Environmental Advocacy Trip Faces Political Harassment
7 April, 2005
Environmental Advocacy Trip Faces Political Harassment
From March 14 to 25, two instructors and 13 master's students from Antioch New England Graduate School’s Environmental Studies Program in Keene, NH visited Louisiana as part of a field studies course entitled Environmental Justice in the Mississippi Delta.
During their visit, the Antioch New England class met with a diverse array of stakeholders, including elected officials, petrochemical industry executives, union leaders, scientists, EPA officials, environmental activists, and members of polluted communities along the stretch of the Mississippi River that many state officials call “the Chemical Corridor” and local people often call “Cancer Alley.” The Antioch New England study group also met some people they did not expect to, including off-duty police and sheriff’s department officers and corporate security officials who detained them on two separate occasions because they took photos of industrial facilities from public roadways and sidewalks.
On March 16, Mr. Willie Fontenot was accompanying the group in his official capacity as Community Liaison Officer for the Louisiana Attorney General’s Office. They were touring the neighborhood surrounding the major ExxonMobil chemical facility in the area. Mr. Fontenot took the group to the neighborhood because ExxonMobil has engaged in a program to buy out nearby homeowners who had long complained of toxic emissions from the plant. During a stop on a side street off Scenic Highway, some students got out of the group’s vehicle and took photos of a remaining home and the ExxonMobil facility. Students are required to complete a visual presentation about the trip as a course assignment and took photos throughout their stay in Louisiana.
Course instructor Steve Chase, the Director of Antioch’s Environmental Advocacy and Organizing Program, said members of the group had been detained the day before by a corporate security guard near the Shell chemical plant in Norco who claimed that photographing industrial facilities was a violation of federal law and had threatened Chase and the students with images of FBI agents knocking on their doors in the middle of the night. Mr. Fontenot explained, however, that while the police had every right to stop and ask people who they were, standing on public property and photographing facilities was perfectly legal.
“I’ve researched this extensively over the years because I often give tours to academics and journalists as part of my job with the Attorney General’s Office,” said Mr. Fontenot.
Within two minutes of the stop near the ExxonMobiil plant, a pair of off-duty officers from the Baton Rouge sheriff’s and police departments, wearing their official public service uniforms, but in the employ of ExxonMobil, quickly detained the group. Fulltime ExxonMobil security officials soon joined the detention team. “We were less than impressed,” said co-instructor Abigail Abrash Walton, “when one of the officers falsely stated that three of the students had gone on company property and then falsely claimed that we were refusing to turn over our IDs.” When asked by the course instructor about what actions he would be taking in filing a report about the group, the off-duty sheriff's department officer refused to answer, and instead responded aggressively that he was going to call in “homeland security” people who would detain the group into the night.
The group was released after more than an hour, but later learned that the sheriff’s department had filed a complaint with the Attorney General against Mr. Fontenot, the group’s local guide for the day. Both The New Orleans Times-Picayune and The Baton Rouge Advocate reported that Mr. Fontenot was forced to retire at 10 am on Tuesday, April 5, or risk being fired over the incident. Said Mr. Fontenot, “I was advised that taking retirement was a better way to go.”
“I am very disappointed,” said Chase, “that our detention served as the catalyst for the Attorney General to force Mr. Fontenot out of the public service job he’s held for 27 years. Given what we experienced, I suspect that this whole matter has just been used as an excuse to remove one of the state’s most respected citizen participation advocates from the Attorney General’s Office.” Chase added, “I am particularly stunned that Mr. Fontenot lost his job when even the U.S. Coast Guard investigator who phoned me when we arrived back in New Hampshire assured me that there is absolutely no local, state, or federal law against photographing industrial facilities from public sidewalks."
Co-instructor Abigail Abrash Walton noted, “This incident showed our students a vivid example of how law enforcement and corporations can sometimes overstep their legitimate security duties in the guise of ‘homeland security.’ This experience was also a firsthand glimpse of the type of over-the-top repression that community members and their supporters told us they experience on the frontlines of trying to defend their communities’ health and homes in Louisiana.”
As a response to Mr. Fontenot being forced out of his job, the Environmental Advocacy and Organizing Program at Antioch New England Graduate School is working with Marylee Orr, Executive Director of the Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN), to create a fund to help Mr. Fontenot make up his lost salary and continue to work for environmental justice in Louisiana through a nonprofit organization of his choice. The Environmental Advocacy and Organizing Program, LEAN, and other Louisiana citizen groups and members of the academic community are considering further actions aimed at addressing the political harassment of academics, concerned community members, and advocates in Louisiana.
Photo credits: Stephen C. Kowal
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