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Under Pressure, Tacoma Environmental Movement Changes Its Name

Ted S. Warren
AP Photo
Protesters hold a sign that reads "No Methanol" as they rally in Tacoma, Wash., outside a Feb. 2016 public meeting on a proposed methanol plant at the Port of Tacoma

One of the most powerful activist groups in Tacoma has changed its name after critics said the previous title was insensitive to people of color.

The group known as RedLine Tacoma is now Redefine Tacoma. 

"We’ve made this change to address the concerns expressed by community members and to reflect more clearly the mission of our group," the group's organizers wrote on their website

African-American leaders in Tacoma and their supporters said the name RedLine was a painful reminder of redlining -- the systemic practice of concentrating people of color in certain neighborhoods while excluding them from others. 

"My mother lives in my grandmother’s house," said Nate Bowling, a Tacoma teacher who criticized RedLine's name. "It’s on 19th Street in Tacoma. And when my family came here, we were basically steered toward that neighborhood.” 

RedLine's leaders said the name was meant to convey a hard line against the expansion of fossil fuels, and echoes language coined by environmental activists during the negotiation of the Paris climate agreement.

The debate over the name fractured a young and growing progressive movement in Tacoma.

Arguments broke out on Facebook. A competing environmental group emerged, led by activists of color including Bowling, called Tacoma Roots: Environmental Justice Forum

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Leaders of the group now called Redefine Tacoma say the new name is meant to respond to criticisms while also sharpening their message.

“Our mission is to redefine our area away from a legacy of over a hundred years of heavy pollution," said Claudia Riedener, an organizer of the group, referring to Tacoma's history as a hub of heavy industry.

Activists with what was then called RedLine Tacoma burst onto the city's political scene last year, packing local government meetings and staging protests that played a major role in the defeat of a proposed methanol plant at the Port of Tacoma. 

They have since rallied against plans for the liquefied natural gas plant and called on city leaders to turn the Tacoma's economy away from dirty industries. 

But wariness of Redefine Tacoma threatens to linger even after the name change. Critics say the group's hard-line tactics have alienated potential allies. 

"I personally oppose the LNG plant, but frankly it's my No. 5 or 7 issue," Bowling said, referring to the liquefied natural gas plant. "In exchange for not having it be my No. 1 issue, people have lumped me in with being a fossil-fuel backer."

"I think this is an example of purity politics," he added.

Riedener said those criticisms stem from a misunderstanding of who the group's members are. 

"We have thousands of people that follow us on Facebook," she said. "And when we organize events and many, many people show up, we are not responsible for every single person, for every single opinion in this town. We're just a group of dedicated volunteers." 

"If we were just to all sit at home quietly and not say anything, well then there would be no complaints and no controversy," she added. 

For Bowling, the name change represents a "good gesture," but the group has more work to do if it wants to broaden its support.  

"I think it’s even more important that they take a moment and examine their culture," he said. "Because things shouldn’t have gotten this far.” 

Will James is a former KNKX reporter and was part of the special projects team, reporting and producing podcasts such as Outsiders and The Walk Home.