A Truth Commission Begins in Bayou La Batre, Alabama
On November 7-8, 2014 our Gulf Coast Poor People’s Campaign team visited Bayou La Batre to hear from community and religious leaders about their struggles. We give thanks to Zack Carter, organizer for Alabama Multi-Cultural Fisher and Seafood Worker-Owned Cooperative, for all of his hard work in organizing our visit and his proven dedication to fighting for social justice on Alabama’s Gulf Coast. Many thanks as well to Pastor Charlie Jones and Barbara Robbins, Alabama Fisheries Cooperative leader, for hosting us at Greater New Hope Baptist. And many more thanks to Barbara and her sister for preparing the amazing gumbo and the crab boil. Our time in Bayou La Batre was the beginning of a Truth Commission process with a view toward the ten year anniversary of Katrina and the five year anniversary of the BP oil spill in 2015.
The Truth Commission model is fundamentally about making stories heard, lifting up the struggles of the poor and dispossessed. It’s about breaking people’s isolation. To quote our friends at Media Mobilizing Project in Philadelphia, PA, “Movements begin with the telling of untold stories.” The Poor People’s Campaign Gulf Coast team included Jose Vasquez of Iraq Veterans Against the War; Luis Larin of the United Workers of Baltimore City; Ashley Hufnagel, organizer and artist based in Baltimore; Karenna Gore of the Union Forum at Union Theological Seminary in New York City; and Willie Baptist, Charon Hribar and John Wessel-McCoy of the Kairos Center.
On our first day in Bayou La Batre, Siriporn Hall, a crabber based in Grand Bay, AL, along with her captain, Pornchai, took our crew out into the Pascagoula Bay to harvest crabs. Siriporn has been a board member of Alabama Multi-Cultural Fisher and Seafood Worker-Owned Cooperative since its founding in 2011. During the trip, Siriporn explained how her livelihood continues to be devastated by the BP oil spill, and how little support the small operators like herself have received since the disaster. She told us about the tar balls that still wash up on the nearby islands. Siriporn, who immigrated to the US from Thailand a few decades back, lived for a while in Kentucky, working as a coal miner as well as a poultry worker. She got into the crabbing business just one year before the oil spill.
Michelle Kurtz, Community Consultant for All Churches Together, joined us for the afternoon. Kurtz works on the Homeowners’ Hurricane Insurance Initiative. She shared with us the faith-based organizing her group does and how the work has helped to unify people across color and political divisions.
Later that night, we went to Greater New Hope Baptist Church with a box of blue crabs fresh off of Siriporn’s boat. We picked up 25 lbs of shrimp from Captain Sidney Schwartz and his sisters, and we got to work on the gumbo to be served the following day at the Truth Commission event. It was a beautiful night of cooking and fellowship, as Barbara Robbins and her sister took charge of the kitchen and put us all to work peeling shrimp and getting things ready.
The next day we held the Truth Commission at Greater New Hope Baptist Church in the Snows Quarters community, where we heard testimony from local residents and community leaders. Our team of commissioners joined some amazing Alabama-based leaders including Faya Rose Toure, attorney & civil rights activist and a leader in the Saving OurSelves (SOS) coalition; Bernard Simelton, NAACP-AL President; Joe Keffer, Federation of Child Care Centers of AL and working with the AL AFL-CIO; and Rebecca Marion, Administrative Board Member for the Alabama Education Association and a member of the Alabama NAACP and the AL Democratic Conference. Rebecca’s son, Douglas, drove all the way down from Atlanta to join us as well.
Poverty runs deep in Alabama’s Gulf Coast. A region representing a tremendous diversity of black, white, Native American, Southeast Asian, and Latino people continue to reel from the aftermath of Katrina and the BP Oil Spill. In the wake of these catastrophes, promises of support were made by the city, state, and federal governments – not to mention BP – that have yet to be fulfilled. Billions of dollars have been handed over to those with power and connections to build casinos and serve corrupt, local political regimes. There is no transparency and no accountability. Meanwhile the poor and dispossessed continue to suffer.
The crises pile up. Safe Harbor, a hundred-unit housing development built after Katrina is a prime example. People have been driven out of Safe Harbor, which was bought and paid for by FEMA, as their rents have tripled and quadrupled. These FEMA-funded homes were promised to displaced families. The development was designed to be affordable, but it didn’t take long for the mayor to turn it into a cash cow. Former residents who had been driven out of Safe Harbor because of rent hikes told us their stories. Because of contracts people signed upon leaving Safe Harbor, in effect a gag order has been placed on them. Residents no longer able to pay their rents received a paltry sum of money to leave on the condition that they not publicly speak about their experience at Safe Harbor. Because of this intimidation, some of the former Safe Harbor residents did not give public testimony at the Truth Commission. Instead they met with us privately and asked that we not use their names for fear of reprisal.
Other Safe Harbor residents who were forced out refused to take the deal. Two notable examples are members of Barbara Robbins and Ernie Seaman, also a member of Alabama Multi-Cultural Fishers and Seafood Worker Owned Coop. Not only did they reject the fake settlements, but they spoke out:
“I’m disabled and my home was destroyed by Katrina. I was promised rent-by-income and rent-to-own at Safe Harbor. When the rents tripled last summer I had to leave and have been homeless many times since,” said Ernest Seaman, a fifth-generation fisherman who filed a lawsuit against the City of Bayou La Batre and property manager at Safe Harbor for rent-gouging. “Last December, my son and I had to sleep in our car. I refused the $2,800 to ‘settle’ my case and fired the lawyers who peddled it. Lord knows I could use the money, but I’m going to keep fighting for my home and my neighbors’ homes…”
Ernie Seaman became homeless once again this summer shortly after he and Barbara published their protest of the hate graffiti scrawled on their truck.
Alabama Multi-Cultural Fisher and Seafood Worker Coop is fighting back, from challenging big processors’ exploitation to challenging big oil — including volunteering their shrimp, crab, and oyster catch to be tested for BP contamination by scientists independent of BP.
As Captain Sidney Schwartz, co-founder of the cooperative, stated in the Louisiana Environmental Action Network report entitled “Gulf Coast Health Alliance: Health Risks Related to the Macondo Spill”:
“Commercial fishers must band together to get a fair price for our catch, and unite with local seafood workers so we can rebuild our communities and continue our heritage as the natural stewards of the Gulf Coast. I am happy that the shrimp sample Dr. Subra analyzed from my boat showed the hydrocarbons to be negligible — nearly 30 times lower than the FDA’s level of concern, even below the level of concern for children and pregnant women established by the environmental group National Resource Defense Council (NRDC). But we need more testing… BP should be told to finish the cleanup. And imported shrimp should also be scrutinized with NRDC standards. ”
The majority of families here are facing a healthcare crisis. A wide range of diseases including cancer occur around here at alarmingly high rates, while people have been denied access to affordable healthcare. The state of Alabama refuses Medicaid Expansion, so people are sentenced to die. Whole communities who for generations have fished these waters as shrimpers and crabbers are barely hanging on or have been driven entirely from their livelihood since the water has been poisoned with oil and corexit (the chemical dispersant BP used to break up the oil after the spill). Corexit, due to its toxicity, has been shown to be a “solution” that may be worse than the problem it is designed to solve. If BP wasn’t bad enough, a locally managed waste treatment plant withheld a June 2014 FDA impact study regarding its plan to dump effluent into the local waters, potentially contaminating the fisheries upon which the local economy depends, while government officials look on. Management even ignored the FDA’s recent request for public hearings regarding the effluent. Alternatives to dumping the effluent should researched and discussed.
This is the same waste treatment plant that was cited by Gulf Coast activists in their report to the United Nations : “…the State of Alabama diverted a reported $24 million USD to construct a new wastewater treatment facility that will not benefit poor and predominantly people of color residents who live nearby, and will pollute a local water body used for subsistence fishing with the facility‘s wastewater discharges..”
It is clear that a broad social movement is necessary to solve the problems that are faced in these communities, linking the interrelated crises of housing, healthcare, environment, hunger, and employment. From the testimonies of these community leaders, the Saving OurSelves Coalition identified the following issues for action:
- Recover and repair the homes of Snows Quarters: Alabama Fisheries Coop leader Barbara Robbins was forced out of Safe Harbor after she became disabled. “We [in Snows Quarter, the African American community of Bayou La Batre] feel Safe Harbor folks’ pain directly. Out of some 100 homes, only four of us received meaningful assistance. Since Katrina many of our homes flood after a hard rain and we can’t even flush the toilet. My living room floor is rotting. I am afraid my 90 year old mother will fall through any day. Fred Tombar a Senior Advisor in HUD visited my home three years ago and was moved to tears. A few weeks later he brought HUD Secretary Sean Donavan himself. Last year we voted in a new mayor, but still we have found no justice, in Snows Quarter or Safe Harbor. But together we will find it!” Funding is needed–governmental, non-profit, faith-based—to rebuild this historic African American community.
- Make Safe Harbor Affordable: Fulfill the promise made by the city, federal and state governments of affordable housing at Safe Harbor for Katrina Survivors. CPA Danforth’s 2012 report showed rents could be cut in half if such excessive spending is brought under control.
- Expand Medicaid in Alabama: The health crisis created by Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil spill, and the toxic dispersant BP used to quickly mask their destruction of an entire region and means of life has been compounded by the Governor’s refusal to expand Medicaid. “Evidence demonstrated that, on the average, three people die every two days in Alabama because of the failure to extend Medicaid.”
In taking on these issues, the leaders of the larger social movement will emerge and hone their skills, connecting with others around our country and world who are tired of dying and hungry for change.