Bradley Angel thought he would die that night. He had been shot five times in the back by police with stun guns, thrown into a van, and then spirited away to a makeshift prison camp in the desert.
He was about to testify against the construction of a hazardous waste facility. Four hundred people showed up for the hearing, all from communities he had organized to oppose the plant. He was removed before he could speak, but the heavy-handed tactics backfired. Bradley survived the kidnapping and showed up for the next hearing. This time, he was joined by 4,000 others.
People transcended cultural lines to join in protest. At one point a grizzled old man stood up to speak. “There’s a statue of my daddy up there,” he said. “He was an Indian fighter. He’s the guy with the gun. Let me just tell you that this incinerator will never be built.” Four thousand people stood up and cheered. The incinerator plan was scrapped.
Currently executive director of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, Bradley is a born activist. “Was it genetic?” he laughs. “I grew up during the Vietnam war. My parents were concerned about the war, but they weren’t activists. They did bring me to my first protest though.” Thus his legacy began.
In 1976 he moved to San Francisco, where he started fighting for tenants’ rights. He joined indigent tenants in their fight to save the International Hotel in Manilatown. And he campaigned to stop the government’s support of dictatorships in Central America. His environmental work began in 1985, when he became co-director of the San Francisco nuclear weapons freeze campaign.
Unhappy with their reluctance to engage in activism, he quit, and later joined Greenpeace as its Southwest Toxics Coordinator. At the time, Greenpeace was a bunch of white guys hanging banners on boats. They wanted to work with communities, and that got Bradley’s attention. He diversified the hiring and organized communities from California to Arizona. He also repaired relations with tribal governments and grassroots indigenous peoples, which had viewed Greenpeace with suspicion. He worked with the Native American governments to form the Indigenous Environmental Network, which is now one of the most important in the field.
Starting in the mid to late 1980s there was an explosion of proposals to locate hazardous waste facilities in tribal and low-income areas. The proponents assumed that the poor and powerless would be least likely to resist. But they didn’t count on the likes of Bradley. People came from all over – Richmond, East Los Angeles, Navajo, Arizona, Tijuana – to stop a proposed hazardous waste incinerator in Kettleman City. Residents built alliances, opposing plans across the region, not just in their own backyards. Faced with such far-ranging opposition, the companies gave up.
Greenpeace and the communities had a falling out in 1997. They had been working together to oppose the construction of a nuclear waste dump on sacred land. Five tribal governments, including their elders and spiritual leaders, agreed to engage in mass direct action, on the condition that Greenpeace would support them. Greenpeace-US signed on. But then Greenpeace International changed its strategy, and had all community operations shut down. “It was a betrayal,” Bradley said. He resigned in protest.
Although Greenpeace backed out, the tribes did not. Tribal members from Native Nations joined with other grassroots community environmental justice leaders to form Greenaction in late 1997. In February 1998, they engaged the federal government in a 113-day standoff that saw the end of its plans to dump nuclear waste on sacred ground. In the longest community-based direct action since Wounded Knee, the tribes withstood hail, rain, government threats and intimidation - until they won.
Bradley has kept his focus on environmental justice since then. Under the leadership of its storied board of directors, Greenaction has fought pollution - from San Francisco to Ute country, from Shell to Red Star Yeast. Its list of victories is long.
Looking to the future, Bradley has started training youth in the art of community organizing and development. During a visit to one of the communities he had served, a young woman with a baby in her arms approached him. “I don’t know if you remember me,” she said, “I was just a kid when I first met you. I just wanted to thank you for helping our community.” That young woman and her child are the future of the movement, and it occurred to Bradley that he had better start getting them prepared. And that's a good thing for the rest of us. The world can always use a few more Angels.