by Orissa Arend
Photos by Ted Quant

Death Alley along the Mississippi River in St. James and St. John parishes was the scene of a historic five-day march May 30-June 3. Each day 50 to 100 people participated in prayers, revival meetings, freedom songs, civil rights lessons, art, and confrontation with the Governor. 

We used to call it Cancer Alley. But the death meted out by the more than 200 petrochemical plants mostly located in African-American towns and neighborhoods caused us to change the name. Illness and death come in so many guises, slow and fast – autoimmune diseases, rare breathing and skin afflictions, neurological abnormalities, an array of cancers. Cancer Alley has become Death Alley because the Reaper is tenacious and thoroughly grim, attacking from the air, the water, the soil – all of which should be sacred and protected, all of which were given to us ALL by our Creator for our wise use to sustain our life. 

The Reaper has his accomplices. The governor and the state legislature offer huge tax incentives to lure chemical plants into this already dangerously polluted area. Regulators lie or look the other way. 

Sharon Lavigne of RISE St. James and Robert Taylor of Concerned Citizens of St. John, wrote a letter to environmental leaders saying, “All of this is happening with the support of every Louisiana agency whose job it should be to protect its citizens and to promote the creation of a clean, sustainable industry in light of the looming climate crisis. Not one permit has ever been denied or reduced in scope, no matter how massive the impact on nearby residents or schools or wetlands. Chuck Carr Brown, head of the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, literally accused St. John residents of fear mongering when they pointed out that an elementary school is located 1,500 feet away from Denka/DuPont, which is emitting chloroprene, a carcinogen.”

They go on to say, “The Governor and his industry hunters constantly bring more and more poisoning companies to gas our air, poison our lands, waterways and the Mississippi River. The poisons generated in our communities don’t stay there. They travel the globe. We have one Earth. Our fragile Earth is about 12 years, scientists say, from not supporting human life. We have to change our ways.”

Meanwhile, at the Mosaic fertilizer plant in Convent, Louisiana, a 200-foot wall of radioactive gypsum containing an estimated 750 million to one billion gallons of radioactive water is moving our way an inch a day. A break in the wall would pollute rivers, bayous, Lake Maurepas, Lake Pontchartrain, Lake Catherine, and the Gulf of Mexico. This is about 50 miles upriver from where my husband and I live in New Orleans. 

Family history and pride in these parts run deep. Some formerly enslaved people were able to buy land near the river and scratch out a living against daunting Jim Crow odds. Explains Tulane Law Professor Oliver Houck in a recent article in the Georgetown Environmental Law Review: “Following the Civil War their towns arose next to the old plantations, and the industry that followed later simply introduced another plantation culture of its own, low wages, minimal employment, and the profits going as far away as Germany and Japan.” 

He goes on to say, “In effect, the poorest communities in Louisiana subsidized some of the wealthiest corporations on earth. Permanent employees would come from elsewhere and the profits would go elsewhere as well. . .” 

Second from left, Robert Taylor of Concerned Citizens of St. John speaks during the five-day March Against Death Alley.

Taylor and Lavigne further explain: “These are sacred lands. They were passed down to Black residents from their great-great-great grandparents who worked hard to buy these lands along the Mississippi to make them productive and pass them on to their families.” 

Taylor’s wife has cancer. His daughter is battling an extremely rare debilitating autoimmune disease. Two of his daughter’s classmates have been diagnosed with the same rare disease. 

This fight has been going on for decades. In the late 1990’s when environmental justice was first coming into political awareness, there was a partial victory when the proposed location of a $700 million poly-vinyl chloride plant called Shinteck was moved from the small, Black community of Convent and toxic emissions were lowered. 

It was a David and Goliath story with then Gov. Mike Foster –grandson of one of the chief architects of white supremacy in Louisiana – applying any pressure he could think of to shut down the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic which had student lawyers representing Convent residents.

Earlier in the decade the Tulane Environmental Law Clinic along with the Gulf Coast Tenants Organization and others blocked a plan by the Formosa Petro-Chemical Corporation to build a plant on what is today the Whitney Plantation. This plantation  bears witness to the lives of enslaved people and their children. 

Could it be that the land and the ancestors are rising up? Our current marchers pause at the gate, awed by this sacred ground and appalled at how close the plantation came to vanishing without a trace. The marchers, however, were not allowed inside because they were told Whitney’s owner is friends with the governor. 

On the final day of the march, exhausted and elated pilgrims ended up in New Orleans at Cafe Istanbul at the regular Monday night meeting of Justice and Beyond, a coalition of organizers and one of the groups that sponsored the march. They came straight from the bus to eat red beans and rice, hug each other and tell their stories. Ranging in age from 6 to 83, their sunburned faces radiated hope and love and a high from the feet-on-the-ground lesson in what it means to organize across race and class lines for justice. 

They told us that when they got to the Capitol and were turned away, they went in anyway and stayed until, according to one marcher, Gov. John Bel Edwards agreed to meet with them. 

Attorney David Capasso said, “We moved the heart of the Pharaoh, You could see the change taking place in the sheriffs in their big cop cars.” 

Pat Bryant noted, “A march is the best organizing tool that I know of. It’s about developing leaders.”

Episcopal priest William Barnwell characterized the indefatigable Pastor Gregory Manning of Broadmoor Community Church as a “blind man who sees.” Pastor Manning is co-moderator of Justice and Beyond and a divinely-inspired energizer on the march. He has only four percent of normal eyesight, but is a visionary nevertheless. During circles of blessings along the way, even young, white, non-believers enthusiastically joined in.

Barnwell’s diary includes this note: “Over and over again at our rest stops, Pastor Greg Manning prayed aloud for all of us, prayed that the owners and the governor would have a change of heart, prayed that all of the marchers know for sure that God is with us, God is leading us, and no one is going to stop those whom God has called. God has given us this good land we are just taking back what God has given us – the safe air, the safe water, the safe soil. And over and over, Pastor Manning preached.”       

Can we get an “amen?”

A second march is scheduled for October. Join us if you want to be a part of something just and loving and huge.

Orissa Arend is a member of Justice and Beyond and author of Showdown in Desire: The Black Panthers Take a Stand in New Orleans.

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