Back Yard Politics

"You've got to start from scratch. Begin with self-interest. Good organizers know that."

-- Studs Terkel

Populist political movements are born of self-interest, created by people seeking to protect their homes, their neighborhoods, their way of life.

The people most intimately affected by any problem are the most likely to speak out about it, are most likely to create the energy to push past political inertia and make important changes. It's called protecting our back yards, and it is the core of our democratic culture.

Hence, the political education of Lois Gibbs, executive director of the CCHW Center for Health, Environment and Justice, a group that acts as a clearinghouse of information and strategy for grass roots environmental groups across the country. It was Gibbs' fight in the late-1970s to clean up her Niagara Falls neighborhood -- the famous battle over Love Canal -- that taught her just how powerful an engaged citizenry can be.

"People fighting for their own backyard is what democracy is about," she says today. "If everyone cleans up their own backyard and plays watchdog, the country will be better off."

It's a message that America's progressive groups -- especially the big environmental groups -- could stand to learn. Groups like the National Resources Defense Council, the Environmental Defense Fund and even Greenpeace have spent too much time and too many resources lobbying the powers that be and cozying up to powerful legislators in an effort to pass green legislation.

And the approach has not worked. Even the supposedly green-friendly administration of President Bill Clinton and Vice President Al Gore -- which has granted the major environmental groups extraordinary access -- has done little on the environmental front in its five years in office.

It's time for the environmental movement to rebuild itself using a grassroots model that ultimately can lead to independent political action. Essentially, environmentalists need to go back to their roots.

Which is where Lois Gibbs comes in.

Back in 1978, Gibbs was a 27-year-old housewife leading an essentially normal life in the northern New York factory town of Niagara. Her husband, like most of the men in town, worked for a chemical company and she stayed home to take care of her two kids.

When they moved to Niagara in 1973, her son had been healthy. But during their five years in town, he had developed epilepsy, a blood disorder and several other maladies; a younger daughter, born since the family moved in, also was ill.

Gibbs hadn't thought much about the causes for the illness -- that is, until she read a series of stories on hazardous waste sites in the Niagara Gazette. One in particular caught her attention, the Love Canal dump site located beneath the elementary school her son attended and less than 10 block from her house. Between 1920 and 1953, about 20,000 tons of toxic chemicals were dumped at the Love Canal site, mostly by Hooker Chemical Corporation (a subsidiary of Occidental Petroleum), the city of Niagara and the U.S. Army.

That's when Gibbs made the connection.

At first, she asked the school board to move her son to another school. But the school board turned her down. So did the rest of the town's political leaders.

"Their response was, if we do this for you we have to do this for all 407 kids," she remembers. "We're not going to do this for one hysterical housewife."

She began knocking on doors, circulating a petition with fellow parent Debbie Cerrillo to have the school closed. Which is when they learned the illnesses were more widespread. Adults also were getting sick and the pair decided to expand the scope of their petition to include assessment of the entire neighborhood.

They presented their petition to the state Department of Health, which issued an order to close the school and evacuate pregnant women and children under 2 and recommended that residents not eat from their own gardens and that they spend limited time in their basements. Following the Department of Health's order, the state agreed to purchase the 239 houses closest to the Love Canal dump site.

This wasn't enough. The 239 families represented just a quarter of the households that had complained of illnesses and other problems and those who were left behind wanted the state to take additional action.

The state wasn't interested. Officials had cordoned off the immediate area and were dismissing the residents' concerns. There was no evidence of abnormal health problems beyond the original area, they said. The issue was closed; there would not be any further action.

At first, the Love Canal homeowners tried to change the state's mind by playing the state's game.

"We thought that all the government had to do was understand the risk and it would do the right thing," Gibbs said.

They brought in experts, surveyed the risk, negotiated with state officials. But the state wouldn't listen. They considered litigation "but we were told a lawsuit would take seven to 10 years," Gibbs said.

That's when they turned to more creative forms of protest, toward more direct political organizing. Residents marched in the streets, held prayer vigils, burned politicians in effigy. And they learned how to use the media to win public -- and ultimately political -- support. They began targeting real people with their protests, dogging high-level politicians like New York Gov. Hugh Carey and President Jimmy Carter and drawing heavy press coverage. And it eventually led to the relocation of all 900 families.

"This is really different than what most groups do," Gibbs said. "Most groups talk about the EPA or city hall, but the public can't deal with those institutions because they're not human. When you put a face on it, then it makes it a human being fighting a human being rather than a bureaucracy."

It's one of the key lessons she and the Center for Health, Environment and Justice teach to community groups that seek their help. The center -- which she founded in 1981 -- is a clearinghouse for information on hazardous waste and other environmental issues: It helps put scientific information into plain language, reviews technical data and connects grassroots groups with experts on a host of issues. And it acts as a training center for groups fighting to protect their communities. Their fights -- which number more than 8,000 -- have included battles to stop construction of incinerators and dump sites, to uncover previously unknown sites and to prevent transport of hazardous materials.

The idea, she says, is to increase the cost of disposing of hazardous materials to a point where companies seek other manufacturing methods. Currently, it is cheaper for companies to build incinerators, burn their waste and use the left over ash in road beds and in other projects or to build dump sites than it is to alter their manufacturing methods.

"If you stop building cheap disposal methods for hazardous waste, the corporate world would have to pay twice as much to dispose of it in smaller amounts," she says. "Companies would have to move to onsite processing or source reduction.

"Corporations don't have consciences, but they do have a bottom line," she says. "If you can affect the bottom line they will stop what they're doing."

And all of their fights start in someone's back yard with issues of deep concern to local communities -- especially in working class, poor, rural and minority neighborhoods. This can lead to accusations that those doing the fighting are concerned only about their own backyard.

"Industry wanted to use the NIMBY label to say we don't care about the economy or jobs," she says. "But that doesn't work at the local level.

"It's about democracy. If we paid attention to our own back yards instead of the top-down regulatory thing, it would change the whole dichotomy in this country."

Hank Kalet is a journalist living in South Brunswick, New Jersey.

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