This interview was conducted by Aletta Brady on April 3, 2017. William Tyner contributed to the production of this story.
William Copeland is a cultural organizer and environmental advocate. He is Co-Director of East Michigan Environmental Action Council (EMEAC) and a husband and father. This is his story:
“My name is William Copeland and I am from Detroit, Michigan. I was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan. My family moved to Detroit in the early1980’s when I was two or three years old, because they wanted a better place for a Black boy to grow up. Many people have a negative impression of Detroit. We moved here because there was an emphasis on positive images of Black people accomplishing things. Detroit was a Mecca for that. Having a Black mayor, Coleman Young, meant that there were a lot of people with government jobs, productive jobs, and middle class jobs. The possibility existed of having a stable family. It wasn’t until I was a teenager that I had any experience of being a ‘numerical minority.’ For some people, that defines their entire life. During elementary school, there were only five white kids in the entire school. We had the power from the bottom all the way to the top. We collectively were not just victims but we could get things done; we could think about the future and make moves.
A major life-changing event in my life was Hurricane Katrina. Even though it is not my geographic community, the images of Black people being stranded, Black people on the roof, Black people screaming for help, hundreds and thousands of Black people warehoused in the Superdome really shocked me. Part of the Detroit attitude is, ‘We have to get our own because other people will leave us to die.’ You also saw that come into play with Black people fleeing Hurricane Katrina to get to safety. There were these white towns where the police would have guns and say, ‘We heard you were a looter.’ I started to learn about climate change and how it impacts people differently. I saw who had the resources to evacuate, who got help.
When there are calamities, insurance companies put a dollar sign on people’s heads like, ‘Okay, your property, your life, are worth this much.’ Oftentimes when people face calamities, their suffering is not viewed as needing to be reimbursed. There are disparities based on race. With regards to climate change, with regards to emergencies, with regards to looking out for our safety, we are viewed oftentimes as a threat to somebody else’s safety. Much too often, our own safety is viewed as a secondary priority.
The second life event that catalyzed my passion for climate activism was when a very good friend of mine, a local poet and activist, David Blair, passed away in a heat wave. He did not have air conditioning in his house and he went to a local hotel to get air conditioning. But, overnight, he passed from heatstroke. He had cooled down too late and had suffered too much heat. It took me a while to realize how personal infrastructure, lack of social support, and lack of public support, relate to climate change. It has such high costs.
Blair was from New Jersey. He was a singer, songwriter, a poet, and an activist. He was a member of a militant group called By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) that believes in direct action and empowering low-income and Black people. He was mentally and spiritually creative. He was funny. His songs were captivating: the tone of his voice, the tenor of his voice. He even sang at my wedding. I don’t want to say Blair is like Tupac, but he kind of reminds me of him. He would be smashing all these rappers right now! He would change the whole game. He was a young man. He was just 44 years old.
I was out of town when I heard that he passed. I was honored to officiate his memorial service. The organization that I work for, East Michigan Environmental Action Council (EMEAC) created a theater in his honor--the D. Blair Theater. It is a historic theater; in a Unitarian-Universalist church building that is 100 years old. We renovated it for the first time in decades, gave it a fresh coat of paint, and my friend, Matthew Cross, painted a picture of Blair on the wall.
When I think about vulnerability, I think about my man, Blair. Can you afford air conditioning? We live in a city that routinely cuts people’s electricity off. In some places, you may take for granted that, when it gets hot, you can turn on your AC. In Detroit, you have thousands of people who do not have electricity. There are thousands of people who have their water shut off. People debate whether to pay to get prescriptions or food. When you’re dealing with services for poor people, many institutions cut corners on the rationale that poor people are not going to take you to court. They will put up with more than the middle class or privileged.
Detroit is a collection of people that this society has made vulnerable. During heat waves, you really just got to chill out. You put ice on your head. You get a little wading pool and sit in the wading pool. You can crack a window, put on the AC, do what you gotta do. Lately, they’ve been a little better at creating cooling stations, which are public places where people can go to beat the heat. I am glad those exist. It is hard to go to sleep. You be hot. Even the covers and the bed is too hot. It is hard to be comfortable in your own skin when it is that hot.
In Detroit, our experiences of nature are heavily mediated by this racist society that attempts to make the majority feel safe by limiting Black people being around them. I got married on an island that was once one of the largest parks in the United States. It used to be owned by the City of Detroit but now the state of Michigan has taken over and there are a lot more police there. It used to be a hangout place and now it is heavily policed. They call Black teenagers hanging out a threat.
The first time I went camping was in my early 20’s. I asked my dad later, ‘How come you never took us camping?’ My dad was like, ‘I am from Mississippi. We had to sleep on the ground. We had to do it for real. We didn’t pretend to do it and call it fun.’ A lot of our experience as a culture with nature is mediated by cultural, genetic, and family traumas that America has put us through. In the older generation, some people have these connections to slavery and sharecropping like, ‘Yo, I am not digging in the ground. It is only something you do out of necessity.’
When people say Black Lives Matter, I love connecting it to the environment. In this society, with regards to who gets to benefit from initiatives, who gets to feel safe and secure, Black people as a collective are often last in line. For example, I was talking to a great activist, Emma Lockridge, from Southwest Detroit. Her house is in the backyard of the Marathon Oil refinery. The way that it is situated, there is a Detroit side and on the other side there are a couple little suburb cities. She said that once there was a fire at the facility and they gave evacuation notices in the suburbs, but they didn’t give evacuation notices on the Detroit side. I think this helps people understand that it isn’t only about a bullet coming out of a police officer’s gun, but the threat to Black lives is throughout the whole society.
I want to lift up Charity Hicks, a vibrant water activist, who passed away from a hit and run under suspicious circumstances. She came up with the phrase ‘wage love’ at one of her last speaking engagements in Detroit at St. Peter’s church. So, we wage love. It is an attitude of community building. Both my parents were born in the South during segregation. I grew up knowing that there was a war against my people. We need love to wage this war. If we don’t love our community, ourselves, and each other, then this war will destroy us. The actions that we’re doing, it’s definitely not just me. It’s a lot of people doing a lot of different things to minimize suffering, to avoid suffering, to help people have happiness and quality of life and dignity in a system and environment that would see us poor and miserable.
I am in the activist community so a lot of our work is responding to injustices and raising awareness. Some of the things that people put up with, that people live with, that people adapt to, many of them are unfair. There is a massive trash incinerator that burns not only Detroit trash but the majority of trash comes from Oakland County, one of the richest counties in America. When they throw their stuff ‘away,’ it just burns up in our lungs. We are organizing, and raising awareness about it. We are trying to eventually shut the facility down and make way for other zero waste practices.
As activists led by the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, we protested at DTE Energy Company. Every winter people were dying because DTE would cut people’s electricity off. DTE finally changed their policies. They started listening and working more with the community. That was a victory. We have a very active community. Part of what it is to be a Detroiter is to create these systems that are going to take care of people. It comes in numerous ways, like creating different alternative systems and creating different ways where we can support each other to have a happier and higher quality life.
We have to look out for each other. I want to do a better job of being there for people because you can’t take anything for granted. It’s the little things--reaching out to people, checking in on people--that are so valuable. Nobody is going to give you a grant for it, but it can save a life or make someone’s life a lot better. I would like to encourage people to think of climate change as something that is happening now.
In our climate justice work, we are talking about transforming and innovating now, as opposed to shifting or preventing some future event. There are a lot of calamities already that maybe you’re not familiar with, but they’re happening. You can get more allies if you acknowledge and work in the present as opposed to leaping toward the future.”
Climate change is making droughts drier, hotter, and longer. They have intensified in recent years. For example, in 2012, in the United States, "81 percent of the country was living in abnormally dry conditions, causing $30 billion in damages." (C2ES 2017 via CRP) This has a serious impact on human health, and communities with limited to no access to health care and air conditioned spaces are hit the hardest.
Detroit is particularly vulnerable to the impacts of increased and intensified drought and heat waves. Of the top 40 U.S. cities, Detroit is considered to be the second most impacted by climate change. Heat events can contribute to increased rates of asthma and asthma attacks. Detroit's asthma rate is three times the U.S. average. (Detroit Climate Action) Of course, not all people are impacted in the same way. People of lower socioeconomic status along with people living in densely populated areas have a greater risk of being exposed to extreme heat. "Rising overnight temperatures during heat waves present the greatest risk for more severe illnesses, since residents are less able to find relief from sweltering temperatures." (GLISA 2014) The results of exposure include heat-rashes, heat exhaustion, heatstroke, and even death.
3. Continue the legacy of Charity Hicks and donate to the Peoples Water Board of Detroit which is advancing the fight for clean and affordable water for all people. Water is Life! Wage Love!
4. Watch "Take tha House Back" by Will See (dir. Kate Levy) to see a hip hop rendition of the struggle for safe and warm places to live in Detroit and share it with your friends, community, and organizations.