Protesting for Clean Air: An Interview with Greenpeace Activist Kelly Mitchell

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Editor’s Note: The following story was written by a student in our first-ever Eco Youth Reporters program, conducted in conjunction with award-winning journalist Kari Lydersen, Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, and Imagine Englewood If, a youth services organization based in that South Side neighborhood. The Eco Youth Reporters program is generously funded by the McCormick Foundation:

In a recent attempt to shut down a coal-fired electric plant in the Pilsen neighborhood, Kelly Mitchell and seven others climbed up a 450-foot smoke stack on May 24.

Several youth journalists and I got a chance to interview the 26-year-old Mitchell at Yang’s Chinese Restaurant in the South Loop in view of the smoke stack. She discussed the story behind the Fisk coal plant and the thrilling climb and how she and her colleagues survived.

Greenpeace activist Kelly Mitchell reads her fortune. Photo by Tyreshia Black.

Mitchell and her team were arrested and charged with felony property damage. They had to attend a court hearing and Mitchell told us that the maximum sentence she could serve would be seven years.

Five men and three women (including Mitchell) stayed up on the smoke stack for 26 hours. They survived with only Cliffbar nutrition bars and bottled water. They used hiking tools to reach each of the platforms on the smoke stack. I wondered how was it possible to do such a thing?

“All of us did that type of climbing before so we were experienced and knew how to use the equipment,” said Mitchell.

While climbing the old smoke stack, the air wasn’t clear or breathable at all. Mitchell said, “We wore respirators to keep from choking and breathing in the highly polluted air.”

Mitchell works with the international activist group Greenpeace which has a coal plant pollution prevention campaign. Mitchell explained to us that the Fisk Generating Station was built in 1903 and it has extremely old equipment that she said needed to be regulated and forced to upgrade immediately. The biggest problem activists and citizens have with the coal plant is that it’s in the middle of the city where hundreds of thousands of people live.

She told us that there were about four platforms on the smoke stack and on each platform they stopped and painted a portion of their quote “Quit Coal.” They hung up banners that also said “Quit Coal.” There were various forms of media outreach in English and Spanish.

The Fisk coal plant has numerous issues that cause people to hate it. It is linked to higher rates of asthma, heart attacks and lung cancer, according to several prominent studies. “It’s really dirty,” Mitchell said.

When coal is burned to make electricity at the plant, it releases toxic byproducts or waste including ash, lead, soot and particles that lodge in people’s lungs.
As a teen growing up in Los Angeles, Mitchell was a youth activist. She started off doing fund-raising and petitioning for local groups. Mitchell also worked in Pennsylvania and Iowa contacting congressmen to pass legislation.

Mitchell was motivated and encouraged to do activism work by her parents, who were previously activists who among other things tried to stop a nuclear power plant from being built in California.

Mitchell has only one younger brother who didn’t really follow the family tradition of being an activist. He preferred to become a musician and artist, but Mitchell said, “I love my only-three-years-younger-than-me brother dearly.”

After she was arrested for the coal plant protest, Mitchell had a mug shot taken by the police. “My mom said I looked like a hoodlum in my mug shot but she was still being supportive,” said Mitchell. “I thought that was the most hideous picture taken of me ever!”

Mitchell took a chance to stand up for what she thought was right and a lot of people have been fighting to get the coal plant shut down or regulated.

“More normal people are taking a risk, but people with actual power aren’t, and that’s a problem,” said Mitchell.

Mitchell and the other activists who stayed atop the coal plant for 26 hours weren’t the only ones protesting that day. There was another group several miles away on the canal that brings coal to the plant, blocking a bridge. They temporarily prevented the coal from getting to the plant, and there was about five hours of delay for the employees that worked in the coal plant, Mitchell said.

Mitchell said she was constantly inspired and encouraged by many people. She said a year ago she wouldn’t have been capable mentally of scaling the smoke stack. “My family has been really supportive and my parents left me a lot of positive messages,” said Mitchell.

She said she was scared but “not too scared. When you do these types of things you get a lot of adrenalin.”

She admitted a lot of stuff during the interview too. “I have been arrested before but not convicted,” she said. But she declined to give details.

I think it was a very incredible thing that Mitchell did. She compared the deaths caused by the plant to someone going around shooting people, and noted that people would not be ignored year after year like the coal plant has been by those in power.

She said she hopes her activism “forces people to think hard about why eight people would do something like this. It might draw more attention and start some more dialogue.”

At the end of the interview, Mitchell cracked open her fortune cookie. What it said was a good sign for the campaign: “Everything will now come your way.”

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