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Diane Wilson Released from Jail
“Unjust laws exist; shall we be content to obey them…or shall we transgress them at once?” wrote Henry David Thoreau in his famed essay, “Civil Disobedience.” On Friday, February 17 another inspiring American activist, Diane Wilson, was released after 74 days in a cold and crowded Texas jail cell. She had been arrested in Houston on December 5th for speaking out during a fundraiser for recently-indicted U.S. Representative Tom Delay, then jailed under an existing warrant for protesting at the Dow Chemical plant in her hometown of Seadrift, Texas. Diane Wilson went to prison for making the point that the world’s worst chemical disaster could well be repeated in her backyard.
In 2002, Wilson climbed a chemical tower at the Dow plant in her hometown of Seadrift, Texas, and dropped a banner declaring, “Dow-Responsible for Bhopal.” Dow is the sole owner of the chemical company Union Carbide, which operated a pesticide plant in Bhopal, India. In 1984 the poorly maintained factory exploded, filling the streets of the city with toxic clouds of methyl isocyanate gas. The Indian government charged Union Carbide and its former CEO Warren Anderson with manslaughter for killing 15,000 people–although the real figure may well be over 20,000–and claimed damages for injuries to 100,000 more.
Wilson’s imprisonment raises the question of just who our justice system is protecting us from. Twenty one years after the explosion, Anderson has yet to appear for his criminal trial in India. Meanwhile, the citizens of Bhopal who survived that ghoulish night continue to suffer and die not only from the long-term effects of continuing contamination, but also from the poverty that comes from being too sick to support a family. Survivors of the Bhopal gas leak are demanding that Anderson and Dow face trial, clean up the toxic site, pay for medical treatment and compensation for illnesses, and provide economic rehabilitation for those whose ability to work has been affected.
On February 20th, 150 survivors of the Union Carbide plant explosion and victims of the resulting groundwater contamination have set off on foot to New Delhi demanding a meeting with the Prime Minister. Depending on the response of the central government, the marchers may decide to go on an indefinite fast at the end of their 900 kilometer long march. Read a daily blog on the march at http://www.bhopal.net/march/.
Those who suffer from Dow’s pollution in the United States are recognizing that they have a tangible common bond with the Bhopal survivors. Wilson, a mother of five, captained a shrimp boat off the coast of Seadrift, Texas for years until she noticed that her friends were getting cancer and the shrimp she depended on were dying. When she found out that Dow and other chemical plants were dumping lethal ethylene dichloride and vinyl chloride into her beloved bays, Wilson launched herself on a mission to stop the pollution. She hatched a plan to sink her shrimp boat on top of a dioxin flume, and left her livelihood behind to fight full time against corporate power. Recognizing her community’s bond with others harmed by the chemical industry, Wilson forged an alliance with the survivors in Bhopal, resulting in her action at Dow’s Seadrift plant.
A Texas court charged Wilson with a minor misdemeanor for trespassing, but instead of showing up for her sentence immediately, she took off in search of fellow fugitive Warren Anderson. “This company has warrants after their arrest, and they can be defiant and not show up, but let a little woman with a banner drop it… and I’m a dangerous woman, and I have to be thrown in jail,” Wilson decried.
Wilson’s stay in jail was not a comfortable experience. She spent her first several days sleeping huddled on the floor without even a blanket or a toothbrush, in a cell where the one tiny window was papered over. “It feels incredible, just incredible to be out,” she stated Friday a few hours after being released. “I’ve had a lot of people, especially the girls inside who know what it’s like to sit on the floor of a crowded cell every day, tell me, ‘I guess you won’t do this again.'”
Yet her spirit has only been strengthened. “I told them I don’t regret it, and I would do it again. We have to take our issues as seriously as the corporations and administration do. We need to be as committed to our issues as we can be; we need to draw a line and hold it.”
Shocked by the conditions she found in the Victoria County Jail, Wilson drafted a letter to the local sheriff deploring the worst abuses. “The women in this jail are predominantly African American or Hispanic and very poor. Most of their offenses are minor, for things like traffic tickets or soliciting or violating probation–all non-violent, yet they are forced to remain in the cell without counsel for long periods of time,” she wrote. Wilson’s letter also described how lack of health care in the jail resulted in cases of a ruptured gallbladder, kidney failure, and even the tragic death of a newborn baby whose inmate mother was placed in solitary confinement when her water broke, leaving her to face a breech birth on her own.
“Under a government which imprisons any unjustly, the true place for a just man is also a prison,” Thoreau declared after spending one night in jail in 1849 for refusing to pay taxes to a government that supported slavery. Thoreau’s teachings that individuals should follow their own moral compass when the laws of their country are unjust provided the philosophical base for the actions of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Today, Diane Wilson uses her moral compass to draw the lines of right and wrong, to speak out that polluting her community and taking the lives of 15,000 people and injuring 100,000 more in India is a much greater crime than unfurling a banner from a tower, or the minor transgressions of her cell mates.
A government that allows corporations to commit crimes with impunity becomes implicit in these crimes itself. A freedom of information act request in 2004 revealed that the U.S. State Department denied India’s extradition order for Warren Anderson after the U.S. Department of Commerce joined Union Carbide in pleading on Anderson’s behalf.
Thoreau described the act of civil disobedience as asserting personal freedom–freeing oneself from the fear of state retribution for non-cooperation with injustice. “I saw that, if there was a wall of stone between me and my townsmen, there was a still more difficult one to climb or break through, before they could get to be as free as I was,” he observed from his jail cell. We curtail our own freedom with fear of speaking out. Yet there is a Diane Wilson in each of us, a core of courage to honor our own moral compass, to stride past fear toward the freedom to act on our convictions, to be as committed to our issues as we can be.
The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) is currently revising its penalty policy, providing an opportunity to push for greater accountability against polluters that break the law and put public health at risk. Call Governor Perry to support stricter enforcement and penalties against corporate polluters.
Wilson, Diane. 2006. Letter from Jail.
Pesticide Action Network. 2005. The 21st Anniversary of the Bhopal Pesticide Plant Explosion.
Thoreau, Henry David. 1849. “Civil Disobedience.” See http://eserver.org/thoreau/civil.html
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