Power Politics: Environmental Activism in South Los Angeles

Power Politics: Environmental Activism in South Los Angeles

Power Politics: Environmental Activism in South Los Angeles

Power Politics: Environmental Activism in South Los Angeles


In the late 1990s, when California's deregulation of the production and sale of electric power created massive energy shortages, a group of environmental justice activists blocked construction of a power plant in their working-class Mexican and Central American neighborhoods. Why did they choose this battle? And how did the largely high school student activists come to prevail in the face of statewide political opinion?

Power Politics is a rich and readable study of a grassroots campaign where longtime labor and environmental allies found themselves on opposite sides of a conflict that pitted good jobs against good air. Karen Brodkin analyzes how those issues came to be opposed and in doing so unpacks the racial and class dynamics that shape Americans' grasp of labor and environmental issues. Power Politics' activists stood at the forefront of a movement that is building broad-based environmental coalitions and placing social justice at the heart of a new and robust vision.


This book tells the story of a successful grassroots campaign against building an electric power plant in a part of Los Angeles County already burdened with polluted air. Its heart is the story of how the environmental justice organization Communities for a Better Environment (CBE) and its youth group, Youth for Environmental Justice (Youth-EJ), went about defeating a power plant during 2000 and 2001, when California seemed to be in the midst of its worst electricity shortage ever. These activists saw themselves as environmental Davids against the Goliath of Big Power. Marianne Brown, Erin O’Brien, and Bryce Lowery at UCLA’s Labor and Occupational Safety and Health first connected me with these activists, for which I’m grateful. My biggest thanks go to cbe staff, and to the high school students who did the outreach and education that mobilized South Gate residents to become involved. They opened their files and shared their ideas and expertise, their notes, artwork, and photos with me. I also thank their teachers at South Gate High School, who are also important players in this narrative.

As I pursued this story, it got more complicated. the good guys and bad guys were not always who I expected them to be. the big power Goliath saw itself as David too. I began to feel like I was solving a mystery, and as with reading a mystery novel, I found myself entering unfamiliar territory.

The issue was deeply entangled in local and statewide politics that sometimes had little or nothing to do with electricity, and sometimes had much to do with its technology and political economy. Activists may try to shape the policies and practices of legislative and regulatory bodies, but they usually do it from the outside, because that is where grassroots organizing is especially effective. Like those I study, I am seldom privy to . . .

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