Sometime in late February, we could no longer deny COVID-19 would be—or likely already was—in Alabama.
I was just getting back to work as a freelance journalist after giving birth at the end of December. The postpartum period had been bittersweet. My dad and granny were each hospitalized for ongoing health issues. We couldn’t visit them, afraid to bring home the flu or whooping cough to our baby’s susceptible immune system. As news of the coronavirus began to overwhelm us all, my husband and I worried about the wellbeing of our elders, how we might tend to them and our kids, and how to mentally shift from social distancing because of a newborn to doing so because of a pandemic.
That’s when I got a text from my friend and environmental activist, Keisha Brown: “Yesterday is gone. Tomorrow is unknown. All we have is today.” There was a note about how she was thinking of me, my “bambino” and our safety.
Keisha’s note was a welcome kindness, but because of who she is—a Black environmental activist organizing against racist policies—her note was also a reminder of all the people in this country whose bodies were already at risk whenever they step outside, whenever someone or something unwelcome arrives at their doorstep.
I met Keisha in 2018 at the suggestion of a religious environmental group when I was reporting about environmental justice in my hometown, Birmingham, Alabama. She gave me a tour of her neighborhood, Harriman Park, a tight-knit, predominately African-American and working-class community. There’s no telling how many people she has introduced to North Birmingham. She’s one of the go-to resident activists, quoted in countless news stories, a kind of environmental injustice spokesperson.
Her home is one of three neighborhoods, alongside Collegeville and Fairmont, in the 35th Avenue Superfund Site designated by the Environmental Protection Agency as part of a federal program to clean areas contaminated with hazardous pollutants.
Keisha has spent a decade organizing for better conditions for her neighbors, an activism she says is born of the trauma she’s experienced and witnessed. When she was only 12, Keisha stopped breathing one night—the first flare up of lifelong chronic asthma. Now 40, she blames her condition on the toxic land where she’s lived since her mother brought her home as an infant.
I called Keisha to find out what it’s like to live in a Superfund site during a global pandemic that is disproportionately killing Black Americans. I also wanted to find out how a struggle for environmental justice is progressing—or not—in her community.
Here’s what she had to say:
Katherine Webb-Hehn: First off, how are you?
Keisha Brown: Well, I’m good. I’m alive. To keep me sane, I pray. I pray every day. I’m keeping my mind focussed. Lord bless, I’ll have a birthday next month on the 9th. I bought little decorations already. I can’t think like we won’t be here. I’ve got to think positive. We’ve got to keep doing what brings us joy.
And so many of the things they’re telling us — “wash your hands, wipe your feet, keep clean” — that’s the same thing the government already told us.
Katherine: I thought about y’all when I first started hearing the public health recommendations. You were told in 2013 to not eat outside, to not chew gum outside, to not let your son play in the dirt. You’d already been living with restrictions. How are things different for you now?
Keisha: I look out my window every day and see that plant putting out black smoke, dark clouds of smoke. And now we’ve got this virus going on. I joke we’ve got a double whammy going on, but this is serious. We were in battle over here. We’ve got a war going on.
“We were in battle over here. We’ve got a war going on.”
I spray to disinfect. I do my usual—wipe things down. I call my elderly every day to make sure they’re okay. We’re pretty much doing the same thing, except I don’t let my son out. He can get the trash in and out, but I make him wear gloves.
Everything dealing with the pollution out here is on hold. We’ll get back to it when we can, but we’re surviving now.
Katherine: How are things changing in your community?
Keisha: Most of the people in my community are elderly or sickly. Most of them are staying home. A week ago, some people were still having big gatherings. In the parks last weekend, they were playing basketball, having barbecues. Even though they knew about this [coronavirus].
But it’s slowing down. We don’t get a lot of traffic out here anymore. You can pretty much count the cars. No one is out walking the streets. But I hear from people that they’re still having birthday parties, fish frys. Some are still saying they don’t believe it’s real. They don’t believe they can get it. Until they get sick, or God forbid, their children get sick, then they may not take it seriously.
Just north of downtown Birmingham, Keisha’s neighborhood sits between a number of steel mills, cement plants, and two major producers of coke (coal fired without oxygen) that have been operating for nearly a century. In 2009, the EPA found poor air quality in North Birmingham, prompting the agency to test local soil and eventually designate the area for a multimillion dollar clean-up that’s yet to be completed—partly because of intentional acts of disruption by politicians and polluters.
Katherine: Do you think that’s because there was an intentional misinformation campaign—carried out by elected officials and powerful companies—to dissuade people in North Birmingham from believing their land was toxic?
Keisha: Maybe. It may also be willful ignorance. People say, “No one in my family is sick.” Or they see the numbers and don’t think they’re high so they’re playing it down. But we know tests are not getting done. We know there have to be more cases.
Katherine: Are people taking precautions when they’re in public?
Keisha: When I’m at the grocery store, people are wearing masks but they’re dirty—probably because they’re wearing them so much. A lot of the men in my neighborhood wear masks for work already, cutting grass or in factories, so they’re in them. I’ve seen gloves in the parking lots. People throwing them down, unsanitary. I hope they aren’t missing the point—that we still have to wash our hands.
“You can sit on your porch, but out here, if you sit on your porch and the black smoke hits, then you’re coughing so you can’t even do that.”
I haven’t been able to find masks because they’re sold out or people won’t share. That’s scary for me because of my own health issues. [Since this interview, a local artist, Tamara Harper, donated masks to Keisha and her family.]
Katherine: We’re being told to keep two weeks of food on hand, to go out as little as possible. You’re the caretaker for your disabled mother and your teenage son. How often are you going out? Where are you going?
Keisha: I have to go out once or twice a week, to handle personal business like paying bills or getting my mother her medicine at the pharmacy. I just pray and wash my hands. I drive to grocery stores in Tarrant or Fultondale [because there are no stores nearby]. I’ve seen the price gouging. They’re hurting people on purpose. It’s hurting people on a fixed income. Last week, I had to buy 18 eggs for $5.39. That’s a couple dollars higher than the month before.
Katherine: What other problems are people dealing with?
Keisha: We’re being told to sit still. And a lot of us aren’t wired to be still. You can sit in your house. You can sit on your porch, but out here, if you sit on your porch and the black smoke hits, then you’re coughing so you can’t even do that. This is a time when a lot of people risk getting depressed, and it’s important to remember why we’re doing this.
Because the hotels and restaurants are closed, I know people have been out of work going on four weeks. And they won’t get their unemployment for a while. It’s hard for people.
Katherine: How could things immediately improve?
Keisha: I just wish the churches out here would do something other than collect tithings on Sunday. We’ve got seniors stuck in their houses. They’re afraid. They need food, medicine. Where are the volunteers to help North Birmingham? I’ve called people, offering as much as I can, but we need a more organized effort because this isn’t ending soon. I don’t want to see another preacher online asking for offerings when he isn’t out here making offerings in the community.
Katherine: How are you coping? What lessons had you learned that are carrying you through this?
Keisha: I pray. I build my immune system up best I can. I use common sense. That’s my faith. That’s what I do every day.