Monday, May 12th 5:20p.m.
My head is aching and my stomach hurts. I feel like I’m driving through some post-apocalyptic industrial wasteland, but I’m actually still in Houston. I’m on a toxic tour, driving through the countless refineries and processing plants where oil and tar sands are shipped and heavily processed, spewing byproducts into the air. Right next door to this monstrosity you’ll find the homes and parks of low-income communities, forced to inhale the toxic air despite the well-documented health risks. It is illegal to build a refinery next to a high school here, but it is not illegal to build a high school next to a refinery, so Cesar Chavez High School is built within a quarter mile of three petrochemical plants.
Driving through the refineries, it’s hard to tell if the headache is from the psychological trauma of this hellish landscape or from the toxic air, and I’m glad to have my camera to put between myself and the reality of it. My guide is a Tar Sands Blockade organizer, one of several people I came to Houston to interview. He calls this drive the “toxic tour” and urges me to lower my camera whenever other cars drove by.
After a morning of interviews with Tar Sands Blockaders and then a trip through the refineries, I was glad to get back to the co-op my interviewees live in and relax over some hippie food. I haven’t gotten homesick very much on this trip, but as we filled our bowls with lentil mush and passed around the nutritional yeast I felt a little pang of longing for my Berkeley kitchen and our nightly communal mush meals.
The drama of the day wasn’t over, either. When we finished eating we all piled back into the car and drove to the home of an animal research overseer at the University here for a quick home demonstration protesting animal cruelty. I felt another quick pang of homesickness. By the end I had made some awesome new friends. Like I said before, I like Houston in spite of itself.
That evening one of my new friends and I got to talking, and ended up wandering through the city streets and climbing into the skeleton of a soon-to-be condo building. Where I’m staying you can see where the wave of condos has crested, lapping up against the preserved “historic district” of the first ward, which is a traditionally latino neighborhood currently facing extreme gentrification. Homeowners are safe (for now) from condo construction, but are being forced to either pay out of their own pockets to restore their “historic” homes or to sell their homes to someone who can afford to do so. In Austin and Houston, as in San Francisco and Oakland, gentrification is on everyone’s mind.
Sitting on the scaffolding and looking out into the misty and humid night, my new friend and I talked about the stress and sadness that comes with climate justice work, the seemingly impossible enemies we’re up against, the need for intersectionality. After a few weeks of carrying a heavy burden of heartbreak, it felt good to share it with another organizer who has been on the frontline of this struggle for a while. We eventually wandered down to the bayou and waded into the cool water, then cuddled on the bank sharing stories from our lives and from the struggles we’ve been engaged in.
I woke up this morning feeling much refreshed. Sometimes just saying out loud how impossible this fight feels, and being heard, is enough.