Transcript: Podship Earth Episode 023: Faces of Resistance

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Welcome to Podship Earth. This is your host, Jared Blumenfeld. Since November 2016, the word resistance has gained a lot of traction. From bumper stickers to graffiti, we are told to resist. Resisting literally means a refusal to accept or comply with something or to prevent something by action or argument. I don't want to be a downer, but it doesn't appear that the resistance is being that effective. Yes, we may win some elections. We may even take back the House of Representatives in November, but in order to get the ecosystem back in balance, we need to switch into a higher gear. This week I talked with Marie Harrison and Ray Leon.  Marie and Ray know how to resist. Each and every day they fight for their communities and win. Let's start with Marie, who I've been in awe of for more than 20 years.  Marie organized mothers, old folk, and everyday residents to successfully close down the Hunters Point Power Plant in San Francisco back in 2006. Marie works in the Bayview Community of San Francisco. During World War Two, the navy recruited African Americans from across the country to come to work at the shipyard. As a result, the Bayview has been a predominantly black community for decades. The Naval Radiological Defense Laboratory operated on the shipyard until the 1960’s. Its toxic legacy continues today with soil and water contaminated with pesticides, heavy metals, PCBs, volatile organic compounds, and radionuclides. The site was put on the EPA superfund list back in 1989 and hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent to clean it up. The Bayview community asked Marie and her organization Green Action to help make sure that the cleanup was done properly. Marie always knew that something wasn't quite right. She told everyone that would listen, but few would believe the testimony of a resident against the word of hundreds of engineers, lawyers, and environmental experts. This spring, the lid blew off one of the biggest eco-conspiracies ever. 

 

NEWS REPORTER: We are here tonight about one of the most valuable pieces of open land in San Francisco. The Hunters Point Shipyard. At some point it will be developed into housing, but not until the radiation has been cleaned up. The company hired to clean it up may have falsified results. Navy officials found nearly 50 percent of that data was inconsistent. A lot of it likely fraudulent, but according to the EPA, that number is closer to 100 percent. Cleanup has been on hold for the past few years as the EPA investigated potential scandal. Now, new documents reveal that as much as 97 percent of the cleanup data is unreliable and must be retested. It is a charged escalation of the firestorm surrounding the city’s redevelopment of the shipyard. A project now on hold as the city tries to figure out exactly what is or is not in the Hunter's Point soil, now that two Tetra tech employees have pled guilty to falsifying their test results.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And it turns out this is nothing new. 

 

NEWS REPORTER: In 2000, a long burning toxic fire sparked outrage from Bayview residents.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Marie, you have a very long history with Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. What was the community like back in the day? 

 

MARIE HARRISON: Well, for years on top of years, Navy’s Hunters Point was kind of forgotten. We were off in the southeast sector in a corner and nobody wanted to live there. I mean going back as far as the days when I can remember when they used to run cattle down the street. I can remember when the shrimp boats used to pull up into the banks there and you could go down and buy whatever fish, whatever shrimp you wanted. One of the first jobs I worked, Jared, was at the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard. I worked for the Navy. I was a civilian. I was a file clerk specialist. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Working at the shipyard, did you have a sense of the scale of the environmental issues? 

MARIE HARRISON: It was very interesting. I was very dumb because I didn't realize that all the things that they were sandblasting off of these big old drums that they took off the ships and out the submarines, they would lift these huge things out and just sandblast.  I didn't realize that that was asbestos, and it would get all in my hair. The only place during those days that we could buy homes was in Bayview. I remember when my dad worked out at the shipyard and he made such good money. He was able to put money aside for me to go to college. It was what I considered a real community because people used to stop you on the street and say, hello, good morning, good afternoon. How you doing? You know, and people that you knew. You always greeted them with a hug and a kiss and you know, make sure you tell your mom, I saw you and blah, blah, blah, whatever. You know, I guess after the shipyard shut down and not realizing the kind of damage that was left behind, the dangers and the damage that was being done to the community as well as the men and women who worked there. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: How about the higher ups in the Navy? Do you think they knew what was going on? 

 

MARIE HARRISON: You have to wonder, did they know all along? I believe they did know all along. I believe it because I worked there. I believe it

because I have watched people in my community not even grow old and get sick, but people get sick and die. And on many occasions, a lot of those folks lost those homes. It was kind of like a throwaway community. Bayview is still the only place in San Francisco where both major freeways get you both ways coming and going, and then the train tracks. A commuter train as well as what we used to call the old workhorse. You know, that's the one that hauled all the garbage stuff away, but it came right through Bayview, right through our community. It's a black community, who really cares? Until it became obvious that Bayview was the last hurrah for San Francisco. If you look around San Francisco, you will notice that there's no place else to do any real, but you might buy an old building and gut it or rebuild it from the ground, but it's in that one little tiny spot. But there is room to spread out in Bayview still. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: it’s like a gold rush though. 

 

MARIE HARRISON: It is, but we're not invited to the gold rush and that's unfortunate. That is terrible.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: How does that make you feel? 

 

MARIE HARRISON: Well, I've got to be honest with you. It feels used, like I was used.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Why were you such a threat to these billion-dollar corporations?

 

MARIE HARRISON: The mothers and fathers committee that I worked with, we used to do this watch. You're supposed to be watering. We’re would

take pictures of you if you weren't, count how many trucks went through. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I remember, you'd come, and you'd present the decision makers and you'd say they weren’t watering, they weren't doing this work. And then people would just say, “Marie, you're lying. We do all the great work. Why is this person trying to make us- “

 

MARIE HARRISON: I had one woman stand and look me in the face - you know, the one thing I do resent is for you to look me in the face and calling me a liar. You can say anything you want to say to me or about me. But do not call me a liar. And you’re going to sit here and tell me why you are saying I was lying. And she told me after the meeting, look, I have to keep my job and it's not personal Marie, but you guys just won't give up. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: But it now turns out, right, in the newspapers that a lot of what you were saying -

 

MARIE HARRISON: Not just a lot.  Everything, everything that we, every issue that we rose. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Tell us about some of the large contractors what they’ve been up to. 

 

MARIE HARRISON: Well, let's start off with the beginning. The first lie was that they were monitoring all of the dust and the air coming off of the

shipyard and during all the heavy grading. It was a lie. When we're putting monitors in the community, we discovered that none of the community monitors - it was an empty box! It had no workings in it. Lie number two, we're all out here screaming that this stuff is coming over the fence line and you're saying that you have permission from the community to allow radioactive dust coming over the fence into the home. No, somebody needs to tell me when this happened and who these people were. I never got the information and our health department literally was helping them out with the lie and they turned the health department out on the community in force, walking, knocking on door to door of all the houses around, up on top of the hill to tell folks that there is a group of people out here, there's they're just trying to incite a riot there. This little short black lady. And I said, well hell, I'm the only little short black lady I know that's trying to make you do what you're supposed to be doing. While they never use my name, I assumed it was me. There were a couple of EPA workers who truly, truly needed to lose their jobs. And I mean they needed to lose him in the worst kind of way. There was no actual going out sampling anything. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, what's the lesson, Marie? You've been in the frontline. You've sat in thousands of community meetings. You've had people lie to your face, you see that people want to speed things up to make more money. You've seen the community that's been disenfranchised and they're now selling those condos in the communities that you used to live in for a million dollars to people who never even heard of the shipyard. Like what does it make you think? 

 

MARIE HARRISON: Oh my god, it's not just Bayview, it's not just in one black community. Do you realize that the kind of thing that we were going through - the disbelief, just straight out lying to your face about your wellbeing and your health and your children's wellbeing no matter how many times you could prove that you yourself or your children have had to go backwards and forth to the doctors, no matter how many of our children were brought right to the brink of death and died. Every community. I visited six. One in Washington. That's Washington, DC, the capital, and they're all the same. It's like you can't tell me that every poor black community in the United States in this whole big old place are going through the same things and with the same agencies. It makes no sense. It is mind boggling that we could do that. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So how do you keep faith? 

 

MARIE HARRISON: Oh god. Well, first of all, this is a fight. I mean, it's literally - they say take it out to the street. This has become literally one of those kinds of battles. We literally have to take them out to the street. And to remember, it doesn't matter how tired, how disappointed you are, maybe everything Is saying, being said to you as being said by lying and cheating, and there's always a no at the end of that, you have to remember that is more than just your neighbor's life or their children's lives. It's actually your life. With me, it was not only my life and my wellbeing, it was my grandchildren. I have a grandson who, boy, by the time he was four, was having such horrible asthma episodes. I literally was told to lift him up and move him out of the community. It's crazy.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: It is crazy. I've been in meetings where lawyers, scientists, consultants, who are paid lots of money, and it's all of them versus Marie.

 

MARIE HARRISON: My mother taught me once that if you don't think enough of yourself, nobody else is going to. And I’ve always believed, if I know deep within myself that I am right, you have to prove me wrong. I was born in Missouri, so you got to show me, and you got to convince me. And I always felt like if I could get five good minutes worth of conversation in there, I got you. You may not want to be gotten, but I got you. And, I would look at some of these, especially the engineers that they used to bring to our meeting, used to tickle me. Finally, one told me, says, I just want to let you know that I don't believe at all that you're not an engineer because you just have too much information. I says, well, I do my homework. And you know, bullshit, it's just like I have a bullshit meter. I'm a mother and a grandmother. I don't have anything else to lose. Somebody is got to say no and plant their feet firmly on solid ground. And what I discovered is that it's going to take a mother. It's no disrespect toward men and it's no disrespect toward their engineering degree. I don't have a PHD or MD, none of that, but I have a bullshit meter and he just kind of looked at me and went, I don't believe –

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: You’ve got a very sensitive bullshit meter. 

 

MARIE HARRISON: So, the one thing that I like to do, especially with young folks, is to press really hard on the fact that this is not so much about me because I'll be gone by the time this thing finally gets totally cleaned up. And cleaned up right. I'll be gone. It's going to be up to you, somebody a

whole lot younger and a whole lot smarter. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, San Francisco prides itself and the rest of the nation sees it as very progressive, very forward leaning. How could this happen in San Francisco? 

 

MARIE HARRISON: You're not going to like it, but San Francisco is now, and until they wake up, will always be one of the most racist cities in the whole of the United States. Anytime a liberal person can look me in the face and go, oh Marie, how can you live over there with those people and not realize what you have said and who you've said it to, is like, I have to bite my tongue and say, excuse me, honey, I'm one of those people. Well, uh, uh, and you know what? I'm not even mad at you because San Francisco raises communities of liberal folks who don't really know the difference. You don't know what racism truly is. Not just environmental racism, but you don't know what racism period is. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: What does it mean when people talk about environmental racism? 

 

MARIE HARRISON:                    It's not a hard thing to explain, but I've discovered that it's a hard thing for a lot of people to wrap their brains around and until you walk, as they say, a mile in my shoes…. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: A lot of people have heard about the environment movement. They've heard about the civil rights and the justice movement. Explain how these things came together. 

 

MARIE HARRISON: Well, first and foremost, do you realize that you can’t have one without the other? They're all interlocked. And you need to throw in social justice there. You can have social justice without environmental justice. Human rights comes right back around that circle. They all kind of join hand in hand. I know people try to separate them. When I came on about 20, maybe 21 years ago with Green Action, my job was to connect the dots for the communities.  You know, for the people who didn't have PHDs behind their names and all those wonderful things. And it is amazing how smart people are about their lives and what's going on around them if you listen. So I had to learn not only how to listen, but how to connect those dots. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: If this was TV, people would notice that you've got to breathe oxygen through a tube. 

 

MARIE HARRISON: Yeah. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And you had to leave San Francisco for health reasons. You're just recovering. 

 

MARIE HARRISON: My doctor had said to me you've worked from San Diego all the way to Sacramento at different communities and different toxic sites. How could we place blame on any one of them because all of them are going to have something to do with what's going on with you. So, I don't know how to name this. I've gone past the what it is and why it is. It happened. Evidently doing my work in my lifetime, I've placed myself in harm’s way. It to me will be all worth it if it saves one life. I honestly believe that anything that I'm going through now, if it by chance can save a life, and who knows Jared, it might even end up being one of my children or my grandchildren. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I think you've already saved many lives just knocking down Hunters Point power plant. The pollution that came from that year after year after year, you’re one person that helped and that that was you, Marie. You're my hero. 

 

MARIE HARRISON: Oh, thank you. I like being somebody's hero. 

 

NEWS: Live breaking news. Just a short time ago, ICE confirmed to ABC seven news that it’s arrested more than 150 people in northern California since Sunday as part of a targeted immigration operation. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: We traveled from the richest city in California to the state's poorest community, Huron, a town that's 98 percent Latino to meet up with Ray Leon, an environmental justice advocate, who is now the town's mayor. Ray was born in Fresno and Is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley. He's the founder and executive director of the Latino Environmental Advancement and Policy Project and Ray is one of the few people I've met who actually has amped it up since going into politics. As I drove into the town, it says the population is 7,000. How many people do actually think living here in reality?

 

RAY LEON: Last time that the census was going on, there were raids going on, which inhibited many families from participating because this is an agricultural city.  And what that means is that the fact and the reality is, that agriculture cannot function without immigrant labor. And Huron is a strong representative of that immigrant labor and therefore we are a good 98.7 percent Latino. But many of the families would say that they're not Latino but say even that they're not Mexicano because they are indigenous from Mesoamerica and of the people that are in our community, at least 12 languages are spoken, four of which are Spanish, English, Yemenis and Punjabi. The other eight plus are Mesoamerican indigenous languages that include Mayan. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And you hear with all the crackdowns and anti-immigrant sentiment coming from Washington, DC, that seems to send chills through communities like this. 

 

RAY LEON: It does. And so, the argument is why are they hitting areas where there's productive immigrants that aren't criminals? And if supposedly it's criminals that they are after, why don't they go and take them out from the prison where you usually find criminals, right? One of our mayors from our county says the mayor of Parlier, she works at the Avondale state prison. And she says, well, we have guys that I've been waiting to be deported and are anxious to be deported for a very long time. But then they haven't deported them. Yet they'll go to a company where there Is a productive, hardworking father of a family, and they could get them out instantaneously. A few days ago, there was a team coming out of Fresno county taking on a warrants, probation warrants, and the companies that have been hit by ICE. Even if it's not true, just the fear of it, you know, possibly occurring, people don't go out, don't shop, don't put gas in their car, don't drive. And so, If they're not going to work, and that's a impact on the employer, right? 

 

COUSIN DAVID: So how did they vote for the 2016 election? 

RAY LEON: They were tooth and nail supporting Trump. So as mayor, we're talking about the poorest city in the state of California having to pay a $40 a month, for maybe like 6,000 gallons of water. And, and if it's a big family, it's going to be that much tougher. It’s another disproportionate impact. This is a community that has been producing a great deal for the state of California. You know, just like all the other farmworker cities, there's no reason why a farm worker community that works hard gets paid minimum wage, gets no pension plan, no other benefits, don’t have access to the resources where they could at least be able to drink clean water.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, I noticed in the store though, that there's a lot of bottled water. Do people feel like the water really isn't safe coming out of the faucet? 

 

RAY LEON: That's what's happening. There's a water filtration system near the bank that everyday there's people filling up five-gallon containers. 

JARED BLUMENFELD: You are the mayor for the poorest city in California. Do you feel forgotten? 

 

RAY LEON: Definitely, definitely. You know, it's really sad because, you know, even though we're the poorest, we're not the town with the highest unemployment rate. And so, what does that tell you? That the industry is just not providing the living wages should be, right? And that's one of the reasons I feel very strongly that we should diversify our economy so that it's not just ag, because when there's a drought, ag is hit hard and that means everybody's hit hard. If it was diverse, just like any other ecosystem, then there's more resiliency. There would be economic resiliency in this case. Right?

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: So, what kinds of things are you looking at? 

RAY LEON: One thing that I think would be a good idea, you know, battery technology, right? To be able to have the capacity that we will need for our new electric powered vehicles. Why not have something of that sort here where it's blue collar jobs, it's going to require a white collar jobs. People in the lab. And we could work, you know, we got kids that go to break, we got kids to go that go to Stanford. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: You went to Berkeley. 

 

RAY LEON: I did. And I'm not the only one, you know, and we got kids that go off to get an education, but they don't come back because there's nothing here for them. So part of what I'm doing is to try to enhance quality of life in the community in terms of the infrastructure to bring in a multimodal culturally relevant pedestrian refuge where you could go and charge your electric vehicle, hang out and see your relatives, your friends, you know, kick back and have it where it's relevant, purposeful and intentionally engaging to get our kids to build identity in a positive way. Because if we don't have the youth programs to do that, then we're going to see more gangs. We're going to see more shootings, you know, and we have been forgotten because we don't have those resources and the institutions that are meant to be able to provide us those opportunities of developing those assets have been in attentive. Now, I'm hoping it will be in a renewable technology, something that empowers the clean energy movement at the state of California is bolstering and has been highlighting and has been identified for doing just that on the global scale. And I’m with that, that's my movement. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: And are you still running your nonprofit LEAP? 

RAY LEON: LatIno Equity Advocacy and Policy institute. So, it essentially as a rural ride sharing program with electric vehicles or those that don't have electric vehicles will work with them to get electric vehicles. And the drivers are retired farm workers that have no pension plan. You know, a lot of times retired farmer workers, their bodies are broken. We're trying to set it up to where we reduce the cost to the families in our community that need to go to the doctor's appointment and to be able to get there timely and from door to door and not have to pay $100. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: That's such a cool Idea Ray. As mayor, how are you defining your priorities?

 

RAY LEON: We don't like doing stuff from the top down, you know, so a lot of things that we've done around here even before I was mayor, is bringing in the families and identifying the problems, and also identifying solutions. We engaged over 100 farm worker families. So, all those projects that they identified, one of them is a plaza, which I'm working hard on. Bicycling infrastructure, which I'm working hard on, the roundabout, which we've submitted for. Last year, I ordered non-GMO sweet white corn because in our culture, Chicano, one of our traditional foods of are gastronomic universe are sweet corn tamales, fresh sweet corn tamales. You know, you just grind the corn and you do the process as you would a tamale. And they’re sweet. They can be white, they could be yellow, but they're sweet and you eat them with salsa. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: I love them. 

 

RAY LEON: Hot salsa, like fire salsa, and with a hot coffee. And so, the sweet with fire and the hot coffee, it's like it's a divine experience that’s just out of this world. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: One of the ironies of being in the middle of the San Joaquin Valley with all the farm workers that pick the food that ends up on our plates is there's not a lot of fresh food in this town. It's hard to get the food that they pick. 

 

RAY LEON: And we got a bunch of markets. But what I noticed that in the markets, they have a lot of high fructose corn syrup canned foods. A lot of

them, a lot of it is like, like, I don't know, it just seems kind of crazy that there's that much in there, you know. What we need is a community garden. I think what we're doing here is building the base for something bigger soon within the community. We have huge assets. I think this is a first step, but I could see at some point getting a larger plot with the hands in the soil and connected to mother earth. We shouldn't be held hostage by the industry. We should learn how to be more self-sustaining and empower the communalism that lot of our cultures, the roots of our cultures - you know, communalism is a strong part of our tradition, but the whole process of trying to modernize the indigenous population has stripped many of that virtue and then it makes us slaves to a market, right? And so, we got to re-embrace our roots and there’s a phrase in Spanish that means “Your culture cures.” And what we've inherited is awesome gastronomy that is not just food, it's medicine. It's not McDonald's, it's not Burger King, it's not all these things that have been increasing diabetes and cholesterol. You know, when you stick to what your DNA is familiar with, then you're going to be healthy. Way healthier. We just got to come to the realization that the people from this continent, we're very sustainable, very resilient from the very beginning, and the diversity is really important, and the respect of that diversity and we can learn much from each other.

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Thank you, Mayor Ray. 

 

RAY LEON: Thank you very much. Thank you for your trip down here to the heart of the valley and I hope you guys love the tacos. 

 

JARED BLUMENFELD: Thank you to Marie Harrison and Mayor Ray Leon for just being themselves. I left hanging out with both Ray and Marie ready to take on the next challenge. No matter what it is, Marie and Ray share a few traits and resistance practices that we can all learn from. They start by listening to the needs of community and they continually check back in with the residents to find out if they’re on the right track. They identify key decisions and the decision makers at every level of government that can affect the future of the community interests. They do their homework. They often know more about the issues than the highly paid experts. They investigate finding out facts that corporate polluters would rather keep hidden. They use the media, they know the journalists and they know how to give a good soundbite. And also, they collaborate; they look for partners everywhere they can find them, and they're tenacious. They never, ever give up. And finally, they just genuinely love what they do. Next week I get to do what I love doing, climbing Mount Shasta and fly fishing with my son Markus. The ice axes and crampons are ready. If you have time, please like Podship Earth on Facebook. Thank you so much for being part of the journey. From the entire Podship Earth crew, sound engineer Rob Spate, Producer Nancy Ferranti, executive producer David Kahn, and me, Jared Blumenfeld, have a fabulous week.