The Long March Against Chemical Poisoning in Death Alley

New Orleans         In a close vote, the Louisiana legislature recently rejected an effort by the oil, gas, and chemical industry to allow companies in the state to self-report to the state environmental quality agency any violations of pollution standards from their operations.  The other gift the industry was seeking was the ability to restrict any report and evidence of violation from public inspection and freedom of information requests.  In essence they wanted to report that they had polluted, but keep it secret from everyone and have the state simply take their word for the fact that they had done it, and they were truly, truly sorry, but mum’s the word.  The shocking surprise was not the pure, unadulterated impunity of the industry, but the fact that the arch-conservative Louisiana legislature, long a lap dog for the oil, gas, and chemical lobbyists, didn’t rollover for a tummy scratch, but instead barked a bit.

The stretch of the land along the Mississippi River between Baton Rouge and New Orleans has long been known as “cancer alley” because of the number of refineries and chemical plants located alongside the easy shipping access, and the level of pollution and contamination that comes with such industries.  Many of the communities most victimized have been lower income African-American areas so the evidence of environmental racism has been long established.

The Coalition Against Death Alley (CADA) has recently been organized by a variety of environmental and community groups hoping to bring attention to these issues and the continuing alarming health hazards in these communities.  ACORN’s affiliate in Louisiana, A Community Voice, is a member of the coalition, as is the progressive forum for many groups called Justice and Beyond.

CADA has called a five-day marathon action that would convene at Whitney Plantation, the restored operation highlighting the horrors of slavery near Convent, Louisiana.  From there they are hoping to march from five to seven miles each of three days back and forth across the river to highlight the tragedy, sleeping and eating in various churches along the route until a final rally on the fifth day at Southern University in Baton Rouge.

Part of the route includes traversing the famous Sunshine Bridge, so named in the Long era because it seemed to be connecting little more than sunshine from one side of the river to the other.  That climb would be 2.8 miles, so the flesh would need to be as strong as the spirit there, if it’s allowed.  The two parishes of St. James and St. John are both trying to deny the CADA marches permits that would allow some marches along the highway and over the bridge.

Admittedly, CADA faces a number of barriers to make this all come together in the blend of civil rights tactics and human rights and environmental concerns that they are seeking to merge in order to continue to bring attention to the imperiled communities facing major corporate and industrial interests.  Raising issues of climate change is front page news, but these issues have to come to the fore from the back pages, so here’s hoping they attract the attention to this march that it deserves.

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Beulah Labostrie

Panama City, Panama     If it is possible to be a star of a documentary, Beulah Labostrie, the great national ACORN leader, as well as queen and inspiration of the organization and its successor in Louisiana and New Orleans, was just that. Having watched The Organizer in its festival releases and in groups of organizers, leaders, members, and other activists thirty or forty times all over the world, I’ve learned whole lines and paragraphs of the film by heart, but few of those lines both enliven and carry the weight of history as several of the interviews with Beulah reveal.

Early in the film she talks about coming into the organization not long after organizing began in New Orleans in the middle 1970s and how exciting it was to her to become a community activist and in her words learn about “city, state, and national government.”  Later in the documentary she says that “voter registration was the thing” she “likes most.”  Underlining that point, she smiles revealing that an example of how close it was to her heart was her willingness to “spend ten days on a bus for voter registration.”  The footage behind her voice shows ACORN leaders and members in the process of registering voters with the smile of Helen Miller, former president of SEIU Local 880, saying it all as she comes away from hitting the door of a future voter in the rural South.  Beulah with a shake of her head and a smile follows the bus comment by saying that after all that time “people were getting wild” and then with a breath adds, “and crazy” and in the background there is a picture of an African-American Chicago ACORN leader embracing an older white woman leader from Minnesota ACORN in front of the bus as they shouted and shook their fists.

Every audience loves this piece, and it shows the magic and mastery of Beulah Labostrie as a leader.  She listened and she offered her wisdom.  I never heard her raise her voice, though I have seen her calmly dress down many politicians and scores of others who violated her moral and organizational compass.  Neither was I exempt.  She was unsparing.  If she thought that I had gained a pound, she made sure to mention it to me.  For years we would make the drive to various board meetings together in Arkansas and elsewhere.  She would never sleep, keeping an eye on my driving, and from time to time offering me advice on maintaining my life with my family from dealing with my partner to raising our children.  What’s more, when she offered advice, I took it, and when I needed advice, I went looking for Beulah Labostrie.  Among ACORN and Local 100 leaders and staff, I was certainly not the only one.

Her leadership of the successful New Orleans campaign to raise the minimum wage in 2002 was epic.  We stood together when we stopped the Sewerage & Water Board privatization.  Her role in the organization in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina was a model of rock solid mentoring of new leaders and relentless conviction and courage.  Beulah had retired from traveling, but we sat together in New York City in the Fox News studios when we were interviewed by Megan Kelly.  I could tell Beulah Labostrie stories all day and every one of them would end with words of thanksgiving.

In the documentary there are scenes from her younger days giving an ACORN chant at one of the national conventions.  Every time I see these shots, I smile when I see the joy on her face as she rhythmically claps wearing an ACORN t-shirt as regal as unusual for her.

Towards the end of the documentary, she looks straight into the camera as she talks about the attacks on ACORN in 2009, and as she speaks she talks of her heartbreak at the media onslaught that “was mostly lies” and the way it was tearing down “our work,” but she stands strong in defense of ACORN, as she always did, and after a pause, poignantly says, “but that’s the story of us.”  Her words have the weight of mountains as the camera moves away.

When it comes to ACORN, Beulah Labostrie is “the story of us.”  She passed away at 96 and almost 97.  She was ready to go, but the rest of us weren’t ready to see her leave.  She will be greatly missed, but her spirit, her commitment, and her wisdom will always be here in our hearts and minds.

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