Louisiana: Land of Beauty and Crisis
Southern Louisiana, alongside the great Mississippi River, is where, from Baton Rouge to the Gulf of Mexico, a vast delta widens out, coursed with bayous, swamps, wetlands, and marshes. It is a land of ‘gators and crawdads, Spanish moss and cypress, and where the Huoma and Bayougoula marked their territories with a red-tipped cypress pole (the baton rouge).
Just as the ecology of southern Louisiana teems with a rich biodiversity, so do the people, representing a blending of cultures, from the original native peoples to the Spanish, and then the French, including émigrés from French Canadian Acadia (hence the name ‘Cajun), and also great numbers of Africans imported as slave labor to clear the lands and build the sugar and cotton plantations that formed the basis of the Southern economy. The shrimp-boat fishermen, who came to the Southern Gulf Coast from Vietnam after the end of the war, are another addition.
Creole cuisine, jambalaya, crawfish pie, oyster po’boys, and beignets. Jazz, blues, and zydeco. Mardi Gras. And voodoo. Southern Louisiana is a land that is unique, and yet it is so American, so Southern. For all the great cultural and historical contributions that have been made, it did not come without great pain, misery, and sacrifice.
In the Shadow of Cancer Alley
On April 11, 2020, the Concerned Citizens of St. John called an emergency demonstration in La Place to protest their exposure to carcinogens, while having to defend themselves against COVID-19. St. John Parish, which is majority African American and poor, is also where the Dupont/Denka petrochemical plant manufactures chloroprene, a known carcinogen used to create synthetic rubber. It is spewing poison into the air and environment at a rate of 25 to 100 times the safe rate. Chloroprene’s acute effects are cancer and damage to the liver, kidneys, lungs, central nervous systems, and respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. The elementary school of the Fifth Ward is only 1,500 feet from the Dupont/Denka plant.
The effects of chloroprene poisoning are exactly the underlying conditions that have led to the people of St. John having the highest death rate from the coronavirus in the country.
Nearby St. James Parish is also experiencing similar conditions. A coalition of grassroots groups has been organizing to resist the intrusions of poisonous chemicals into their communities from an expanding Cancer Alley, now renamed Death Alley. In October of last year, a march from St. James to the headquarters of the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry (LABI) in Baton Rouge was led by Rise St. James, Concerned Citizens of St. John’s, and the New Orleans-based Justice and Beyond. Several police officers invaded the gathering peacefully demonstrating at the headquarters. They threw one of the leaders, the Rev. Greg Manning, to the ground while kneeing him in the back, and arrested him for “inciting a riot.”
The protesters were there to bring attention to what they deemed as the environmental racism perpetrated upon the poor and African American community there by the petrochemical industries in close collusion with the state. Plans are in the works to expand Death Alley, already composed of more than 200 petrochemical plants, by 25 percent, utilizing the gas obtained from fracking in the U.S. to manufacture plastics. Transnational corporations from all over the globe are being lured to set up shop in Cancer Alley.
The state of Louisiana has promised the Formosa Plastics Group $1.5 billion in tax breaks to come to Louisiana. Sharon Lavigne, president of Rise St. James, has said, “If this plant comes into our community, we won’t be able to breathe the air. We can’t live with this chemical plant, it’ll kill us.” It would emit up to 13 million tons of greenhouse gases into the air, says Anne Rolfes of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. “The stupidity is mind-boggling. Louisiana is already sinking into the sea. Plastics have been accumulating in the ocean for decades, with an estimated eight million tons added each year, and it’s expected to outweigh all the fish in the sea by 2050.”
Diane Wilson, a fifth-generation shrimper, who is now the La Vaca Bay Estuarine Waterkeeper, took samples of the small plastic particles called nurdles that are being emitted into the water. “They attract toxic heavy metals like mercury to their surface,” she says, “rendering the water in which they are submerged, undrinkable, unswimmable and unfishable.”
Just as with Katrina, the tragic consequences of the coronavirus on the southern Louisiana area are no accident. It is a man-made crisis. We will never forget the picture of the thousands perched on rooftops and abandoned at the New Orleans Superdome. The inhabitants of New Orleans Ninth Ward were inundated by a flood that didn’t have to happen. New Orleans is a city built below sea level, but it was well-known that the levees would not be able to withstand a storm of Katrina-level proportions. Even to this day, the levees have not been built back to withstand another Katrina.
Adding insult to injury, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico added to the growing dead zone in the Gulf. It destroyed miles of shoreline, particularly in the New Orleans and Mississippi delta area. The area is now even more vulnerable to invading storms, while land the size of a football field slips into the sea every day.
How the South is Ruled
The situation that the people of St. James and St. John are faced with is deliberate, rooted in Southern history, in how the South is ruled, and how the Southern program is carried out. From the time of the ending of the Civil War and the emancipation of the slaves, followed by a brief but failed effort to construct a democratic South, the main question the ruling class faced was how to control the Black workers, and with that, the growing unity of Blacks and poor whites. The class that had ruled the South up to the time of the Civil War was returned to power. In a reign of terror and with white supremacy as its banner, it attacked the newly emancipated Black workers and drove them back into near-slavery, denying them all rights – the right to vote, the right to an education, all labor rights. The class was divided along color lines, and a rigid segregation was imposed and enforced by the State.
The Southern states established a political order that can only be seen as fascist rule. Its sole purpose was to advance and protect the rule of the corporations, to defend private property. From then until now, the Southern program is the step-by-step implementation of that rule. Then, the South operated almost entirely as a colony of the North, as a source of raw materials for industry, and as a place of cheap labor ripe for exploitation. “Y’all come!” was not an exhibition of Southern hospitality, but a campaign to lure industry to extract its resources and exploit its people.
The Southern Program
Today, if anything, the South is a colony of global capital. Death Alley, the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry and the Louisiana state government, are a case in point, a case study in how the Southern program operates and is carried out.
First, LABI began by breaking the backs of organized labor, with the passage of a Right-to-Work law in 1976. Right-to-Work, the law of the land in every Southern state, is itself an expression of State’s Rights, where the Southern ruling class gets to decide how its people are to be ruled. The denial of the expansion of Medicaid in the Southern states is another example, and how the coronavirus crisis management is deferred to the states is another painful reality.
The result is a workforce with the lowest wages, the least benefits, the most hazardous working conditions, and the greatest poverty rates of any region in the country. This is precisely the situation in southern Louisiana, in St. James and St. John. The South is open for business.
Second, low or no taxes on the rich and the corporations, and high sales taxes that are disproportionately levied on the poor, who can least afford it. We have already seen how the state of Louisiana provides additional tax breaks and credits to petrochemical companies that occupy Death Alley. The result is a tax base that is unable to provide basic services such as education and health care.
Third, voter suppression. With the ability of the workers to redress their grievances constrained by anti-labor, anti-union laws, the Southern states have also moved to limit access to the ballot box. With the aid of national organizations like ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council), Louisiana was one of the first states to pass Voter ID laws and other repressive restrictions designed to block ballot access to low-income, particularly African-American workers. Voter suppression has long been a feature of the Southern political scene, designed to maintain the ruling class’s unchallenged power.
Fourth, the power of a police state. The war on our class, especially the most impoverished Black workers, in the state of Louisiana is enforced by the brute power of the State itself. The arrest of Rev. Manning for inciting a riot is a graphic example of police power. Laws have been passed that have led to the mass incarceration of Blacks in Louisiana. Louisiana has the longest prison terms in the nation. “Three strikes” laws require mandatory life sentences without parole. Louisiana incarcerates more people per capita than any other place in the world.
Fifth, little to no regulation of corporations. Dupont/Denka, Formosa Plastics, Dow Chemical, and the more than 200 national and supra-national global corporations that make up Cancer Alley are free to do whatever they want without consequence. Global corporations have merged with and become a part of the ruling apparatus of the state. What it means is that the people, the impoverished working class of Louisiana, the South, and the nation, have no rights to clean air, land, and water.
States’ Rights, anti-labor, anti-union, low-wage, entrenched poverty for the working class, voter suppression, state police power, no regulation of the corporations – these constitute the form of political rule in the South. They describe the substance of the Southern program, packaged and ready for distribution to all of America. This is life in Louisiana bayou country, and it, undoubtedly, is a microcosm of America. This is what the coronavirus crisis makes more and more clear every day.
There is another side to this story: the workers of southern Louisiana are not cowed; they are not submissive. They will not just shut up and go away. They are in a fight for their very lives. And they are not alone. They are part of a growing response from all those workers across the country that have seen their lives wrecked, their access to even the most basic necessities of life blocked.
The Rise of Our Class
The conditions that got us to where we are now is a Southern working class divided and enforced by a ruling class bound to use government for its own interests. Just so, working class unity is the necessary condition for an impoverished and oppressed class to move forward and resolve the crisis in its favor.An injury to one injures us all. An attack upon Black workers In Louisiana is an attack upon our class as a whole.
Our class has its own version of the role of the South: unite the Southern worker and control the South. A united Southern working class, in unity with the workers across the land, can build a new America, in which the government operates in our class’s interest, not the private for-profit corporations.
Rise St. James! Rise up, St. John! Rise up, America! RC
July/August 2020 Vol30.Ed4
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The age-old vision of a world without scarcity, without exploitation, class domination, organized violence, and stultifying labor has been the dream of millenia. The new completely socialized labor-eliminating means of production ... sets the basis for its realization. Now human history can begin, the light of the individual shining in the full brightness of liberated life, that can only be realized within true equality and cooperation: communism, a cooperative society.'Without Vision, the People Perish'
Rally, Comrades ! May/June 2011