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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Understanding the True Values of Fran Piven

New Orleans        There was a full-page profile of sorts on Frances Fox Piven, now an 86-year old professor emeritus of political science of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.  The headline was, “The Unlikely Revival of a ‘60’s Radical” with the subhead of “Not All Liberals are Ready to March with Frances Fox Piven, The Progressives’ Guru.”  I’ve known Fran Piven for fifty years since I was a young, 20-year old head organizer for the Massachusetts Welfare Rights Organization, the largest affiliate of NWRO, the National Welfare Rights Organization.  For organizers, Fran has never been out of fashion, so the notion of a revival is somewhat bizarre, a little bit like claiming Columbus discovered America when the natives have always known and claimed this land as their own.

I can imagine Fran having mixed feelings about reading this piece.  She called me when the James O’Keefe crew had tried to scam her to compare notes and ask for my advice, which given the fighter she is, was likely less welcomed since I counseled, “ignore it, it’s water off a duck’s back.”  In the Glenn Beck and Fox News attack days she joined me as one of their verbal punching bags a decade ago, so at least she would be happy this wasn’t a frontal attack.  But being identified with liberals and seen as having any standing – or interest – in the Democratic Party would have surprised her.

I don’t need to defend Fran Piven.  She’s more than able to defend herself and can eviscerate most in any debate.  She has never shied away from her positions.  Nonetheless, Fran and her writing and life partner, Richard Cloward, deserve to be understood as both what they stand for, and who they really are.  The article and perhaps some of her new followers don’t fully appreciate their arguments.  Yes, she believes disruption is tactically important, but that’s because she believes in mass movements as vehicles for change for the powerless, especially the poor, and mass movements are notoriously unpredictable.  Movements alter the status quo and change the normal equations and calculations of power.  That’s why they work and find their own water level.  That’s why I have worked so hard to build organizations, so they are ready to exploit the opportunities when movements arise to accelerate the opportunities for change.

Fran and Dick were not anarchists.  Certainly, they were willing to argue with organizers. I know because I’ve been part of those arguments, but they believed in organizers and organizations, despite taking shots at how both spent their time and resources.  As organizers, we could appreciate the value of committed advocacy and strong positions, so that was all fair and made us better at the work.

Seeing Fran as one-dimensional, as some of her critics and fans try to position her, is a misunderstanding of Fran Piven and her contribution to us all.  From welfare rights through ACORN and beyond, Fran would never refuse an opportunity to be present and engaged.  She never required perfect agreement or sycophants, because she believed in acting, organizing, and the fight itself.  The one quote in the Times that captures Fran without contradiction was the ending lines when she says, “Working on any political project is enormously fun.  You don’t have to win for it to be really terribly satisfying.  You get good friends.  You do the right thing.  You test your courage.”

These sentiments more than the hundreds of thousands of words she has written or in my case stated to me directly, made her – and Dick – invaluable as counselors and touchstones for us as organizers whether we followed perfectly any particular path they might have advised.  We knew they were with us regardless.   They believed as we believed.  They hoped as we hoped and dreamed as we dreamed.  They wouldn’t fold.  They were warriors committed to the cause.  We honored and respected them.

For fifty years, she could always be counted on without reservation.  Regardless of anything else, she didn’t need you to be her friend, but she valued you and you, her, as a comrade.

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