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Sci Tech    H2'ed 6/23/11

Diane Wilson, Accidental Activist and Eco-Outlaw

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My guest today is accidental activist, Diane Wilson.  Welcome to OpEdNews, Diane. Your new book is now out: Diary of an Eco-Outlaw: An Unreasonable Woman Breaks the Law for Mother Earth. Tell our readers a little about yourself, please.

I am a fourth generation fisherwoman, mother of five, activist and an author. Six generations of my family have lived over 100 years in this small, rural part of the Texas Gulf Coast.  Our fishing community, Seadrift, has 1,000 people, no red lights or fast food joints--and the only thing we are known for was the fact that the magnificent 7 foot Karankawa Indians were massacred on our mud flats and that in the 1920s, outlaws Bonnie and Clyde use to hide out in Seadrift.  I have been on a boat since I was eight years old and have been a sea captain most of my life.  I'm typically a very quiet and shy person.  Speaking is totally out of character for me.

Well, for a quiet, shy person for whom speaking is totally out of character, you've certainly had a lot to say over the last few years, Diane. What was it that energized you to move outside your comfort zone and to a more public one?

I have lived my entire life next to the water and my family has fished and shrimped these waters around Seadrift for over 100 years. You might say I have an acute 'sense of place'.  Another  thing is that my grandpa on my daddy's side was a Cherokee Indian who grew up on Black Jack Island, a peninsula not far from Seadrift.  He  believed he could communicate with the dolphins and the fish.  Then, my mother's side of my family were holy rollers; believing in speaking in tongues, holy ghosts flickering in the rafters, and spirits of all kinds (demons and otherwise) hanging around us.  So, not only did I have an acute sense of place, I also had a firm belief in the 'unseen' world.  I knew there was more than met the physical senses.  When I was five years old, I remember going to the bay and seeing the bay as an Old Woman.  I remember that she had long gray hair and a long dress that flowed out with the tide.  I especially remember her personality.  It felt just like a grandmother.  And this old grandmother loved for me to come to the bay.  She always seemed so glad to see me.  I have never forgotten this vision.  To me, the bay is alive.  She is real and vibrant and I especially (and still) feel her when I go out on a boat.  So when I realized that the bay was threatened in 1989 (with the Toxic Release Inventory data), I reacted out of character.  I spoke up.  And normally, I did not speak up.  I was very very quiet.  I took speech for the first six years of elementary school because I didn't like talking.

What are you referring to, Diane? What happened to the bay in 1989?

On the night of February 3, 1984, Union Carbide had a horrific release of  methyl isocynate gas at their experimental pesticide plant in Bhopal, India.  There are varied estimates on how many Bhopalis died that night. The Bhopal survivors say that over 8,000 people died those first several days.  There were so many bodies in the river that there was the equivalent of a body jam at the bridge.  It is estimated that 30 people a month still die from the consequences of that horrible day.

 Because of that incident in Bhopal, the US Congress passed the Community Right to Know Law, in essence the Toxic Release Inventory, making certain industries report their toxic releases to the communities that live around them and also to the public.

In l989, the first Toxic Release Inventory was made public and while I was working at a fishouse on San Antonio Bay, I read an associated press story in the Victoria Advocate (a nearby local paper) that Calhoun County (where I had lived my entire life) was #1 in the nation for toxic disposal and that Calhoun County accounted for half the toxic waste generated in Texas.

That information and the fact that our local bays had suffered numerous algae blooms (green, brown, and red tide) and that we had been having some very bad shrimping seasons ( it was so bad that i had tied up my boat the "SeaBee" and was working at the fishhouse ) followed by one of the largest dolphins die-offs in the Mammal Stranding Network's history made the dots all connect....I realized that the bay and my home was under a horrible siege and I was moved to do something..

So what did you do, Diane about it? How did you wage a one-woman fight against Union Carbide? Did you ever feel outgunned?

My gut reaction on finding out we were #1 in the nation for toxic disposal (and sorta connecting the dots that had happened on the bay) was to do something I normally would not have done at all.  I just picked up the fishhouse phone and called City Hall in Seadrift and asked to use their community center room for a meeting to talk about the TRI information. It was actually pretty simple.  I was extremely naà ve; I had zero experience on talking and calling meetings and had no knowledge of environmental agencies or permits or even the names of the chemical plants in my county.  
Within several days, the bank president came down to the fish house and wanted to know if I was starting a vigilante  group that going to roast industry alive.  He had already learned of the request for a meeting.  Shortly after that, the secretary for city hall showed up and asked me to move the meeting out of city hall--in fact, to not have it at all.  The city had requested the secretary come down and get me to do this.  Then, the economic development director called my brother and told him to get me to be a good citizen and call off the meeting.  Then, I had the county commissioner come down and then the plant manager and then the senator sent his aide.  Don't do the meeting...Well, I did do the meeting, but i found out very very quickly that just ASKING for a meeting to talk about industry was going to be very controversial and that it was not going to make me popular.

 I was actually dealing with a number of chemical plants in my home county: Formosa Plastics, Alcoa Aluminum, Union Carbide, Vistron, and Dupont, but the chemical plants that took front and center very fast were Formosa Plastics and Union Carbide.  Formosa Plastics, a multinational corporation whose home base was Taiwan, was bringing down a $3 billion chemical expansion that had been 'kicked out' of Taiwan (because Formosa was such a polluter).  Every politician from the mayor on up to Congressman Phil Gramm, who was running for President of the US, was on the bandwagon to get Formosa down to Texas.  It was the biggest chemical expansion that Texas had ever had--and by a notorious polluter--- and not one single question had been asked about their environmental record.  
And here I was, calling a meeting and asking questions.  The word got out very fast that I wasn't really a fisherwoman concerned about her bays and the pollution of the county.  I was a SPY, hired by the state of Louisiana to get the Formosa project kicked out of Texas so it could go to Louisiana (which was almost as bad of a state as Texas for disregard for the environment).  Just bring the jobs was their bottom line. Everything was an economic bonanza. 

patching nets in the bay
photo credit: Peter Jenkins

   So, my fight was a one-woman fight because it was so controversial. No one would join--and if they did join, they quickly left.  There were three reason I think it was so controversial. 1) because of industry's sacred cow position in the state, because I was a (2) woman and I was a (3) fisherwoman.  This wasn't only an environmental fight. it was a gender and class fight.  I got blasted for all three issues and I learned very, very fast that going the regular route -  working inside 'the box' was not going to work down where I lived on the Texas Gulf Coast.  Nobody told me this or counseled me on this (in fact, they counseled me against it). But I realized that if I acted like a well-behaved little citizen, asking permission and speaking nicely to my elected officials and playing the regular game in town, my bays and the fish and the dolphins and the shrimp and the pelicans and the fishermen were gonna get creamed.

You are a thorn in many corporations' side. You've been arrested dozens of times for working outside the box. What has your first-hand experience taught you about our legal process?

My first hand experience has taught me that politicians (at least the ones in Texas that I knew and met and dealt with), agencies and the legal system are working with industry because it is mutually benefiting all of them.  For instance, the mayor, justice of the peace, sheriff's department, ambulances, and state senators in my area were either getting new defibulators, new police cars,new computer systems or had construction and cement contracts with the companies they were suppose to be watching.  My state senator who had previously been a cop in the next town over had a security business and Formosa Plastics had given the senator's security company an open-ended (meaning the company could set the price) contract at the facility and admitted in a memo to basically buying off the senator.  When the supervisor of security at the facility found out and tried to put a stop to it, the plant manager told him that he could have the supervisor killed.


The DA's office  told the supervisor who came to him frightened for his life that he wouldn't prosecute the plant manager because the sheriff's office was getting a whole new computer system from Formosa.  When the security supervisor went to the Texas Rangers with his complaint, the Texas Ranger told him it was just good business sense on Formosa's part and that it was his word against the plant manager at Formosa.  That is when the supervisor came to me with the taped conversation of the Texas Rangers, confidential documents of the buy off of the senator, and he was carrying a gun for protection.

I had state environmental investigators in Corpus Christi district office pull me aside, yank out documents from a file and give them to me,  telling ME that I should do something with them because they couldn't get the state or the feds to do anything about it.  The inspectors said they didn't EVEN want to think what was going on there.  The documents showed groundwater contamination of very toxic priority pollutants in the hundreds of thousands parts per million---and this groundwater flowed to the bay and was in the vicinity of water wells.  I took the documents to the county commissioners court and gave it to the judge and the commissioners and also the state representatives and these guys were furious at me.  The county judge told me that those 'were little bitty numbers'...  he had called Formosa and Formosa had told him that and he didn't doubt their word at all.

  The EPA knew about instances of wrong doing (for example, Formosa was discharging toxins into the bay without a permit) and the EPA lawyer told me that they knew it was illegal but it was up to their (EPA's) discretion what they wanted to do about it---which was nothing.

 When I gave an EPA criminal investigator both documentation and the actual witness (a 25-year supervisor of the PVC unit) to an unreported 16,000 pound release of vinyl chloride (vinyl chloride is a carcinogen and will give you liver cancer) that is across the street from a schoolyard, the investigator did nothing.  He said the courts would throw the case out.  He said he wasn't spending his time on something like that. It was a waste of time. If he was going to spend all the man hours on an investigation, he was going to do it on a worker that was dead.  Like in the Texas City BP explosion.  Dead is dead.  You can't argue with that.

Other problems are that there is no political will, no enforcement, little budget to do the job, the companies are self reporting. This country is ruled by corporations and they are above the law.  I have saw this over and over.

How do you work within a system that seems to be rotten to the core, Diane? Is there anyone out there who's not corrupt?

One part of me works to help alleviate very immediate issues---and more short term (for example, injured workers from the chemical companies that are coming to me with stories about bad safety conditions or unreported releases--these stories are filed with Occupational Safety Health Administration (OSHA) or EPA criminal investigators, even though I am personally frustrated with their lack of response.  I have also organized these guys into Texas Injured Workers where they put their stories on their own website and it at least gives them a voice and a feeling of empowerment (in a place where there are NO unions) and we are currently trying to test the workers for vinyl chloride exposure.

 The other part of me works on something that I feel is more long term and is for the future of our planet.  I sincerely believe we need a revolution in this country.  The problems I think we are all facing is so huge that it would take another hour to just express them.  I'm sure you've heard them before, over and over and over.

And is there anyone I trust out there???  Well, i think the system is corrupt and even though men and women may enter the system with the best of intentions, i believe it twists and distorts and eventually corrupts their message and makes them ineffective.  But then I have never (well, the last 15 years, anyhow) looked for leadership from our so-called political leaders.  I look for leadership among the people.  And there was one man in Texas that I trusted:  Jim Hightower.  He was Texas Agriculture Commissioner for a short while.  How he managed to keep his integrity I'll never know.  He didn't last long, though.  Now we have the likes of Mr. Good Hair as Molly Ivins used to call Rick Perry, our fancy dancy governor of Texas. 

shrimping on Sea Bee
photo credit: Kate McConnico, The Texas Observer

Your actions have regularly landed you in jail. You claim that this country would be a different place if all its citizens spent two weeks behind bars. That's certainly a provocative comment. What did you mean by that?

I mean it a couple of ways; 1) Justice in this country can be very brutal, and given the fact that l.6 million people are in prisons and another 800,000 in jails (making the United States one of the tip top incarceraters in the world) that is a lot of brutality.  The US jails at six times the rate that Britain does and seven times the rate of Canada.  African-Americans are seven times as likely to be locked up as whites and they go to prison at twice the rate they go to college.

I personally believe that the reason why nearly 80% of those jailed are African-American and Hispanic is because the age of slavery is turning into the age of incarceration.  Something is fouled-up big time in our justice system  when half of the people in jail have mental illnesses and half have not seen a lawyer or a judge and have no idea why they are being charged.  It is fouled big time when people in county jails die because the jails withhold their medicine or that a young woman commits suicide to get out of a situation where a sheriff is using the inmates as prostitutes and running a drug ring through the jails.  Jails say something about how our democracy has failed the worst -- with people who have the least to give.

I think everyone needs to spend some time in jail to view this first-hand.  Otherwise, they wouldn't believe how our country sweeps lives under the steel rug. And 2)  There is a quote by Dan Berrigan ( I say it in the book, too). "There is no peace because there are no peacemakers. There are no makers of peace because the making of peace is at least as costly as the making of war--at least as exigent, at least as disruptive, at least as liable to bring disgrace and prison and death in its wake."

I think people are very afraid of going to jail.  Their fear rules them. Their love of normalcy dominates them.  So they do actions that are half-hearted, half-muddled, and half-baked.  I think if we did every action with the clear intention of going to jail then we would be infused with  enthusiasm to REALLY commit ourselves to an action and then, who knows what we could really do in this country?  We just need to go to jail and get over that fear.

I suppose we don't know how we'll react until we find ourselves in jail that first time. You certainly got over any second thoughts about it.  What's it like to live in a small Texas town where you have the reputation as a rabble-rouser? Have family and friends been supportive or do you often find yourself in a party of one?

Most of my family is very conservative (Republicans) and religious orientated and I think their eyes kinda widen when they hear some of my antics but they now know me well enough to not say anything.  We generally do not say anything at all about what I do. It's like the big pink elephant in the room.  But if someone asks them point blank, "Well, what does the family think of Diane?" my sister told them, "Well, as long as we don't have to bail her out of jail, then she can do what she wants."...Ha. pretty funny.  When I go off to do an action somewhere, I tell my 95-year old momma (who has been poor a lot of her life) that I'm off to sell a LOT of books...and she says, "Will you make a LOT of money???" and I say, "Oooooooh, yes!!!"   So, I tell my momma all kinds of lies.  It's a little mutual arrangement we have.  
And the rest of the town:  as I said, mainly in Seadrift, they see me as a rebel, but I am a SEADRIFT rebel.  And therein lies all the difference.   Some people in the county see what I'm doing and understand but I don't have many takers who will take up the cause. Some act like I'm a walking stick of dynamite.  Now, the folks who really like what I do are in Houston and Dallas and San Antonio, etc. etc.  Distance seems to help.  Now, if there are local folks who are in need of some kind of assistance, when it gets real personal, THEN they call me.  But its usually just me and the fence post.

You have a bunch of kids. What do they think about what you're doing? Do they wonder if you'll be there in the morning to make breakfast? Principles are one thing but a major disruption in family life can be another thing, entirely.

And the kids, ahh  the kids.  My kids were my demonstrators.  They got drug from hither to yonder.  I can remember going to a press conference in Austin and my autistic son Davy Crockett was climbing the stones of the Texas capitol in the background!...I've met whistleblowers out in parking lots in towns fifty miles away and while I was exchanging documents with a worker who didn't want to be seen, my two youngest were tearing my old Sears van (I had bought it at an auction for $1000) apart, for real.  They took apart the tail lights from inside and a cop stopped us on the way out for no tail lights!  But sometimes they just wanted things normal.  Even when what they pictured as normal was nothing we had ever been.  Maybe they were looking for safety in that normalcy because it did get kind of crazy.  I remember one of my youngest in grade schools took home a picture she drew and it was a home being bombarded with bullets--thick as rain. That was right after a helicopter landed in the front yard and shot and killed our dog.

I think my kids have always understood (most times!) what I was trying to do but they also got afraid...such as times I went on hunger strikes and times I got jailed.  Once--not long ago--my oldest daughter (then 32) went to visit me in a bad county jail and they threw HER in jail.  No lie.  That traumatized her like you wouldn't believe.  When she thinks I'm going to go to jail, she gets very very upset...but one of my daughters has been on hunger strikes with me and also did a nude action with me in down town Houston at high noon.  My autistic son David is fascinated by inventions that would make the world utopian and futuristic.  He made his own bumper sticker for his old car (and one for my truck too) sayin:  Who Killed the Electric Car?

 I doubt anybody in Texas understood what he was talking about but he was very very well versed on electric cars...But on the flip side, I have had my sister-in-law (who I think was being a little sarcastic ) say, "Well, you have to be given the mother of the year award!"....She was a home economics teacher and believed if you didn't make homemade bread and cakes for the kids, then you were one bad mom.  Also, the Texas Chemical Council (the organization in Texas that included almost all of the petrochemical and oil industries) use to make statements in the paper when I was on a hunger strike like "Who is keeping her kids?!"  and my response was often, "Did they ask Caesar Chavez where his kids were when he was on a hunger strike?"

I thought a lot of the comments were very sexist.

Agreed. What else would you like to tell our readers before we wrap this up, Diane?

What I would tell the readers is that we ALL have a destiny.  Not just some of us.  All of us.  And I believe that our path to our destinies often lies on little bits of information that we get during the course of our lives. But it is what we do with those bits of information that determines the rest of our lives...

So true. I don't think you'll ever run out of targets to protest, Diane.

Thank you for writing this piece, Joan.  I appreciate it very much.  Hope to meet you one day. Adios!

Thanks for taking the time; it was fun. I hope your book is a big hit.

Well, I have enjoyed this, too!  You asked some very interesting and thought provoking questions!  I am very grateful and humbled by your attention to my story.  Thank you very much, Joan. I can't wait to read your piece.  

Get Diane's book through publisher Chelsea Green
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Joan Brunwasser is a co-founder of Citizens for Election Reform (CER) which since 2005 existed for the sole purpose of raising the public awareness of the critical need for election reform. Our goal: to restore fair, accurate, transparent, secure elections where votes are cast in private and counted in public. Because the problems with electronic (computerized) voting systems include a lack of (more...)

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