An Unreasonable Woman
An interview with Diane Wilson
By Kelpie Wilson
t r u t h o u t | Interview
Tuesday 28 March 2006
Diane Wilson – shrimper, anti-toxics activist and author
DIANE WILSON IS THE AUTHOR of An Unreasonable Woman: A True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas (Chelsea Green, 2005). It is a remarkable book, telling the story of Wilson’s life as female shrimp boat captain and an environmental activist fighting devastating toxic pollution from chemical and plastics manufacturers on the Texas Gulf Coast.
But I have to confess, when the book was first recommended to me, I hesitated to read it. As an environmental activist, I have my own personal history of endless hours of research, boring meetings, scary confrontations, nasty intimidation and the infighting that goes along with these struggles, and I wasn’t sure that I wanted to hear all the gritty details of someone else’s pains and triumphs. Lois Gibbs, the courageous activist mother of Love Canal, said the same thing in her review of An Unreasonable Woman in Orion Magazine. But like Gibbs, I was hooked after the first page. For one thing, the Texas Gulf Coast seems to be unlike any other place on the planet.
Molly Ivins and others have called An Unreasonable Woman a masterpiece of American literature, and I agree. First, there is the poetry of Wilson’s language. I can only compare her to fiction writers like Cormac McCarthy and Annie Proulx. She wraps her tender descriptions of her beloved Lavaca Bay around poignant inner reflections, while rendering the home-grown dialogue and emotionally tense social ecology of her community with complete authenticity.
Then there is the excitement and exhilaration of working-class feminism that permeates Wilson’s life. The first-person feminist voices we usually hear are those of academic or professional women speaking of their battles in the bedroom, the boardroom and the halls of power. We don’t hear much about a lone woman, the first woman in her community to run a shrimp boat, relying on herself for both aid and comfort, fixing a broken engine with bailing wire and tape, satisfied with her own company through the long night, trawling for shrimp under the stars.
Finally, the best thing for me about Diane’s book was getting to share her spiritual journey to a deeper humanity. So many things can tear you apart as an activist and it’s a delicate balance you must maintain between your own passion and your compassion for your opponents, your victories and your failures. Diane has used the living sea itself as her spiritual role model:
“Risking one’s life can be strangely liberating. That’s what the sea counsels me. She still talks even though she’s got a mercury Superfund on her left breast and vinyl chloride and phthalates on her right breast. She’s a forgiving grandmother. Not unduly angry about the mix-ups and mess ups and the confounding fact of healing taking so long. She knows it is complicated. My intent will keep her, she says.”
Diane was recently released from jail in Texas after serving time for an act of civil disobedience. She is back home in Seadrift now, living in a tiny trailer she says she “paid no more than $500 for.” She agreed to answer a few questions for TruthOut readers.
Kelpie Wilson: Diane, you just got out of jail. What were you in there for?
Diane Wilson: I was in several jails. I was arrested December 5th in Houston for disrupting Vice President Dick Cheney’s speech at the DeLay fundraiser. I was charged with possessing a fake document and spent five days in the Harris County Jail waiting on a trial that never materialized.
I was then transferred to the Victoria County Jail for an outstanding warrant. Back in 2002 I had climbed a 70-foot chemical tower at Dow Chemical in Seadrift, Texas, and chained myself to the top after dropping a twenty foot banner that read: “Dow – Responsible for Bhopal.”
In October 2005, while on a book tour in the Northeast, I was told to go to jail for my 120 days, and I told the sheriff’s department and DA that I wouldn’t go to jail until Warren Anderson, former CEO of Union Carbide, went to jail for his outstanding warrant in India for the crime against Bhopal.When I was arrested on December 5th in Houston, I spent the five days in Harris County Jail, then was transferred to Victoria County Jail, where I spent three months.
KW: I heard that the DA called you a “dangerous woman.” Is that true? Who would you be dangerous to?
Diane Wilson: The District Attorney in Calhoun County, Dan Heard, called me a “dangerous woman” during my trial and was speaking to the jury. I believe he said that because he thought my ideas were dangerous and that I had no fear of retaliation. He asked me once what they (the courts, the justice system) could do to make me stop fighting, and I told him there wasn’t a thing they could do to stop me.
KW: Has anyone ever called you an eco-terrorist?
Diane Wilson: Yes, when I was fighting Formosa Plastics’ illegal discharge and attempted to sink my shrimp boat on top of the illegal discharge, the Coast Guard, who apprehended me and confiscated my shrimp boat, said I was a terrorist on the high seas. Another time, when I was trying to get DuPont to recycle their waste stream into the bay and I was on a 30-day hunger strike in front of their Delaware office, they said I was an eco-terrorist.
KW: You live in a community where many of your friends and relatives have died or are dying of cancer. What happened when you started to go to public hearings and speak up about the role of pollution in that cancer?
Diane Wilson: At one meeting, a large delegation of politicians and industry leaders, the chamber of commerce, and the school system showed. They said I was a fanatic and a nut and making stuff up. Or else I was a spy hired by Louisiana officials to disrupt economic development in Texas. A woman from the school district said she’d never heard of pollution causing cancer. She said her husband, who worked at Alcoa and died of cancer, got it because he was a smoker. Also the head of the American Cancer Society came down and urged me to NOT do a study on cancer in my community. He said if I EVER contemplated doing a study I should call him first. He also showed me a copy of an Earth First! magazine and said I should bring down Earth Firsters and get them to protest (this was during the time that a bomb exploded in a car driven by Earth Firsters). He was trying to destroy my reputation in the community.
KW: I want to note that many times in your book you talk about the embryos and eggs of the shrimp and other sea life and how effluents from Formosa and Alcoa are killing them. Do you have any thoughts on the term “pro-life” that is so heavily used by Republicans and how that idea might apply to the situation where you are?
Diane Wilson: I believe if the male of the species had babies there would be universal pro-choice. I think this idea of pro-life has more to do with control over the bodies and minds of women and is so hotly defended by the religious right because they consider the bodies of women and the body of the earth inherently evil. I don’t think it is a coincidence that the killings at abortion clinics have sometimes been by Assembly of God (Pentecostal) members. I was raised Pentecostal so I’ve been a fly on that wall.
KW: When you were in jail in Victoria County, you wrote a letter to the Sheriff about deplorable conditions. You had several examples of terrible abuse by the withholding of medical treatment. The worst was the story of Shandra Williams. Can you tell that story briefly and also tell us your thoughts on how such a thing can happen in a Republican, “pro-life” state like Texas?
Diane Wilson: I met Shandra on Christmas Eve after she had been picked up because she looked “suspicious.” A year before, Shandra had been in the very same cell block after she had been picked up by the Victoria County cops for an outstanding warrant. Shandra was 6-7 months pregnant, and her file clearly stated that she was NOT to be picked up until after her delivery because she had a rare uterine condition and it was very problematic.
That mattered not a whit to the sheriff’s department. The sheriff was running a re-election campaign and outstanding warrants don’t look good on the campaign trail so in the cell she went. Due to the harsh conditions of cell life, Shandra’s condition worsened and she started bleeding, but the guards and nurse said she was just trying to get out of jail and was a complainer and just wanted drugs, so she repeatedly had to “prove” her condition with a bloody pad. Eventually they stuck her in isolation, by herself, in a cold, cold room with nothing but a blue paper gown and a paper sheet. To keep her quiet they gave her Benedryl. Eventually she was placed back in the jail until her water broke, starting her labor. The nurse said she was hallucinating and trying to get drugs so they tried to place her back into isolation, which frightened Shandra. The guard said Shandra was going into isolation the “hard way or the easy way” and threatened to use the Taser on her. Fortunately, a startled guard gathered Shandra’s belongings and got her into isolation before the guard tased her. Once in isolation again, Shandra went into labor. The baby was breeched and started coming feet first. With a baby dangling to her knees, Shandra crawled about 60 feet to a call button and pressed it three times and yelled that she was in labor. Finally the guards and nurse arrived and they rushed her to the ambulance, but Shandra said her baby died en route.
In a state like Texas, unfortunately, there is no incongruence between stopping abortions and lack of health care for inmates. It’s part of their disdain for all things that are “soft on crime.” During the state Republican convention, the Attorney General and US Senate candidate John Cornyn joked about the differences between Republicans and Democrats. “If you’ve used the phrase ‘protecting prisoners’ rights,'” Cornyn said, “you might be a Democrat.” Another Texas Attorney General noted Texas had big bad jails because they had big bad prisoners.
KW: What has been the effect of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita on the Gulf environment and the shrimpers and other fishermen?
Diane Wilson: When Hurricane Katrina rolled in, the immediate impact was the Gulf of Mexico fisheries, and in fact the entire Gulf of Mexico was declared an official disaster. The Gulf of Mexico fisheries, especially the bays, were in dire straights before the hurricane, and now many are totally decimated. Another issue that will probably not be understood for a long time is the toll that pollution has taken on our gulf waters. Many, many chemical sites and waste sites were flooded. A man from my home town was working on a dredge boat that was doing salvage work near Beaumont and he dredged something up that triggered a heart attack. That’s local knowledge but nothing the media knew about.
KW: Do you think the EPA is covering up the true extent of toxic contamination after the hurricanes?
Diane Wilson: I have been involved in environmental issues for 17 years and in my opinion, the EPA and the chemical industry have been co-conspirators in their attempt to keep the extent of the pollution unknown. I had two investigators from the Texas state environmental agency give me internal documents about contamination, asking me to do something with it because they couldn’t do anything with it. There was a political bottleneck and nothing went higher up, they said.
KW: Turning back to your book, what made you think you wanted to write about it all?
Diane Wilson: I am a closet writer. Always have been. I had a lot of anguish over my fight with Formosa and writing the story was the way I released it. I wasn’t really thinking about publishing until I finished.
KW: Everyone who reads your story is overwhelmed by your courage and boldness. For instance, it must not have been easy being the first woman to run a shrimp boat by yourself. Was it the feminist movement that gave you the idea that you could do that?
Diane Wilson: The feminist movement has not made it to the Gulf of Mexico. Never seen that movement. I became a boat captain because I loved the water and had been on a boat since I was eight. I captained the boat by myself because I liked being alone. Probably if I had a male deckhand on the boat he would have tried to gain control over the wheel. Running a boat isn’t that hard. Just takes doing. Most or all women I ever knew were discouraged from running boats, but it was too late with me.
KW: Your father took you out shrimping as a youngster. Did he have a more liberated attitude? Did he encourage you to do a man’s work?
Diane Wilson: My daddy thought women were basically stupid, but he didn’t mean that in a mean way. I was on the boat because I was good and I was a big help and I could patch nets and I could steer the boat without crying. It was a practical decision on my daddy’s part.
KW: So what is it that gives you your strength?
Diane Wilson: I am a mystic and am directed by an internal compass. I am not outer-directed.
KW: Tell me, what kind of dreams are you having these days?
Diane Wilson: I was dreaming about my dead daddy. He was alive, he said, and couldn’t I tell? He was making COFFEE – stupid!!!
Kelpie Wilson is the t r u t h o u t environment editor. A veteran forest protection activist and mechanical engineer, she is the author of Primal Tears, an eco-thriller novel published by North Atlantic Books.