This week, the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival enters Week 4, The Right to Health and a Healthy Planet: Ecological Devastation and Health Care. This conversation with longtime friend of the Kairos Center, Louisiana organizer Cherri Foytlin, clearly articulates why the fight for environmental justice is deeply connected to the fight for health care, and why both are intertwined with the Campaign’s other themes, the struggle against systemic racism, poverty, and militarism.
This conversation was conducted as part of The Souls of Poor Folk Audit of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Thanks to the Institute for Policy Studies for their work on the Audit and their help putting this piece together!
Kairos Center: Could you tell us about your context in Louisiana, and about the fight against the Bayou Bridge Pipeline there?
Cherri Foytlin: We have over three communities that do not have potable water in the state of Louisiana, and that number would probably be higher if we had proper testing. Our regulatory agencies are limp, so for instance for a pipeline that leaks in the basin, they would have to call the company to take them out there because our DEQ does not have a boat. To think we don’t have a boat is just ludicrous. The regulatory process — let along weighing if something is the moral thing to do — doesn’t even weigh if it’s the safe thing to do. And the company that recently purchased the Bayou Bridge Pipeline has the worst spill record in the country.
There is so much going on; if you consider the road they are building out into the basin, in this case it’s going through a spoil bank which kills the oxygen in the water. So we have crop issues in the basin, and we have environmental injustice issues in Cancer Alley, which is a strip of mostly black and brown communities from Baton Rouge to New Orleans. At the time time, these industries have build hundreds of refineries and chemical plants in the area.
These companies don’t take people into consideration, especially if they don’t have political clout, but I would probably be remiss if I didn’t say that the system was never built in the first place to protect those people — it protects the people it’s supposed to protect. And then we have kind of a similar situation in Lake Charles where we are seeing increased rates of violence, especially towards women; the residents have seen a spike in crime.
We bought 11 acres out here that we are hoping the pipeline will try and run through, and we are committed to holding that space and others, and band with others on the line who are having their land expropriated. As of March, every bit of the land will have gone to the oil industry, except for this one spot, we call the flow garden. Other than that it’s all gone.
This has been something that’s been happening for a while. We met you during the BP oil spill while you were working for Bridge the Gulf, and at that point you had been talking about all the leases in the Gulf. So how do you see all the natural disasters and the man-made disaster and the government letting that happen unabated?
It’s all related. For instance, these same communities that are overburdened with this industry stuff are the same communities that live in areas that flood more often, which we see because of climate change more and more often. We’ve had 500-year floods in the last two years. Maybe it’s time to stop calling them 500-year floods, and now call them events, or weather. And you’re right that it’s been going on for a long time. The part that Trump did was to open up the Atlantic, the Pacific, and Alaska for drilling, but the lease sale had already been put together for the Gulf and that came from Obama. And Obama also opened the sale for fracking fluids so any fracking fluids they can just throw overboard straight into the water. The Gulf is treated as the toilet of the United States.
The Gulf is treated as the toilet of the United States.
Since the BP oil spill, has the marine life returned? What have all the fisher folk and communities been able to do?
There’s still a lot of pain, financially too. Feinberg [Kenneth Feinberg, who was brought in by President Obama and BP to run a fund to pay claims for the BP oil spill], when he came in, offered people $5,000 to sign off your rights, $25,000 if you had a business, and by then a lot of people didn’t have money because the EPA didn’t respond for months. So it was a situation where people needed money, and many took it. And right now we are seeing a situation where the shrimp have rebounded okay — but crabs and oysters still aren’t coming back. So if you are a crabber or an oysterman, you are having the hardest time just finding product.
BP’s 20 billion dollar payout in Louisiana was a model for how polluters should be punished, but we also know that most of that money didn’t get to the people who needed it, or it was doled out in such small pieces that it wasn’t going to make a difference. To me it is crazy that it could be a held up as a model.
What the state does is that they use it to provide incentives and subsidies to the oil companies. Even research on oil spills and how people are affected — there are people getting all these “rare” cancers that are popping up, and a lot of people believe, myself included, that it has to do with that spill and the continued chemicals they use everyday. Taylor Energy has been leaking since 2004, so it’s like pick your poison. But that money, in Alabama — and I don’t know if it ended up going through because people were raising hell — they were trying to use that money to build a convention center. The money doesn’t go where it needs to be.
All of these issues are related to each other but are still very compartmentalized in the way that we approach them ... that’s why I keep coming back to the Poor People’s Campaign — it’s one of the few places where all of these things are being kept together in conversation.
In the meantime our hospitals, thanks to Bobby Jindal, are almost all closed down or privatized. Education has almost all been privatized, and there’s a ridiculous level of incompetence — our scores are still low, the kids have no recess, it’s just a big mess. It’s interesting that all of these issues are related to each other but are still very compartmentalized in the way that we approach them. And that’s what frustrating to me about not just our government, but also our movements, and that’s why I keep coming back to the Poor People’s Campaign — it’s one of the few places where all of these things are being kept together in conversation, with the idea that potentially there’s organizing that could happen around all that. You’re not going to find that in other places.
The port of New Orleans is in the center of ecological struggles, struggles against systemic racism, indigenous struggles and sovereignty issues, and environmental issues, and then the role of the state coming in and monopolizing resources for corporate interests or interests that aren’t for the people. I wonder if you could talk a bit about how indigenous communities are part of this broader movement and how connections are being made there?
The way things are right now, the oil companies won’t have to pay any property taxes for the next ten years. The easement on my land that was given was for ten dollars. Do you know how many millions of dollars is going to come from that land? It takes ten dollars from the owner. So this pipeline will go through a water source that provides drinking water for 300,000 people including the United Houma Nation, which has 17,000 members.
And also the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw people that live on Isle de Jean Charles are the first climate refugees in the nation, the first that are being moved due to climate change. These communities got pushed literally to the end of the earth in Louisiana [to escape the Indian Removal Act and the Trail of Tears in the 19th century]. They are losing their culture again, losing their sense of community, no longer on the water. Spirits are crushed. People can’t do what they grew up doing, they are no longer free.
When we talk about poverty and racism and environmental devastation, I think we often forget about the state and militarism piece, even though it’s deeply connected to the water struggles we are seeing break out. How does militarism play a role in these struggles and what do you think the link is between demilitarizing our society and the success of our movements?
I think militarism has been made a cultural thing where people think that it’s American, while it’s a part of toxic masculinity. The other issue that’s happening right now is that these oil companies are hiring outside private investigators, who have no responsibility to the taxpayer, but are able somehow to influence the police department. So the police departments are acting like an arm of the oil companies, by being moved by these investigators who are supposedly stopping terrorists. They almost consistently have some people following me around — my little boy recently came in and said, “Hey, I just want you to know an unmarked suburban just went by, turned around, took two pictures and left, but their windows were all dark so I couldn’t see who it was. But you know I haven’t seen one of them in awhile.” It made me laugh, because its become a normal experience for the children, that people would be doing that. They published this hit piece on me, they put out a video that I’m secretly rich, that I’m making all kinds of money.
The police departments are acting like an arm of the oil companies.
Yeah I saw that, it was terrible.
Yeah, I mean it was all lies. Then we came to find out that the same actor that was in this film, was in another film that had attacked an energy activist in Pennsylvania. The same actor, representing people in Louisiana and Pennsylvania.
Also, the KKK is pretty prominent around there, so if they look at that stuff and believe it to be real and go out and get a fucking gun and shoot me or attack my house, they do that thinking they’re saving Louisiana, because they really believe that the oil companies are doing good for the people. That’s the long and short of it. It’s militarism for sure, but it’s privatized militarism, and that’s not just oil either. There’s police brutality too, like Mr. White, who was killed in the back of a police truck with his hands cuffed behind his back, and they said he killed himself.
Do you feel like these attacks are getting worse?
Yeah, we did Alton Sterling protests out in Baton Rouge, and the police just attacked. The white folks stood in the front trying to protect us, and they took the white folks first, then they took the cameras, and the legal observers, and then when that was done and it was just the folks of color they beat the living hell out of us. At one point they were spraying us with mace while we were in our cell, we couldn’t get away, and nothing happened. And they get so much money, they are getting all this military equipment to potentially fight against citizens, and I have no idea why some of these small towns would potentially need an LRAD.
This thing about purchasing the plot of land to stop the pipeline from being built, it sounds like these creative communities are coming together. Are you seeing other examples of that as things get worse?
Our real goal, for the pipeline fight and for the land, is that at the end of this we’ll have created communities of space and multiplied the amount of people who are engaged and care about environmental injustice. That’s our goal — this land is really a space of just transition, because we plan on having a co-op garden, we plan on getting high school kids to build homemade solar panels just so they can get excited about it, and having elders come in to teach kids how to can, and it takes people into a just transition piece between where we’re at now and where we could be, sort of backwards and forwards. So that’s important.
There’s another group down here that started out in Alaska, but people are bringing them down here to try and teach oil workers how to take on these renewable energy jobs that we know are coming eventually. But that’s another other issue — we don’t want BP just to become a solar panel company, and continue to pay workers low money, and continue mining issues that hurt people somewhere else. That’s not helpful. So it’s about how we turn that power around and bring it back to the people, where it belongs.
That’s an important question you raise: how do build that power so everybody is part of that renewable energy future?
Yeah, that’s one thing we are hoping with youth, just as a model. What are we working on right now is a graphic novel, to show what just transition could look like, just to sew the seeds. And then we are having listening sessions, where we can work from there. That’s the base building stuff I like to do, to get out and talk to folks, usually in one-on-ones. You can give them the facts and explain things and they’ll get it. But it’s this group-mentality — I don’t know, times are different. There’s always been racism here, but things are changing here, too. I can see that we’ve recently had 700 people show up these hearings, in the past it’s just been me and the oil guys. So that’s been pretty powerful, people caring. The neighbor down the street came by and I was kinda nervous to tell him what I was doing and he was like “oh, thank God, we’re so sick of it.” They have five pipelines on their property and can’t get the companies to clean up their messes. So I am seeing a shift.
Would you mind sharing some of your background, and how you draw on your faith as you continue this work?
I’m Dine-Cherokee, and when people ask why I do this, there’s two reasons. I just want to be a really good ancestor, and also I’m looking back and realizing how indigenous people have always been the caretakers of this land. There is a prophecy about the 7th generation, how 7 generations from colonization, that generation will rise up, and people will come back to indigenous teachings and try to work from that natural way of life. We are seeing that happen with Standing Rock, so even if you are a young European-American and want to make things better, well, we’re going to be family, because that’s what that prophecy foretold, and those are the feelings we have in this movement.
I’m drawing on all of that to do what I consider is just — I’m the next drop in the bucket. This is my generation, this is what I do. Even my daughter is suing the federal government on an action about climate change — she’s only 14 years old, she started when she’s 12. I mean shoot, watch these kids go. Do what we can, then give it to them. They’re everything. As long as they have good water in their bodies and good air to breathe.
What were some of your key takeaways from Standing Rock that are relevant to the current struggle?
The thing they did everyday that I’m trying to get better at is reaching out everyday to different folks, from different actions, to support day-in and day-out stuff. We also learned a lot about how these oil companies do things, for instance with that hit video. That’s how they are handling things, and we all knew it was going to happen.
Part of our philosophy is that there will be two big snakes, one will be easier to kill than the other. So far, I’ve heard a lot of things about “the next Standing Rock”, but this ain’t one of them. Standing Rock was Standing Rock. There’s people still dealing with the law side of it, and there’s people who still live there, dang it. And Flint, look at poor Flint. I guess what I’m trying to say is that we can learn from Standing Rock, but we’re not Standing Rock. We have to act and move differently, because we are in a different region and a different context. We need more 1965 lunch counter and less Standing Rock, because they’ll just kill us.
What I learned from Standing Rock is that when people come together, they can make things happen. Men and women with vision, that’s what we need, and then they can give that vision to people so they know what they can reach for.
But we don’t have to be scared, the only reason you have to be scared is if you’re on your own. What I learned from Standing Rock is that when people come together, they can make things happen. Men and women with vision, that’s what we need, and then they can give that vision to people so they know what they can reach for. That’s what Dr. King did right, that’s what the dream was all about — he gave them a vision, and then people could move toward that.