And so I think it isn’t just about Firestorm getting another batch of books and doing something, but it’s about everyone who’s facing these things coming up with different other imaginative ways to respond that don’t hide what they’re in reaction to.

Like we debated a long time about whether or how explicit to be about the politics behind this.

Cindy Barukh Milstein: And I’m really proud that we went with both warm and fuzzy and being explicit at the same time. And people are really responding to that. I mean, I’ve really been struck by folks getting these books in Florida, they know what is going on there. And we’ve sent so many books to little libraries, which we could talk about, but so many of them were already like,

Cindy Barukh Milstein: oh, I’ve already been doing a little library that’s focused on banned books or I’ve been wanting to, or I want to do one in honor of people that I know who don’t have the ability to do this, and I want to do it to reach out specifically to marginalized kids, you know, whether they’re queer kids or low income kids, migrant refugee kids, kids of color.

A lot of people have been very self aware about what they are doing in creative ways to distribute them once we get them into their hands because they’re ultimately the ones doing the very direct work of getting the books back.

Eleanor Goldfield: That’s great. Like a cluster of beautiful microcosms.

So talk a little bit about that. Talk a little bit about the workflow, what does the actual getting banned books back look like?

Libertie Valance: Yeah, so I guess we’re kind of taking a two pronged approach. One is that we are sending book bundles directly to kids. So we’ve got an online form that kids and adults can fill out on behalf of a kid in Florida, specifying an age range and then that kind of queues people up to receive free books, and we’ve got a whole workflow for that.

And then in parallel to that, we also have been accepting partner requests where organizations on the ground in Florida can request books, and then of course we’re sending larger quantities to those folks.

Our very first partner organization was folks in the Mutual Aid Disaster Relief Network who of course have lots of experience distributing grassroots supplies and resources. So they were a natural fit. But since then we’ve additionally partnered with local pride organizations, religious institutions, a lot of little free libraries.

Cindy Barukh Milstein: Yeah, Food Not Bombs in Jacksonville, which is within the county they came from. And they’re distributing food and books, which is great, freely.

Libertie Valance: Yeah, so kind of doing that multi pronged approach, recognizing that we can send books directly to kids, but that ultimately folks on the ground are going to reach kids that we can’t. And sending individual packages is pretty labor intensive. So it’s great to be able to take that large quantity of books and kind of split it and do a lower intensity distribution strategy to pass off to some partners while also doing the very kind of intimate work of putting together little boxes for individual children.

And that work has been accomplished so far and will continue at community volunteer packaging days. So we’ve had 2 so far. We’ve got a 3rd one that will be specifically for youth volunteers. I know we’ve got an entire Girl Scout troop coming to help package boxes on next Thursday.

Cindy Barukh Milstein: A very queer, trans inclusive Girl Scout troop, too.

Libertie Valance: Yep. That’ll be a lot of fun. We’ve had a few other young folks participate, but it’ll be our first packaging party that’s really focused on kids sending books to kids, which I think is a really cool development.

Those packaging parties have been a lot of fun. They look like giving people essentially a packing list, and saying, each box gets X number of books in whatever format. And then we throw in goodies, like, every box is getting one of these: I’m a Unicorn and I like To Fight, A Kid’s Guide to Standing Up To Fascism and Bullies from our friends at Eternia Press.

Cindy Barukh Milstein: And they kindly let us print that and distribute it for free. It’s something they usually sell.

Libertie Valance: And we’ve got our little trash fascism, not books possum sticker. And then a zine that we wrote that’s sort of more oriented towards adults and allies, which is sort of just a short history and explanation of what the Banned Books Back project is.

Cindy Barukh Milstein: Oh, we forgot to grab to show, we have two really brief little half sheets that are critical reading guides. One goes with the picture books and it’s assuming that an adult will probably be sitting with a child and reading the book. Because I think part of book bans is, you know, trying to discourage critical thought. And we were like, Oh, we’re sending these books. How can we do that and get people to read them with a sharp eye?

And then we have a critical reading guide for kids that goes along with the chapter books packages. And those are the two types of children’s books we have. And, we assume a kid’s like curling up on their bed on their own or in a chair or outside and reading their own book and that, you know, they can read along with some questions to think critically to.

Libertie Valance: Yeah. And then we’ve just got our little hashtag sticker there that we’re throwing on the boxes so that when folks receive their boxes, if they want, they can participate in posting a photo on social media about them and hopefully get the word out to more folks.

Cindy Barukh Milstein: Yeah, and that’s been really sweet to see people with their books, you know, or the kids reading after they’ve gotten them so we have, there’s a connection to see the books, who they’re getting to as well.

Yeah, I want to say about the individual book bundles. You know, they’re all people requesting them from us, and we are not sharing the data.

So it’s been really beautiful at the packaging parties, just the enthusiasm for doing this also and one thing we kind of tell people when we’re orienting people to how to pack up a box is, there’s no rush. We’re not in a hurry. Think about this as if you were packaging a gift for a child in your life. And, you know, put as much love and care into that, and then during our youth packaging party, we’re going to add a little thing to the boxes, which I think is going to be a great idea we just came up with yesterday, which is “this box is packed by” and then have a place for the youth to write their name or draw a little picture, whatever they want, you know, throw it into the boxes too, which I will probably use at other packaging parties after this.

Libertie Valance: Yeah, but to kind of reinforce the idea that there are people behind this and it’s about creating connections across state lines of solidarity.

And I think that is something that’s been really important to us and something that I think that very first piece of media that we got from Autostraddle really hit on, which is that underlying this project is the idea that spaces that are under attack, and spaces in which fascists have secured a significant amount of power are places that require solidarity and support and not abandonment.

And I think it’s really easy, particularly, I think, for liberal folks who are not in the South or not in Florida to have a somewhat smug attitude about book banning, when the reality is that book bans are happening all over the country, and the phenomena, that people are living through and surviving in Florida, it’s not unique to Florida, and, I think it really, it calls on all of us to really step up our solidarity, rather than writing off sections of the country as if they didn’t have, you know, beautiful queer and BIPOC communities engaged in daily acts of resistance on the ground.

Just because that’s not what’s in the media, I think it’s easy to forget, perhaps, especially for folks who don’t have ties to those communities, how vibrant, and also how on the front lines these communities are, and when we think about what resistance looks like, I think a lot of times we should be taking cues from these communities rather than assuming that because they are in sort of the hot spot for repression, they don’t have something to offer.

Cindy Barukh Milstein: No, I think that’s an especially important part of this story, and hopefully we’ll write it up someday: to think about the whole process of this, including the people in Florida who are resisting and fighting and what that says for other places across the continent, for the kinds of struggles they might want to imagine.

So as Libertie touched on it also really underlines how this project was this great fit for Firestorm, it’s serendipitous that the contractor found it, but I also don’t think it’s an accident that Firestorm said yes, because of the values underlying it. I mean that sort of was the first thing is like what values want to be brought up in doing this, as opposed to just, you know, kind of a liberal project. We’re just sending back a thing, you know, versus this is about the social relationships of solidarity, mutual aid, forms of direct action and resistance that are also pointing toward different forms of doing things that more reflect the kinds of worlds we want to see. And I feel like we’ve kept those values in mind the whole way, you know, like the social relational qualities, solidarity . And that’s, I think, especially important at this time period in human history.

It’s been really poignant and hard and sad to be doing this at a time when there’s a genocide going on and when queer Indigenous youth like Nex were murdered and we could go on and on about the list of things that feel horrific and are hurting our hearts and, and yet here we’re able to send out books in a way that it’s just been, it really has been striking how many people feel a sense of heart with this project and we’re able to get books back that reflect some of those different values of how people can treat each other.

Cindy Barukh Milstein: Even as I was saying earlier, some of the books are just like, oh, I can have a friend who’s trans or a parent who’s queer or be in a classroom with kids of every culture and color and gender and faith. That’s a huge message right now in a time period when we’re being told that that’s something that can get you hurt or killed.

Eleanor Goldfield: Yeah, absolutely. And I think what’s so powerful there too is, I mean, Cindy, you mentioned the guides, there’s like a de schooling or an unschooling aspect to this where it’s like, you are circumventing the entire schooling industrial complex that’s trying to erase entire cultures and entire peoples, and you’re circumventing that through this project, which I think is so incredibly powerful.

Cindy Barukh Milstein: Yeah, we didn’t actually mention that, but maybe I’ll just shout out another aspect of this project is , to borrow the title of a friend of ours, carla bergman’s book, Trust Kids, youth liberation is another big value underlying this. And thank you for pointing out the de schooling and unschooling part of it. Anecdotally, some folks who’ve written for some of the book packets or to partner have been teachers that have had to leave the schools because they can’t stand how education is going or people just talking about how this book wouldn’t be allowed, I’m so glad I can bring this to my child because it wouldn’t be allowed in the school, et cetera.

Libertie Valance: And there’s a particular way I think that we talk about book bans in the United States oftentimes, which I think as anarchists, and as anti fascists, we find really inadequate.

So I think the popular discourse around book banning is that it is essentially a struggle between parents and the state or the state’s agents, whether that’s librarians or teachers, and so the liberal narrative is that the state is good and we should trust the state. And parents are being awful, and we need to support our librarians and our teachers in a fight, you know the on the front lines in this fight against these very reactionary parents groups.

And I think what’s missing from that of course is the actual kids and understanding that it is true that there are a lot of small minded parents in the world. There’s also a lot of incredible parents and similarly there are incredible librarians, incredible teachers and there’s many people who have had the experience of being excluded, marginalized, or gate kept by those institutions as well. And ultimately what liberation looks like is trusting kids and finding ways to include kids in the process of their own liberation.

And that’s a thing that is a little tricky, especially when you’re an adult who doesn’t have kids in your life, you know, in your home or those direct care relationships. But it’s something that’s really important to us.

Eleanor Goldfield: Yeah, absolutely. And I’m curious, I mean, you mentioned the Girl Scouts coming, but what has been the response from youth, either in your community or youth that have heard about this going on?

What has been some of the response from kids who might also be wanting to read these books or have read these books?

Libertie Valance: Yeah, so this upcoming Thursday Youth Packaging Party will be our first explicitly youth oriented packaging party. And so in some ways, this is a little TBD. Of the younger folks who have participated, there’s been a lot of enthusiasm. We haven’t had preteens or like much younger folks involved yet on this end of things. And of course, a lot of the feedback that we’re getting is being kind of mediated by families and parents and other adults in kids lives in terms of kids in Florida who are receiving the books.

But I think just more generally,

as a bookstore, I can say that we see kids every day have their world blown open by access to books. You know, a book, especially for a slightly older kid, a book is a really powerful thing because it’s a space for a kid to explore an idea unmediated by the adults in that kid’s life.

So, I think that’s both what makes books so scary to the far right, because it circumvents the power structure that kind of the entire, like, Christian nationalist world is built on, the idea of the nuclear family, and at the same time, I think, makes it so liberatory and exciting for our youth and their allies.

I think there’s interesting dynamics there. I think about books that kids have really been enthused about, and a lot of times they are books that are maybe right on the edge there of being like forbidden knowledge. So, there’s a book we stock named Sex is a Funny Word. And it’s it’s kind of a sex ed book that, you know, it’s not about sex per se. It’s about all the other things related to bodies and boundaries and crushes and all of this stuff. And it’s written in a very inclusive way. It’s actually an author illustrator duo who we adore. And I remember when we first got this book within a week or so of putting it on the shelves, I had the experience of watching a group of, maybe 11 or 12 year olds come into the bookstore and find this book and then just glom on to it.

Like these kids just got in a little circle and huddled on the floor and were reading it together, you know, like it was the most exciting thing they had ever found. And the adults in their lives who brought them there were of course tickled because they had brought them to the anarchist bookstore, so they weren’t trying to avoid, you know, having their kids learn any of these things.

But it was a really magical experience. And I think an interesting thing, though, is that we also can see the way in which kids are being trained to be gatekeepers for themselves and for others, and to kind of reinforce regimes of censorship.

So, the same book interestingly, we have taken to some school book fairs. And Firestorm before 2020 when we posted a lot about the police, we used to get invited to do book fairs in the public school system. So there was a window of two or three years where the anarchist bookstore was the official vendor and creator of school book fairs for a couple schools in Asheville, North Carolina. Yeah. Which is pretty great. And, you know, we brought cool stuff. And I think parents and kids really all appreciated it a lot.

But I do remember that that same book, Sex is a Funny Word, was one of the ones that we took to a local elementary school. And, I remember halfway through the day, there was a kid who sort of self appointed as a book cop, and started telling other kids that they should not look at this book, that it was inappropriate for them to. And mind you, these are kids who are the correct age for this book, right?

This is a book For 8 to 13 year olds, and this is a 10 year old telling other 10 year olds, like, you’re not allowed to read this. It’s not appropriate. And it really, we laughed about it, but we also were like, wow, it’s amazing how aggressively the drive to restrict knowledge and censor your peers is drilled into kids, even at a young age.

You know, and here was a kid who didn’t really know what the content of the book was, hadn’t read, similar to the people who are banning all of these books in Florida, they may not even know what’s really in the book. But it is, it is fascinating the way that society imprints that onto young people.

Cindy Barukh Milstein: So, yeah, to your point at the beginning, Eleanor where you’re like, you take your child into Red Emma’s, and even just the fact that children’s books now have such a vast array of the whole of humanity represented on pages of books.

I feel like sometimes we don’t necessarily know because parents don’t want their kids to be posting or sharing stories, they wanna do it for them. So you don’t necessarily know directly what kids think, but I also have just been really struck by at Firestorm watching people who come in, parents and some friends of mine who are grandparents who came in and they were just like, we know we can come into this space, and even if we don’t know the right book to get for our kids, we know that any book we pick here will help to open up their minds to whole different parts of humanity. I think that’s a big deal right now. I was really struck by that couple looking for books because they were like, we can trust in anarchist, feminist, queer bookstores, and the authors that are creating those books, and trust the kids we give them to.

That really struck me, you know, to do that and maybe to come back to what Libertie was just talking about, that kind of real powerful dichotomy of how young kids take on the values of the society they’re in, which I think is why so important books that seem almost innocuous sometimes but then show kids that they can think for themselves or pick their own friends, fight back against fascism. But I think that’s really huge because the book is so different than social media where you open up and words allow your mind to create your own pictures and to think with it and through it and imagine something different.

And right now in human history, we really need to be imagining a lot of things differently.

Libertie Valance: And, and kids are really good at that when they’re not being told to shut that down.

Eleanor Goldfield: Yeah. Yeah. Right. And of course, they’re rewarded for that cop behavior. Like, I’m sure he got big high fives or a lot of gratitude from teachers or parents that were like, that was so good that you shut people away from that. It becomes the reward system for sure.

So kind of wrapping up here, I mean, obviously, this, as you pointed out, this is a unique situation, but it’s also, of course, not in the sense that books are being banned across the country, and even where they’re not being banned, the access to those books, even if they’re not officially banned, can sometimes be very restrictive.

What do you feel as a radical bookstore, what do you feel that other bookstores could do to circumvent these bans? Or not even bookstores, but as you mentioned like little libraries, what can folks in communities do to combat the banning of books?

Cindy Barukh Milstein: Yeah, I mean, you know, there’s so many different ways. I would hope that, again, I really want to encourage people to sit down with a few people in their face to face relationships, whether they’re a bookstore, a little library, you know, event space, and just dream up all sorts of interesting, innovative ways to do that.

Some of the ones we’ve heard about are, as I mentioned, like various little libraries are curating their little libraries to be specifically books that are banned.

But, you could go farther than that and folks doing that with little libraries could do little community gatherings around them and talk about the books or put together, like we did, a zine describing through their lens why they think it’s important. I know a lot of radical anarchist indie bookstores always are doing events, face to face and virtual events, and using those events to highlight the importance of ideas and critical thought, and pointing to some of the books that are banned as part of that.


Cindy Barukh Milstein: But I think it’s bigger than just the books, you know, it’s like connecting again, which books seem to be the target? Unfortunately, the United States, if you look at the list of books that are banned, right, it’s in the thousands, and they’re the whole range of things.

So again, you could probably go to most bookstores and you would see banned books there. I think it’s contextualizing the political climate at the same time. Someone has, I think, mentioned to us in contact that they were thinking of starting a bookstore in Jacksonville, Florida that would just sell banned books. And also someone reached out and said they’re in a completely different region of the United States, and they were like, oh, I think there’s been books being pulled off shelves in the school district I’m in, I’m going to look into it, and if I do, could we talk to you about trying to do a project similarly where we are?

So, you know, people could go into their own communities and try to figure out what’s happening to books that seem to be disappearing, and potentially, you know, do some creative projects.

So I just feel like there’s so many different ways to begin to reimagine what it would look like to do this and tie it to the actual harm that’s happening to people.

Because , take five minutes if you’re, if you’re interested, if anyone searches the history of book banning, books have been banned since pretty much the beginning of time of there being books, whenever there’s been any kind of authoritarian, fascist, dictator, any kind of regime that wants to control people around a single, valued cluster of identity, they always have banned books. They’ve burned books. They’ve burned libraries. We see that right now in Gaza, archives, libraries. That is nothing new, sadly.

Libertie Valance: And they don’t ever stop there.

Cindy Barukh Milstein: Yeah. And that’s the other lesson you get when you look, even if for five minutes, it never stops. You know, people point to the Nazis burned books in 1933 and look what that led to.

And those books happened to be from a queer archive that was at the forefront of, you know, gay and homosexual space and queer and trans, like different language at that time. But, those were queer and trans books that were burned by Nazis in public in giant bonfires and people point to that as the only time that’s ever happened. And that was a horrific, egregious moment and horrors came out of that moment. But we see that repeatedly through history.

So us intervening on this level, it isn’t just the book bans, but actually turning back the tide on book bans can have the opposite effect, which is what I wanted to get at. It keeps people’s minds open. It keeps people feeling like they can resist and rebel and ask for and create their own better world in the here and now. And so I think there’s something really important about these book bans right now. If you look at the United States, it’s astonishing in the last couple of years, how many books have been banned.

And if you see the shifts in, you know, the culture and the politics, It goes hand in hand.

Libertie Valance: And in terms of bookstores, obviously there’s a lot of bookstores who are like, we’re gonna make banned books displays, we’re gonna sell these books that have been banned, and I think that’s fine. But I think it’s ultimately not a particularly compelling form of resistance. It’s a sort of neoliberal approach to book banning to be like, you know, we’re going to make these books available to anyone who can pay for them.

So ultimately I think the thing that bookstores can offer that’s more powerful than selling banned books, which of course is good and fine, is to create space and to build community and that sense of solidarity. And I know for a lot of queer and marginalized kids, access to libraries and bookstores is so crucial to having that sense of a safe space to explore and to not feel judged and to feel welcome.

And I think bookstores can offer that, and can also be involved in creating patterns of resistance and community relationships and things like that.

I have historically not been particularly interested in Little Free Libraries, and when we first started getting contacted by Little Free Libraries, I rolled my eyes a lot about it because my experience with Little Free Libraries previously was that they often exist in affluent neighborhoods, and that they exist sometimes almost as sort of a status project or something, sort of like a look how liberal and open minded we are, like, how much we love to read. We have this little underutilized birdhouse that’s been built for books.

And so it took me a minute to come around to the idea of sending a lot of these books to Little Free Libraries. But I think what we’ve learned is that there are people who are taking that idea of the Little Free Library and doing something really rad with it.

And in some ways, it is actually kind of brilliant because deployed in the right way, in the right space, a little free library is this sort of unmediated intervention into book access at the neighborhood level. And so when we started to realize that a lot of these little free libraries are actually located in low income neighborhoods and in very accessible spaces like near parks and like on public streets where kids are walking, and or next to school, at that point it starts to shift a little bit and you’re like oh this isn’t just like a status project from from affluent white people in the suburbs. This is like actually a really shrewd mechanism of reaching and supporting readers, and young folks.

And that’s been fun to see. And maybe it’s also a good reminder that everything is so contextual. So, a form of resistance that looks very passé in one space actually has so much potential in another.

Cindy Barukh Milstein: And I guess the other thing I want to add to this is, you know, we were really committed, these books were gifted to us freely and we’re like, we’re going to get them back to people freely. And so, we have done a lot of fundraising to make that happen through hundreds and hundreds of people who’ve seen the value of this, but everything’s been sent to people for free. And just also the astonishment of everyone, we’ve gotten a lot of people writing back at that point, wow, I didn’t understand you were sending new books! These books are so wonderful.

And so people who might not have been able to afford, I mean, kids books, $15, $20, and if you send five or six hardback books or a mix of paper and hardback, it’s a pretty substantial gift that a lot of people might not be able to afford.

But I know a lot of other bookstores and publishers are coming up with creative ways, obviously they, they need to survive, until capitalism is gone, they need to survive, but, a lot of publishers and bookstores have offered up PDFs of books at different critical moments, you know, during the George Floyd uprising, or right now with what’s happening in Gaza.

Other ways I think Libertie is mentioning is to not just think about it as a thing to sell in a space, but what ways can we gift each other the ability to think and act critically, and creating space for people just to be together. I’ve really been struck, whether it’s during the book packaging parties, or a game night at Firestorm, or an art making session in solidarity with Palestinians, or I’m trying to think, film, everything that happens here, conversation about anarchism, for people that didn’t know anything about it, in all those spaces, I’ve been really struck by folks who come in who are, you know, Asheville’s pretty homogeneous in a lot of ways, but you really do see more of a, definitely more queer, trans, a little bit more people of color here than in other spaces, also more Muslim, Jewish, et cetera, people here. And I’ve really been struck by people over and over again in these spaces saying, I feel so different. I feel so safe. I feel so comfortable here. I feel so seen. Can I stay and read a book after this event? And of course.

You know, Firestorm is a bookstore that sells things that needs to make a certain amount of money, and continually makes decisions that also defy that. And those decisions actually make people want to come here more, not as a marketing tool, but because they’re like, I can feel whole here.


Cindy Barukh Milstein: I can feel parts of myself that don’t get seen other places. I can think critically and talk to others critically about the world. So, yeah, I think those are part of fighting book bans as well, even though we don’t see it as direct.

Eleanor Goldfield: Yeah, that’s incredibly powerful, the continuous circumventing of oppressive systems while building something really beautiful.

So thank you all so much for taking the time to sit down with us. Where can folks find out more about this project and about Firestorm in general?

Libertie Valance: Yeah, so the best place to look for that information is gonna be our website or our social media accounts. Our website is just, it’s short for cooperative.

And if you want to go directly to information about the banned books project, you can just throw forward slash and banned books with no punctuation onto that address. And then we’re Firestorm Co op on most social media, I think particularly active on Instagram.

Cindy Barukh Milstein: And if people are in Asheville coming through or in town,

Libertie Valance: there’s a physical space.

Cindy Barukh Milstein: There’s a beautiful physical space to come by to.

Eleanor Goldfield: Yeah, well, I look forward to checking out the new space. I have not been able to see it yet.

Libertie Valance: Well, the dates for the Asheville based anarchist book fair, another Carolina anarchist book fair just got announced. It’s going to be at the end of June. So if you or anyone else is looking for a great time to come to Asheville, I think the tail end of June is going to be a really incredible weekend full of lots of great activism and organizing and literature and, gathering spaces.

Eleanor Goldfield: Sweet. Okay. Well, I will definitely keep an eye out for that. Thanks y’all again so much for taking the time to sit down with me.

Libertie Valance: It’s a pleasure. Yeah. Thanks for having us.

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Below is a Rough Transcript of the Interview with Nicole Fabricant

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Eleanor Goldfield: Thanks everyone for joining us at the Project Censored radio show. We’re very glad to welcome to the show, Nicole Fabricant, who’s a professor of anthropology at Towson University. She’s been organizing with the South Baltimore Community Land Trust for 13 years on issues of environmental and economic justice, and she’s the author of the book, Fighting to Breathe: Race, Toxicity, and the Rise of Youth Activism in Baltimore.

Nicole, thanks so much for joining us.

Nicole Fabricant: Thank you for having me. I’m glad to be here.

Eleanor Goldfield: So, Nicole, I want to start with some backstory here about a place called Curtis Bay, and specifically the CSX Curtis Bay Coal Pier, a massive export terminal that sells some coal locally, but mostly exports it. And massive mounds of coal sit on the edge of the Chesapeake where their answer to keeping coal dust in place is to spray it with water. No, I’m serious.

Now, CSX is one of the country’s largest freight carriers, with a 2022 profit of nearly $15 billion . CSX was also one of the companies highlighted in the fight for basic workers rights by rail workers in 2022 and 2023.

And Nicole, I want to get into the 2021 explosion and recent studies, but for right now, could you just briefly give us some backstory about this terminal’s operations and how they impact the surrounding community?

Nicole Fabricant: Sure. So the terminal has been around actually since the late 1800s, which most people don’t know because it was under B&O Railroad when it actually was built. It was semi mechanized and then turned into a much more kind of hyper mechanized coal export pier. And I would say about the 70s and 80s, we saw kind of mergers, selling off of rail, deregulation. We begin to see CSX kind of gaining ownership of the extraction, transport and the coal pier. So every end of the commodity chain, CSX now has control over.

And, I think you’re right to point out that we only have two rails on the East Coast. One is Norfolk Southern and one is CSX. Both are coal trains. So, Norfolk Southern brings coal in and it winds up in an export pier in Canton, and Curtis Bay is CSX. Their coal pier sits about a thousand feet from a recreation center.

So for more than 80 years, residents have been complaining about an open air coal pier that sits in their community. Children play on a playground where the coal dust layers the slides, the playground equipment. Folks will talk about putting white linens out and within hours they turn black. So we’ve heard qualitatively all these stories in the 13 years that I’ve been organizing with the South Baltimore Community Land Trust. And no one really has taken any of those stories or concerns, even health concerns, to heart. There’s been no real shift in terms of accountability or holding CSX, you know, even the basics of like enclosing the pier, which is such an easy fix to protect people’s health. The city, the state, and federally sort of refuses to even intervene.

Eleanor Goldfield: Yeah, absolutely. And I want to get into some of that in a second, but I wanted to touch on, I mean, you said that there’s been lived experiences for some 80 years now, but in December of last year, as I understand it, a collaborative investigation of coal dust, air pollution and health concerns in Curtis Bay reported three key findings: that coal dust is present throughout the community, that coal dust finds its way into the community daily and is correlated with activity at the coal terminal and wind direction. And that Curtis Bay community is overburdened by air pollution.

Now, this is one of those things that I would file in like the, we already knew that through our lived experiences, but now we have a scientific finding. So could you talk a little bit more about these findings and whether they’ve garnered any attention or response from lawmakers?

Nicole Fabricant: Sure. So, we realized after the explosion, which was about two years ago, methane gas had built up in a coal silo. This was right before the change, 21 to 22. It was around New Year’s Eve. And, it literally shook the entire community. People had talked about it feeling like an earthquake, windows shattered, kids fell in homes. They felt the blast all the way into parts of downtown.

And we showed up for two city council meetings to try to hold CSX accountable and CSX representatives never showed up. So city council and residents, but not one CSX member or spokesperson.

And then in terms of city council and representation, we have a strong, a city council person, Felicia Porter, who was very enraged. She comes from a public health background. She was actually a student of Lawrence Brown at Morgan State University. And this is just how the apparatus I think of our political system as it is kind of eats up even good people because her heart is truly with the people of Curtis Bay in South Baltimore.

And initially she took a pretty clear stance around shutting down this coal pier, that it should not be an operation. OSHA reports around safety has clearly indicated workers and community are not safe. However, within days, perhaps weeks, she suddenly scaled back. And it was pretty clear that CSX and our political apparatus was kind of putting her on a gag order.

So there’s, you know, no proof of that, but to go from saying that she would shut it down to beginning to say, well, let’s think about working alongside CSX to ensure community safety.

So in terms of the blast, I think the community came together and it was the first of its kind of study really defined by residents.

The whole point was to have the questions and the concerns come out of the community. And obviously the community Curtis Bay is incredibly heterogeneous. I don’t want to illustrate some kind of romance or illusion about who lives in this community and that everyone’s united because there’s certainly differing opinions about industry versus sustainability and environmental concerns. We have people who are just like down and out in that community and have been unemployed for long periods of time. So you see a large outgrowth of the drug sector down there. You see all sorts of like social problems. So it’s not like this incredible force lifted itself up, but there is a pretty strong, since I would say For Your Voice began organizing in the local high school, which was a movement of young people really trying to avoid more toxic pollution in Curtis Bay because Curtis Bay is home to 70 plus toxic industries, and we’re talking about cumulative impact here.

So it has some of the highest rates of respiratory illness in the entire nation. That zip code is ranked up in the top five zip codes for respiratory illnesses from cumulative impact. And I always say that the reason I think a lot of these industries accumulate so close is because they avoid accountability.

So with the science, it’s very hard to prove that one industry is accountable for the health concerns. It winds up being multiple sources, point sources that lead to cancers, respiratory illnesses. So while they might subcontract out and evade all sorts of other forms of accountability, this is just another realm in which they’re able to kind of hide behind all of the industries.

But this report was, and the study was pretty phenomenal because we have some warrior scientists and Chris Heaney and Maddie Auerberg from Johns Hopkins Public Health are not the kind of public health reductionist. They really see this as part of a broader political economy of extraction, of industrial expansion at the cost of people’s health. And so they said, whatever the community wants, we’re going to support, we’re going to find the science and the tools.

And so they set up a pretty sophisticated air network system all around the community that was tracking PM 2. 5 and PM 10 black carbon. All of this is about trying to identify point source, which is the coal pier. Now PM 2. 5 does also come from diesel emissions. We’re talking about, you know, something less than, like, you can’t even see PM 2.5. It’s, it’s tiny. It is, it’s been described to me as smaller than a hair follicle. But it gets stuck in your respiratory tract. And so it makes it very, very hard essentially to breathe. And over time, obviously it could create all sorts of other lung cancers and illnesses.

So, they were guided by the community. The community continued to shape the research throughout the entire process, and then they wound up training many of our youth in citizen science over the summer, which I think is a really cool way to turn the tools of science over to communities and to say, Now you’re armed. You’re armed with this powerful skill set to be able to go out and prove it.

And you could see it over the summer. Kids coming in not super confident and not sure of what they were doing to the end when they had very clear results. And it was a very simple citizen science to compliment some of the networks.

So they put out tape strips, which I’m happy to share some of the photos. It was a very easy, simple way to look over time at the accumulation of coal dust. And so that was part of the report, but obviously some of the more sophisticated technology was the data that supported findings that the coal dust was traveling pretty far, despite the fact that the city council representatives and many others, MDE included, did not realize or failed to accurately depict, and invest in the resources needed.

Air monitors from MDE were simply taken out even before the coal dust explosion. So that illustrates how we don’t have a regulatory apparatus that actually protects us. MDE, as has EPA, as has DEP and other regions been completely gutted. And so even if you have good people inside, they’re just a toothless entity that has no power to regulate polluting industries.

So the findings pretty much revealed what we would have hoped to illustrate, which is that the qualitative data was totally corroborating with the science that people were saying they’re sick. They’re spitting up coal dust. They’re throwing it up. They are seeing mucus filled with coal dust. And that was undermined by our representatives. But with the science, there’s no denying that it is not contained simply by water.

Eleanor Goldfield: I mean, it would be funny if it weren’t so dark, but like just the idea of spraying water. I mean, it’s just so absurd. And yeah, in West Virginia, a woman told me that the nickname for the DEP, the Department of Environmental Protection, is Don’t Expect Protection. So this is a common, an unfortunately common theme.

And, kind of going back to that explosion that you mentioned, as far as I understand it, CSX has yet to officially explain it or give an official cause. And as I understand it, the facility operates underground tunnels that basically act like mines but aren’t regulated by federal mine legislation because they’re technically tunnels that transport coal rather than mining it. That’s a nice little loophole. And at the same time, this facility releases emissions including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen, sulfur dioxide, and volatile organic compounds without state permit permission.

And so the MDE, the Department of the Environment in Maryland, never gave permission to release all of this, which I find also laughable. Like, if you gave them permission, would that make it okay? But they gave them a slap on the wrist with regards to this. If you could even call it that. Putting $15,000 into a clean air fund, building an environmental education center. I mean, this is so bizarre and does nothing to address root causes.

Where are we at with this, with the findings and moving towards actually holding CSX accountable?

Nicole Fabricant: So there has been a cohort of folks, the scientists included, that have been working along Maryland Department of the Environment as a strategy to basically hold them accountable from the inside.

There are others of us that are agitating and pressuring, you know, more from an outside perspective, because don’t have the same trust necessarily in any of our government agencies to create change, and like the only way we ever see things done, and I always say this is an another level of overburden, not just the industries but that poor people have to become scientists, doctors, you know, they have to figure out what structural solutions are available, they create mutual aid, like, we don’t have anyone that actually backs the community and would provide the kind of resources needed. So like to say that young kids who grow up in overburdened areas have to now monitor, measure, document with cameras all the violations to me is absurd because MDE has scientists. Our government has pretty sophisticated scientists who could prove this, but they are never willing to work alongside those who have been impacted.

So, you know, I think where we are now is in a process of negotiation with MDE. The report was released right before Christmas time, that kind of week off. It was a community association meeting in Curtis Bay. I’ve never seen Curtis Bay Community Association that packed with residents. There must have been a hundred to 150 residents from all over South Baltimore angry, feeling like government has abandoned them and frustrated with MDE’s failure to regulate what is their waterways, their soils, right, that they might be growing on for food because in many of these areas, they’re food apartheid areas. So we’re talking about interlocking systems of oppression where they’re trying to grow food to sustain their households.

They released the report, and MDE made clear they would create a much more stringent permit because their permit had expired so that this was going to be part of a participatory process with the community where the community would vet. It was clear the community was saying, shut the coal pier down.

First of all, we’re in global crisis. Climatically, we should not be extracting coal anymore, but just because it’s profitable as an export oriented commodity, we continue, right, on all ends to extract coal from places like Appalachia and Pennsylvania. So I think the community was really clear about what they wanted, not just, as you said, Band Aid solutions.

I mean, covering coal cars is fine, but it still allows the rails to remain in corporate hands, which we know they’ve been cutting safety. Workers are as squeezed as the communities that they’re traveling through. Communities are experiencing derailments. When we were just on a trip listening to East Palestine residents talk about the horrors of corporate rail, another train derailed right outside of Philadelphia, which was carrying diesel.

So these derailments are going to happen over and over unless we get rail out of corporate hands. So a corporate control of rail is contributing to this, but like our government at a federal level at a state level and at a city level is completely complicit. CSX has been providing donations to every political candidate, which we have tracked and know how much money is going into these campaigns.

So they’re not representing our interests period. Nor is MDE or DEP because they are bought out by whatever government is in place at the time. And so we’re not seeing movement towards a different kind of permit at this point. They keep promising. Now folks think maybe March or April is when they’re going to release the new permit, and I will be interested to see how the community responds because I don’t think they’re going to be satisfied in a participatory process with MDE with just, okay, We will, you know, cover cars and the pier and make sure emissions are down, because they’ve been promised this multiple times and nothing has really changed.

So that’s where we are. It’s very unknown right now. The results have been released. There’s a lot of backlash against the science. And this is a very, very controversial side of things to be expected. CSX will hire its own lawyers and try to probably sue all of us. They will hire their own scientists because this is straight from the playbook. We’ve seen it time and time again in West Virginia. They’re trying to pass laws so that people can’t even do citizen science anymore, or it’s considered illegal. So this is the trend right now of using alternative science to hold corporations accountable. Once they realize it, bam, a law’s in place that makes it illegal.

Eleanor Goldfield: Yeah, absolutely, and I want to get into something specifically about the concept of sacrifice zones because I think some people listening to this, as with other things that we’ve covered in the past, you know, I recently covered, uranium mining in the Grand Canyon, and people might listen to that and be like, okay, well, that’s not my problem, I don’t live by the Grand Canyon, and people might be listening to this and being like, well, that’s not my problem, I don’t live in South Baltimore, which, a) that’s a really terrible way to look at problems.

Nicole Fabricant: But also especially ecosystems that are connected because we all breathe the same air.

Eleanor Goldfield: Right. But I want to get into that because the idea of corporate sacrifice zones, it’s not a problem just by the Diné reservation or in, you know, Cancer Alley in Louisiana. These problems, there are corporate sacrifice zones across the country because there have to be because there’s dirty energy across the country, and industrial waste and pollution across the country.

So, and I know that you mentioned briefly that there’s a lot of pollutive industries in this area. Can you talk a little bit about the concept of corporate sacrifice zones in terms of pollution? And as you mentioned that these ecosystems are inextricably connected.

Nicole Fabricant: Sure. So, I usually think about sacrifice zones or frontline communities as those that are most overburdened by multiple industries. So that’s kind of classic. The way I think about environmental justice is usually it’s brown and black communities. Usually it’s low income. Oftentimes it’s land is cheap. It’s been the history of this area. And so we’ll continue to develop because these people in their communities are seen as expendable and disposable.

So ultimately premature death is just part of the systemic inequality and some parts of me are constantly thinking about our carceral realities because it’s a very similar, premature death in terms of policing and over policing black, particularly, right, areas where young men and women are having to fight for their lives in the same way that environmental justice communities are.

So sacrifice zones are classically those, but I always say to my students and others, we’re all sacrificed. And if we don’t get that, so part of the connectivity of both our global economy, our agribusiness, is that when a train derails and spills vinyl chloride, and people are dealing with all sorts of health concerns, that means that lands are also toxic, which means that the food that we eat, whether that’s chicken or cattle or vegetables, is also going to be contaminated.

When it comes to waterways, these are our headwaters. I always talk to students about Appalachian mining impacts you. Why? Because those are headwaters for so many areas. So what happens there, it’s just the downstream effect for the rest of us, right? And these externalities have gotten to a point like I would say ahead where no one’s safe anymore.

What was so fascinating to me about some of the stories in East Palestine is that folks bought this beautiful rural farmland thinking they had escaped the city, thinking they had these little agro ecological utopias, middle of nowhere, bam, this is a white community, not a brown and black community. They were okay, like sort of middle class. And then suddenly they become a sacrifice.

So, it’s as flexible, I would say as capital is flexible. So as capital moves and pulls out of areas, we’re going to see more and more either toxic spills or concerns tied to our non renewable fossil fuel industries.

Also hearing about areas where it’s, in Pennsylvania it’s like crisscrossing pipelines and fracking everywhere. So thinking about, you know, communities impacted by natural gas, which is no longer, because it’s not profitable, solely feeding our energy consumptions, now it’s expanding petrochemical buildouts.

Eleanor Goldfield: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, in my film, Hard Road of Hope, I talked to a couple that had bought this beautiful rural cabin in, you know, the middle of nowhere, West Virginia, which a lot of places in West Virginia are the middle of nowhere. And they were so excited to just be out in the woods in the middle of nowhere. And then there was a compressor station that was built like right next door to them. And every, all the plants died, their animals were sick. It’s like, yeah, this is what the industry does.

And so I want to go back, not just to Curtis Bay, but to your work in general here with this final question, which is: there’s a lot of focus both in your book in terms of youth organizing, but also it seems in the actual fight here, we see the youth really stepping up.

I love seeing this and highlighting this cause I think that it’s so important. Could you talk a little bit about the youth organizing in these neighborhoods and on these issues?

Nicole Fabricant: Sure. So, this movement in Curtis Bay started as a youth movement. It was a bunch of young people who gathered after school to talk about the kind of social economic problems they were facing and happened to read an article about the nation’s largest trash incinerator, which was proposed to be built a mile from their high school.

So since they pivoted from kind of just talk to really thinking about, huh, why is one more polluting industry coming? What is incineration? How do we attack this? Their model was so brilliant. It was really about systematic research. So like teaching kids things that our neoliberal education system does not teach them, which is a) how to think critically, analytically, how to begin to chip at as you said, the root problems, right? The structures that underlie kind of just the band aids that are placed on top of everything. So they began to understand the health consequences. They looped people in from an environmental science background, all the way to kind of environmental justice lawyers to be able to really understand the legality.

The reason they were going to slate it a mile from their schools because in the state of Maryland, incineration is considered renewable energy. So at a state level, they’ve lobbied that it’s on par with wind and solar and receives all of our tax subsidies. So then they begin to enter into a space of like, political mazes here, right? These kids are like, why? And asking and being pushed by, you know, organizers who were part of a broader organization, which in the book is called the Worker Justice Center. And, they were being pushed really hard to dig deeper and then to do education, and education is so important because so many people, whether we’re talking Appalachia, East Palestine, parts of Pennsylvania, just don’t have access to information.

It’s only the mass media and they’re being fed, hyper stories of fear that just propel forward a kind of more reactionary response to lots of problems. And so the kids were refusing these simple answers, right? And, that research was really powerful in terms of building out a campaign. And I always say it was this David versus Goliath victory because no one expected a bunch of high school kids, that ended in civil disobedience.

And for brown and black kids to partake in civil disobedience is a real risk because they are trying to avoid the justice system and policing at all costs, and to put their bodies on the line, right, around environmental inequities was a really brave act. And so that was the nail in the coffin. They pulled the permit, never built.

Now, I happen to think it was so successful because it wasn’t yet built and they did a whole divestment campaign and illustrated. And it’s a lot harder, I would say to sustain young people in a longer term struggle, right, which is about fair and alternative development and regenerative economics. So it’s slow. It’s not going to happen overnight. These greener, worker led, you know, worker controlled centers we’d love to see is not fully resourced yet, nor are we able to acquire the land. And so I think they’re seeing little incremental wins, but not that huge victory.

One thing that a lead organizer has said is that young people are patient, much more patient than older adults. Like they’re willing to wait in ways that I think has been quite remarkable because we’ve had kids involved since they were 14 and now they’re well in their 20s and they’re kind of training a next generation. And that’s the model: is that we would keep these kids over a longer period to kind of train the trainer and build up the confidence of a new generation of youth leaders.

And so I think people listen to them. They’re incredibly articulate, they’re smart, they have data backing them up, they’re putting the pieces together, they’re illustrating interlocking systems of oppression, and they’re proposing alternatives, right? And it’s very hard, I think, for a politician to say, I won’t Zoom with you, 15 year old, you know, it just feels really offensive. And so lots of politicians will meet, will come to Curtis Bay. The challenge is getting them to do anything, right? And I think we’ve seen that at a state level. It’s just very hard to move legislators to actually push forward the kinds of policies we’d like to see. So two trues there.

Eleanor Goldfield: Yeah. Well, and of course, this goes back to that interlocking issue that you mentioned, because the lawmakers don’t have to live in these places, so they don’t have to care. Whereas if we had hyper local politics, then they would have to care because not only do you live in these places, but your neighbors know who you are. And know where you live and we’ll come after you if you vote against your own interests.

Nicole Fabricant: Exactly. And so we’ve tried really hard to thrust these issues in their faces.

So even if they don’t live in the area, everyone, Mayor Scott, the Governor has received bags of coal on their doorstep to basically say like, this is what’s happening in sacrifice zones. Pay attention, right? They also have received all kinds of like direct action, you know, at banquets and events because that’s the only way to disrupt the norm and to say we’re in crisis right now, right? And unless we really think beyond this economic model, even their children won’t have a future.

Eleanor Goldfield: Right. And I think that’s brilliant. You know, I often say that these politicians should never be comfortable. They should never be comfortable when they go out. They should never be comfortable when they’re having some event. They should always think that they’re about to get shut down.

Nicole Fabricant: Exactly. They should never be comfortable. And if you join public office, that is so important. We should have your address, we should have your phone number, we should know all of that. You are giving that up to serve the public. And unfortunately they’re not serving the public today.

They are serving the corporate sector. And so we have to kick it up maybe five or 10 notches to actually say, you know what? We’re not gonna make possible your little profiteering initiatives ’cause we know exactly how much has landed in your pocket.

Eleanor Goldfield: Absolutely. Well, Nicole, I mean, this is a topic that, we could talk about for hours, and indeed, you wrote a book about just the concept of this incinerator and youth organizing, so one could write books about this, but we only have so much time.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add real quick before we finish today?

Nicole Fabricant: The only thing I would like to say is coming out of this solidarity trip this weekend, where I took a bunch of organizers from Baltimore, not just to East Palestine, but also to parts of the Marcellus shale where they’re fracking for natural gas, and we visited the petrochemical.

I think, as organizers, we have to be as savvy as the other side. And so part of what came out for me is how connected our regional economies are to resource extraction. And to not connect those dots and to not think across state borders means we get siloed sometimes in just fighting one, like in a crisis driven moment as opposed to being forward thinking.

And I guess it’s illustrated just how important cross regional even global organizing is with North and South to begin to see that the lithium extracted from Bolivia is powering our cell phones. If we understand that global commodity chain, our organizing has to be as malleable and savvy as the capitalists.

Eleanor Goldfield: Absolutely. Very well put. Nicole, thank you so much for taking the time to sit down with us. Really appreciate it.

Nicole Fabricant: Thank you, Eleanor.

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