I will quote from some previous posts I've made about Luke:
Luke Cole graduated with honors from Stanford, and cum laude from Harvard Law School. He could have done anything. He could have gone to work for any law firm in the country, and made a fortune. Instead, he moved to San Francisco and co-founded the non-profit Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment.As his friend and colleague, Angela Harris, said at one of the memorials for Luke, giving me permission to reprint in its entirety:
The first thing to say is that Luke pretty much started the field of environmental justice lawyering. He didn’t start the environmental justice movement, but he started the conversation about how you lawyer for the movement. For people who don’t know, the environmental justice movement is about recognizing that environmental hazards, like pollution, pesticides, toxic waste, and natural disasters, affect everyone . . . but they don’t affect everyone equally. Because of the way our society is structured, poor people and people of color suffer the most, whether it’s farmworkers in the Central Valley dealing with toxic plumes of pesticides blowing off the fields into their homes or little villages in Alaska having their hunting and fishing livelihoods destroyed by oil extraction, pollution and climate change.And from the San Francisco Chronicle, when Luke died:
It seems obvious, and yet Luke was the first person to recognize that for lawyers, an environmental justice practice meant bringing together two fields that had always been understood as totally separate and unrelated: environmental law and civil rights law. His very first article, which made him famous in the academy, was about how lawyers have to master both fields in order to understand and represent poor people and people of color who are facing environmental hazards. Indeed, even for lawyers who have a purely “environmental” practice and lawyers who have a purely “civil rights” practice, it is important to recognize that a clean and healthy environment for all requires some measure of social justice, and that the fight against discrimination includes the fight for clean water and air and the right to participate in decisions made about the environment.
"This was not a well-understood concept at the time," said Brent Newell, an attorney and legal director of Mr. Cole's nonprofit organization, the Center on Race, Poverty and the Environment in San Francisco. Mr. Cole was executive director of the center.The Los Angeles Times:
"He was told by poverty law firms that they don't do environmental law, and the big environmental groups said they don't do law for poor people," Newell said.
Cole first demonstrated his innovative approach in 1990, when he helped the poor, Latino residents of Kettleman City in the San Joaquin Valley defeat a proposed toxic waste incinerator project by pointing out that the environmental impact report had not been translated into Spanish, the primary language of almost half of the town's residents.Of the South Camden case, which was overturned on appeal, the New York Times wrote:
In the late 1990s he applied civil rights law to a case in South Camden, N.J., where an impoverished black community opposed the construction of a cement recycling plant. The proposed plant met technical requirements, but Cole, citing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, argued that it would worsen the quality of life in a minority community that was already suffering from high levels of exposure to dangerous pollutants.
In Kivalina, Alaska, he recently settled a case against a major zinc producer whose mining operations he said were fouling the water supply of a 4,000-year-old Inupiat Eskimo village. He was continuing to represent the Inupiat people in a new lawsuit alleging that Exxon, Chevron and other oil companies were contributing to global warming, which some experts say is causing Kivalina to erode.
“It marked the first recognition by any court that African-Americans and Latinos were experiencing discrimination with regard to the siting of noxious, polluting facilities,” said Olga Pomar, a lawyer with South Jersey Legal Services and a co-counsel in the case. “That sparked greater awareness among environmental justice activists.”Harris:
But Luke’s contributions went beyond inventing a new legal practice area. He also spent a lot of time writing and lecturing and teaching young lawyers about how to be a lawyer in this new field. The first lesson that he was always trying to teach was a professional lesson about service and humility. Because we have our professional degrees and we have what he called “macho law brains,” we lawyers always think we should be up there at the front of the struggle, filing lawsuits and saving everybody. Luke really tried to give lawyers the opposite message: Lawyers should be “on tap, not on top.” It’s not our job to run everything. It’s our job to help communities help themselves. He told young lawyers not to take any action until they could convincingly answer the following questions:Luke was also a great friend, husband, and father, and one of the most amazing people those of us blessed to have known him ever knew. When I met him, he was young and wild and brilliant and in some ways out of control. He flew through Stanford and Harvard Law, but by his later twenties he didn't like being young and wild and in some ways out of control. He took control. He stopped partying. He faced the personal mistakes he had made and personally apologized to people he had hurt or offended. I have never known anyone who was so fearless in confronting his demons. I have never known anyone who was so committed to making the world a better place just for the sake of making the world a better place. I have never known anyone who was a better friend. I also hear he was a damn fine birder, and in his final months he even made it to Gough Island, and photographed a Gough Bunting and a Gough Moorhen.
Does it educate?
Does it build the movement?
Does it get to the root of the problem?
The second lesson that Luke tried to teach young lawyers was that, in the end, environmental justice isn’t about law anyway; it’s about power. People of color and poor people always get the short end of the stick, not because we need more laws, but because our capitalist system with its history of racial exploitation is structured that way. So building power is what environmental justice is all about, and that’s why CRPE has lawyers and community organizers working cooperatively to build the movement.
Sometimes realizing that it’s all about power is hard for people. Another thing Luke used to talk about was what he called the “three great myths of white Americana.” The three great myths are these:
The government is on our side.
The truth will set you free.
And last but not least:
We need a lawyer.
And even though Luke was all about professional humility and a service ethic for lawyers, when it came to building power, he was also all about kicking ass. He was never afraid to afflict the comfortable as well as comforting the afflicted. If he needed to be in your face, he was in your face. And although he was good at representing his clients in meetings, he was also good at completely shutting a meeting down.
Cover boy of California Law Magazine. Named by American Lawyer magazine as one of the Public Sector 45, one of "forty-five young lawyers outside the private sector whose vision and commitment are changing lives." Recipient of Berkeley’s Ecology Law Quarterly's 1997 Environmental Leadership Award. Named by the American Bar Association's Barrister magazine as one of "20 young lawyers making a difference." Appointed by EPA Administrator Carol Browner to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council. Honored by numerous local communities for helping empower them to confront corporate polluters. In 2009, Stanford Law School established a permanent chair called the Luke W. Cole Professor of Environmental Law and Director, Environmental Law Clinic. In its latest newsletter, the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment offers this tribute in remembrance of Luke's birthday.
As I wrote two years ago:
Luke saw a need and filled it. He did what was right because it was right. When everyone told him he couldn't do it, he refused to listen. When there was no place for him to do what he knew needed to be done, he created a place—for himself, and for the many who have now joined the cause.Every year on his birthday, Luke threw himself a party. He insisted that there be no presents. Himself sober, he made it into a root beer tasting. He had local, specialty, and gourmet root beers flown in from all parts of the country. He printed short form and long form ratings sheets, and then calculated and published the results. As with everything he did in life, Luke enthused. As a friend of Luke's responded to me today by Kosmail, when I told her that this would have been Luke's 50th birthday, I will raise a glass of root beer in his honor.