Thursday, January 10, 2008

Battle at the Shipyard

Movement is sometimes slow as molasses, barely perceptible and sticky. Nine years had passed since the fifty or so employees (there are about 75 clients in all!) gathered at a community center in Biloxi by the Gulf on Sunday first took their struggle against a shipbuilding giant to court. They sued the company for creating a work environment that not only condoned but encouraged racism. Workers were forced to put up with graffiti of racial slurs, hanging nooses, threats and terrorizing pranks. Some of the workers told us they had worked at that site for ten, fifteen, to beyond thirty years. Jena 6. Columbia University.
Nooses are still a commonplace occurrence here. See Jaribu's article. The Mississippi state flag which has the Confederate flag embossed within it hangs all over the place, including outside the State Capitol. It’s shocking that nooses and Confederate flags are not just isolated outbreaks of a disease that had been all but eradicated.

Yesterday, Mike, Stephan, Shirley and I were fortunate enough to witness a meeting for a settlement that could signal the end of this stage of the struggle.
The workers faced a tough decision – whether to accept the settlement proposal or to go further with trial. We contemplated what we would do in their shoes, and found ourselves weighing the practical realities that play a role i.e. what is the climate in Mississippi for racial justice, the strength of the movement, what would a jury decide, what is the politics of the judge, and the cost of trial to name a few.

I have been thinking about Professor Loffredo’s admission at his panel discussion with Frances Fox Piven that it is a bleak time for fighting for economic justice. In Mississippi it is a bleak time for fighting for racial justice, for workers’ rights, and I have come to realize, human rights. Jaribu has brought it home that our domestic struggles often labeled “civil rights” are no different than those being waged in Mexico, India, China or wherever else as “human rights.” The right to live and work decently without fear of losing life and limb is a human right. Shirley and I talked about how you fight these seemingly hopeless struggles anyway when you have a stake in the community, when it is your workplace, when it is your people, whatever you identify with that makes the fight for justice personal and real. It has taken some reminding that we are not in a foreign place. Mississippi is America. New York has its struggles. Movement may be slow, change may seem impossible, but the alternative seems to be standing still.

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