Pastor Gregory Manning being arrested on Oct. 30 during the Coalition Against Death Alley's recent march. (Photo by Ted Quant)

Those of us who have been protesting the petrochemical plants along the Mississippi River as part of the Coalition Against Death Alley (CADA) can claim a long-sought success. 

One of our goals has been to make Death Alley (formerly known as Cancer Alley) a Louisiana issue, not just a River Parishes issue  — and in the October 31 editions of the Advocate/Times-Picayune that’s what finally happened. 

For the first time in years, the recently combined papers teamed up with the nonprofit ProPublica news service to give us the urgent, in-depth coverage that the worsening crisis deserves. 

The front-page headline: “La.’s industrial corridor is already polluted, and more plants are on the way.” Reporters Tristan Baurick, Lylla Younes and Joan Meiners went on to detail the pollution and damaged lives caused by the 200 petrochemical plants along the Mississippi between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, and the augmented devastation expected as new plants are built and old ones expanded. 

There was no mention of our coalition or member organizations, including Rise St. James, Concerned Citizens of St. John’s and the New Orleans group Justice and Beyond. But the coverage breathed new life into our crusade. 

CADA and affiliated groups began our marches, first in May and June and then in October, to call attention to the environmental racism and epidemic poor health in communities near the plants. The Lens — which has run several op-eds on the upriver atrocity, including two by yours truly — had been one of a very few media outlets paying attention. 

The Advocate/T-P coverage also included a column by Mark Schleifstein, who was introduced with these words: “A reporter who has investigated industrial pollution for 35 years sees progress reversed.” Schleifstein begins this way:

“Louisiana’s 100-year romance with the petrochemical industry has come with an undeniably steep human price tag. Tens of thousands of people, living cheek-by-jowl with belching plants along the Mississippi River, are exposed to toxic chemicals at rates that are among the highest in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“And that exposure level will almost certainly increase dramatically over the next few years, as a multibillion-dollar boom brings dozens of new and expanded plants, many in the same communities that the EPA says already face the greatest health risks.”

At the end of the article Schleifstein lists many of the questions that desperately need to be asked of Louisiana policy makers and citizens, including these: “Are Louisiana’s petrochemical plants coming up with new methods for reducing emissions, and how effective are they?” And, “What are the successes and the failures of EPA, DEQ [Department of Environmental Quality] and other federal, state and local agencies in reducing emissions and reducing health risks?”

He closes by saying: “We plan to answer those questions in the coming months.”

We applaud the commitment to continuing coverage and will follow it closely. 

The newspaper’s opening salvo followed by a day a rather less welcome event:

Our leader, Pastor Greg Manning, co-moderator of Justice and Beyond, was arrested on Oct. 30 while 65 of us demonstrated on the 11th floor of the building that houses the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI). 

We of CADA have come to see that Louisiana businesses and industries are prime movers in pushing elected officials to support the deadly petrochemical plants.

For 30 minutes or so no one bothered us protesters as we shouted our songs and raised our banners high outside the LABI offices.  But while one of our supporters was speaking, several police officers pushed their way to the front and demanded that she and all the rest of us leave immediately. Pastor Greg told the police officers to give her two more minutes to finish her talk and said then we would leave. The officers would tolerate no delay in their effort to drive us out of the building.

Two of the officers pushed Pastor Greg to the floor and made him lie on his stomach while they cuffed his hands behind his back. As he moaned on the floor calling out our slogans, an officer drove his knee into the pastor’s back and  pulled on the handcuffs. Two days later he was still enduring pain in his wrists and back. 

I was beside the pastor during this ordeal and told the officer in front of me that I wanted to go with Manning if he was going to be arrested. She would have none of it and pushed me away. Manning was  charged with inciting a riot, a felony.

Two days after the arrest, some of us CADA leaders met with Pastor Greg to discuss what we might have done differently. I said that I should have wrapped my arm around Pastor Greg’s right arm as he lay on the floor in handcuffs. That would have made it harder to push me away, and I would have been arrested with him. 

In any future run-ins with police, we’ll be bearing that in mind along with other non-violent tactics we discussed. “Those of us who could be arrested — without harming our families or losing our work — could do what I should have done,” I said. The CADA leadership embraced that idea of wrapping our arms and legs around people the police were trying to haul away; others could wrap their arms and legs around ours. Meanwhile, we are preparing our case against the Baton Rouge police for arresting Pastor Greg unnecessarily. All he asked was that the woman who was speaking have two more minutes and then we would leave. At least one of the police officers treated him with unnecessary roughness, and none of the police read him his rightsIt is hard not to see this as yet another tragic instance of law enforcement personnel abusing an unarmed black man.

Credit: William Barnwell

Rev. William Barnwell’s recent book, “Angels in the Wilderness,” was named Book of the Year in the Indie Book Awards inspirational non-fiction category. He tells more about his ministry to Angola inmates in a previous book: “Called to Heal the Brokenhearted: Stories from Kairos Prison Ministry International.

The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens Founder Karen Gadbois.