Letter to the Editor
WHY IS THIS PATRIOT IN JAIL?
Very early on August 26, 2002, a woman wearing a hardhat walked toward the entrance gates of the Dow chemical plant in Seadrift, Texas. Under her shirt she held a banner and some chains. Workers driving by in a truck, thinking she was one of them, picked her up, and she rode in. The woman climbed down from the truck and walked over to a 70-foot high tower for cracking ethylene oxide from petroleum. She climbed as high as she could and unfurled the banner, which read: Dow - Responsible for Bhopal. No one noticed her, so she waved and yelled a bit until they did. She chained herself to the tower, sat and waited. She watched the sunrise, felt the hot Texas wind rise, and sat in the roar as flames shot up the tower when the oil below began to be 'cracked' into component parts.
She watched the media gather, then the police, and after hours in the broiling sun, she
resisted the men who climbed out of a cherry-picker to saw off her chains and pull her down to be arraigned.
The woman was Diane Wilson, 52, mother of five, former Gulf coast shrimper and present committed activist and writer, now also committed prisoner serving a five-month term in the Victoria County jail for unlawful trespass.
Why did she climb the tower? Because Diane lives just down the road from the chemical plant. She even worked there for a few days until she found that her bath water turned yellow when she came home to her small children and she still couldn't wash off the toxins embedded in her clothes and hair.
Ten years before, she had visited victims from the explosion of the Union Carbide (now Dow) plant in Bhopal, India, which had killed thousands of people and stripped the mucus membranes from the respiratory tracts and eyes of thousands more so they were
still dying slow, excruciating deaths. Diane had marched with women survivors on a
candlelight vigil, while many of their families threatened to disown them for such
public shame. She was the only American among them.
Dow did pay compensation amounting to roughly $500 per living victim and $1250 for families of survivors, a pittance which the Dow-Carbide spokesperson called "plenty enough for an Indian". But only half the money ever reached them: twenty years later, the rest was held by the Indian government, which then decided to spend it on cleaning up the area, still saturated with toxins. The victims argued that this was a further responsibility of Dow/Carbide; Diane and others agreed, but legal arguments were not working. So some of the victims went on a hunger strike. Diane joined them, and a thousand others joined Diane, apparently to no avail. On August 27, the Indian courts would rule on the case.
And so in hopes of getting media attention for their cause and affecting the judicial outcome, Diane climbed the tower.
On August 27, the court ruled that the remaining money would go to the victims themselves.
This is why Diane Wilson is now living in the Victoria County jail, with between five and nine other women who use a single toilet in the middle of their common cell, where reruns of Full House blare non-stop.
Is the sentence too drastic for the action? Well, it can be argued that Diane knew what she was doing and had it coming. But Dow also knew from its own internal audits that the plant in Bhopal was in disrepair, that the refrigeration unit mandatory for storing the lethal gases was shut down, and that there existed all together 61 hazards, 30 of them
major and 11 in the unit that eventually exploded. Yet the only responsibility Dow/Carbide has assumed is to pay pittances to the survivors.
Diane Wilson spends five months in jail for pointing out this discrepancy in an 'outrageous' manner and for getting a bit more justice. Diane also knew that the cracking tower she had chained herself to was implicated in a lethal 1991 explosion right there at the Seadrift plant. She knew that there are similar "health and security risks" at all five of the chemical plants in her county - plants that are poisoning the land, air and water. But the plants exist in a poor county where so many jobs depend on the chemical companies
that you could call it sort of a Company County.
I met Diane because I had told a friend that I wanted to write about "somebody who is making a difference", and she had suggested Diane. What a difference this woman is indeed making! At the time, she was fighting the pollution from five chemical corporations into the bays along the Texas coast where she shrimped. Almost single handedly, but with great initial support from a pro bono lawyer, she had forced
two of the plants to vastly reduce the toxins they sent to the bays.
I eventually wrote a graphic novelette about her called Nobody Particular, and in the process we became close friends. This past fall, Chelsea Green has published Diane's extraordinary memoir of those times, An Unreasonable Woman. Both titles describe her: she thinks of herself as nobody particular, a person like anyone else, but she follows the approach of Gandhi when he said, "Anyone could do what I have done, given the commitment and the dedication." She is also an 'unreasonable woman" in the meaning of GB Shaw's comment, "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the unreasonable man."
I have never met a person I admire more than Diane. Does she deserve to be in prison? Well, she did break the law. And Union Carbide/Dow? These corporations are regarded by law as "persons" responsible for their actions. What is an appropriate jail term for "persons" who kill and maim thousands upon thousands of people because of willful negligence? No one from this corporation is in jail. No one is held liable. And what bizarre kind of 1880's Robber Baronial law is this that enables corporations to have the same rights as human citizens - and usually far better??? Something is rotten in the states of Texas and Delaware, and in this nation.
Diane Wilson is a heroine - and a patriot - in every sense of these words.
Yet she is the one who is serving time in jail.