Cleared lots

Empire 13 members are cleaning up abandoned and neglected tracts of land in East St. Louis, Ill. Photos: Facebook/Empire 13

EAST ST. LOUIS, Ill.—Some residents are concerned that toxic chemicals may be polluting their air. Black people make up half the confirmed Covid-19 cases in St. Clair County but are only about 30 percent of the population. And citizens of East St. Louis have to travel out of the city for hospital care.

As J.D. Dixon drives along State Street and sees piles of trash, he thinks about how all of these issues are connected to systemic racism.

It’s why Dixon and his organization, Empire 13, hosted a cleanup in East St. Louis to bring attention to environmental systemic racism.


“The cleanup is about more than just cleaning up the community,” said Dixon, a Belleville-area activist. “It’s a part of our strategy to raise awareness to the environmental systemic racism that the residents of East St. Louis, which is about 98 percent Black, have faced that have directly contributed to East St. Louis becoming the most distressed small city in America, which says a whole lot, because East St. Louis started off as one of the most vibrant up and coming cities in the area.”

(Left) Some areas require chain saws to clear overgrowth. Empire 13 members with piles of trash filled bags after cleaning another area.

The cleanup is part of Empire 13’s Boots to the Streets Campaign, which addresses racial and social issues related to discrimination in Black communities. Empire 13, which Dixon formed, is a grassroots organization of Black workers from Empire Comfort Systems in Belleville who want to end racism in the workplace and beyond. Dixon is a machine operator at Empire.

The Boots to the Streets campaign started last summer, in the wake of George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police, as employees organized protests to create awareness of what they said was racism by some White co-workers and supervisors. Empire Comfort Systems has said it is working to address issues raised by its employees.

“From that, we started taking up other causes because we took the initiative to not just fight for what’s going on with us because we know just from the wake of 2020 and everything that’s been going on, systemic racism has been a problem for everyone,” Dixon, 33, said.

The Jan. 10 event was the group’s second cleanup in East St. Louis. The first was in October on State Street. Dixon said the plan is to pick up debris in nearby parking lots and fields.

“My grandmother stays on 83rd,” Dixon said. “83rd and Edgemont is where I hung out with my family, ran around, played, grew up at, so that was probably initially why I looked at it. Then, when I was driving through there, it was just trash everywhere.

“I was looking at the field and the whole field was literally trash, parking lot was literally trash with tires and debris, so I think it was the best place to start anyway.”

Danny Fenton, who’s a part of Empire 13, attended the first cleanup. He said he was proud of seeing people, especially young people, come together to fix the community.

“On State Street, we mowed out grass and cleaned trash and all of that,” Fenton, 59, said. “It’s a big area over there, but we want to take action and do something more than just talking. East St. Louis has run down buildings and overgrown weeds and so much trash that it’s sad.

“People came out and helped us and supported and appreciated what we were doing, so hopefully we’re a spark that’ll build a fire.”

But the latest effort didn’t solely involve the cleanup. Dixon wanted to spark legislative change through the group’s actions. He started a petition demanding federal help to end environmental racism in Illinois’ Black communities, including East St. Louis.

In 2019, U.S. Senator Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois) urged the Centers for Disease Control to investigate whether heavy metal is emitted from the Veolia Environmental Services waste incinerator in nearby Sauget. The investigation is ongoing.

Veolia officials have defended the company’s environmental record, citing zero emissions violations, and said they would cooperate with regulatory agencies and the CDC.

Empire 13’s petition, which can be viewed online, includes 10 sections that directly address providing more resources to Black communities to ensure they’re clean.

“There’s no demonstration without legislation,” said Dixon, who’s a write-in candidate for mayor of Belleville. “What we’re doing is using the demonstration of cleaning up the community, which is literally cleaning it up to beautify the community, but the main goal is to raise awareness to get the legislation passed to where we get regular cleaning crews, regular road work crews in East St. Louis and the surrounding Black communities.”

Only seven people work for East St. Louis’ Public Works Department. A spokesperson for the department previously said that although the team does the best it can to clean the city, the department’s small staff warrants outside help. That’s why Dixon is inviting the community and calling for federal aid to help solve the issue in East St. Louis.

“East St. Louis used to have historical theaters, grand hotels. We had multiple business avenues that were extremely profitable, and those are things that can easily come back to East St. Louis, and now, with the awakening of the nation seeing the systemic racism we’ve been enduring for years and years, we have the opportunity now to raise our voice and come together to do that, and that’s what this community cleanup is essentially about,” Dixon said. He plans to continue putting pressure on government officials because the consequences of environmental racism in East St. Louis and elsewhere have tangible effects on citizens.

“This has been a fight going on for decades. I think what the real difference is now is that we’ve been organizing, we’ve been coming together to fight this, and we all believe that’s what has been missing in this fight is the actual people who will try to get to the senators and try to get to the congressmen and women and get them to act.”

—Deasia Paige Belleville News-Democrat via AP