On a sunny, cold Tuesday afternoon, 20 or so of us pile into a school bus bound for Vacherie. (Why don’t school buses have seat belts?) Most of us are members of Justice and Beyond, a black-led New Orleans coalition of justice-seeking organizations. Co-founder Pat Bryant is aboard as are co-moderators Sylvia McKenzie and the Rev. Gregory Manning, of Broadmoor Community Church.
The whites among us include the Rev. William Barnwell, an Episcopal priest, a Tulane Environmental Law Clinic administrator named Kimberley Terrell and Sam and Elizabeth Coley, a couple recently transplanted from New York who promote the use of clotheslines because dryers suck up so much energy.
We are embarking on this road trip to support Rise St. James, a predominantly black group of activists knowledgeable and passionate about health issues and the environment. Members live in and around the small town of Welcome and are fighting the Formosa Corporation, a multi-national petrochemical giant.
Formosa is planning a $9.4 billion industrial plant on 1,600 acres of a 2,319-acre site next to the Mississippi River. It will manufacture more of the plastic products that never degrade and are already choking our oceans and toxifying our food. The plant reportedly will employ 1,200 fulltime workers and 8,000 temporary workers over a 12-year building cycle. It will also belch hundreds, perhaps thousands of tons per year of volatile organic pollutants, and lesser amounts of carcinogenic formaldehyde, toluene and benzene, according the company’s permit application. A Sierra Club release puts the annual pollution discharge much higher, at 11 million tons.
More than a dozen religious leaders were scheduled to address the Rise St. James convocation, among them the Rev. Robert Taylor, president of the St. John the Baptist Citizen Association, and the Rev. Dr. William Barber, head of the National Poor People’s Campaign. Barber is striving to revive the once powerful coalition of poor people that, under the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., organized to stop wars and divert to human needs the huge sums of money war wastes.
Sixty percent more Americans live in poverty today than 50 years ago, Barber tells us. To exercise our collective power against that worsening reality, he stresses that it’s imperative we overcome racism and any other ism that divides us.
Formosa’s plan for the plastics plant in St. James Parish is the perfect shared issue, he argues. Polluted air doesn’t stop at the parish line, and poisoned water spreads through our aquifers and flows to the sea. We all breathe. We all drink water. The whole planet depends on the health of our oceans.
The Mississippi River shimmers in the late afternoon sun as we cross the Hale Boggs Bridge. We pass cane fields and 32 industrial sites belching toxins. They are a physical manifestation of oppressions old and new, economic inequities that enrich global elites — and take a murderous toll on the bodies of people who live and work in the area, most of them black.
There is a direct line from slavery to African-American towns in the Fifth District of St. James Parish — Welcome and Freetown, for example. They were settled by men and women who beat long odds and survived forced and frequently lethal labor in the ante-bellum sugar cane fields. But during the past 75 years, towns like Sellars, Wallace, Sunrise, and Morrisonville have been wiped off the map altogether by industries that, as Anne Rolfes has reported, offered no compensation to residents for taking their homes or even an acknowledgment that the towns ever existed. Rolfes is founder and leader of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, an environmental group that fights industrial pollution.
The Fifth District post office has closed. Welcome’s evacuation route has become a private road. Residential property values have plummeted. As Rolfes writes: “It is much cheaper to expedite the death of a town than to compensate people by paying a fair price for their homes and land.”
Some of the young people on the bus dozed off en route, but now, as we reach Vacherie’s Reception Hall, they pull out their cameras and begin documenting the historic revival. Video artist and rapper Derrick “Sonny D” Strong records St. James residents who have been witness to the destruction of their towns. “Piece after piece has been ripped out of our close-knit community,” Samell Lavigne tells us.
Strong honed his skills as an artist, filmmaker, musician and entrepreneur in college before he went away to the Orleans Parish Prison for a few years on a rash of charges stemming from youthful folly: drug possession, arson, burglary of a religious building. After his release he was gunned down on a New Orleans street and barely survived. These days he combines his art and his activism to instruct legislators and youth about the plight of oppressed people.
When the land and everything in it is poisoned, the decision about whether to fight or to leave is a wrenching one, Welcome residents tell Strong. “What is the price of our health? What are our lives worth?” one resident asks. A cancer survivor, Alicia Garth, delivers a powerfully prophetic message: she declares it a duty to stay and fight.
The residents catalog their health complaints: asthma, cancer, skin conditions. They say to Formosa, “What good are the programs you are offering our children if you are killing our children?”
Tales of heroic perseverance are interspersed with calls for divine intervention. Frank Authello, a young black man of Native American heritage, breaks into an ancestral song/plea that morphs into the spiritual “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.” Justice and Beyond’s Bryant leads us in singing “Amazing Grace” and reminds us that the hymn was written by a slave-ship owner, a man whose heart was changed.
On the bus coming home there is more singing and loud frivolity in the chilly darkness. (Why don’t school buses have heaters?) We talk about the complicated position reached by Fifth District Councilmember Clyde Cooper, who lives near Welcome. In remarks at the revival, he said he was against the Formosa plant and for his people. But he voted for the plant after wresting some compromises from Formosa. He claimed that his vote came by way of instructions from God.
We agree that he sold out.
And yet we understand how that happens. Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards appears to have been seduced by Formosa. As he has confirmed, the plant reportedly will receive $1.5 billion in tax breaks over 10 years — $150 million in the first year alone.
But I come away from Vacherie with a sense of hope. The Rise St. James gathering pulled together Black and Native American and White people. We were rural and urban, young and old. We prayed and sang together, listened to each other’s stories and ate jambalaya in a disappearing town that many of us had never heard of. And in that convergence I see a vision of how those who love the least among us and want to protect what the Episcopal prayer book calls “this fragile earth, our island home” might yet come together and prevail.
Orissa Arend is a parishioner of Trinity Episcopal Church and a member of Justice and Beyond. She is author of the book “Showdown in Desire, the Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans.”
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