Report from New Orleans

Against the Current, No. 42, January/February 1993

Rick Wadsworth

IN HER CLOSING remarks to the Southern Community/Labor Conference for Environmental Justice, Anne Braden, southern civil rights and social justice activist since the 1940s, said  “I feel we are on the verge, or just past the verge of a new movement in the South. The Southern Movement has changed the country in the past,
and can do so again.”

The conference, held on the December 4-6 weekend at Xavier University, a primarily African-American campus in New Orleans, exceeded all expectations. Organizers’ most optimistic attendance projections were about 700; at the Friday night kickoff rally a New Orleans Times-Picayune reporter estimated the crowd at 2500.

Probably 1500 people participated throughout the weekend, and over 1200 officially registered. Participants were about eighty percent people of color, mostly African American with a significant representation of Native American and Latina/<->Latino activists. At least 350 youth activists attended, including many of high school age.

The conference was sponsored by the Southern Organizing Committee for Economic and Social Justice (SOC), whose most prominent leaders are Rev. Ben Chavis, Anne Braden and Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, and hosted by the Gulf Coast Tenant Organization, a group of mostly African American tenants of public housing projects which are mostly built next to poisonous oil refineries and chemical plants, usually on top of toxic landfills donated or sold cheaply by the companies to local housing authorities.

Pat Bryant, director of the Tenant Organization, played a central role throughout the weekend. Also prominent and actively participating in the leadership were Beneshi Albert of Oklahoma, Youth Representative of the Indigenous Environmental Network Task Force; Jim Branson, Appalachian community and labor organizer; Bill Chandler, Organizing Director for the Mississippi Alliance of State Employees ; Angela Brown, North Carolina youth activist; Rebecca Flores Harrington, Texas Director for United Farmworkers; and many others.

The large attendance, which made the conference a political success and an inspiration, also made it an impossible venue for any form of democratic decision making. The opening rally on Friday night was inspiring, informative, frequently fun and also out of control. Several scheduled speakers including Tony Mazzocchi of Labor Party Advocates and Rev. Ben Chavis were not heard, primarily because of the commotion of newly arriving people.

“We’re Abused Up!”

Saturday morning’s first plenary opened with over 250 young people marching in under the red, black and green banner of their organization, the Free African Youth, chanting the slogans “We’re Fed Up!,” “We’re Used Up!,” “We’re Abused Up!,” and “We’re Fired Up!” with which they had opposed academic tracking in their local school districts.

En route to the conference this group went to Columbia, Mississippi, the scene of the Reichold chemical factory explosion which poisoned the surrounding community. There they participated in demonstrations supporting the people’s demands for cleanup, relocation and medical compensation and indemnity.

Saturday continued with a wide array of racial/ethnic group discussions, issues and skills workshops, group discussions on organizing stra<->tegies and action proposals, and state and subregional caucuses.

This writer attended the workshop on health and safety facilitated by Bill Chandler of the Mississippi Alliance of State Employees and by Georgia State Representative Rita Valenti of Georgians for a Common Sense Health Plan. Other participants included members of the United Steel Workers, Furniture Workers Division IUE, West Virginians for Health Care Rights, Black Workers for Justice, and AIDS Coalition To Unleash Power. Some came from Alabama seeking information about the supposed safety of a proposed nuclear waste dump, others from New York City with information about White Lung asbestos-related disease, still others from a poultry factory and  rural health coalition in North Carolina.

The workshop analyzed the Readers Digest and the ABC News program 20/20 propaganda campaign claiming that fraud is common in workers’ comp cases, when in fact these cases have increased at about the same outrageously high rate as medical costs generally.

This led to a discussion of health care reform, centering on the differences between the single-payer universal health insurance (“Canadian plan”) and various other plans<197>such as “managed competition,” “play or pay,” “mandatory play” and the like<197>put forward by Clinton, Bush, Rockefeller & Co. These other plans are all acceptable to the insurance industry but were clearly not of much interest to anyone at this conference.

In this workshop we first learned that the international leaderships of the UAW and AFSCME had backed away from the single-payer concept, adopting the position that “whatever Bill Clinton wants is fine with us.” This struck everyone as nearly too stupid to believe, even of union bureaucrats.

Malice, Mendacity and Incompetence

Another workshop was “Pollution, Science and Public Health, How to Survive Chemical and Health Hazards.” Sue Workman of the New River Family Health Clinic in Fayette County, West Virginia spoke about how she and other residents and former residents of Minden have used testing and sampling techniques in their attempt to protect themselves from the malice, mendacity and incompetence of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Minden is an old coal camp, abandoned by coal companies and subsequently polluted with PCBs by an electrical transformer reconditioning shop. The town is a Superfund site, that has repeatedly, and falsely, been declared cleaned-up by the EPA. Recently, as the result of an EPA suit to recover cleanup costs from the original polluter, it was revealed that the “scientist” who oversaw the cleanup had no credentials beyond a high school diploma, had repeatedly perjured himself on the point–and that the government had known this for some time. This would be comic if people weren’t dying from it.

The subsequent group discission of organizing strategies and action proposals revolved around the draft put forward by Pat Bryant of the Gulf Coast Tenant Organization: “What Course to End Our Poisoning? Southern Manifesto for Jobs, Education, Housing, Restored Health and a Clean Environment.” Among the key concepts of the draft are:

* A Southern moratorium on the siting of all poisonous enterprises.

* Housing construction to end homelessness.

* Environmental cleanup, with adequate training and safety, as a program for full employment.

* Elimination of the drug traffic by means of negotiation and treaty with the producers; amnesty of imprisoned drug offenders for employment and training.

* Abolition of academic tracking.

* Due to time constraints no effort was made to exhaustively discuss or adopt the draft. Much discussion was devoted to possible tactics to advance the moratorium idea, such as referenda in several states as proposed by several activists from Black Workers for Justice, or annual national demonstrations in March on the anniversary of the “Bloody Sunday” police attack on the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights march.

The idea of developing an “Environmental Code of Conduct for Elected Politicians …” was proposed to bring to account some politicians, particularly those from poor, working-class and people of color communities, who sell out these communities to poisoners, either for cash or in the name of jobs and economic development.

Building a Network

Although independent political action was not on the agenda, several activists, including union leaders and a Democratic state representative, inquired with sympathy and interest about Labor Party Advocate’s progress. Apparently some of those involved in the “inside-outside” strategy are becoming more interested in the outside of the Democratic Party.

Sunday’s plenaries were smaller as activists began to leave–and many for good reason. One group of twenty-four students from Bloomington, Indiana left to support a demonstration by Protect the Environment of Noxubee in Noxubee County, Mississippi. They are fighting the siting of yet another “state-of-the-art” toxic waste incinerator, thanks to the Hertz Division of General Motors. According to what this writer heard at the conference and direct experience in West Virginia, these incinerators are a leading growth industry in the South.

An important result of the conference, despite the impossibility of formal decision-making, was the forging of links for an ongoing network. SOC plans follow-up meetings in some states represented at the conference. An Appalachian regional meeting is projected, while another meeting, possibly in March, is slated to make some decisions that couldn’t be made in New Orleans.

Chaotic at times, and sometimes frustrating, the conference was also encouraging. There may be a  radicalization out there, or at least, a movement.

January-February 1993, ATC 42