County denies appeals, approves cement plant. What now?
On Tuesday February 25, 1997 the Alachua County commission, after a nearly ten hour meeting, voted 4-1 not to consider the appeals of Dr. Tom Bussing, Arthur and Phyllis Saarinen, and the Haile Community Association. Instead they chose to uphold the issuance of a final site permit for Florida Rock Industry's proposed cement plant. The decision was the final one for the County Commission, leaving the opposition to the cement plant with the question: what next? What follows is a proposal for further action. It is my sincere hope that the reader will recognize the real possibility for achieving these ends. (Polling data--8,300 people signed petition
Within our ranks are veteran activists who have learned, through struggle, that the ruling political institutions are fundamentally at odds with the most basic premise of democracy, which is that a representative's function is to administer the will of the people. Ideally the flow of decision making should be from the bottom up, not the top down. Seasoned grassroots activists are acutely aware of the fact that the political reality we live in is just the opposite--the great majority of our "representatives" set policy based on the whims and wishes of their financial backers and political cronies rather than on the will of the average citizen.
Clearly the next step is to initiate the building of real alternative political institutions which aim at ultimately replacing the existing body politic with genuine peoples' power. What is holding some of us back is a misinterpretation of the reasons most people do not participate in the political process. Some think the reason majority of people do not participate in fighting for their own rights is apathy or disinterest. The reality is that most working class people have long since lost faith in politicians and the government and see no point in wasting time fighting a generally losing battle within structures that are set up to make us lose, not because we are wrong, but because we are regarded as nobodies within the system.
Also within our ranks there are the recently radicalized, those who have discovered, through their participation in this struggle, that their representatives do not work for them. Mostly middle class, these people tend to believe that the root of the problem is the personal character of the individuals who sit on the board. This problem, they believe, can be solved with a fresh batch of commissioners. These people will hang their hopes for change on the next elections. It is the responsibility of the seasoned activists to pose the question to these folks: has the governing class ever represented the common people in the face of corporate power? How have corporations actually been thwarted in their efforts to exploit us? The answer: strong unions, active grassroots organizations, engaged and productive citizenry--people's power!
Then there are the radical youth and students, many of whom have never believed in the system in the first place. We are pissed off that injustice is so pervasive in our society, and we are ready to continue the fight and take it to the streets if we have to.
If we are to organize an effective opposition to corporate tyranny we must reach out to the disillusioned residents of this community--workers, elders, students and others--with a strategy which offers some vision of how we might collectively reclaim the power in our lives which has been taken away by the big business/government Leviatha
I believe Amy Hanst summed up the sentiment of many in our community when she stated in her letter to the editors of the Gainesville Sun: "Unashamedly, [the commissioners] do not even try to hide the fact that they have made preconceived decisions and their minds are made up. They even look with disdain upon the countless citizens who try to work within the system to get due process."
While we can't ignore the pragmatic considerations of continuing the fight in the courts, I believe we must move away from the purely legalistic strategy and adopt a more grassroots popular-democratic approach if we are to preserve the dignity of those who have fought so hard to prevent this tire-burning incinerator from belching its poisons into our community.
"If political institutions do not meet the needs of the people, if the people finally believe that those institutions do not express their own values, then those institutions must be discarded." (Stokely Carmichael)
1) We need a strategy that recognizes the achievements made thus far from organization and collective action. Despite our apparent loss to the powers that be, we have forced the commission to wonder about their future as politicians and cost Florida Rock Industries a good deal of money to defend their proposal. Had there not been strong opposition the proposed plant with its tire-burning incinerator would have been a done deal long ago.
2) We need a strategy which will prevent the deterioration of the community which has developed through the resistance to this proposal. We should move to create a space in which this new community of resistance can develop and grow so that the next time a comparable corporate scheme comes down the pike we are united and ready, not atomized and scrambling to regroup our old organizations or create new ones. Some organizations, such as People for Alternatives to Landfills (PALS), have identified this as a problem and are working to solve it through their organizing.
3) We need a new strategy, not simply because the individuals seated on the commission are unresponsive to the will of their constituents but because the entire political apparatus is hopelessly corrupt and irreparable.
Following is a statement which I read, in part, at the county commission meeting on February 25. After waiting nearly nine hours the floor was opened to citizen input and I was given three minutes to speak. Time expired before I had a chance to finish reading my statement. I chose to continue reading, knowing that the Florida Rock representatives went well over their allotted 45 minutes. Bobby Summers, the commission chair, had a different take on things, however, and requested that I be removed from the podium by the police. I was escorted out of the room, down the stairs, out of the building, and down the street.
GIVEN that a great number of people have proven themselves capable of acting on their own through their letter writing, picketing, speaking out, attending meetings, and educating others, and
GIVEN the opposition's broad base of support, including lawyers, doctors, University professors, working class people, students, veteran activists, and first time citizens; and
GIVEN that no amount of rational argumentation has succeeded in killing this proposal, despite the legitimacy of our concerns, the soundness of our facts and the demonstration of popular support:
If we the engaged citizens of Alachua County wish to prevent the further polluting of our air and water by corporate greed, we must now take on the responsibility of developing an offensive and pro-active strategy. We must come to terms with the reality that four of our county commissioners are worse than sell-outs. Worse because their performance during these proceedings suggests that they never bought into the values of a democratic system, and instead entered politics for purely opportunistic reasons.
THEREFORE, LET US convene an emergency convention, and invite all residents of Alachua County to participate.
LET US proclaim this convention to be a body more representative of our community's needs and interests than the existing county commission.
LET US demand the RECALL of Charles Chestnut, Leveda Brown, Bobby Summers, and Chuck Clemons.
LET US move for the revocation of the special use permit issued to Florida Rock Industries.
LET US call for a plebiscite to decide whether there will be any kind of cement plant built in Alachua County.
LET US recognize the real need for creating liveable wage jobs and commit to collectively work on finding alternatives to Florida Rock Industries' proposal.
LET US set as a long term goal the task of transforming the County's Comprehensive Plan.
LET US commit to developing an alternative political institution which will offer a critical alternative to the existing commission's agenda, and in so doing offer to the participants the opportunity to engage in face to face dialogue with their fellow citizens, formulate policy, develop a consciousness of the ability to achieve solid pragmatic goals, and gain the experience and skills needed to govern themselves.
Human rights over property rights. On with the struggle.
Invaluable contributions made to this piece by Jimmy Fishhawk. Cement plant opponents will meet to discuss strategy on Saturday, March 8, at 10 a.m., at the Tower Road Library.
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