By CHRISTINE MARIE
On March 21, a coalition of “Cancer Alley” environmental justice organizations headed by Black women filed a federal lawsuit challenging the white supremacist land use and zoning policies of St. James Parish. These policies, rooted in the legacy of slavery and post-Reconstruction racism, have resulted in the parish permitting the location in majority Black 4th and 5th districts of more than a dozen poisonous plants, many petro-chemical, while denying permits for similar facilities in majority white residential districts.
This decades-long practice was codified in 2014 and 2018 land use plans that designated areas with heavy Black residence as “industrial.” The lawsuit points out that this can only be interpreted as a “racial cleansing plan.” The land in question, the plaintiffs point out, has been continuously occupied by Black residents since their enslaved ancestors labored on sugarcane plantations in the area. Adding insult to injury, ancestral graves are now fenced off by various industries and inaccessible to residents.
This new federal lawsuit is one element in a decades-long environmental justice struggle with battles having occurred all along the 130-mile stretch along the Mississippi River known as Cancer Alley. The strip is home to more than 200 industrial facilities and one of the most toxic pieces of real estate in the country. It is also home to some inspiring victories. The environmental justice group Rise St. James, anchored by Sharon Lavigne, recently forced President Biden to intervene to stop the construction by Formosa Plastics of a giant plant. This complex would have emitted 13.6 million tons of greenhouse gases per year into the atmosphere.
Individual Black women leaders now gathered in Inclusive Louisiana have other significant victories under their belts. One of those leaders, Barbara Washington, helped stop the construction of South Louisiana Menthol petrochemical complex. Their victories should inspire confidence in working-class communities trying to decide if it makes sense to fight back.
The federal lawsuit just launched, Inclusive Louisiana, Mount Triumph Baptist Church, RISE St. James v. St. James Parish, et al, is setting a new framework for environmental justice struggles. In this case, activists are taking on not just the permitting for individual polluters, but the broad discriminatory land use patterns implemented and preserved by local government.
As extreme weather disasters brought on by the emissions of the same fossil fuel-based corporations begin to devastate more and more Black and Brown communities, the fight around historic discrimination and deadly corporate power in land use should grow.
Two incidents in working-class communities in just the last few months show how desperately we need to develop a national fight against corporate control of land use and related climate crisis adaptation measures.
In Pajaro, Calif., recent extreme weather-induced flooding and a levee break that was long predicted, left this town of 3000 low-paid agricultural workers under several feet of water and without the necessary timely assistance. The devastation was not the result of a natural disaster but rooted in the racist history of the state.
According to The Los Angeles Times (March 20, 2023), Pajaro was left an unincorporated town with no services due to racist machinations that began as early as the 1840s and maintained as a “place to house farmworkers” who were not wanted in the incorporated towns. Sandy Lyon, a retired history professor, said that from that time, Pajaro and neighboring Watsonville have been “politically treated like colonies.” Almost a century of planning by the state in the interest of corporate agriculture contributed to the recent disaster.
When reporters and activists began looking at the nearly complete flattening of the community of Black farmers in Rolling Fork, Miss., by a 170-mph. tornado on March 24, a similar picture of historic discrimination was revealed. Structural racism contributed to the high percentage of victimized residents suffering from loss of their land and now living in manufactured housing, a situation that, in turn, meant a lack of insurance. Initially deemed too small to be eligible for FEMA benefits that prioritize areas based on the level of property loss, residents are still waiting for sufficient aid.
The experiences of Pajaro and Rolling Rock will be the future for millions of working people unless there is dramatic social change.
As long as big money is in the driver’s seat of planning and climate crisis adaptation, working people, especially those racially oppressed, will bear the brunt of the increasing pollution, flooding, fires, and storms on the way. Protests leading to victories against Cancer Alley governmental entities, important as they are, need to be but a stepping stone to developing a national program for struggle that prioritizes mass action in the streets. A key demand should be for the nationalization of the fossil-fuel industry and the land, with control shifted to community and working-class organizations.
An organization of labor unions, the Labor Network for Sustainability, argues in “Climate Solidarity: Workers vs. Warming” that property law, based first and foremost on private ownership of the land, currently gives owners the right to use their property to destroy the environment and, ironically, to order their exploited workers to carry out this destruction. A society based on this kind of ownership cannot be made sustainable.
The challenge is to bring these insights together in an eco-socialist program that can unite in struggle community environmental justice groups, Indigenous nations, immigrant organizations, unions, and climate activists into a national—and global—fight for a society organized around human needs. Fighting for such a program of action is the central project of Workers’ Voice/La Voz de los Trabajadores.
Photo: Man and his dog wade through streets flooded by the Pajaro River, March 12. (The Mercury News)