When the People fight, the People Win: Reflections on the Stop General Iron Hunger Strike

Last month the City of Chicago denied the final operating permit for General Iron. Read from community members as they reflect on the hunger strike that brought this fight to national attention.

Mckenzie Richmond

Wednesday, March 23, 2022, 3:23 PM

Mere days after the anniversary of a Hunger Strike organized by community members of Chicago’s 10th Ward as a last effort to protest General Iron’s operation permits, the City of Chicago denied the operating permit for a scrap metal facility to operate on Chicago’s Southeast Side.

Had it been approved, the General Iron facility, now known as RMG/SouthSide Recycling, would have joined close to 250 industrial sites in the Southeast side of Chicago, bringing with it a long history of citations and complaints.

“The anticipation and lack of hope we have with those in power, made me believe, and made us prepare to have an action at City Hall that same Friday, but instead our Stop General Iron Campaign celebrated,” Oscar Sanchez, one of the first community members to join the Hunger Strike, said. “We celebrated that the Southeast Side gets to breathe, we know there’s more to be done, but we demonstrated what the power of the people can do, and when the people fight, the people win.”

In May of last year, United States Environmental Protection Agency Administrator, Michael Reagan, sent a letter to Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot urging the City of Chicago to delay the permitting process and to allow for an Environmental Justice study to take place in order to determine the impact that the new facility would have on the health of Southeast Side residents.

Later in the fall, the Chicago Department of Public Health announced that they had concluded a Health Impact Analysis (HIA) in partnership with the federal EPA, which conducted tests and gathered data to determine how General Iron’s operations would impact the community. “We’re not asking for millions of trillions of dollars or anything outlandish, we’re literally just asking to breathe clean air and we're asking to not continue to be the air filters for the city, you know,” Yesenia Chavez, the fourth community member to join the 2021 Hunger Strike, said.

Breanna Bertacchi, Chuck Stark and Sanchez began their hunger strike Feb. 4, 2021, joined by Chavez on Feb. 8, 2021. However due to the pandemic, they made the determination to have certain liquids remain to mitigate the effects of a hunger strike during a global pandemic, which they did not deviate from.

According to Bertacchi, prior to the beginning of the hunger strike, the coalition had been encouraged to take up space and voice their opposition against the metal scrapper as frequently as possible, with petitions, rallies, marches and protests, however, despite using all the outlets advertised by public officials as means of being heard, they received no response from the city and had to resort to extreme efforts.

“It did feel like a last resort to some extent,” Bertacchi said. “On the one hand it was hugely symbolic and mildly empowering, but the symbolism of the hunger strike, in light of the impact that we anticipate General Iron would bring into the community, felt appropriate in that way. All of the research that’s been done and all of the articles that we reference in our town halls, indicate the extent to which a metal scrapper the size and the scope of General Iron would have on the community, and in a way, we embodied that physically.”

The original strikers only intended to not eat for 10 days. However, at the 10-day mark, there was no response from the city. The strikers were not ready to give up and had committed themselves to strike until a determination was made on behalf of the city. It was shortly after their decision to move forward that the movement gained more traction and more community members joined alongside them.

“We felt a strong, I don’t want to say obligation, but motivation to keep going because we saw how much awareness was being created,” Sanchez said. “You know, more days was one more media outlet, one more interview, two interviews, three interviews. All the media awareness was growing. Because we saw how powerful our testimonies had been, and since we were the original hunger strikers, we felt like we had a responsibility to carry this out as long as we can.”

The core group of strikers that continued past the 14-day mark was about 12 or more, including Bertacchi, Sanchez and Stark who lasted 29 days, and Chavez who lasted 25. However over 100 people joined in the movement by participating through one day solidarity strikes. The movement spread throughout environmental groups across the city, at one point across the nation, as people joined the coalition’s protest in one day solidarity strikes.

There was desperation, but “there was this light that appeared from people just knowing we were together and that’s what kept us going and made us even want to go after 30 days,” Sanchez said.

Like Sanchez, “I didn’t want to end it,” Chavez said. “I wanted to keep going, but the conversation (to end the hunger strike) was brought up by other members of the coalition because they started to see us wither, they started to notice we were extremely thin, extremely fatigued, in pain. We were in a lot of pain.”

The end of the hunger strike was ultimately brought up by a concerned coalition member, who came to face the fact that the city was not going to act in a time frame healthy enough to carry on with the hunger strike.

While the operating permit was not denied in the time frame the community had hoped, Stark found success in that impact he and his counterparts were able to make, ultimately paving the way for the city’s decision to deny the permit for operation.

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About the Author

Mckenzie Richmond

Mckenzie Richmond is a current Northwestern Medill Graduate Student specializing in social justice and sports media with an established background in journalism as a reporter and photographer. Learn more: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mckenzie-richmond/

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