Pounding the Polluters

Diane Wilson, 57, is on the lam from the Texas Rangers. The shrimp fisherwoman from southeast Texas, who has fought chemical companies for 19 years and won, will be arrested if she sets foot in the state of Texas, for trespassing at the Dow Chemicals plant to protest on behalf of the victims of the Bhopal gas leak.

Speaking for the third time at the annual Bioneers Conference (held October 14-16 in San Rafael, California), she told 3,000 enthusiastic listeners: "If corporations can poison thousands of people and get away with it, why should I go to jail for climbing up a little bitty tower at Dow Chemical Plant?"

The Bioneers Conference, started by the husband and wife team Kenny Ausubel  and Nina Simons, is a gathering of innovative environmental scientists and activists who are considered 'biological pioneers'. In an interview with Amy Goodman on her radio and TV show 'Democracy Now!', Wilson recounted how in 2002 she had climbed the barbed wire fence and ascended the 70-foot tower at the conclusion of her 30-day hunger strike. There she chained herself to the tower and unfurled a banner that read "Dow Responsible for Bhopal". The 1984 disaster killed 6,000 people in three days and 20,000 more in the ensuing two decades after a deadly leak from Union Carbide's pesticide factory, which is now owned by Dow. When she came down from the tower, she was arrested.

Wilson holds Dow Chemical responsible for the reckless behavior of the company it purchased. "There was a case [in the US] where a child was contaminated with some of Union Carbide's pesticide. And I believe the American child received up to US$ 6 million," she said. "And the children over in India, a lot of them received nothing at all. And some of them just US$ 500."

Warren Andersen, who was the head of Union Carbide at the time, was ordered  to show up for trial in India but "Andersen jumped bail 13 years ago", said Wilson.

Even though she had been told by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation that Andersen "could not be found", in 2002 Wilson decided to go to his house in Long Island, New York with a sign that read: "Warren, shouldn't you be in India?" She did not expect him to be home but, in fact, he was and he came out with his wife to tell her she didn't know what she was doing. That was not new to Wilson, who has been told repeatedly that she is crazy "by everybody - friends, family, everybody". As long as Andersen refuses to face India's court, Wilson says she is not going to set foot in Texas.

Dangerous actions to call attention to injustice seem second nature to Wilson, who says she never plans anything but follows her intuition. When she thinks of something that scares her, she knows she's on the right track. "I put myself right on the edge. I think risk is important."

When she learned in 1989 that her tiny Calhoun County in South Texas - with 15,000 residents - was named as the most polluted county in the US in a report of the US Environment Protection Agency's Federal Toxic Release Inventory, her first action was simply to call a lawyer. Formosa Plastics - a Taiwanese company that had been driven from Taipei by a protest of 20,000 people - had built near Lavaca Bay in Calhoun the largest chemical plant in the US, and it was breaking all the rules for legal discharge of toxic wastes.

The lawyer told her to call a meeting, which she did, and that's hen she set forth on what has since become her life path. "When I first started fighting the corporations," she said, "people thought I was the wrong person for it. After five years I realized I was the perfect one for it because I had the passion to do it. It wasn't theoretical stuff, it was my flesh and blood."

When legal action against Formosa failed, Wilson went on her first hunger strike; and when that was not enough, she tried to sink her boat in the bay where Formosa discharged its toxic waste. That - and a protest by 200 Vietnamese fisherfolk - finally got Formosa's attention, and the company agreed to go for zero discharge.

"I truly believe that women are the key to the salvation of this planet, I really do. They have this concept of wholeness. I believe it is the female consciousness that is going to make the difference. Women will be the movement."

Wilson's actions have helped spark that movement. During her second talk at  the Bioneers in 2001, she paraphrased a quote from the playwright George Bernard Shaw, which someone had handed her as she went onstage. "A reasonable woman adapts to the world. An unreasonable woman makes the world adapt to her."

Women hearing those words were so inspired that they kept coming up to her during the conference to tell her how they were unreasonable women too! Weeks later, she called Ausubel and Simons to tell them, "I've got this vision that there's going to be this movement of unreasonable women." This caused Simons to call together 43 notable women activists for a retreat in 2001. The retreat led to the formation of two groups, Unreasonable Women for the Earth and CodePink4Peace.

Code Pink has become one of the most dynamic women's activist groups in the country. They joined Wilson in a 40-day hunger strike in front of the White House in December 2002 to protest against war on Iraq, and they supported the strike against Dow Chemical that led to Wilson's arrest. They haven't stopped since. With their signature pink attire satirizing the color code for terrorist alerts that the US has adopted since 9/11, CodePink members have appeared at Congressional hearings and in peace marches across the US.

Wilson, though, insists that she is not at all remarkable: "Anyone can do what I've done." With only a high school education, this fourth-generation Texas fisherwoman learned more about the chemical plants in her region than even the plant managers themselves. What motivates her? It's the bay. As a child, "I could see the water. She was this old woman. She had long grey hair. She was like a grandmother, and she was delighted to see me. I think we're all capable of this innate sense of connection to the land."

For those who want to read about Wilson's eventful life, her autobiographical first book - 'An Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas' - is good news.


More by :  Stephanie Haley

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