Sunday, June 24, 2007

Day Three: People's Caravan grows in size and energy

The size of the caravan doubled today, with an additional bus added in San Antonio and another bus in Houston. When we got off the buses in downtown New Orleans this evening caravan riders filled the hotel lobby and spilled out into the street.

In Hartman Park, Houston, the caravan stopped to have a barbeque prepared by local organizers.

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The park is adjacent to the Valero plant, which was spewing smoke and flaring off gases as we arrived.

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Once again, we heard stories of people suffering from the effects of pollution. This family lives in the neighborhood of the plant, and believes the reason their son required open-heart surgery was the impacts of the pollution.

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Hilton Kelley of Port Arthur, Texas, told of a victory over attempts to truck highly toxic chemicals into his town.

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You can hear his brief comments here, along with his note of appreciation for the help he received. It's working together that allowed us to win, he said.

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Mike Espinoza told the crowd about the victories of janitors to win the right to organize -- and the higher wages that resulted

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Then it was off to the Martin Luther King Center in Lake Charles, Louisiana, where the group heard again from local activists.

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Grace Bauer (left) spoke of the 2000 young people who were locked away in Louisiana prisons in 2001. The Families of Louisiana's Incarcerated Children pressed for legislation that cut that number to 500 and resulted in the closure of a notorious private prison for kids, Tallulah.

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"We learned that alone we are powerless, but working together we were able to close down a prison," she said. "We are proud to be part of the struggle for a better world -- for funding schools not prisons, for clean air and water."

"We may be miles apart, but when we go back to our own work, we'll be able to see your faces and to know that a better world is possible."

I asked her why she is planning to attend the US Social Forum's "Family Reunion for families of Incarcerated."

"There was a time when I was so alone," Bauer said. "Church and family turned their backs on us because our son was in jail."

When I see all those folks gathered it will be a vindication." Bauer's 20-year-old son has just completed serving three years in prison and is struggling to get back on his feet. "I want him to see that others are making it" she said.

Environmental issues are front and center for people in Lake Charles as they have been at every stop along the trip.

Dorthy Felix (right in photo above) of the Mossville Environmental Action Now, INC. (MEAN) spoke of the dioxin and other toxic chemicals that are sickening residents resulting from nearby chemical and vinyl facilities, and oil refineries. "We have so much sickness, so much cancer here."

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Local, state and federal inaction has led this group to seek help from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Caravan participants lined up to sign a petition to the IACHR.

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Even at just a few hundred, the caravan is starting to have a presence. When four buses, a van, several cars pull up and people begin pouring off the buses, those waiting are drawn into a tapestry of peoples and struggles from across the southwest and the south.

For many who feel powerless in the face of the huge corporate polluters or the less visible, but also sickening, effects of racism and exclusion, the caravan functions like a social forum on wheels. The dots are connected. Friendships are made. Each person understands the world and their place it in more richly. The work ahead seems less daunting.

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