S1E9: Justin J. Pearson on campaigning to stop a pipeline headed for a Black neighborhood in Memphis
January 31, 2023
Justin J. Pearson is President and founder of Memphis Community Against Pollution (MCAP) and co-founder of Memphis Community Against the Pipeline which is a Black-led environmental justice organization that successfully defeated a multi-billion dollar company’s crude oil pipeline project that would have poisoned Memphis’s drinking water and stolen land from the community. He is the Co-Lead and the Strategic Advisor for the Poor People’s Campaign: National Call for Moral Revival. And on January 24th, 2023 he won a special election to replace Tennessee State Representative Barbara Cooper, who passed away last year and was an early ally to MCAP in their campaign. He will be one of the state’s youngest elected officials.
Canvassing & Casework to Stop a Memphis Pipeline
At first, it looked like the pipeline would be built without a fight.
Oil companies Plains All American and Valero Energy announced in December 2019 that they planned to build a 45-mile pipeline through a Black neighborhood in Southwest Memphis, linking crude from Oklahoma oil fields to Valero’s local refinery. The Boxtown area reportedly got its name because emancipated enslaved people used scraps of materials and wood from train boxcars to build homes there in the late 19th century. Rather than take a direct route across Memphis’ wealthier white neighborhoods further north, the pipeline would be diverted south, twenty miles out of the way.
Immediately, the public narrative was “It’s a done deal.” The companies were almost guaranteed to get the permits they needed from the Army Corps of Engineers; no comprehensive environmental impact review was required; the City of Memphis did not, to anyone’s knowledge, have regulatory authority; and the companies had the right to seize the property of any landowners that would not grant them an easement by eminent domain. They had already started taking private land in a neighboring county across the river in Arkansas. Memphis was next.
Three months after the pipeline had been announced there had still been no public opposition, and few local politicians appeared to be aware of the pipeline, as Memphis Community Against the Pipeline organizer Justin J. Pearson recalled later. “I emailed a few councilmembers in the fall, nearly a year after it was announced, and one wrote back, ‘Wait, they’re going to build a pipeline?’” But then a company representative accidentally admitted to environmental racism. At a community forum organized by the Boxtown Neighborhood Association in February 2020 – to which elected officials were also invited, but none attended – a supervising land agent for Plains All-American, in answering a question about why the pipeline would take such a circuitous route south of Memphis, said, “We took, basically, a point of least resistance.” Neighborhood activists present that night would go on to repeat that statement hundreds of times, using it to galvanize anger as they raised the alarm about the pipeline.
An ad hoc resistance effort began as a slow burn, as questions about the companies’ lack of transparency and potential risks to the local aquifer bubbled up in neighborhood meetings and Facebook groups over the summer of 2020. Rather than respond directly, Plains All-American tried to neutralize this quiet, mostly-online opposition with donations to nine local nonprofits, like the Memphis NAACP, and hired the group’s past president as its local spokesperson.
By the time the Boxtown Neighborhood Association held its second meeting with the pipeline developers — thanks in part to State Rep. Barbara Cooper, who got involved after neighborhood association members appealed to her that the companies had been ignoring their requests for information – more Memphians were involved. At that meeting in October, a Plains All American representative apologized for the land agent’s “poor choice of words” at the previous meeting — tipping their hand that they knew that comment made them vulnerable. But even though outrage was building, the vast majority of the area’s city and state elected officials were silent on the issue, and the “done deal” narrative was prevailing. After the meeting, a half dozen local activists stuck around to debrief and strategize, convinced that, although they didn’t know how they would stop the pipeline, they had to try. And Memphis Community Against the Pipeline was born.
Even without a clear strategy MCAP got off to a fast start. By the time of their first public action, a rally in a public park two months later, they had convinced several state representatives to join them in opposition, and recruited local environmental group Protect Our Aquifer too — the pipeline, it turned out, threatened the Memphis Sand Aquifer, and had already drawn the attention of local climate groups like the Sierra Club’s Memphis chapter. No federal, state or local law would require the companies to prove they would safeguard the city’s largest source of drinking water, and Memphis is the largest city in the country that relies entirely on an underground aquifer for its water supply.
At the same time, the Southern Environmental Law Center offered to work with MCAP on a legal strategy, planning to challenge both the Army Corps of Engineer’s approval of a key federal permit, and filing a class action lawsuit challenging the oil companies’ ability to seize land by eminent domain.
After the rally, MCAP canvassed Boxtown, letting residents know about how they could get involved in the fight and to find out who had been approached by the company to sign an easement. They discovered many residents who had signed the company’s legal documents didn’t understand them and were opposed to the pipeline. They also found a few who had refused to sign, who the company might sue under eminent domain.
In early 2021 the company did in fact file suit against two elderly landowners, Scottie Fitzgerald and Clyde Robinson, after they refused the company’s easement offers of $3,000 and $8,000 respectively, to grant the company permanent access to a combined .36 acres of land. MCAP’s “casework” – identifying a few people who were willing to be the public faces of a larger fight – and support of Scottie and Clyde ended up being pivotal for changing the story of the pipeline. The group’s organizers made sure both residents connected with as many reporters and politicians as possible. Their stories started to receive extensive news coverage, and shifted the tone used by City Council and County Commission meetings at public hearings. Instead of continuing to lament “there’s not much we can do,” some local elected officials began saying “there’s got to be something we can do”.
And MCAP’s canvassing, invitations to residents to phone-bank their representatives and tireless work to keep the handful of local homeowners willing to publicly voice their opposition in the spotlight put local elected Democrats trying to stay neutral on the pipeline in a difficult position, forcing them to choose to side with the “path of least resistance” pipeline company or Black homeowners. The pipeline opposition’s quest for additional earned media coverage was also given a lift following attention from Al Gore and the Rev. William J. Barber III, who headlined local rallies that winter, and even celebrities like Mark Ruffalo and Danny Glover who tweeted out their opposition.
By February, MCAP’s grassroots organizing had started to move local elected officials “off the fence” and into taking a stand for the first time — despite Plains’ continued attempts to weaken community opposition, by this point having given out over $1 million to 26 local nonprofits. The Army Corps granted the pipeline a key permit, and the area’s congressman, Rep. Steve Cohen, immediately asked the Biden Administration to revoke it. The City Council and Shelby County Commission both introduced nonbinding resolutions condemning the pipeline and asking the company to reroute it, and by March, commissioners voted to refuse to sell the companies a key parcel of county-owned land.
The legal strategy continued to move forward. Plains sued ten landowners for their refusal to sign easements, and in a victory for organizers, the judge granted MCAP the right to join them as co-plaintiffs. Because the court hearings were virtual, she also allowed anyone logging on Zoom to state who they were at the beginning of the hearing, with dozens of local MCAP supporters chiming in to stand with the landowners. The following month the Southern Environmental Law Center filed a complaint with the EPA alleging that Tennessee’s state environmental regulatory agency had violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 by issuing a permit to a pipeline that would disproportionately harm Black people. And the SELC also filed a lawsuit against the company on behalf of MCAP challenging the ability of a private company to use eminent domain to seize land for an oil pipeline, on the grounds that the state law governing taking private property for development made no accommodation for such use. If successful, the lawsuit could put any future pipeline in the state in jeopardy.
But MCAP didn’t want to put all its hope in the court system. So they kept meeting with county officials, searching for another point of leverage. And then in April, a county commissioner made an offhand suggestion to one of the organizers: “What if we banned pipelines from being built within 1,000 feet of a home, business or school?” MCAP consulted their attorneys, who couldn’t find a reason it wouldn’t work. So they asked allies on the council and board of commissioners to start working on legislative proposals.
Still, MCAP organizers weren’t sure if any strategy would generate enough leverage to stop the pipeline or convince the companies to withdraw; having researched other pipeline fights, they were prepared for a years-long battle. But in July, days before the council and commission were both scheduled to vote on the 1,500 foot buffer ordinance, and the first hearing on the eminent domain lawsuit was also to take place, Justin received a call from Councilmember Jeff Warren, a campaign ally. “And he says ‘the pipeline has been canceled’, and the level of exuberation and gladness and joy and yelling… it was just, disbelief, like, ‘wow, we did this thing.'”
Plains All American announced it was canceling the pipeline the Friday before the Fourth of July in 2021, apparently hoping the decision wouldn’t receive much press coverage. The company claimed the decision was due to lower oil demand during the pandemic. But Plains’ other public statements indicated otherwise. “They immediately said ‘we’re canceling this project, but we don’t want any laws passed,'” recalled Justin. “We said, ‘Well, if you’re done with us, why does it matter what we’re doing locally?’ And so that was a shot across the bow for us to say, like, look, we really need to keep pressing and keep forcing this issue.” MCAP successfully pushed the county and city to pass new restrictions on future pipelines in the months that followed. And MCAP has since used the momentum generated by the pipeline to take on a new fight against a plan that could result in power company coal ash being stored in the city, in the process renaming themselves Memphis Community Against Pollution. The group also defeated an attempt at the state legislature the following year to limit the city’s ability to regulate pipelines.
Lessons for Campaigners
The campaign against the pipeline only took off after MCAP convinced a few homeowners in the pipeline’s path to effectively be the face of the opposition – until then, local elected officials could simply say “there’s nothing we can do.” But once they had to tell those homeowners they wouldn’t do anything, both local governing bodies began passing symbolic resolutions. And eventually they “discovered” their own ability to use zoning rules to keep them away from the city’s residential neighborhoods. MCAP’s willingness to go door to door and build strong relationships with the people on the frontlines – combined with their ability to broadcast stories and work the insider channels of local Democratic Party politics – paid off in political willpower.