By Victoria Merlino
A line down the block? A clump of protesters holding a “Trump 2020” banner?
Call it the AOC effect.
Queens lawmakers, including U.S. Rep Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, joined advocates Thursday to discuss installing means of renewable energy production on Rikers Island, as the city looks ahead to the phase for the land under the set-to-close jails complex.
Astoria Councilmember Costa Constantinides, chair of the Council’s Environmental Protection Committee, led the charge for sustainable energy.
“We can make sure this land is never used for any other atrocity again,” Constantinides said. “We can make sure that it doesn’t become a playground for the rich.”
The Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform’s report, “A More Just NYC,” initially recommended the installation of solar panels and other city infrastructure on Rikers in 2017. Constantinides has become a champion for a solar power plant on the island, as well as a sewage treatment site.
Rikers Island is located within Constantinides’ district.
Constantinides spoke about “environmental racism” in the city, an idea that politicians like Constantindes and State Assemblymember Catalina Cruz touched on throughout the night to describe how the city’s lower-income neighborhoods and communities that are predominantly made up of people of color can be more exposed pollution due to their proximity to facilities like airports, power plants or wastewater treatment plants.
He gave the example of the power plants located near the Queensbridge, Ravenswood and Astoria Houses as the reason those areas have higher than average asthma rates and emergency room admissions in the borough. Renewable sources of energy on Rikers, he said, could provide the energy necessary to close power plants and wastewater treatment plants, reimagining the city’s waterfronts.
“It’s time for us to think how we can get climate justice for the same communities that were torn apart by the criminal justice system, emblematic in Rikers Island,” Constantinides said.
“A renewable Rikers Island is exactly the kind of vision that we can expose, create, develop and then bring into fruition,” Ocasio-Cortez told the crowd. “If you put solar panels on 25 percent of Rikers Island, we will be able to close every toxic power plant that has been opened in the last two decades in New York City.”
Ocasio-Cortez is a major advocate for the Green New Deal, a policy package that would drastically cut carbon emissions across the nation and promote renewable energy while giving special attention to how policies would affect minority and lower-income communities.
“We’re here to make sure that no person is subject to dirtier air or getting lead in their blood because of where they were born and who they are,” she said.
Other lawmakers present included Jackson Heights Councilmember Daniel Dromm and State Sen. Jessica Ramos.
The crowd also heard from a panel of experts, including moderator Rebecca Bratspies, the founding director of CUNY Law School’s Center for Urban Environmental Reform, and Marco Barrios, a #CLOSErikers campaign leader who served over 24 years in prison, as well as some time detained on Rikers.
Outside, a small group called MAGA Queens, a self-described “pro-God,” “pro-life,” “pro-guns” and “pro-Trump” organization, gathered with a “Trump 2020” banner to protest against Ocasio-Cortez, the Green New Deal and shutting down Rikers Island.
MAGA Queens’ Thomas Zmich criticized the city’s current plan to replace Rikers by building community jails across the five boroughs, and was suspicious of renewable Rikers plans, calling them “bull” and saying that he suspects that Rikers’ land will be sold to developers to build condos. “This is a land-grab thing,” Zmich said. “This is all the elite people with their high-priced donors and everything like that looking to get their hands on waterfront land.”
Constantinides said he would be launching a petition soon for residents to sign and support the renewable Rikers idea.