A Lot of Nerve
September 25, 2007, 9:35 pm
Filed under: Environmental Justice

The Texas Observer


A Lot of Nerve
The Army’s deadly VX waste is burning in Port Arthur


Once again an impoverished Texas neighborhood, in this case in the town of Port Arthur, has become the disposal point for hazardous waste, only this time the waste is potentially so lethal that a drop the size of a pinhead can kill.

A chemical-weapons facility in Indiana is destroying obsolete weapons containing VX nerve agent, producing caustic wastewater that the Army is shipping to Veolia Environmental Services for incineration. The Army has claimed the waste is no more dangerous than kitchen cleaners. But when environmental scientists began looking at the disposal process, they found scary scenarios. The “neutralized” waste still contains some VX, and the incinerators might not destroy all of it. There are no monitors on the incinerator smokestacks to sound the alert if it isn’t eliminated. And VX components in the water could reconstitute in shipping tanks under certain conditions, endangering lives along the transportation route.

Several environmental groups, including Texas Sierra Club, the Chemical Weapons Working Group, Community In-Power Development Association of Port Arthur, and individuals in Indiana and Port Arthur are trying to stop the shipments. They filed a notice of intent to sue, and the Army volunteered to halt shipping until the issue was heard in court in mid-July. Despite the admission by an Army representative under oath that VX nerve agent is present in the wastewater, a federal judge in Indiana ruled in August that the shipments to Port Arthur could continue. Environmentalists plan to appeal the decision.

Meanwhile, the groups gathered in Austin on August 23 to urge that regulators halt the shipments administratively. A spokesperson told the Associated Press later in the day that state regulators had assured Gov. Rick Perry the incineration isn’t “endangering public health or the environment.” Nonetheless, after reading about the waste shipments in the media, the EPA’s Environmental Justice Division has started to look into the matter.

The court case is the latest chapter in the long and tortured saga of the Army’s attempts to shed large quantities of extraordinarily dangerous chemical weapons, many of which became obsolete almost as soon as they were produced.

The Army has been trying to dispose of VX for decades by various means in various locations. Some was incinerated on remote Johnston Island in the Pacific, where the army documented the unintentional release of nerve agents after incomplete burning. The U.S. signed the international Chemical Weapons Convention in 1997, bringing a new timetable and sense of urgency to VX disposal. Most recently, the Army tried to ship the processed waste, known as hydrolysate, to Ohio, and then New Jersey. In Ohio, citizen groups opposed the shipments. In New Jersey, the Army insisted the waste was safe enough to be dumped into rivers—until a study by the EPA revealed the waste could harm aquatic life. After public uproars, both states rejected the disposal plans. Citing “lessons learned” in a candid admission by an Army spokesman that a new approach to disposal was needed, the Army tried a new tack: stealth.

In spite of existing law requiring notification and input from affected communities, the Army decided to forgo public notice this time. Informing few besides the mayor of Port Arthur, who didn’t tell his constituents, the Army inked a contract with Veolia Environmental Services for $49 million and began trucking VX residue through eight states to Port Arthur. Veolia is a unit of Paris-based conglomerate Veolia Environnement SA.

It wasn’t long before community activists and environmental groups in Indiana and Texas sniffed out the gambit. Whistleblowers inside the Army’s Newport Chemical Agent Disposal Facility alerted the Chemical Weapons Working Group that the waste was on the move.

“This was the most covert, underhanded approach to disposal in the history of the disposal program,” says Craig Williams, executive director of the group, which has tracked chemical weapons and their disposal for about 20 years.

Hilton Kelley, an activist and executive director of the in-power association in Port Arthur, says, “Port Arthur is surrounded by chemical plants and is one of the poorest and most polluted communities in America. This VX waste is yet another threat to the people here who have to live with this every day.”

West Port Arthur wears a brilliant necklace at night, but there is nothing glamorous about it. Glaring, unremitting illumination from tank farms, gushing smokestacks, and bizarre, malignant-looking containment vessels from 72 chemical plants and refineries virtually surround the town. With a few exceptions, such as one bank and City Hall, downtown Port Arthur is an urban wasteland. Rows of slattern, abandoned storefronts slowly are disintegrating. At midday during the week, there are few cars and almost no pedestrians. Out in the neighborhoods, sagging houses gape open to expose weeds growing inside. Anybody with the means has fled the pollution, grime, and mind-numbing ugliness for “ABH,” anyplace but here.

The whites who stayed have mostly abandoned the west end of town, leaving it to blacks and Hispanics who are among the poorest in the state. Port Arthur consistently places among the top 10 most-polluted areas in the country. Politicians and activists often speak of environmental justice, which in Port Arthur means the tendency of heavy and especially polluting industries to locate in poor neighborhoods, as an abstract social problem. But here is the stark face of it—a dirty, derelict community with an air of disease and morbidity.

A 2003 survey by researchers from the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston found that people in the Beaumont-Port Arthur area had more disease, particularly respiratory; ear, nose, and throat; and skin conditions, than people in the Galveston area. Anecdotes abound among Port Arthur residents about friends and relatives who died early because of cancer or respiratory disease.

Kelley, 47, says several of his classmates either have cancer or died young.

“When they told me that Veolia does not have a monitor for VX on its stack or any community ambient air monitors, I just could not believe it,” he says. “How could they not have them? It’s disgusting to know that all across America, when you mention Port Arthur, Texas, that it’s considered the toxic dump site of North America. It’s disgusting to know people are turning their backs on little children and old people and letting them stew in toxic waste.”

Outraged by the secretive deal cut by Port Arthur Mayor Oscar Ortiz, Kelley accused him of being “willing to sacrifice people’s health, especially poor black people’s health, for the property taxes these companies are paying.”

Ortiz, who had not read the details of the environmentalist lawsuit at the time, told the Observer, “It’s just wastewater, pure and simple. Hilton Kelley is a clown and a loser just trying to get attention for himself, and Sierra Club is a bunch of environmental wackos.”

The argument over whether the waste is dangerous has its roots in rival interpretations of testing done to detect VX in the end product of the neutralization process. Sodium hydrochloride is added to the VX, and the mix is agitated for several hours. The result is a caustic solution supposedly free of VX. After the revelation that nerve-agent waste was being incinerated near Port Arthur, Veolia attempted to soothe local nerves by taking Jefferson County commissioners, a Beaumont reporter, and others to the disposal facility in Indiana, where they watched waste being tested for VX. None was found. Hence, said the Army and Veolia, no problem.

“Its just wastewater,” says Dan Duncan, health, safety, and environmental manager at the Veolia incinerator.

Yet a recent study of the new testing method used to detect VX was found to be unreliable. The 2007 study, by the Army’s own Edgewood Chemical and Biological Center, recommended discontinuing its use. Maybe it’s not just wastewater.

The study did not surprise Michael Sommer, an environmental chemist, former University of Chicago professor, and consultant in forensic environmental chemistry.

“The problem is with the analysis,” Sommer says. “This isn’t just a homogenous liquid. It has a solid layer and an organic layer. They only test in the inorganic phase. VX can re-form in the organic phase. Think of, say, olive oil and water. The oil floats on the top. When you stick a probe into the middle, you aren’t finding everything that’s in there. In my opinion they the Army don’t use acceptable testing methods. Plus, they are only testing for two chemicals, VX and another almost as toxic, EA 2192. The neutralization process results in many chemicals that are extremely toxic. I don’t think they even know what all is in it.”

In spite of unknowns about the composition of the waste, the Army and Veolia have repeatedly said no VX could re-form after neutralization.

Not so, says Sommer.

“The question is no longer whether there is VX in the waste. It is how dangerous is it, and most importantly, could the VX potentially re-form in its storage tanks? The troubling fact is that VX can re-form under certain circumstances, such as lowered pH, and that’s not just my opinion. The National Research Council has studied the problem and noted the potential for re-formation, but the Army has not adequately researched this scenario. We just know what the Army has told us, and that isn’t much. But we do know that a change from very high pH to a lower or neutral pH creates the possibility of recombination to re-form VX at significant concentrations.”

Another flash point for critics of VX incineration is the lack of VX monitors on the smokestack of the incinerator, or ambient air monitors in the community.

“We don’t need them,” says Veolia’s Duncan. “We don’t do continuous monitoring of individual hazardous wastes. We monitor the emission of things like carbon monoxide and dioxide, and that tells us how well the incinerator is working. Monitoring for VX would be a waste of money.”

Of all the objections made about the VX waste incineration, the monitoring issue has been perhaps the most contentious and emotional.

Neil Carman, a former air pollution expert with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, now works for the Sierra Club. In a court document, he calls the absence of VX monitors “unconscionable” and “especially egregious.”

Carman knows his hazardous-waste incinerators. As an inspector for the state of Texas, he has reported on them, studied them, and climbed all over them, including the type of rotary kilns used at Veolia.

“Veolia could be putting out VX into the atmosphere and not even know, or maybe even want to know it. These incinerators are not 100 percent efficient. They are more like cheap pay toilets,” Carmen says. “Trace concentrations of a broad array of chemicals are frequently detected during periodic incinerator stack tests. In fact, even under permitted, normal operating conditions, Veolia is putting out a significant, harmful amount of emissions.”

Veolia’s incinerator reports more kinds of toxic emissions than refineries, chemical plants, and other industrial facilities report in most years. In 2002, for example, EPA reports show that Veolia released 17,828 pounds of stack and fugitive emissions into the air. The stuff that incinerators put out is mind-bogglingly bad. And that tally doesn’t include smog-producing emissions reported to TCEQ under a separate monitoring system.

“This is a very messy business and a very messy company, and that is just routine operations,” Carman says. Mechanical breakdowns or “upsets” that are common problems with incinerators, he says, release even more toxics into Port Arthur’s atmosphere.

Veolia’s compliance records at TCEQ reveal an extensive list of violations. Since 2002, when the company was known as Onyx Environmental Services, Veolia has been served 67 violation notices and assessed with $57,920 in fines. The company actually paid $24,128 after negotiating the fines down.

Other Veolia incineration plants around the country have had serious problems with mechanical breakdowns and unpermitted releases of pollution.

“It’s ironic and tragic that all this concern over the danger from this stuff is not even necessary,” says Williams of the Chemical Weapons Working Group. “There’s a better way to get rid of it. It’s called supercritical water oxidation. It’s a secondary treatment for the waste that reduces the leftover VX to the vanishing point. The problem is that it will cost them more, and they don’t want to spend the money. I guess they just would rather put people at risk, especially those poor folks in Port Arthur.”

Rusty Middleton is a freelance journalist who has written widely on natural resource and environmental topics.


It’s not just about blacks: Injustice bigger than Jena
September 25, 2007, 5:41 pm
Filed under: Blogroll

Sept. 24, 2007, 8:14PM
It’s not just about blacks: Injustice bigger than Jena

We black Americans seem to need a major event or outrage every so often to revive our mass energies in ways that remind of us the 1960s civil rights movement. In the 1980s we had mass arrests at the South African embassy to protest apartheid. In the 1990s there was the Million Man March to redeem black fatherhood and proper role modeling. In 2007 we have the “Jena Six.”

Thousands flowed into tiny Jena, La., last week. They came to march on behalf of six black youths who were originally charged with attempted murder for allegedly beating up a white youth last December at the local high school in what many describe as a schoolyard fight.

The “Jena Six” case actually began months earlier when three nooses appeared in a tree at the high school. That was one day after black students defied a school tradition that designated the tree to be a whites-only gathering spot. The principal expelled three white students for hanging the nooses, but the school superintendent reduced the expulsions to a few days of suspension.

Tensions grew as various interracial fights, attacks and angry confrontations, mostly off-campus, in later weeks resulted in young white males receiving slaps on the wrist, at most, while young blacks received school expulsions or criminal charges.

It was the local district attorney’s decision to charge six black students with attempted second-degree murder, while white students had gone free for other attacks, that touched off the national uproar. The white student who was beaten allegedly taunted blacks with racial slurs and was a friend of the students who had hung the nooses. He was treated and released after a few hours in a local hospital.

I don’t make light of anyone’s beating, but the attempted murder charge was an excess wretched enough to be a virtual invitation to the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, who led the march with Martin Luther King III.

Suddenly little Jena became a symbol in many minds of every injustice or racial grievance, real or perceived, that black folks have endured in recent years, from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to the gross disparities between federal sentences for crack and powder cocaine.

The Jena Six put real names and faces to Justice Department statistics that show African-American men to be three times more likely than white men to face jail once they have been arrested. The biggest disparity is among men convicted of aggravated assault, according to the National Urban League’s annual State of Black America report. It found that black men are sentenced to an average of 48 months in jail — almost one-third longer than the average sentence received by white men.

But now that the crowds have gone home and Jena is once again a quiet little oil and lumber town, will the big march have lasting significance, like the movement that helped end apartheid and free Nelson Mandela? Or will it be like the Million Man March: a stirring memory and a great applause line for political speeches, but not much follow-through?

It was the bad fortune of the Jena Six demonstrators that they had to share the spotlight with another media eruption, the latest misadventures of O.J. Simpson. Charged with armed robbery in Las Vegas for allegedly trying to steal memorabilia from his own glory days, Simpson needed no help from bloggers or talk shows to get wall-to-wall coverage.

Simpson returned to TV screens like a cheap sequel to a movie you’d rather forget. He reminds us of one of America’s most racially divided moments. Simpson’s acquittal of double homicide charges gave white Americans a shock that their black friends, neighbors and co-workers have been long acquainted with, the chilling sense of denied justice. And for black Americans with an eye for bitter irony, Simpson’s acquittal showed a strange form of progress, at best: America had progressed enough to let a rich black man buy his way out of accountability in the way once reserved for rich white men.

But that’s not a good enough standard of justice for a great people or a great country. As demonstrated by the Rev. Al Sharpton’s fiasco with Tawana Brawley or the recent bogus Duke University rape case, unequal justice doesn’t always tilt against black folks or Latinos. We simply have been statistically more vulnerable to it.

In this increasingly diverse country, Americans should not have to spend another century playing one-downs-manship, competing to see whose race or ethnic group can be the most victimized. The best legacy for the Jena Six march would be a new movement, dedicated this time to the reduction and elimination of unequal justice wherever it appears. I don’t care who leads it, but it shouldn’t be for blacks only.

Page is a Pulitzer Prize-winning syndicated columnist specializing in urban issues. He is based in Washington, D.C. (cpage@tribune.com )

Year of racial unrest in La. town
September 19, 2007, 10:01 pm
Filed under: News Stories

Grounds of discontent

Chris Graythen / Chicago Tribune

GROUNDS OF DISCONTENT: Last September, after a group of black students were allowed to sit under a tree on the unofficial “white” side of the grounds, a group of white students hung nooses from its branches.

Stiff charges for the ‘Jena Six,’ black teens who beat a white youth, draw wide attention. The raw atmosphere started with nooses in a tree.

By Miguel Bustillo, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer
September 15, 2007

JENA, La. — In December, six black boys jumped a white boy at the high school here and beat him while he lay unconscious.

The victim was taken to the hospital, but he was not gravely hurt. He attended a class ring ceremony later that evening.

Families unite

Families unite

click to enlarge

The black boys were charged with attempted murder, which threatened to put them in prison for most of their lives. The district attorney alleged they’d used a deadly weapon: their sneakers.

The case of the so-called Jena Six has elicited outrage around the world — not only because of the stiff charges brought against the black teenagers, but because of the stark contrast between the way black boys and white boys in the same town were treated.

The assault was the culmination of months of racial unrest in Jena (pronounced JEE-nuh), a former sawmill town of about 3,000 people in the backwoods of central Louisiana. It started at the beginning of the last school year, when a black freshman at Jena High School asked the vice principal during a school assembly whether he could sit under the “white tree,” a gnarled oak on campus where white students gathered to escape the stifling Southern heat. He was told to sit wherever he wanted.

The following day last September, three hangman’s nooses were dangling from the oak’s branches. Two months later, the school was set on fire.

The three white boys who hung the nooses were identified but not expelled or charged with a hate crime; they were suspended for three days. No one has been charged in the arson.

The Jena Six were kicked out of school last school year. Five were charged as adults with crimes that carry long prison sentences. (The other boy is being tried as a juvenile and was recently allowed to return to classes.)

One of the six, Mychal Bell, 17, was convicted of aggravated battery by an all-white jury this year, a crime that carries a maximum punishment of 15 years. On Friday, a state appeals court overturned his conviction after his defense attorneys argued that he was unlawfully tried as an adult.

Still, Bell remained behind bars late Friday, as he had been for the last nine months. It is unclear whether LaSalle Parish Dist. Atty. Reed Walters will seek to drop the charges, retry him as a juvenile or ask the Louisiana Supreme Court to overturn the appellate court’s decision. Walters did not return requests for comment.

“It’s not a complete victory; we can’t celebrate yet,” said Louis Scott, one of a team of Louisiana lawyers defending Bell pro bono. “But when we got in this game, we were a couple of touchdowns behind. Now the game is tied.”

The “white tree” at the high school was recently cut down by local leaders, and Walters has been reducing the charges against the Jena Six to aggravated battery; attempted murder carries a maximum sentence of more than 50 years.

But those actions have done little to quell the criticism of the way Jena authorities have handled the case.

“If a black person does something in Jena, they do more time than a white person. It’s always been that way,” said Bell’s mother, Melissa Bell. “The white kids here can run loose, drink beer, whatever. But if you are black, don’t you dare act like that.”

African American leaders such as the Rev. Al Sharpton and Martin Luther King III argue that the case has raised disturbing questions about lingering racism and uneven justice in the Deep South.

Bloggers and student activists have taken up the Jena Six cause, saying the case is not unique: Studies have shown that black youths often receive harsher penalties than white youths.

Rallies to support the Jena Six are taking place around the country, and the Nation of Islam and other religious organizations had been planning a bus trip to Jena for Mychal Bell’s sentencing, which had been scheduled for Thursday.

It was unclear Friday whether the rally, which was expected to draw thousands including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, would still take place. Jena officials have called off classes at six schools in anticipation of possible unrest.

“Jena is a 1960 town in a 2007 world. It’s like going 47 years in the past,” said the Rev. Raymond Brown, a New Orleans civil rights activist. “The message being sent here is: ‘Don’t you touch any white people, because if you do you will get locked up for life.’ ”

But in Jena, about 230 miles northwest of New Orleans, some whites say their town is suffering the real injustice. They blame out-of-state activists and the news media for painting a sensationalized picture of Jena as a throwback to the institutionalized racism of the Jim Crow era. They would prefer that the camera crews and ministers leave for good.

The noose incident was “nothing more than a bad joke. Whites and blacks stuck their heads in the nooses, poking fun at it,” said Billy Fowler, a local school board member. “The black students — it caused some tension for them, I’m sure, but it’s not as crazy as it’s been made out to be.”

Fowler said that though he and many others agreed that the Jena Six were being excessively punished, many had lost sympathy for the boys because of damage to the town’s reputation.

“If they’d kept their mouths shut, they might have gotten those charges taken off,” he said. “But with the way this town’s been done wrong, I don’t think that’s going to happen now.”

Fowler and others assert that there’s no direct connection between the noose incident and the later beating, a position supported by U.S. Atty. Donald Washington, who has been reviewing the case for possible federal intervention.

But supporters of the Jena Six argue that the nooses divided the town and sparked an ugly series of racial fights that culminated in the six-on-one beating.

After the nooses were hung, Jena High Principal Glen Joiner recommended expulsion for the white students responsible. But he was overruled by LaSalle Parish Schools Supt. Roy Breithaupt — a decision that angered Jena’s 350 or so black residents. Breithaupt did not respond to requests for comment.

After the decision, black students at Jena High gathered under the tree in protest.

Fights between blacks and whites broke out for days, and the principal ultimately called an assembly in which Dist. Atty. Walters, flanked by armed police, addressed the school.

“With a stroke of my pen, I can make your lives disappear,” Walters said. In a court hearing where an attorney tried to have Walters removed from the beating case on grounds that he was biased, Walters, who is white, admitted making the statement. But he denied that he had been looking at black students when he said it, as some have said he had been.

Just before the incident that resulted in stiff charges for the Jena Six, white youngsters had attacked one of the six black boys, Robert Bailey, 17, striking him with beer bottles as he tried to enter a party. Only one of the attackers was charged — with simple battery.

The next day, a white man who had been at the party brandished a shotgun during an altercation with Bailey and several other black boys.

He was not charged, but the boys, who wrestled the gun away from him, were charged with stealing it.

At a hearing last month in which Mychal Bell’s new attorneys tried to get him released on bail, prosecutors revealed that Bell had been on juvenile probation and had been involved in other violence. Supporters of the stiff charges called the disclosure proof that the charges were just.

On Friday, Bell’s attorneys said they would now seek school reinstatement for Bell — an honor student and star running back who was being courted by top football colleges including Louisiana State University — while he fought his legal battles.

“I just hope this doesn’t mess up his mind, being locked up with grown men,” Melissa Bell said tearfully as she stared at a picture of her son in black-and-white prison stripes. “He had such a bright future in front of him. I really hope he can get his life back.”


All that remains
September 18, 2007, 6:56 pm
Filed under: Blogroll

As the city’s elderly return, many find Katrina has left them only rubble or a life of squalor

By Richard Fausset
Times Staff Writer

September 18, 2007

NEW ORLEANS — For many elderly survivors of Hurricane Katrina, life has become a minor-key coda of rubble and ruin, of discomfort and displacement, of strained social services and fear of depredation.

About 40,000 of New Orleans’ 85,000 elderly have returned since the city flooded two years ago, said Howard Rodgers III, executive director of the New Orleans Council on Aging.

The public and private sectors are doing what they can for the elderly, but they are overwhelmed by the need. Space is available at nursing homes, though it is more limited at the assisted living centers that cater to the moderately infirm. Like anywhere, though, seniors here are loath to give up their independence. For some, the alternative is squalor.

On a late summer morning, Juliette Allen, 64, was sitting calmly among the roaches that crawled around her dank apartment. Her home nursing-care company had sent over an exterminator, who was spraying the walls. It was sweltering hot; Allen said her social worker was trying to find an air conditioner.

Allen’s husband John, 75, was in the hospital with heart and lung trouble. Allen said she and her husband weren’t ready for assisted living. Their Ninth Ward home was badly damaged; reconstruction would begin soon, but was not expected to be completed until Christmas.

Joyce Simms Wood, 77, also refuses to go to a nursing home. She prefers to stay alone in a trailer in front of her damaged house in a ghostly New Orleans East neighborhood.

Wood can barely walk. The handicapped ramp that the government built her is useless, she says, because it has steps. A church group came by to gut her house, but Wood suspected them of stealing and ran them off. A Meals on Wheels truck brings her food.

“A nursing home,” Wood growled, “is a slaughterhouse.”

Other seniors have had better luck and better health, and are patiently rebuilding. Former merchant seaman Andrew Frick, 83 has faced down some sad times alone in a government trailer in Meraux, a suburb. But he has arranged for his house to be remodeled in Chalmette and expects to be home before long.

Former handyman Charles Taylor, 81, knows that fixing Katrina’s damage will be his life’s last job. He has stomach and liver cancer, he says, and only six months to live. He has been slowly restoring his modest Ninth Ward duplex for the relatives who will survive him.

His age and condition have made the work slow and painful.

“But I ain’t going to stop though,” he said. “I might die, but I ain’t going to give up.”

Alabama Plan Brings Out Cry of Resegregation
September 17, 2007, 4:59 pm
Filed under: News Stories

September 17, 2007

SAM DILLON TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — After white parents in this racially mixed city complained about school overcrowding, school authorities set out to draw up a sweeping rezoning plan. The results: all but a handful of the hundreds of students required to move this fall were black — and many were sent to virtually all-black, low-performing schools.

Black parents have been battling the rezoning for weeks, calling it resegregation. And in a new twist for an integration fight, they are wielding an unusual weapon: the federal No Child Left Behind law, which gives students in schools deemed failing the right to move to better ones.

“We’re talking about moving children from good schools into low-performing ones, and that’s illegal,” said Kendra Williams, a hospital receptionist, whose two children were rezoned. “And it’s all about race. It’s as clear as daylight.”

Tuscaloosa, where George Wallace once stood defiantly in the schoolhouse door to keep blacks out of the University of Alabama, also has had a volatile history in its public schools. Three decades of federal desegregation marked by busing and white flight ended in 2000. Though the city is 54 percent white, its school system is 75 percent black.

The schools superintendent and board president, both white, said in an interview that the rezoning, which redrew boundaries of school attendance zones, was a color-blind effort to reorganize the 10,000-student district around community schools and relieve overcrowding. By optimizing use of the city’s 19 school buildings, the district saved taxpayers millions, officials said. They also acknowledged another goal: to draw more whites back into Tuscaloosa’s schools by making them attractive to parents of 1,500 children attending private academies founded after court-ordered desegregation began.

“I’m sorry not everybody is on board with this,” said Joyce Levey, the superintendent. “But the issue in drawing up our plan was not race. It was how to use our buildings in the best possible way.” Dr. Levey said that all students forced by the rezoning to move from a high- to a lower-performing school were told of their right under the No Child law to request a transfer.

When the racially polarized, eight-member Board of Education approved the rezoning plan in May, however, its two black members voted against it. “All the issues we dealt with in the ’60s, we’re having to deal with again in 2007,” said Earnestine Tucker, one of the black members. “We’re back to separate but equal — but separate isn’t equal.”

For decades school districts across the nation used rezoning to restrict black students to some schools while channeling white students to others. Such plans became rare after civil rights lawsuits in the 1960s and ’70s successfully challenged their constitutionality, said William L. Taylor, chairman of the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights.

Tuscaloosa’s rezoning dispute, civil rights lawyers say, is one of the first in which the No Child Left Behind law has become central, sending the district into uncharted territory over whether a reassignment plan can trump the law’s prohibition on moving students into low-performing schools. A spokesman, Chad Colby, said the federal Education Department would not comment.

Tuscaloosa is not the only community where black parents are using the law to seek more integrated, academically successful schools for their children.

In Greensboro, N.C., students in failing black schools have transferred in considerable numbers to higher-performing, majority-white schools, school officials there said. A 2004 study by the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights documented cases in Florida, Indiana, Tennessee and Virginia where parents were moving their children into less-segregated schools.

Nationally, less than 2 percent of eligible students have taken advantage of the law’s transfer provisions. Tuscaloosa, with 83,000 residents, is an hour’s drive west of Birmingham. During court-ordered desegregation its schools roughly reflected the school system’s racial makeup, and there were no all-black schools.

But in recent years the board has carved the district into three zones, each with a new high school. One cluster of schools lies in the east of the city; its high school is 73 percent black.

Another cluster on Tuscaloosa’s gritty west side now amounts to an all-black minidistrict; its five schools have 2,330 students, and only 19 are white. Its high school is 99 percent black.

In contrast, a cluster of schools that draw white students from an affluent enclave of mansions and lake homes in the north, as well as some blacks bused into the area, now includes two majority-white elementary schools. Its high school, Northridge, is 56 percent black.

At a meeting in February 2005, scores of parents from the two majority white elementary schools complained of overcrowding and discipline problems in the middle school their children were sent to outside of the northern enclave.

Ms. Tucker said she, another board member and a teacher were the only blacks present. The white parents clamored for a new middle school closer to their homes. They also urged Dr. Levey to consider sending some students being bused into northern cluster schools back to their own neighborhood, Ms. Tucker said. Dr. Levey did not dispute the broad outlines of Ms. Tucker’s account.

“That was the origin of this whole rezoning,” Ms. Tucker said.

Months later, the school board commissioned a demographic study to draft the rezoning plan. J. Russell Gibson III, the board’s lawyer, said the plan drawn up used school buildings more efficiently, freeing classroom space equivalent to an entire elementary school and saving potential construction costs of $10 million to $14 million. “That’s a significant savings,” Mr. Gibson said, “and we relieved overcrowding and placed most students in a school near their home. That’s been lost in all the rhetoric.”

Others see the matter differently. Gerald Rosiek, an education professor at the University of Alabama, studied the Tuscaloosa school district’s recent evolution. “This is a case study in resegregation,” said Dr. Rosiek, now at the University of Oregon.

In his research, he said, he found disappointment among some white parents that Northridge, the high school created in the northern enclave, was a majority-black school, and he said he believed the rezoning was in part an attempt to reduce its black enrollment.

The district projected last spring that the plan would move some 880 students citywide, and Dr. Levey said that remained the best estimate available. The plan redrew school boundaries in ways that, among other changes, required students from black neighborhoods and from a low-income housing project who had been attending the more-integrated schools in the northern zone to leave them for nearly all-black schools in the west end.

Tuscaloosa’s school board approved the rezoning at a May 3 meeting, at which several white parents spoke out for the plan. One parent, Kim Ingram, said, “I’m not one who looks to resegregate the schools,” but described what she called a crisis in overcrowding, and said the rezoning would alleviate it. In an interview this month, Ms. Ingram said the middle school attended by her twin seventh-grade girls has been “bursting at the seams,” with student movement difficult in hallways, the cafeteria and locker rooms.

Voting against the rezoning were the board’s two black members and a white ally.

Dan Meissner, the board president, said in an interview this month that any rezoning would make people unhappy. “This has involved minimal disruption for a school system that has 10,000 students,” he said.

But black students and parents say the plan has proven disruptive for them.

Telissa Graham, 17, was a sophomore last year at Northridge High. She learned of the plan last May by reading a notice on her school’s bulletin board listing her name along with about 70 other students required to move. “They said Northridge was too crowded,” Telissa said. “But I think they just wanted to separate some of the blacks and Hispanics from the whites.”

Parents looking for recourse turned to the No Child Left Behind law. Its testing requirements have enabled parents to distinguish good schools from bad. And other provisions give students stuck in troubled schools the right to transfer. In a protest at an elementary school after school opened last month, about 60 black relatives and supporters of rezoned children repeatedly cited the law. Much of the raucous meeting was broadcast live by a black-run radio station.

Some black parents wrote to the Alabama superintendent of education, Joseph Morton, arguing that the rezoning violated the federal law. Mr. Morton disagreed, noting that Tuscaloosa was offering students who were moved to low-performing schools the right to transfer into better schools. That, he said, had kept it within the law.

Dr. Levey said about 180 students requested a transfer.

Telissa was one of them. She expects to return this week to Northridge, but says moving from one high school to another and back again has disrupted her fall.

One of Telissa’s brothers has also been rezoned to a virtually all-black, low-performing school. Her mother, Etta Nolan, has been trying to get him a transfer, too.

“I’m fed up,” Ms. Nolan said. “They’re just shuffling us and shuffling us.”

Immigration Raids Echo History of African Americans
September 13, 2007, 5:39 pm
Filed under: Blogroll

New America Media, Commentary

Jean Damu, Posted: Sep 13, 2007

Editor’s Note: Raids on undocumented workers today are nothing new for African Americans, who saw raids on their own population more than 150 years ago.


In August local law enforcement and immigration officials in a small Pennsylvania town began receiving reports that undocumented immigrants were being offered sanctuary at a nearby residence. Furthermore, the reports went on to say, during the daytime hours, the immigrants were blending into portions of the local population and working in one of the city’s factories. 

After several weeks of investigation, the authorities determined that, in fact, the reports of the undocumented immigrants’ activities were true.

In response to this perceived emergency, an interagency task force of immigration and local police personnel was organized. It was decided that an early morning raid would be the quickest and safest way to take the immigrants into custody and to prepare them for deportation.

The raid was carried out in September. After a brief struggle, the undocumented were overpowered, handcuffed and taken to jail, where they were told to prepare themselves for hearings to determine their eligibility for deportation. 

The above incident is not unusual. It has played out countless times, in countless cities across the nation, as the United States struggles to come to grips with a moral question that is rooted in economics the issue of undocumented workers.

The unusual aspect of the story, however, is that it did not take place in 2007 or 2006. It took place in the town of Christiana , Pa. And it took place in 1850. 

In 1850, it was not the office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that conducted the early morning raid, but rather an office of the U.S. Marshal and Deputy Marshal. And in 1850, the undocumented that were being rounded up were not Latinos or Asians but rather fugitive enslaved Africans who had crossed into Pennsylvania from Delaware in an attempt to escape slavery.

The fugitives were given sanctuary by members of the Black Self-Help Society, an armed organization that was formed many decades before the African Blood Brotherhood and the Black Panther Party. The group foreshadowed by only a few years the entry by massive numbers of blacks into the Union armies to fight the formerly officially endorsed “slavocracy.” 

The right-wing political powers of the 21st century that re-configured the Immigration and Naturalization Service into ICE the agency that is currently conducting raids against “illegal immigrants” as a response to the so-called “war on terrorism” are direct descendants of those who created the U.S. Marshals and Deputy Marshals to enforce the fugitive slave legislations of the 18th and 19th centuries.

In the case of the Federal Marshals, the enforcement of immigration laws was fueled by politicians’ pandering to the political forces that would deliver free labor to the agrarian south and keep the United States a white man’s country. This objective was eloquently articulated in America ’s first immigration legislation adopted in 1789 as part of the establishment of the federal government and the year the U.S. Marshal’s office was brought into being. 

Though the conditions of life are vastly more complicated today than when the first immigration laws were enacted, one can easily come to the conclusion that one of ICE’s unstated missions is to help maintain white supremacy. If this is not true, then why does no one discuss the issue of undocumented white workers who enter the country from Europe and Canada?

It is tempting to argue that the immigration movement is completely analogous to the abolitionist movement. That would be a mistake. After all, who would want to claim that deporting someone to Mexico is the same as returning them to slavery? But the similarities are powerful enough to convince many African Americans that it is in their best interest to support those who struggle against black people’s historic enemies. 

It took decades of abolitionist work and unprecedented armed struggle to wrest the practice of slavery from the breast of America . Similar decades of educational work and political organizing were required to convince the majority of Americans that legalized discrimination in the form of the Jim Crow laws was also wrong. That struggle continues to this day.

Today there is much misunderstanding and confusion over immigration: some say the issue is too complicated, that there are too many global economic forces at work for the lay person to fully grasp. This is no different from earlier times when much confusion and misunderstanding existed in regards to slavery. In both cases, racism and unbridled white supremacy joined hands to generate the confusion. 

Though the issue of immigration has been around since the birth of this nation, the current immigration movement is still in its early stages. If it is to achieve the perceived successes of the civil rights movement, it must do a better job of uniting with that sector of the U.S. population that so clearly participated in and benefited to a significant degree from the civil rights movement: Black America. On the other hand, African Americans should be sensitive to the current conditions in which many immigrants find themselves. These conditions, after all, are not unfamiliar to us.

Jean Damu is a member of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration.

Arnoldo Garcia

National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights

Red Nacional Pro Derechos Inmigrantes y Refugiados

310 8th Street Suite 303

Oakland , CA 94607

Tel (510) 465-1984 ext. 305

Fax (510) 465-1885

Reply to: agarcia@nnirr.org