Tag: Race

Articles

Justice and Time

by Keenan Norris

From Boom Summer 2012, Vol. 2, No. 2

Before and after Oscar Grant

Crime

1 January 2009. Oakland, California. Underground. The all-illumined Bay Area Rapid Transit Fruitvale train station platform.

A melee of indistinct origin and uncertain conclusion occurs on an arriving train. The transit system’s private police are called in to restore order. A big, husky officer walks along the outside of the train beating his baton furiously against the train windows. He produces his taser, flashes it about like an abstract warning. His male and female fellow officers decide to roust the offenders. Young men in baggy pants, their dreadlocks and beanies and hoodies bobbing back and forth, are hustled off the train. Confusion ensues. Insults and expletives are exchanged between the officers and young men. A crowd gathers. A mass of jeering New Year’s youth form a circle around what is quickly degenerating into a spectacle.

Photograph by Nick Fisher

The crowd is chanting, deriding the gang of overzealous, armed security guards. The boys argue with their captors. They make a big deal about being handcuffed, continue to volubly object and claim innocence even as, one by one, they adopt the physical positions of compliance. Hands behind their backs. On their knees. On their stomachs. On the ground.

Cell phone cameras are held aloft, their black, inscrutable lenses trained on the rolling debacle. These are the first images of Oakland in 2009: A stupid fight. Some stupid kids. Some stupid cops.

Two officers, including the one with the baton, force a medium-sized, nondescript brother to the ground. They want him to concede completely. He has conceded, gone limp and immobile. The one with the baton is still on top of the kid, the difference in weight and strength obvious by the way the kid collapses stomach first, prostrate. More arguing, more jeering, more complaints. Then the officer produces his gun. He points it directly at the kid’s back. He shoots him once, then presses his knee deeper into his back.

Photograph by Michael Mees

Trial

It was on the enclave island of Alameda, connected to Oakland and the rest of Northern California’s East Bay by three mechanical bridges, that the “Oscar Grant Trial,” as it’s come to be known throughout California, really started to make sense to me. At an Alameda diner, I overheard a man say that Alameda’s business plan, in case disgraced Bay Area Rapid Transit Police Officer Johannes Mehserle was found innocent, was to raise the bridges before the riot spread to the island.

I remember wondering how the man would like it if the bridges stayed raised and the good people of Alameda had to swim to work for a while. He could lead the way.

Slip the yoke and change the joke, as black folks used to say.

I never actually wanted anyone to swim to work, but this overheard remark crystallizes the conflict of visions that slashes across this case. The verdict is in. The jury has decided, but the decision no more than a formality. Involuntary manslaughter; in other words, an accident.

The scales of justice do not tilt this strangely in a single instant. In this case, they started tilting in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, when BART police officers tried to confiscate the camera phones from the onlookers who had just witnessed and recorded the shooting. They were tilting when the proposal went in for the trial site to be moved from Oakland to conservative bedrock Orange County, and when downtown Los Angeles was eventually decided upon as a compromise location. They were tilting when the defense and prosecution took an hour to agree on a jury without even one black juror, and they were tilting when the judge summarily dismissed the first-degree murder charge before closing arguments were read. All of this could have been predicted.

Photograph by Michael Mees

Verdict

Viewed from the perspective of an ideology and a lived experience that encourages trust in law enforcement and a court system that from time immemorial has protected and served, Officer Mehserle appears as a tragic figure guilty merely of a rash misreach for his taser, poor police education, and an understandable panic at his proximity to several (variously handcuffed, prostrate, unarmed, and restrained) young black men. But viewed from the perspective of those young black men, or this young black man, that vision is absurd. The notion that we black men—prostrate on train platforms, loitering aimlessly on corners, bullshitting in bars, raising children, being loving spouses—may one day surrender our lives to some weird welter of color-struck paranoia, half-assed job training and taser confusion is idiotic. Statistics, by the way, tell us that violent crimes committed by black people overwhelmingly are committed against other black people, that in fact (as opposed to fear), white people have never been at the mercy of an irrepressible black crime wave. From our perspective, this verdict lends any police action formed against us, including shooting a prostrate man in his back while he lies on a clean, well-lit train platform in full view of dozens of witnesses, plausible deniability. Black men, in the governing ideology, are not understood as victims of crime. Emmett Till’s coffin has closed. Our murder, whether from police action or drug war crossfire or whatever, becomes the sacrifice by which the nation ritually defines its distance from randomness and premature death.

Justice and time

The arc of the moral universe is long but it does not necessarily bend toward justice.

Between 1865 and 1870, Reconstruction saw sweeping legislation for full civil rights for black men, including the Fifteenth Amendment’s effectively enacted rights to vote and hold political office. The beginnings of black power were, tragically, located within a South characterized by anti-black vigilante and police terrorism, and within a Republican Party that effectively bound the freedom struggle to Northern capitalist interests much as our current-day Democratic Party binds a medley of underserved constituencies to an overserved business elite. The grassroots resistance of low country South Carolina rice workers by means of rolling labor strikes during Reconstruction’s final days testifies not only to the injustice of payment in scrip (the issuance of promissory notes that were only valid at local stores as opposed to actual monies exchanged for labor), and opposition to segregationist terror, but to the increasing unwillingness of most white Americans to represent black labor, let alone protect black lives. The trajectory of Reconstruction, from sudden admission of a previously enslaved racial minority into the body politic to an almost equally rapid foreclosure of freedoms—a foreclosure essentially supported by the unabashed antipathy of one political party and the apathy of the other—suggests not so much the impossibility of revolution in America as the certainty of counter-revolutionary opposition.

Absent representation and protection, a whirlwind of repression spread nationwide. All-white hamlets where blacks could travel through and conduct business only during daylight hours became commonplace in rural northern and western communities, as detailed in James Loewen’s 2005 book Sundown Towns. And the under-taught and consequently little-known, yet nation-defining anti-black riots, from San Juan Hill in New York City, to the Massacre in East St. Louis, to the Burning of Black Wall Street in Tulsa, Oklahoma, forced blacks into more and more rigidly cordoned ghettos, from Harlem to Oakland. Not only did the riots take black lives, they wiped out businesses and destroyed much black financial capital. The riots signaled a virulent resistance to our migration into America’s centers of industry, wealth, and power. Systematic backlashes against minorities have neither been inevitable nor in inevitable decline, but rather tend to intensify during periods of social progress and inclusion.

Photograph courtesy of Keenan Norris

In Oakland and far beyond this city’s limits, our era is revealing itself not as some magical post-race realm, but rather a brook of fire familiar to a nation that has always known racial change as a violent crossing over. In the crossing there is no assurance, no affirmation. I still see shirts here and there around Oakland celebrating Barack Obama’s presidential victory of 2008. I still see from time to time, as well, those unearthly aurora red, blue, and beige graphics of President Obama’s face that make him look like something superhuman suddenly arrived. They read to me now as advertisements on the sharp brevity of euphoria. The shirts that I no longer see are the ones that memorialize Oscar Grant, not so much because he has been forgotten here, but rather because most know that his tragedy will be replaced many times over.

Articles

El Grito and the Tea Party

by Alexander I. Olson
with art by Guillermo Nericcio García

From Boom Winter 2011, Vol. 1, No. 4

Recalling Diversity

Less than a month after California’s hotly contested midterm election in November 2010, the Sacramento Bee reported that local Tea Party activists had begun gathering signatures for a ballot measure modeled after Arizona’s notorious SB 1070—the law requiring state and local law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of suspected “illegals.” It is no surprise that the craze for border enforcement has again swept California. Although the Pew Research Center has found that the flow of undocumented workers into the United States has actually decreased in recent years, and despite the estimated $253 million in lost economic output that Arizona has endured since the passage of SB 1070, polling has suggested that a majority of California voters support the Arizona measure.1 As Michael Erickson, the Tea Party activist behind the California measure, explained in the Bee, “it’s going to be we the people who are going to make it happen.”2

Whatever the fate of Erickson’s signature drive, his populist rhetoric mirrors that of the national Tea Party, with its emphasis on “taking back” the country and “restoring” American democracy. Despite imagery that would suggest a preoccupation with contesting the meaning of the American Revolution (witness the Minutemen at the United States-Mexico border and the revival of the Gadsden flag), the Tea Party has proven itself to be a potent force in contemporary US politics, drawing together diverse conservative ideologies.3 The movement’s fusion of past and present can be seen in the writings of former Fox News personality Glenn Beck, whose revision of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense spent four months atop the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list in 2009.4 Readers can enroll in “Beck University” to take lessons in topics that include “Divine Providence vs. Manifest Destiny” and “Presidents You Need to Hate.”5 Such lessons portray the United States’ claim to Alta California—a northern territory of Mexico ceded to the United States in 1848 by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War—as justified by divine sanction. Particularly in the US Southwest, the Tea Party’s emphasis on border enforcement is as much about defending an embattled white American heritage as more widely cited reasons such as preventing unemployment and terrorism.6 In the dystopian vision of Beck and his compatriots, Mexican immigrants and their “anchor babies” will shove aside the rituals of the Fourth of July in favor of el Grito—the cry of September 16th, or Mexican Independence Day.7

As California voters contemplate the wisdom of racial profiling and mass deportation, it is worth looking back to another aspect of California’s heritage: the multicultural towns of Owens Valley in the late nineteenth century. These isolated communities in the eastern Sierra Nevada were remnants of the complicated demographics of the Gold Rush and, indeed, the forty-niners were late arrivals in a region with a long history of migration—Native American, Spanish, Mexican, and Russian.

Some of the first Anglo visitors to Alta California were convicts dumped on the beach in Carmel in 1796. According to Doyce Nunis, Jr., they proved to be “hard-working and docile” laborers under the Spanish colonial regime before being sent to Spain the following year. After Mexican independence in 1821, the naturalization process was made “fast and easy” for migrants from the United States and around the world, many of whom intermarried with locals. An exciting body of literature in recent years—including Louise Pubols’s masterful study of the de la Guerra family of Santa Barbara, The Father of All (2009)—has deepened our understanding of the complex social and economic world of the Californios.8

“Bear on the Lam” by Guillermo Nericcio García (2011, digital mixed media)

All this was threatened when Mexico lost Alta California to the United States in 1848. Although wealthier Californios remained active and savvy players in the new political system, the American Invasion ushered in an era of state-sponsored racial violence, as Anglos sought to drive Mexican, Chilean, and other “foreign” families from mining country through such measures as the Foreign Miners Tax of 1850. By sanctioning white supremacy, such laws eroded the land claims and citizenship rights of racialized “others” who were recast as “illegal aliens” in the twentieth century.9 Nevertheless, Anglo dominance was “difficult to enforce, and groups of people united by shared interests could create for themselves spheres of autonomy and strategies for interdependence.”10 The Owens Valley became such a sphere. For Anglos no less than Mexican, Basque, and Cuban families in the late nineteenth century, the towns of the Owens Valley were motley communities of exiles hoping to make a living in their adopted home.

By 1903, when Mary Hunter Austin published The Land of Little Rain, many of these towns were dwindling, if not vanished, and Los Angeles had already begun to eye the Owens Valley’s water resources.11 Rather than emphasizing decline, however, Austin painted a portrait of a vibrant, transnational, and deeply Californian culture where borders meant little, languages blended, and the chance to celebrate el Grito sparked joy, not fear. Every year on September 16, in her telling, shouts of ¡Viva la Libertad! and ¡Viva Mexico! resounded through the “Little Town of the Grape Vines.”12 From the grito itself to the hoisting of “the red, white, and green of Old Mexico,” the entire town joined in the festivities. At midnight, according to Austin, as the singing and dancing drew to a close, the flag was taken down. But this was not the end of the celebration. As “shepherd fires glow strongly on the glooming hills,” the music began “softly and aside,” playing “airs of old longing and exile.” Next, and suddenly, the music struck “a barbaric swelling tune,” and the Star Spangled Banner was raised above the camp. The same people who had shouted the grito joined in singing the US national anthem. As Austin put it, “They sing everything, America, the Marseillaise, for the sake of the French shepherds hereabout, the hymn of Cuba, and the Chilean national air to comfort two families of that land.“13

To be sure, Austin’s vision of harmony passes all too easily over the darker sides of life in the Owens Valley in the late nineteenth century—-the misogyny, the poverty, the endemic violence. Austin herself escaped this world for the literary communities of San Francisco and Santa Fe, and her portrait of the “Little Town of the Grape Vines” might be understood as an example of what Renato Rosaldo has called “imperialist nostalgia,” an ethnographic stance and mode of cultural production in which “people mourn the passing of what they themselves have transformed.”14 Austin never mentions efforts to erode multiculturalism through public health policy and anti-immigration measures such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.15 Yet unlike other examples of such nostalgia—including the ongoing fascination with the Gold Rush legend of the Mexican bandit Joaquín Murrieta, a figure who turned the tables on white colonial violence in attacks aimed at Anglo invaders—Austin’s story does not position the Owens Valley as a culture of the past, but as a vision for the future that inspired her later work on regionalism.16 Romanticized as her version of the Grito celebration might be, it offers a powerful corrective to the Tea Party’s campaign for harsh new immigration restrictions, reminding Californians of all stripes that our multicultural present has roots in many decades of migration—east, west, north, and south.

Notes

1. Jeffrey Passel and D’Vera Cohn, “U.S. Unauthorized Immigration Flows Are Down Sharply Since Mid-Decade,” Pew Hispanic Center Report, 1 September 2010. A Los Angeles Times/USC poll of California voters showed a split of 50%–43% in favor of the Arizona measure. Seema Mehta, “Voters Split on Arizona Law,” Los Angeles Times, 31 May 2010. A Field Poll in June 2010 found a similar split of 49%–45% in favor of the measure. Shelby Grad, “Arizona Immigration Crackdown Divides California Voters, New Poll Shows,” Los Angeles Times, 16 July 2010. The lost economic output figure is based on an estimate of conference cancellations. Marshall Fitz and Angela Kelley, “Stop the Conference: The Economic and Fiscal Consequences of Conference Cancellations Due to Arizona’s S.B. 1070,” Center for American Progress Report, November 2010.

2. Susan Ferriss, “Tea Party Activist Launches Arizona-style Immigration Initiative for California,” Sacramento Bee, 24 November 2010.

3. For the Tea Party’s role in a longer cultural struggle over the meaning of the American Revolution, see Jill Lepore, The Whites of Their Eyes: The Tea Party’s Revolution and the Battle over American History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010). The Tea Party’s ideological composition is surveyed in “The Tea Party, Religion and Social Issues,” Pew Research Center Report, 23 February 2011.

4. Glenn Beck, Glenn Beck’s Common Sense: The Case Against an Out-of-Control Government, Inspired by Thomas Paine (New York: Mercury Radio Arts/Threshold Editions, 1999). For number of weeks on the bestseller list, see New York Times, 18 October 2009. http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/18/books/bestseller/bestpapernonfiction.html [accessed 1 March 2011]. For Beck’s connection to the Tea Party, see Sean Wilentz, “Confounding Fathers: The Tea Party’s Cold War Roots,” The New Yorker, 18 October 2010. Wilentz identifies Beck’s role in the movement as “both a unifying figure and an intellectual guide.”

5. Beck University. http://www.glennbeck.com/becku/about.php [accessed 1 March 2011].

6. On TeaParty.org, a group with offices in California and Texas, the first item in a list of “Non-negotiable core beliefs” is “Illegal Aliens Are Here Illegally.” http://www.teaparty.org/about.php [accessed 1 March 2011].

7. Jorge Rivas, “Fox News: ‘Penélope Cruz Is Having an Anchor Baby,'” Color Lines: News for Action, 13 December 2010. http://colorlines.com/archives/2010/12/fox_news_penelope_cruz_is_having_an_anchor_baby.html [accessed 1 March 2011]. See also “Beck Embraces ‘Anchor Babies’ Slur,” Media Matters, 6 May 2010. http://mediamatters.org/mmtv/201005060042 [accessed 1 March 2011]. Michael Erickson, sponsor of the SB 1070-style measure in California, has styled himself as a voice of reason by opposing state legislative attacks on “anchor babies”—even while arguing for judicial solutions and warning against the “ravages of crime and welfare dependency” supposedly encouraged by birthright citizenship. See Michael Erickson, “Birthright Citizenship: The Latest Gimmick of Immigration Enforcement Advocates,” 7 February 2011 (quotation by Erickson is located in comments section). http://www.rniamerica.org/node/589213 [accessed 1 March 2011].

8. Doyce B. Nunis, Jr., “Alta California’s Trojan Horse: Foreign Immigration,” in Ramón A. Gutiérrez and Richard J. Orsi, eds., Contested Eden: California Before the Gold Rush (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), 302–305. For intermarriage of Anglos and Californios before the Gold Rush, see Louise Pubols, “Open Ports and Intermarriage,” in The Father of All: The de la Guerra Family, Power, and Patriarchy in Mexican California (Berkeley: University of California Press and Huntington Library, 2009), 105–148, and María Raquél Casas, Married to a Daughter of the Land: Spanish-Mexican Women and Interethnic Marriage in California, 1820–1880 (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2007). For conflict with Native Americans, see Michael González, This Small City Will Be a Mexican Paradise: Exploring the Origins of Mexican Culture in Los Angeles, 1821–1846 (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005).

9. Mae Ngai, Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005).

10. Susan Lee Johnson, Roaring Camp: The Social World of the California Gold Rush (New York: W.W. Norton, 2000), 51. For racial conflict in the Santa Clara Valley, see Stephen Pitti, The Devil in Silicon Valley: Northern California, Race, and Mexican Americans (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2003).

11. Construction on the Los Angeles Aqueduct—which devastated the remaining farms in the Owens Valley by diverting their water—began in 1908, and led to decades of conflict. See William Kahrl, Water and Power: The Conflict over Los Angeles’ Water Supply in the Owens Valley (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), and John Walton, Western Times and Water Wars: State, Culture, and Rebellion in California (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991).

12. The modern celebration of el Grito de la Independencia begins the night of September 15, with the shouting of el grito (“the cry”) resounding near midnight. The festivities continue on through September 16.

13. Mary Hunter Austin, The Land of Little Rain (New York: Modern Library, 2003 ed.), 106–107.

14. Renato Rosaldo, “Imperialist Nostalgia,” Representations, no. 26 (Spring 1989): 108.

15. For efforts to curb or contain racial diversity in California through public health policy, see Natalia Molina, Fit to Be Citizens? Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879–1939 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), Alexandra Stern, Eugenic Nation: Faults and Frontiers of Better Breeding in Modern America (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), and Nayah Shah, Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001). Austin’s portrait echoed the efforts of boosters to celebrate a sanitized version of the region’s racial history, a marketing strategy that “allowed easterners to luxuriate in the Southern California so brilliantly advertised: exotic, semi-tropic, romantic.” William Deverell, Whitewashed Adobe: The Rise of Los Angeles and the Remaking of Its Mexican Past (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 28.

16. John Rollin Ridge, Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, The Celebrated California Bandit (San Francisco, 1854). Susan Lee Johnson links the Murrieta legend to the concept of “imperialist nostalgia” in Roaring Camp, 49. Murrieta’s ongoing cultural resonance can be seen in Isabel Allende’s Daughter of Fortune (New York: HarperCollins, 1999) and the Hollywood blockbuster The Mask of Zorro (1998).

Photography/Art

Images from the Central Valley

by Tracy Perkins, Julie Sze
From Boom Spring 2011, Vol. 1, No. 1

Above photo: Earlimart, CA, March 7, 2008: Teresa DeAnda stands on the narrow strip of dirt and road that divides her home from the fields next door. Pesticides regularly drift into her yard. (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

When Californians think of the Central Valley, they often think of its problems: poverty, pesticides, disputes over the allocation of irrigation water, farmworker deaths, and, most recently, a cluster of babies born with birth defects in the small town of Kettleman City. These are some of the ways this region makes the statewide news. But the Central Valley also has a rich history of community organizing and its own stark beauty. These photographs by Tracy Perkins and the oral histories she collected to accompany them document an important aspect of life there: environmental-health problems and the diverse network of advocates who are fighting to solve them.

Practically speaking, the Central Valley is all but invisible to those who live outside it. Over the course of the twentieth century, legislators and growers turned this 500-mile-long stretch of land into one of the most intensively farmed regions in the world, watered by one of the world’s most ambitious irrigation systems. Although California leads the nation in agricultural production, many Californians have little sense of what goes on in the agricultural regions of their state. This invisibility helps to explain why California has located two of the state’s three hazardous-waste landfills and many of its prisons there, while also continuing to allow high levels of toxicity in the air and water.

Nonetheless, the politics of the Central Valley have implications outside the region’s boundaries—as its history shows. From farm families migrating there in search of a haven from the Dust Bowl of the 1930s to César Chávez and the farmworkers’ movement in the 1960s and 1970s, the Central Valley has played an important role in shaping California and the nation. More recently, Central Valley advocates have entered the debate about global warming as part of a statewide coalition that has sued the state on the grounds that its landmark new law, the Global Warming Solutions Act of 2006, would, ironically, increase air pollution where they live. Under the law’s current implementation plan, new energy plants would likely be built in the Central Valley to phase out older, less efficient, and more polluting energy plants in other parts of the state. New incinerators that burn imported wood debris would also be built to create “renewable energy.” Both types of plants would add to the toxic burden residents already bear from pesticide drift, diesel exhaust, toxic waste, drinking-water pollution, and high air pollution levels. You may be surprised to learn that in 2007 the Environmental Protection Agency listed the small Central Valley town of Arvin, population 16,200, as having the worst smog levels in the US. Arvin continues to be smoggier than Los Angeles. Residents already suffering from asthma and other health problems linked to air pollution are unlikely to welcome new pollution sources. This struggle is surely being watched by other states as they consider their own responses to global warming.

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Tulare County, March 8, 2008: Anhydrous ammonia flows into an unlined irrigation canal. Later it will find its way through a sprinkler system onto the fields. It provides nitrogen to the crops, but also seeps into the groundwater that Central Valley townspeople drink. (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

Nor is this the only national issue in which the Central Valley plays an important role. In the 1990s, advocates pioneered the use of civil-rights law to reduce pollution in communities of color. This strategy was first used as part of a campaign to stop the building of a toxic-waste incinerator in the largely Latino town of Kettleman City, which was already neighbor to the largest hazardous-waste landfill west of the Mississippi River. Civil-rights litigation has since been incorporated into environmental struggles in communities of color across the country. Similarly, between 2008 and 2010 pesticide buffer zones were created in Tulare, Madera, Stanislaus, and Kern Counties. All of these counties banned the aerial spraying of restricted pesticides within a quarter-mile of schools, and three counties protected farm-labor camps and residential areas as well. Environmental and farmworker groups have petitioned the Environmental Protection Agency to create similar buffer zones across the nation, and have recorded 42,000 statements of support for the cause.

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Visalia, November 17, 2007: Tap water samples from small towns in the vicinity of Visalia. Their contents include nitrates from fertilizers and cow manure from the area’s mega-dairies, as well as dibromochloropropane, a pesticide banned in 1977 but still present in groundwater, and arsenic. Some of the water smells like sewage. (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

The region also represents demographic shifts that are important beyond its borders. White people became a minority in the Central Valley long before they did so in the state as a whole. However, the racial makeup of Valley politicians has yet to follow suit. According to Jonathan Fox, a scholar at the University of California, Santa Cruz, many Latino citizens in the Central Valley are not yet voting regularly and large numbers of those eligible to become citizens have not yet done so. If both groups became active voters, they could replace many of the area’s traditionally conservative elected officials with more progressive representatives of their interests and have a hefty impact on state politics.

boom-2011-1-1-71-ufigure-5
Earlimart, March 7, 2008: Josefina Miranda shows her daughter how she protects herself when she works in the fields. When Miranda was four months pregnant with an earlier child, she and her coworkers were sent to work in a field still wet with pesticides. By the time they left, her clothes were so soaked that she could wring the pesticides out of them. She miscarried the next day. (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

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Kettleman City, July 18, 2009 (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

The growing advocacy networks in the Central Valley are key to helping people link their everyday problems to the political process. The pages that follow offer a window into their lives and labor, from an activist for prison reform to a woman whose town was poisoned by pesticide drift to a community leader who helped defeat a proposal to build a toxic-waste incinerator just outside her town. These photographs and stories are taken from “25 Stories from the Central Valley,” a multimedia project that documents the women leaders of the Central Valley environmental justice movement. Visit http://twentyfive.ucdavis.edu for additional photographs, stories, and teaching tools to use in college classrooms.

Debbie Reyes, Fresno Central Valley Coordinator
California Prison Moratorium Project

There were folks that came from all over the state to the Central Valley to discuss the issues. It was pretty empowering for our Valley to have something like that in Fresno, the place that I left many years ago because I thought there was nothing for me— “That place will never change,” you know? I’ve seen a tremendous change from the first year I got back, thirteen years ago to now. Then, the Ku Klux Klan was standing on the corner of a gay pride parade; now, in 2007, we have Rally in the Valley, which is like a peace march. We had the Environmental Justice Network Conference. We’re having the Uncaging the Valley Prisons conference, Black and Brown Unity marchers. And now, here I’m sitting at a table with folks that are working to create change in the state to regulate pesticide spraying in communities. So inside I was going, “Yeah, finally!” It’s taken twenty-five years but here we are.

Teresa DeAnda, Earlimart
Central Valley Coordinator
Californians for Pesticide Reform

Our street was the first street to get evacuated [after the pesticide drifted off the fields and into our neighborhood]. I’d driven to Delano, and when I came back there was a sheriff standing at our gate. It had just gotten dark, and my husband said, “We need to get out, because there’s something happening.” I smelled it a little bit, but I didn’t smell it that strong. But I was still very disturbed. It’s a horrible feeling, getting told you’ve got to get out, that there’s something that you shouldn’t be smelling. I got the kids, and we left in the van. My husband got my blind uncle and my 87-year-old compadre, and then we drove. But I was just so fearful for the people that were staying.

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Wasco, CA. January 30, 2009 (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

Days later, we found out what happened to everybody. I had read the newspaper, but it didn’t mention what happened to the people that Saturday night, November 13, 1999. On Wednesday the UFW [United Farm Workers] had a meeting and they had all the agencies there: the county air commissioner, the fire department, an expert on pesticides, Pesticide Watch. It was just packed with mad, angry people. That night, I found out what had happened when we left.

[When the pesticide drifted over the town] the people who were the sickest, they were told to go to the middle school. And at the middle school they told the men, women, and children to take off their clothes and go down the decontamination line. Keep in mind: these people were vomiting and had burning eyes, just coughing and coughing, and so they were scared to death. They were given no privacy, just two tarps on either side, and they were told to take off their clothes. And the people didn’t want to.

One lady said, “Where’s my rights? Where’s my rights?” They told her, “Listen, you have no rights tonight; you’ve lost your rights.” And so she took off her clothes, and she said that that was the worst feeling in the world, because her kids had never seen her without her clothes, and they could see her. This is indicative of how they did the decon [decontamination]. She took off everything, absolutely everything, but she wouldn’t take off her underwear, so they yanked it off. They yanked off her Nikes, and so there she goes through the decontamination line, which was a fire-department water hose, on a cold November night. A fire-department water hose with a guy standing there holding it. She went through one line and then the other, but they didn’t wet her hair. At the end of the decon line they were supposed to have ambulances waiting, but the ambulances weren’t there yet, so they just gave them little covers and told them to sit on the ground.

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Buttonwillow Park, Jan. 30, 2009 (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

So I’m finding all this stuff out at the meeting. All these mad people are just yelling at the agencies, telling them, “How could you do this to us?” And then they told us what had happened at the hospital. The people did get transported to the hospital. Some went to Tulare Hospital, some went to Porterville Hospital, some went to Delano Hospital. Well, the lady with a lot of kids, she was baby-sitting kids too, they couldn’t take all of her kids to the same place, so they wrote their phone numbers on their stomachs, like they were animals. At the hospitals, they took their information, their names, their number, their address, but they didn’t even triage them. The doctor called poison control, and poison control said, “There’s nothing happening to them, just tell them to go back home but to try not to get re-exposed.” That’s all poison control told them. So they were sent on their way and they were given the clothes that they had been in before they got decontaminated. They just gave them back to them. Didn’t have them cleaned.

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Earlimart, May 7, 2008: Orchards in bloom present a beautiful vision of agriculture in the Valley. At certain times of the year, pesticide applicators are required to notify beekeepers within a one-mile radius of their targeted spraying areas so that hives can be moved away. In most cases, however, human residents receive no such notification. (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

So I started learning more and getting more and more angry. I couldn’t sleep at night, ’cause I was so upset at how it had changed my kids’ health and my health. When I was growing up, my dad had always said, “Trust the government. The government’s never going to lie; the government’s good,” and all that. And I thought, “No, they’re not,” because they really let us down that night, they really, really let us down. So much for trusting the government. I couldn’t sleep at night because it bothered me so much that it happened and that still nothing was being done about the people who had gotten sick. I learned a lot about pesticides. And then at press conferences they would always ask me to speak. Even though I wasn’t one of the victims that got deconned, I was one of the ones speaking all the time. They were calling me for meetings and conferences and stuff to talk about what had happened.

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Kettleman City, July 18, 2009: Alejandro Alvarez touches the image of his daughter, Ashley, one of a cluster of children born with a cleft palette and other birth defects in Kettleman City and neighboring Avenal. Residents fear that the hazardous-waste landfill located between their towns may be causing the birth defects. Alvarez got the tattoo shortly after his daughter died in January 2009, age 10 months. (photograph © Tracy Perkins)

What happened in Earlimart was in November, so by September UFW and us, we had formed El Comité Para el Bienestar de Earlimart [Committee for the Well-Being of Earlimart]. All of the people were victims of the accident. They were all mostly farm workers. Just a couple weren’t. We started having meetings, our own meetings without UFW, still supporting UFW in any press conference they wanted us to, but then we started having our own meetings.

And then in September of 2000 we asked the farmer and the chemical applicator to pay the medical payments for the people that had asthma. It was coming out that people had gotten asthma—didn’t have it before that night in 1999—just like that, from that night, that exposure. And it had gotten in their mucus membrane and then in their lungs. And so they needed long-term treatment. We got Wilbur-Ellis [the company hired by the farm to apply the pesticide] to pay for that.

We had a big press conference, right here at the house. And that was a big victory. The State of California Department of Pesticide Regulation gave Wilbur-Ellis the biggest fine that had ever happened. It’s still peanuts compared to other fines for toxic spills and stuff, but it was the biggest for pesticides. [Note: Pesticide specialists later told the activists from Earlimart that the particular chemical they had been exposed to is activated by water and that they should not have been hosed down as part of the decontamination process.]

Mary Lou Mares, Kettleman City
Organizer, El Pueblo para el Aire y Agua Limpio
(People for Clean Air and Water)

I remember people that lived in town, [where a toxic-waste incinerator was planned], they would say, “Well, Mary Lou, if you don’t like it, why don’t you move out?” Because I like it here; this is my town, this is where I bought my house, and I want to be here. You can’t always just move and go away from the problem and just leave it there; it’s going to follow you. No matter where you go, this kind of stuff is going to follow you, so you might as well stay and fight. Can’t do anything else. You have to. B