Knock on Every Door: Up the Corporation!
Grassroots Flower Power

By David Spero

     For forty years, the Newtown Florist Club has brought
flowers, food and other support to families of the sick and
dying in their African American corner of Gainesville, 55
miles northeast of Atlanta. In 1990, they started wondering
why they were always so busy.
     "I saw so many of my neighbors die," says Faye Bush, an
indomitable 59-year old grandmother. "We lost 12 people on
one street. We wanted to find out why." The women of the
Florist Club went up and down the rambling streets, knocking
on doors with their homemade community health survey. The
results documented extraordinary rates of cancer and lupus,
an autoimmune disease often leading to death from kidney and
heart failure.
     After the nearly all-white Gainesville City Commission
ignored the shocking statistics, Faye Bush began organizing
the neighborhood to demand action by the State. "People
called me a troublemaker," she remembers. "But I just kept
going. You have to prove to them you're right. It's an
educational problem. I had to educate myself."
     Finally the Georgia Department of Human Resources did a
formal study that confirmed the Florist Club results but
blamed the epidemic on the residents' lifestyles,
specifically, alleged smoking and fatty diets. (This dodge
for explaining cancer clusters in low-income communities has
become a staple of health departments across the U.S.) The
Newtown Florist Club rejected this explanation and in 1992
contacted ECO-Action, a group specializing in helping poor
Georgia communities with toxics problems. With ECO-A's
help, NFC began to discover the extent of the environmental
abuse they suffered.
     "We found that 75 percent of all the chemical emissions
in Hall County are in this one neighborhood," says Sheila
O'Farrell, ECO-A organizer. "Newtown has 13 of 16 toxic
reporting facilities in the county and two Superfund sites."
     To force the State Environmental Protection Department
(EPD's) hand, NFC planned an action campaign ("A little of
everything," according to Bush.)  They hung black ribbons on
the mailboxes of people who had died and conducted "toxic
tours" for media, politicians and environmentalists. The
community-in-mourning effect was striking, and Newtown began
to get publicity and pledges of congressional support.
     When EPD did their soil and water studies, they found
heavy metal and petrochemical contamination hundreds of
times acceptable limits. The neighborhood, built after a
tornado flattened the area in 1936, turns out to rest on a
landfill. Now that the truth is out, Newtown and their
allies have entered a new and tougher phase: fighting for
cleanup and compensation for their poisoning.
     Meanwhile, Newtown activists confront the other ills
affecting low-income urban neighborhoods. Since construction
of Route 129 flattened a thriving Black-owned business
strip, Newtown has had no shopping district and only one
small park. Another highway cuts Newtown off from the
wealthy white districts near beautiful Lake Lanier.
Gainesville's at-large voting system excludes the Black
community from representation.
     NFC has won a new park and gotten funds to rehabilitate
some run-down buildings. They've held marches against drugs,
fought Ku Klux Klan attacks on the neighborhood, and filed a
Voting Rights Act suit demanding district elections. They've
even started a young people's marching band, because, as
Bush says, "The youth need activities. We've been leaving
them alone too much."

     Newtown leaders are in the crest of a new wave, and
it's a big one, according to organizer Bradley Angel of
Greenpeace. "There are thousands of communities across the
country, mostly people of color, fighting on toxics issues
alone," he says. "There's no limit on what community-based
groups can do."
     Organizers have learned that all communities can rally
behind environmental concerns. Lead contamination and air
pollution, for example, are almost universal poor urban
communities. "They're issues of health and self-
determination," says Francis Calpotura of the Center for
Third World Organizing. "People want to know why they're
getting sick...Fighting corporations and government on the
environment politicizes communities and develops new
leaders, especially women and people of color who don't get
many other opportunities to lead."
     Grassroots environmentalists usually need help from the
outside, though. After all, they're often up against
corporate giants, (like Newtown's Ralston-Purina and
Cargill.) Fortunately, such help is now widely available.
Groups like ECO-Action are springing up all over, and more
and more grassroots leaders have learned their way around
the difficult chemistry of industrial pollution. "Now when
Greenpeace gets a call," says Angel, "we often simply put
the callers in touch with other communities fighting similar
battles. They can share strategies that have worked and
teach each other how to deal with government agencies."
     Neighborhoods in struggle have combined in
"environmental justice" networks like the Southwest Network
for Economic and Environmental Justice (SNEEJ) or the
Southern Organizing Committee (SOC,) whose strength is
mushrooming. Last autumn, a SOC conference planned for 500
people drew 2,500 activists, mostly people of color.
     "The left is really missing the boat on this," says
Angel. "The environmental justice movement is the most
exciting development in decades. It's empowering and uniting
communities to deal with racism and economic injustice."
     Although struggling with lupus herself, Faye Bush said
she will never give up.
     Send letters and other support to Newtown Florist Club
at 1053 Desota St., Gainesville, GA 30501.
     And here is a list of a few organizations who can help
communities fight toxics:
     Southern Organizing Committee, P.O. Box 10518, Atlanta,
GA 30310; 404-243-5229.
     Citizens Clearinghouse on Hazardous Waste, P.O. Box
6806, VA 22040; 703-237-2249.
     SouthWest Organizing Project, 211 10th St. SW
Albuquerque, NM 87102; 805-247-8832.
     Greenpeace, 1436 U St. NW, Wash. DC 20009; 202-462-
     Clean Water Action, 1320 18th St. Ste. 300, Washington
DC 20036; 202-457-1286
     David Spero is called "Mr. Rogers" by the kids on his
block in San Francisco because he's always talking about the
neighborhood. Please send news, questions, and ideas or
stories on community-neighborhood organizing to this column
at CrossRoads, P.O. Box 2809, Oakland, CA 94609.