Tennessee: Rad Waste, Dead Possums, Coal Sludge & God

We arrived at Lissa McLeod’s Knoxville home early Sunday evening. She was making apple & pear crisp from dumpster-dived fruits, while her partner, Jake Weinstein, cut and painted cardboard props for an Olive Tree Circus performance the next evening, after a morning circus workshop at the elementary school.

Oak Ridge Environmental Peace Alliance organizer and neighbor Shelly Wascomb mixed up Margaritas. Lissa and Jake are back from a solidarity trip to Palestine. At one demonstration protesting the wall, Israeli soldiers lobbed tear gas and other projectiles at unarmed protesters, Lissa recalled. “They looked right into our eyes…I’ve never been so terrified in my life. I wanted to turn and run, but everyone else was holding their ground so I stayed.”

A letter advising confiscation of funds from Lissa’s bank account lay open on the countertop. The IRS had seized her savings to meet its demand for the war taxes Lissa had redirected last year to constructive community projects. As a conscientious objector to paying for war, Lissa is even more determined after her Palestine trip to connect with “people who are ready to take action.”

Our conversations regarding our WRL Dixie circuit riding quickly moved to the perennial issue of how to collaborate with and be informed by concerns of communities of color throughout the South. Lissa has been a southern organizer for years and understands well that traditionally white-led groups are seldom able to attract wide participation from people of color, and without that vital collaboration, the organizing efforts won’t reflect the realities of the region.

Jake’s arrival in Knoxville boosted to a new level the presence of puppets and circus theater to enhance direct action and community education. He and Coleman engaged in the discussion of art as a tool for social change, and Lissa agreed that art and creative actions should be a part of the S.E. gathering and training event.

We spent a few hours on Monday with OREPA coordinator Ralph Hutchison who echoed earlier sentiments about the realities and challenges faced by Southern organizers.
“In the South, where the work is most needed, it is hardest to do,” he told us. And regarding the conversation about how to involve people of color, Ralph talked about the necessity of allowing for the “organic and natural alliances” to grow, building trust over time and across common issues that might take years to bear fruit. “Economics is key,” Ralph said. “It is the lack of job security that is driving young people of color into the military.”

Monday evening in Knoxville our hosts were john johnson, a staunch conservation biologist and forestry student, and Amanda Womack, classical violinist, R.N. and Board President of the Foundation for Global Sustainability. They furthered the conversation about the proposed S.E. gathering. john is a longtime Earth First! organizer and seasoned Direct Action practitioner and trainer. john suggested opening up the gathering with a fire circle to facilitate peer to peer exchange of stories and experiences from the trenches and to work in collaboration with other groups from environmental, social justice and peace organizations. Amanda thought such an event was something her foundation might be interested in getting behind.

As we left Knoxville on I-40 we passed an exit to Oak Ridge and the Y-12 nuclear bomb plant. Soon we came upon a flatbed trailer hauling a large metal box carrying radioactive waste. Further along we detoured to find the site of the TVA sludge pond spill, an environmental disaster 50 times greater than the Exxon-Valdez oil spill. A dead possum in the middle of the road was an ominous foreboding of the devastation ahead. At Big John’s Foodette in Harrimon, Coleman talked with Jason, an unemployed father of three, who offered to lead us to what had been his favorite fishing spot, now covered deep in the toxic coal sludge. “People need to see this to understand how bad it really is,” he said. (Look to our next blog for photos).

As we drove through what had once been a bustling downtown Harrimon, we were caught off guard by the number of empty and boarded businesses along Main Street. The late 1800s early industrial American architecture stood quiet watch over this dying town. The toxic spill only added insult to injury. As we left the scene, the church sign added a note of irony:

“God smiles when we trust him completely.”

OREPA is gearing up for the April 4th vigil and direct action at the gates of Y-12 in Oak Ridge. Solidarity and support are needed.
Stay tuned for the Nashville review.
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