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MONDAY, January 21, 2002



Karen Charman

Collateral damage in the pesticide wars

The troubling story of Dr. Omar Shafey

Karen Charman is an investigative journalist specializing in agriciulture, health, and the environment. This article has been nominated for the Upton Sinclair Award, sponsored by the American Industrial Hygien Association; it appeared on January 7, 2002 at tompaine.com



by Betsey Culp (bculp@sfcall.com)

An earlier version of this article appeared in the Call on January 17, 2000:

Long ago and far away, in a time of innocence and public decorum — the story goes — a tired seamstress made history simply by sitting still.

In 1955 the city of Montgomery, Alabama boasted an antiquated public transit system, which testified daily to the survival of an antiquated social system based on racial inferiority and two-tiered citizenship. Black riders were required to pay their fare at the front of the bus, climb back down the steps, and reenter by the rear door. There, they were allowed to sit so long as white passengers did not need their seats. When the bus began to fill, however, African Americans, professors and maids alike, found themselves evicted from their place, often with a humiliating shout from the white driver: “Niggers get back.”

One December day, Rosa Parks’s feet were hurting her, and she refused to move. After the driver called the police and the 43-year-old woman was hauled off to jail, her plight galvanized the African-American community. It instituted a bus boycott, and the Civil Rights movement was born.

Or so the story goes.

In fact, the South was fairly bubbling with anti-segregation activity during the months following the Brown vs. Board of Education decision of May 1954.

Or rather, the bubbles had come first: the Supreme Court delivered its ruling against “separate but equal” schools in response to a series of carefully organized campaigns begun a decade before. In Montgomery, the NAACP was itching for a legal battle over the bus system.

Enter Rosa Parks — well-educated, middle-aged, with twelve years of experience as NAACP secretary. “She was decent, and she was committed,” recalled E.D. Nixon, president of the Alabama NAACP, “so when she stood up to talk, people’d shut up and listen. And when she did something people just figured it was the right thing to do.”

The local Women’s Political Council had been poised for years, network and plans prepared, waiting for the right opportunity to mount a challenge. President Jo Ann Robinson, an English teacher at all-black Alabama State College, ran off 35,000 flyers calling for a one-day bus boycott and delivered them to every school in the city, where teachers stood ready to hand them out in class. The news spread quickly.

“Monday morning, December the fifth, 1955,” Robinson said later, “I shall never forget because many of us had not gone to bed that night. It was the day of the boycott. We had been up waiting for the first buses to pass to see if any riders were on them. It was a cold morning, cloudy, there was a threat of rain, and we were afraid that if it rained the people would get on the bus. But as the buses began to roll, and there were one or two on some of them, none on some of them, then we began to realize that the people were cooperating and that they were going to stay off the bus that first day.”

Montgomery’s African-American community stayed off the bus that first long day and many more, refusing to get back on until November 13, 1956, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the segregated bus system was unconstitutional. The coordinated activity affected the city’s economy as well, for downtown white merchants began to complain of a business decline when black customers failed to patronize them. And the boycott hurtled the young minister of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church into the national spotlight when the newly organized Montgomery Improvement Association selected the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as its president.

King’s words provided the music for thousands of tired feet: “If you will protest courageously and yet with dignity and Christian love, in the history books that are written in future generations, historians will have to pause and say ‘there lived a great people — a black people — who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization.”

… deferred

Long ago but not so far away, in a time of passion and public protest — the story goes — San Francisco looked at its image and found it lacking. In 1965 Herb Caen took stock: “The Negro population has grown tenfold since World War II, but San Francisco, for all

its vaunted tolerance, has moved slowly to meet the challenge that this presents. The Negro, now representing one-tenth of the city’s population, is largely restricted to a single section of substandard old housing — centering on, and radiating from, Fillmore Street — and the ills implicit in such a situation are clearly to be seen: de facto segregation in the schools, inequitable job opportunities, crime out of proportion to the population, mass picketing and demonstrations.”

Redevelopment to the rescue! Proudly parading the twin banners of “Slum Clearance” and “Blight Removal,” builders set out to transform the center of the city into a shiny world-class kingdom by the sea, where slums would not offend, where state-of-the-art office space and elegant high-rises would attract investors and stimulate the economy. Looking back in 1974, city watcher Frederick Wirt noted, “Most citizens by the bay put their money, votes, labor, and skills into another urban dream, in which not cable cars but gleaming new towers ‘reach halfway to the stars.’ These are the politics of income, in which the shared values of acquisition fuse most social strata into a coalition of mutual interest.”

Or so the story goes.

Down went the old, and up went the new. No matter that the Western Addition — centering on, and radiating from Fillmore Street — lost some 4,000 of its former residents. (Somewhere in their desk drawers, many of the dislocated still keep the certificate given them by the Redevelopment Agency, offering them the opportunity to buy any land in the area that comes up for sale. Given the price of San Francisco land, these certificates are about as useful as Confederate dollars.) No matter that the other targeted area, South of Market, lost a similar number of low-income residents, many elderly, from all ethnic groups.

On April 10, 1968, just a week after an assassin silenced the golden-tongued minister who had given voice to the Montgomery bus boycott, the San Francisco Redevelopment Agency ceremonially broke ground in Martin Luther King Square, the site of a federally subsidized housing project in the heart of the Western Addition. Local protests stirred up a “passing flurry of proletarianism” in the courts, to use Redevelopment Agency director Justin Herman’s phrase. They won a few seats on city commissions for people of color but did nothing to stop the bulldozers in the neighborhoods. In 1978 excavation began on the site of the new Moscone Center, intended as the centerpiece of a revitalized South of Market area. The site now contains an ironic configuration: over one section of the convention center spreads the park known as Yerba Buena Gardens; nestled within its six-acre expanse, which was subsidized by thousands of uprooted lives, stands a waterfall, a memorial to Martin Luther King, Jr.

… redefined

Today, in a time of cynicism and public apathy — the story goes — officially legislated racial segregation is only a distant memory. Faces of color appear everywhere, in athletics, entertainment, business, and government. A series of African-American mayors, from Atlanta to San Francisco, have turned traditional urban politics topsy-turvy.

If he had lived, Martin Luther King, Jr. would have celebrated his 73rd birthday last Tuesday. No doubt his precisely trimmed mustache would be threaded with gray, and perhaps his round face would have acquired a broader beam. He would look in astonishment at the world of the twenty-first century, for no one could have predicted thirty years ago that African Americans would become such highly visible men and women. And then, perhaps, he would bow his head in sorrow, realizing how far in the future his dream still lies “that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.” What would King have made of a 2000 study by a Boston group called United for a Fair Economy, which estimates that 268 billionaires live in the United States, and 34.5 million people below the official poverty line? Or recent census reports that more than a quarter of all African Americans — more than 9 million people — live in poverty? That the median income of blacks is only about 60 percent of the entire country’s? That, according the Justice Policy Institute, 40 percent of all African-American men in California live under some sort of judicial control — most likely, incarceration or parole? That African-American men in California are imprisoned eight times as often as their white counterparts?

Most likely the good reverend would nod his head in sad comprehension. Perhaps things haven’t changed so much after all. Perhaps in the end, race is only a marker, the minus attached to the grade society assigns to class. Perhaps, he would say, the principle is still valid that he enunciated in New York City exactly a year before his death: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

… and distorted



What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore —
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over —
like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Langston Hughes, 1951

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Economics is part of our struggle

We are aware that Montgomery’s white businessmen have tried to “talk sense” to the bus company and the city commissioners. We have observed that small Negro shops are thriving as Negroes find it inconvenient to walk downtown to the white stores. We have been getting more polite treatment in the white shops since the protest began. We have a new respect for the proper use of our dollar.

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Martin Luther King, Jr. (“Our Struggle,” Liberation Magazine, April 1957)

Through our scientific and technological genius, we have made of this world a neighborhood and yet . . . we have not had the ethical commitment to make of it a brotherhood. But somehow, and in some way, we have got to do this. We must all learn to live together as brothers. Or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. And whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.

Martin Luther King, Jr., speech, St. Louis, March 22, 1964

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I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality and freedom for their spirits.

Martin Luther King, Jr., Nobel Prize Acceptance Speech, Oslo, December 10, 1964

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True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.

Martin Luther King, Jr., “A Time to Break Silence,” New York City, April 4, 1967

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Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic walls that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice. Let us be dissatisfied until those that live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security. Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family is living in a decent sanitary home.

Martin Luther King, Jr., “Where Do We Go from Here?” Atlanta, August 16, 1967

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Another reason that I’m happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we’re going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demands didn’t force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them.

Martin Luther King, Jr., “I See the Promised Land,” Memphis, April 3, 1968

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Most citizens by the Bay put their money, votes, labor, and skills into another urban dream, in which not cable cars but gleaming new towers “reach halfway to the stars.” These are the politics of income, in which the shared values of acquisition fuse most social strata into a coalition of mutual interest.”

Frederick Wirt, Power in the City (1974)

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“Freedom trains” will carry customers from BART’s five end-points to Powell Station on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

BART press release, January 4, 2002