Environmental Justice: Houston’s Cancer Cluster

Houston’s Cancer Cluster

Al Jazeera (2020)

Film Review

This is a documentary about the Houston group Impact, formed in 2016 to pressure the Texas Department of Health to investigate the large number of cancer deaths occurring in the majority African American Fifth Ward and Kashmere Garden neighborhoods.

In response to grassroots lobbying, the Department of Health performed an epidemiological study, which they released in September 2019. It revealed cancer rates in both neighborhoods were significantly higher than the state average.

Local families and health professionals blame the high cancer rate on creosote contamination of soil and groundwater from a nearby Union Pacific rail yard. Between 1911 and 1984, Union Pacific treated wooden railway ties with the preservative creosote (a toxic mixture of cancer causing chemicals). In January 2020, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee helped Impact organize a public meeting featuring nationally renowned anti-toxics activist Erin Brokovitch.

Impact demands that the state of Texas force Union Pacific (which made a profit of $6 billion in 2019) to address the creosote contamination, either by removing toxic chemicals from the soil and groundwater or paying for affect residents to move elsewhere.

In speaking with filmmakers, local activists reveal that regulators first learned about the contaminated groundwater in the 1980s but never informed residents.

In the US, communities of color are more likely to live near toxic and polluting industries because of the relatively low value of nearby land.

 

Edward Said: The Origin of Islamophobia

Edward Said on Orientalism

Directed by Jeremy Smith, Sanjay Tairej, and Sut Jhally

Film Review

This documentary, produced and narrated by University of Massachusetts (Amherst) professor of communication Sut Jhally, is based on a 1998 interview with late Palestinian-American Dr Edward Said. Prior to his death from leukemia in 2003, Said was a professor of literature at Columbia University. The interview primarily concerns his 1978 book Orientalism.

Said, who was born in Palestine, became homeless and stateless in 1948 when his family home was seized by Jewish terrorists. He grew up in the US.

His book Orientalism would give birth to a new field of study called post-colonial theory, as well as having a a profound effect on the academic study of English, history, anthropology, and political science. The filmmakers embellish the interview with numerous works of art and film clips illustrating important concepts Said introduces.

The basic premise of Orientalism is that the West, dating back to Napoloean’s 1798 conquest of Egypt, operates under a preconceived image of Middle Eastern peoples. This image, which permeates nearly all pertinent Western art, history, literature, and film, portrays them as mysterious, backwards, barbaric, fanatical, and threatening.

In France and the UK, who were the main colonizers of the Middle East and North Africa, this distorted perception grew out of the conventional tendency to de-humanize the colonized.

In contrast, American-style orientalism derives mainly from the special relationship the US enjoys with Israel. The latter aggressively promotes the ideology that all Arabs are natural enemies.

Said traces strong anti-Islamic sentiment in the US to the 1978 Islamic revolution in Iran, which, in removing the pro-US totalitarian government, cost Wall Street oil interests substantially.

The most interesting part of the interview concerns the 1997 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma City – which both the FBI and US media blamed on Middle East terrorists in the immediate aftermath.

 

Hidden History: Frantz Fanon and the Algerian War of Independence

Frantz Fanon: His Life, His Struggle, His Work

Directed by Cheikh Djemai (2001)

Film Review

In the US, Frantz Fanon is best known for his influence on the Black Power movement of the sixties and seventies. The author of two major books on Black identity,* Fanon died at age 37 (in 1961).

Prior to watching this film, I was unaware that Fanon left Martinique in 1941 to fight in De Gaulle’s Free French Army. According to family members and friends, it was largely racist abuse he experience in this setting that led him to become a revolutionary.

At the end of the war, he studied philosophy briefly before transferring to medicine. Black Face White Masks, which he wrote as a dissertation for his doctorate in medicine, was rejected by his dissertation committee.

Following graduation he worked at the Blida mental hospital in Algeria, where he became convinced that the “mental illness” he observed in his patients largely stemmed from the system of racist apartheid the French imposed on Algerian Arabs. He was in continuous strife with hospital authorities for his “radical” reforms, including removing the barbed wire fence surrounding the hospital and allowing patients picks and shovels to create a soccer field on hospital grounds.

Resigning in frustration, he moved to Tunis to join the Algerian revolution after the French government expelled him from Algeria.

While there he also played a major role in the All African Congress started by Ghanaian Revolutionary Kwame Nkrumah.


*Black Skin White Mask and Wretched of the Earth

Public library members can view the film free on Kanopy. Just type “Kanopy” and the name of your library into the search engine.

 

 

Sarah Roberts: Taranaki’s Tireless Anti-Fracking Campaigner

 

A Broken Earth

Directed by James Muir (2020)

Film Review

This is a beautifully made film about Taranaki fellow activists Sarah Roberts and David Morrison and their tireless efforts to hold Taranaki’s (mostly foreign-owned) fracking industry to account.

The film begins when the couple literally woke up one morning and discovered their dairy farm was surround by fracking wells and production stations that were discharging fracking wastes into a stream they used to water their herd. Around this time, Sarah began experiencing many of the same health complaints (headaches, nosebleeds, rashes, etc)  as many of her neighbors.

On investigation, they discovered 14 fracking wells to the front of their property, 16 to the rear, and 12 at the side. Although four wells were directly adjacent to their property line, they were never consulted, or even notified, about the well construction. After examining oil industry and Taranaki Regional Council (TRC) records, Sarah also discovered that the casings (linings) of some of the wells had been leaking for two years – without TRC carrying out any required ground water testing.

Most of the film concerns the history of the farm, which David’s father bought after returning from World War II, and the decision by both men to preserve the land surrounding the farm as a conservation estate. Until Sarah and David made the gradual  discovery that unregulated oil and gas drilling had systematically transformed one the most pristine natural landscapes on Earth into an industrial zone. The film also shows the the difficult heartbreaking decision the couple made to sell the farm David had managed for 20 years.

The film also also details the extensive research Sarah did into a failed regulatory process (by TRC, Stratford District Council, New Plymouth District Council, and South Taranaki District Council) that essentially allows oil and gas companies to regulate themselves.

As a result of this “self-regulation,” fossil fuel companies are allowed to dig fracking wells adjacent (and under – via horizontal drilling) people’s homes, schools, hospitals, etc. The end of the film features one of the first public meetings Sarah organized (in 2015) to notify local residents about oil industry plans to drill adjacent to Norfolk School.

As part of her tireless campaigning, she worked with Taranaki Energy Watch to file a lawsuit in Environment Court in 2016 to require that district councils set minimum separation distances between fracking wells and homes, schools, and hospitals. You can find information about the lawsuit at  http://www.taranakienergywatchnz.org/.

You can read the Environment Court’s preliminary findings (which are favorable) below.

You can watch the film free until July 5 at https://festival.docedge.nz/film/a-broken-earth/

Click to access 2018-NZEnvC-227-Taranaki-Energy-Watch-Incorporated-v-South-Taranaki-District-Council.pdf

 

 

How the Madison Anti-Vietnam War Protests Politicized Me

The War at Home: Resistance to the Vietnam War

Directed by Barry Alexander Brown and Glenn Silber (1979)

Film Review

This documentary traces the history of the student antiwar movement at the University of Wisconsin during the sixties and seventies. In 1968, Playboy magazine described the Madison campus as the most radical university in the country. The topic holds particular interest for me as I attended medical school there between June 1969 and June 1971.

A staunch Goldwater Republican at the time, there was no question my Madison experiences politicized me. It was there I learned how Dow Chemical (which manufactured the napalm the US dropped on Vietnamese civilians) and other big corporations controlled Congress by financing their political campaigns. Although I participated in no street protests, I cut class during the National Moratorium on November 15, 1969 to join 15,000 other students at a teach-in at the UW Field House.

UW-Madison held their first antiwar protest (consisting of 200-300 students) a month before the 1963 Kennedy assassinations. As at universities across the US, the protests grew exponentially in February 1965, after Lyndon Johnson broke his campaign promise (not to expand the Vietnam War) and began bombing North Vietnam.

Protests further escalated in 1966, following a police riot during a sit-in at the UW administration building, in which brutal clubbing of nonviolent protestors resulted in 65 hospitalizations. Protests reached their peak during the summer of 1969, with the governor ordering deployment of the National Guard to assist police. There were literal riots on Mifflin Street, largely in response to police brutality, which I directly witnessed.

Rioters engaged in running battles with police, as well as throwing fire bombs, overturning vehicles, and setting up barricades. Prior to 1969, I had only read about barricades in history books.

Anyone with a public library card can view the film free at Kanopy. Type Kanopy and the name of your library into the search engine.

 

New Zealand: Highest Per Capita Homeless Rate in OECD

New Zealand: A Place to Call Home

Al Jazeera (2020)

Film Review

This is a documentary about homelessness in New Zealand, which (as of 2017) has the highest per capita homeless rate in the OECD. The film mainly focuses on Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, and the work of Auckland Action Against Poverty. AAAP has a primary focus of finding emergency housing for homeless Aucklanders. At present a minimum wage family Auckland family spends 70% of their income on rent. This usually leaves them two paychecks away from homelessness.

Although there are currently 14,000 Aucklanders on the waiting list for low income housing, our current government only plans to build 6,000 state houses over the next four years. This despite Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s campaign promise to build 100,000 state houses over 10 years.

Last year despite expert advice to increase benefit levels (for single parents, the unemployed, disabled, and retired) by 50%, our coalition government spent millions of dollars on emergency motel accommodation for homeless families.

In Auckland, filmmakers interview a number of Auckland’s “invisible” homeless residents. Rather than sleeping rough, they are camped out in cars, garages, and the living rooms of friends and extended family.

Filmmakers also visit Northland, a rural area absorbing growing numbers of Auckland’s homeless. Owing to the scarcity of rental accommodation, many of Northland’s homeless families live in buses, sheds, lean-tos, and tents.

A Northland Maori leader talks about mortgage his to purchase for abandoned state houses he has relocated from Auckland. After rehabilitating them, he charges homeless families $275 a week to buy them. He has asked the Prime Minister to declare a Northland housing emergency to help his trust qualify for $11 million in funding. This cover land and rehabilitation costs for an additional 500 abandoned state houses.

Thus far she has declined.

Prime Minister Ardern and Housing Minister Megan Woods also declined to be interviewed for this documentary.

 

North Carolina’s Chinese-Owned Industrial Pig Factories

Soyalism

Directed by Stefano Liberti and Enrico Parenti (2018)

Film Review

The title of this documentary is somewhat misleading: it actually concerns the industrial production of pork for the growing Chinese middle class. Under our present globalized system of industrial agriculture, pigs raised on factory farms (both in China and the US) are fed industrially produced corn and soybeans. Most of this (genetically engineered) soy comes from recently deforested areas of the Brazilian Amazon.

Given the current US trade war with China, I was astonished to learn that a Chinese company (having acquired Smithfields in 2013) is operating gigantic factory pig farms in North Carolina. Most are located in the state’s poor rural (and black) communities that struggle with the toxic aerosols from the (illegal) open pits adjacent to buildings warehousing tends of thousands of hogs.

In addition to visiting North Carolina hog factories and their distressed neighbors,* the filmmakers travel to Brazil to film the massive soybean plantations, as well as local small farmers whose livelihoods have been destroyed by industrial soy production. Together with local environmentalists and indigenous activists, these farmers are fighting the ongoing destruction of the Amazon rainforest by expanding soy plantations.

Predictably only a handful of farmers and international agrobusinesses are becoming fabulously wealthy, while more and more Brazilians struggle to feed themselves.

The filmmakers also visit Mozambique, where local grassroots organizers are successfully fighting the Pro-Savannah initiative. This is a (currently suspended) government initiative involving Japan, Brazil, and Mozambique. It seeks to drive local subsistence farmers off their land to create factory farms producing soy, cotton, and corn for export to China.

Most activists blame these trends on the continued drive, both in the industrial North and China, for cheap meat – irrespective of its quality. Sadly most Chinese consumers are totally unaware of the true cost of their cheap meat. Brazil’s GM soybeans are sprayed with massive amounts of Roundup and other carcinogenic pesticides. This results in serious potential health consequences for human beings who eat pigs that are fed on them.


*North Carolina has its own grassroots organization, the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network fighting their exposure to health-damaging pollution and industry harassment. See https://www.facingsouth.org/2017/02/step-toward-environmental-justice-north-carolinas-hog-country

 

The New Zealand Wars: Parihaka and the Birth of Nonviolent Resistance

The New Zealand Wars Part 5: The East Coast Wars

Directed by Stephen Tainui (2017)

Film Review

Part 5 mainly covers the East Coast wars between 1865-72. Triggered by the Māori murder of a missionary caught spying for the Armed Constabulary, these wars killed more unarmed civilians than the earlier conflicts.

In 1866, despite fighting alongside government forces against Hauhau members of Pai Marire movement, the Māori leader Te Kooti was accused of espionage and imprisoned (without trial), along with captive Hauhau in the Chatham Islands.* Led by Te Kooti, 300 prisoners overwhelmed their guards, seized a supply ship, and forced the crew to return them to the North Island.

Taking refuge in the Urewera Mountains, they survived three unsuccessful attempts to recapture them. Eventually defeated at Ngātapa pā, Te Kooti and his remaining supporters retreated to King Country – still regarded as sovereign Mäori land under the protection of the Mäori king.

In 1870, government forces ambushed Te Kooti and his remaining supporters after luring them to Rotorua under the false pretense of peace negotiations. After Te Kooti himself escaped to the Urewera mountains, the government undertook a brutal campaign of burning farms and slaughtering local Tuhoe who supported him. Nine years later he received a formal pardon and a plot of land (belonging to another iwi) to facilitate government plans to open up King Country to European settlement.

Although most historians date the end of the New Zealand wards as 1873, Mäori continued to exert sovereign control over discrete areas of New Zealand for an extended period.

King Country remained closed to Europeans until the mid-1880s, when iwi leaders agreed to the extension of the North Island Main Trunk Railroad.

South Taranaki resisted settler incursions until the peace colony at Parikaha was invaded in 1881 by 1,500 members of the Armed Constabulary. The latter slaughtered many of the men (and raped many of the women) and sentenced surviving men to forced labor in the South Island.

Parts of Northland remained sovereign until 1890, with Māori losing most of their Northland holdings through the Native Land Court and Public Works Act confiscations.

Parts of the Urewa forest also remained off limits to Europeans until heavily militarized police invaded Maungapohatu in 1916.


An important fact not mentioned in this series is that Māori only lost 4 million acres of land in the New Zealand Wars, in contrast to 8 million acres lost (between 1860 and 1890) via the Native Land Court and legal confiscations. In 1890 they still controlled 40% of New Zealand. By 1910 they controlled only 27%;  in 2000 only 4%. See https://nzhistory.govt.nz/media/interactive/maori-land-1860-2000.


*The Chatham Islands form an archipelago in the Pacific Ocean about 800 kilometers east of the South Island of New Zealand.

**Many historians view Parihaka as the birthplace of nonviolent resistance, based on evidence Gandhi was influenced by the history of peace colony’s nonviolent movement. Parihaka’s leaders greeted invading forces by sending children hot with hot bread for the soldiers.

The New Zealand War: Divide and Conquer

The New Zealand War Part 4: Taranaki Prophets

Directed by Tainui Stephens (2017)

Film Review

Part 4 mainly concerns the formation of the New Zealand Armed Constabulary (colonial troops assisted by Irish and Australian volunteers) after the British began withdrawing their forces in 1865; the formation of the Pai Mārire* movement in Taranaki in 1863; and the increasing involvement of kūpapa (Māori warriors) in the Armed Constabulary as British regiments departed.

This segment depicts the growing divide between Māori determined to fight British land confiscation and those who benefited from lucrative trade with the settlers. The motivation of the kūpapa was complex. First they tended not to see other Māori iwi as their own people. Secondly they demanded (and received) vastly better pay than European soldiers. Thirdly they were promised four seats in the New Zealand parliament in return for their military service.**

While the kūpapa were extremely valuable in several campaigns, they believed they were fighting the Pai Marire movement on their own behalf and balked at taking orders from European officers.

The fourth episode mainly covers battles in Taranaki and Whanganui triggered by a new government policy of “creeping confiscation.” Beginning in 1865, the New Zealand government arbitrarily declared vast tracks of Taranaki land “confiscated.” In one of the largest battles, Tītokowaru and 80 warriors defeated 400 New Zealand troops led by Prussian mercenary Gustavus von Tempsky to win back all the confiscated Taranaki land.

Following von Tempsky’s death in the battle of Te Ngutu o te Manu, Colonel George Whitmore rebuilt the colonial forces to march through south Taranaki burning all Māori land and reclaiming it for the government.

Tarananki resistance to government occupation collapsed at this point when Tītokowaru’s warriors abandoned him. Why they did so is a matter of conjecture – the prevailing theory blames an illicit affair he was having with another chieftain’s daughter.


*The Pai Mārire movement was a syncretic Māori religion or cult founded in Taranaki by the prophet Te Ua Haumēne. Opposing British land confiscation, it flourished in the North Island from about 1863 to 1874,

**This was during a period when Māori still vastly outnumbered the settler population.

 

 

 

 

 

New Zealand Wars: The Failed British Effort to Destroy the Maori King Movement

The New Zealand Wars Part 3: The Invasion of Waikato

Directed by Tainui Stephens (2017)

Film Review

Part 3 begins by describing an 1863 audience between 16 Mäori entertainers and Queen Victoria – in which she promises to let them keep their land. This meeting occurs, ironically, just 12 days after British soldiers invade Waikato.

By now Governor Grey’s main objective is to kill the Mäori king and destroy the King movement. Although iwi continue to be divided whether to fight or trade with the British, there is now sufficient unity under the King movement to assemble a force of 4,000 warriors.

By lying to British authorities about a fictitious Mäori plot to invade Auckland, Grey requests and receives several armored battleships with canon and thousands of additional troops.

Again vastly outnumbered (by 18,000 British troops), Mäori lose the Waikato War due to a strategic blunder – failing to allow for an escape route from Ōrākau pā. Although they successfully repulse all British attacks, they eventually run out of water and ammunition and leave the pā, facing overwhelming British fire power.

Following their victory at Ōrākau, British troops proceed to occupy one million acres of Mäori land in the Waikato. Over several decades, settlers convert it to dairy farms.

The British were unsuccessful in their goal of destroying the Māori King movement, which persists to the present day.