St. John the Baptist Parish, Louisiana, November 9, 2021 – The Descendants Project, an organization founded to defend the descendants of people once enslaved in Louisiana river parishes, today asked a district court to declare void and void a decades-old dezoning ordinance. and order the parish of St. John the Baptist to remove it from all of its cards and records.
Their lawsuit stems from the corrupt 1990 zoning of a vast expanse of rural industrial land in Wallace, Louisiana. In 1996, Lester Millet Jr., former chairman of the St. John the Baptist Parish Council, was sentenced to nearly five years in prison for his role in trying to help Formosa, a Taiwanese company, build a factory for rayon paste next to Wallace. Millet engaged in money laundering and extortion and threatened residents with expropriation to force them to sell their land in Formosa. Millet abused his official position to pass the new zoning ordinance.
The Banners grew up in Wallace and now own and operate a cafe that sells products made from their ancestors’ recipes and presents the Afro-Creole history of the region through the prism of their own family oral histories. Now they are fighting to save their community from a proposed grain terminal that would bring more grain, dust and pollution to their neighborhood. Residents of Wallace, a small town 40 miles west of New Orleans, point to the illegality of the corruption and scandal that surrounded the rezoning by urging the court to overturn the order and thus ban the heavy industrial development.
Despite Millet Jr.’s conviction, the illegal ordinance remained on the books. The land has been used for the cultivation of sugar cane over the years, but now a company, Greenfield Louisiana, is looking to locate a huge heavy industrial grain terminal on this same spot. The main player is a San Francisco-based investor Chris James, the former owner of a coal plant who has made millions of investments in technology companies. James is the director of San Francisco-based Medlock Investments, owner of Greenfield Louisiana. Recently, it has been the subject of numerous glowing profiles hail the “activist investor” for allegedly making Exxon more environmentally friendly. He has only managed to maintain his reputation as a crusading environmentalist because his central role in the grain terminal is not yet widely known, the Banners say.
At the height of the pandemic, when the parish of St. John had the highest per capita death rates in the country and residents were trying to survive, Greenfield was busy garnering the support of public leaders and lawmakers with the backing. from the Port of South Louisiana. Ironically, the current South Louisiana Port Executive Director Paul Aucoin (on behalf of Save our Wetlands) sued St. John The Baptist Parish during the ’90s rezoning, arguing that the parish did not have the adequate knowledge, expert assessments, nor hired experts when considering the zoning change.
Lawyers for the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a lawsuit on behalf of The Descendants Project, the organization founded by sisters Jo and Joy Banner.
Children in the era of illegal zoning, the Banners remember the anxiety and uncertainty that gripped their community; they also remember the resistance of the community, which forced Formosa to abandon the project. (Formosa is the same company that is trying to build a massive plastic factory at the burial sites of enslaved people in the nearby town of St. James.)
“I remember my parents telling us we were going to have to move,” said Jo banner. “We told them that there was nothing they could do and that the parish was taking our land. We didn’t think we had a choice. This is a miscarriage of justice that always causes us tremendous trauma, and it needs to be corrected. We need peace.
If built, the grain terminal would follow a common model in which dangerous industrial facilities are placed in or near black communities, a practice at the heart of environmental racism. People who live in areas with toxic air pollution suffer from higher rates of cancer and other diseases, and these people are Disproportionately black.
The proposed terminal would endanger the community on several fronts. In the heart of an area dubbed “Cancer Alley” due to toxic pollution, grain dust is said to further exacerbate poor air quality for Wallace residents, whose homes are reportedly within 300 feet of the complex. places. Composed of more than grain, grain dust can also include parts of insects, bird and rodent droppings, bacteria, fungi and pesticides. Numerous studies found that exposure to grain dust can cause respiratory illness and would pose a particular threat to residents of Wallace, who already live with air pollution from other factories along Cancer Alley.
The potential psychological damage to residents could be as severe as it is physical. Parts of the facility will rise up to 300 feet, taller than the Statue of Liberty, blocking out sunlight and views, and the constant noise would disrupt the peaceful rhythms of this rural community.
In a place where people have a deep and even sacred connection to the land, industrial development would be more than fundamental. In this region, there are unmarked burials of once enslaved people on nearby plantations that tend not to be discovered unless the developers find and report them. Recently, Forensic architecture, an internationally recognized agency based in London, examined the site and identified a series of archaeological anomalies suggesting the presence of anonymous graves.
The potential damage to African American culture does not end there. Just east of the site is the Whitney Plantation and Museum, a national monument recognized for its mission to educate visitors and the general public about slavery. Before the Covid pandemic, 100,000 people visited the Whitney every year. The Louisiana state preservation officer expressed concern about the impact of the terminal on the Whitney, citing the height of the towers and the smells that could emanate from the facility. Also endangered is another national landmark adjacent to the Wallace region, the Evergreen Plantation. As Whitney Plantation’s communications director and descendant of the slaves who worked there, Joy Banner is doubly worried about her home and workplace.
“As a museum of slavery, Whitney Plantation plays an instrumental role in helping people discover this history,” said Joy Banner. “Being at this sacred site, for the very reason that the slaves worked, is essential to foster understanding and promote change. You can’t have this experience anywhere else, and a grain terminal with its noise, pollution and dust everywhere would detract from a powerful learning experience. Ms Banner is also concerned about the historic Woodville Baptist Church – a church built by a liberated Black Union soldier – and the Antioch Baptist Church, also built by liberated men and women.
The targets of the lawsuit are the parish, the parish council, the Parish Planning Commission and the Parish Planning and Zoning Department, and the named defendants are Parish President Jaclyn Hotard and Director of Planning and Zoning René Pastorak. The lawsuit also targets the parish’s complicated zoning process which left the parish with at least four different maps presented to the public as official. These maps have conflicting zoning designations for the Wallace tract and violate the ward’s own ordinances.
In 2012, it was discovered that the official parish zoning plan had been lost or missing. In response, the parish council passed a resolution adopting a new map that zoned the Wallace area for heavy industrial use. But the parish charter says that the council can make changes to the original map only by ordinance, not by resolution, rendering the map illegitimate. In addition to this map now on file, there are three other “official” zoning maps online.
“The Descendants Project goes back in time to right one of the wrongs done to the community of Wallace and once again prevent the evil that looms over them again,” said Pam spees, senior lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “Their efforts to get the parish council to address their concerns have fallen on deaf ears. The only option they had left was to sue them. The illegalities surrounding the adoption of this ordinance were so extreme and pervasive that they rendered it null and void. “
The residents of Wallace have repeatedly asked the parish council to address their concerns and questions about the proposed development, to no avail. District Councilor Kurt Becnel, who signed a letter of support for Greenfield as the pandemic raged, refused to put the grain terminal on the agenda despite numerous requests. Becnel said in a recent article, “I don’t tell anyone about the grain elevator. On August 23, 2021, Project Descendants sent a formal complaint about the project to council and received no response.
Without further recourse, the Descendants Project initiates a mandamus procedure, designed for cases “where the law does not provide for redress by ordinary means or where the delay involved in obtaining ordinary redress may cause injustice”. The Banner sisters are asking the court to overturn the order passed by Millet Jr. and order the parish to remove the illegal zoning designation from all maps and documents.
For more information visit the Center for Constitutional Rights case page.
The Descendants Project is a 501c3 non-profit organization created to support Descendants communities in river parishes who work together to dismantle the legacy of slavery and achieve a healed and liberated future. Learn more about https://www.thedescendantsproject.com/.
The Center for Constitutional Rights works with threatened communities to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has grappled with oppressive power systems, including structural racism, gender-based oppression, economic inequity, and government overreach. Learn more about ccrjustice.org. Follow the Center for Constitutional Rights on social media: Center for Constitutional Rights on Facebook, @leCCR on Twitter and justice on Instagram.