Sarah Lawrence College I wouldn't write about this until all the students were safely back home. That promise will show the difference between how an environmental justice organization thinks about the events I am about to describe and a college with its multiple concerns about student safety, public image and recruitment, not to mention the high cost of bails bondsmen these days (that's a joke, SLC!).
On the evening of March 23rd I left the students to finish up at the base we had established at Mt. Zion Baptist Church. I went in a desperate (and fruitless) search for a washateria. I had seen a laundry facility with that name in Moss Bluff near our accommodations at the St. Charles Retreat Center. Have you heard the song Down in Mississippi on the No Turning Back CD by Mavis Staples? She describes integrating a washateria. I wanted a photo of the lit up sign and I wanted clean underwear.
By the time I got there the washateria last load time limit had passed. So then crankiness arose, especially as I discovered that all local laundry facilities closed quite early. That crankiness was dispelled when I received a panicked phone call from my students. They had taken the scenic route -- along PPG Drive that runs between the mostly abandoned Bel Air neighborhood and the CONOCO refinery. The area wells had been poisoned by a toxic plume from the refinery into the ground water supply. The Health Advocacy students had interviewed the few remaining residents who were holding out for a fair relocation settlement from the refineries. They had stopped to take photos of the refinery at night.
Illuminated by the otherworldly yellow glow of thousands of sodium vapor lamps, the Calcasieu Parish refinery district after sunset feels like our worst dystopian nightmare. I suspect that this part of the county is visible at night even from the space shuttle since refinery district is so large and the sodium lamps so bright. But given that reality their are those in the county who prefer the refineries not be photographed, starting with refinery management.
As the students traveled away from the refinery and towards their humble retreat center accommodations they realized they were being followed. It was pretty obvious. The car in pursuit was a red Malibu with rims. Big shiny spinney silver rims. It tailgated and pulled up along side. It pulled in front and tried to slow them down.
They called me during what was an understandably frightening experience. They finally seemed to have managed to shake the Malibu. I abandoned my search for a laundromat and met them at a Sonic Drive In about 2 miles from the turn off for the retreat center. We didn't want the red Malibu to know where we were staying.
The students described what had happened as we were parked in the Sonic parking lot. I was standing between their two cars. We were just deciding to order some delicious cheese tots when a police car pulled up, then another, then two more. The students were instructed to stay in the van. I handed them my cell phone.
The first cop was belligerent, demanded to see the camera and threatened us with violating Homeland Security laws. It's illegal to photograph the refinery at night. Could blow a hole the size of Texas if it was attacked. What were we doing?
I politely refused his demand for the camera. Another car pulled up. The supervisor. After more questioning it became clear they had nothing to charge us on. They asked to see the photos. I consented. The first seven were the worst night shots ever taken. He laughed.
I am not sure if they ever filed a report of suspicious activity or turned our names into the Dept. of Homeland Security. I am beginning to doubt it since they never called SLC to inquire into the reality of our existence.
The sheriff asked me if I wanted him to check the students' i.d.'s individually or as a group. I chose as a group. They asked for all the badge numbers and the supervisor's name. They complained about being followed. The sheriff assured them he would check it out.
As we left the Sonic we saw, on the other side of the parking lot, the occupants of the red Malibu watching us pull away.
Tomorrow: What we learned from our encounter with the sheriffs.