Halfway through August this year, something familiar happened. More than four hundred and twenty gallons of crude oil spread across Galveston Bay, a major water body close to Houston, which, while frightening, is still one of the smaller incidents in recent memory. The story largely disappeared because the coast of Texas, and Galveston in particular, is a staccato timeline of oil spills and toxic chemical leaks, earning its spot in the “cancer belt” because of the disproportionate rates of malignant disease affecting residents up and down the coastline. The heavy industrialization of the area both because of commercial shipping routes and, allegedly, chemical companies like Formosa and Alcoa, which were brought in through a process of heavy subsidies and tax breaks. This has allowed the area to become a dumping ground for caustic compounds, either through intentional malfeasance or the negligence of profit seeking companies. Seriously toxic substances like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), polychlorinated dibenzodioxins (PCDD), and polychlorinated dibenzofurans (PCDF) have created a toxic stew that has ramifications across these blue collar communities and is colliding with the food chain like tipping dominos, as this environmental profile elucidates.
But most directly, this impacts the commercial fishing operations, including shrimpers, who have trolled the bay for generations. Often subsisting below the poverty line and with few economic options, the environmental devastation of the bay is a nuclear attack on their livelihoods and the health of the shellfish they depend on. When massive deformities and depleting numbers in sea life were initially suspected in the 1960s and 1970s, there were fishermen who tried to ring the bell, but it was hard for many to hear them: the chemical companies allegedly responsible were also hiring them in the offseason, and paying wages above competitive for the region. The situation pressurized an already difficult economic reality, making the catches small and potentially carcinogenic, and that created conflict between fishermen who already had an uncompromising, rugged culture.
This is the backdrop to a violent racist crisis that began in the late 1970s and ran into the early 1980s as Vietnamese refugees, often sympathetic with the U.S. during the recently lost war, tried to make a living from the depleted resources of the bay after their resettlement. The Vietnamese, who used collaborative techniques and worked together, immediately ran at odds with the white fisherman who had a disadvantage because of their isolationism and outdated practices. This situation heated up when racist attacks against the Vietnamese fisherman resulted in one Vietnamese fisherman fighting back, shooting and killing his white attacker, Billy Joe Aplin. This lead to an anti-Vietnamese pogrom by white fisherman and invitations for the Ku Klux Klan to join the whites in a racial war to remove the Vietnamese from what they believed was their bay.
While the immediate story is about the violence of the white nationalists who escalated the trouble upon arrival, channeling white rage over economic precarity back onto some of the most marginalized people in their community, the underlying story is about the march of capital through our natural resources, shrinking those available and pitting neighbor against neighbor. This is the narrative that Kirk Wallace Johnson, a lyrically narrative journalist who was previously known for The Feather Thief, builds in his new book, The Fisherman and the Dragon. The book presents itself as a journalistic retelling about the Klan’s campaign of terror in Galveston, one led by venerable racist and terrorism-advocator Louis Beam, as well as the defensive legal battle led by Morris Dees and the Southern Poverty Law Center. This is only one part of the larger story the book sets out to unpack, which is actually about how the crisis of inequality can create the fervor so often channeled by reactionaries looking to pit whites against minorities.
The reason that Johnson chose this story nearly forty-years after it took place seems obvious: it has perfect parallels to the racist rhetoric that has taken hold in Trump’s base. “We cannot compete with these people,” said Eugene Fisher in Galveston, echoing the common notion that low-income immigrants are suppressing wages by working at a lower cost, something National Conservatives echo today. A conspiracy theory began to spread around the coast at the same time as runoff from the local plants did, one that suggested there was a plot to use foreign labor to attack the white fishing communities. “White shrimpers embraced the conspiracy theory that had seized most fishing towns along the Gulf Coast: that the federal government was secretly subsidizing the refugees,” writes Johnson, noting that every explanation was offered from the idea that these refugees were actually communists (most of them had fought the communists) or that it was part of an effort to undermine the industry. Every idea except for the correct one: the chemical plants were working all of them over and could only benefit from those affected directing their anger at each other rather than the party responsible.
A real conspiracy was under foot, one happening before their very eyes. In an effort to bring jobs to town, local and state officials were doing everything possible to attract chemical companies, deferring tax payments that local schools desperately needed and undermining environmental protections so that they could inject employment opportunities into a faltering local economy. Formosa had already decimated areas of the Taiwanese coastline, and, as Johnson gets into in the book, their later arrival on the Galveston coastline flooded the water with plastic byproducts and other chemicals that activists fought tirelessly (and mostly without victory). The government was bringing in people to benefit at the cost of the fisherman, it just wasn’t the Vietnamese fisherman that were benefitting. The racist conspiracy narrative was essential for Beam as it is for all white nationalists, who take very real economic crises and then try to spin them so that immigrants, refugees, and marginalized people appear as the cause rather than those who are actually in power. Fascism depends on rechanneling righteous anger onto a false target, thus allowing the anger a place to land that doesn’t disrupt the actual accumulation of capital. Morris Dees arrives on the scene to fight for a 1981 injunction to stop the Klan from forcing out the Vietnamese fisherman, and Johnson takes a distinctly nuanced approach to talking about him and the SPLC, which he does critically since Dees himself often faces charges of opportunism.
One great revelation of the book is that Aplin was himself a Klansman long before he was killed and this explains why the Klan appeared to arrive almost serendipitously after his death. He was the link between the Klan and the fishermen (and, as the book exposes, the Klan had been in the area years before this incident). They did not just come because the news spread, but because they had been organized ahead of time to do so. This is a common pattern: white supremacist groups appear to be capitalizing on a particularly salient moment, but actually it was old-school community organizing that created their base. A crisis certainly brought the energy into Galveston, it only was an earlier crisis that did it as Aplin was looking for a way to fight against the destruction of the bay by the chemical companies. When he couldn’t find other fishermen to get his back perhaps he turned to the Klan, establishing them as an actor in the drama that was about to play out. Community organizing is not primarily a product of crisis, and instead most good organizers will tell you that it is success rather than emergency that breeds interest in doing the work. The old adage from union organizing is “if you aren’t talking to your coworker, somebody else is” remains true: no one was willing to listen to the concerns over depleted resources in the bay, so the Klan was waiting. They saw something dark in Aplin, something that played out explicitly as he targeted the Vietnamese for violence and pushed them to defend themselves, and they knew that they could take a real crisis and use it to manufacture a fake one.
The book spends more time talking about the bay and its residents as a whole than the central conflict involving the Klan, and that is the right choice since this is where Johnson locates the crux of the story. The Klan did not begin the problems in Seabrook and the bay, they simply capitalized on it. What happened to the fisherman started decades earlier as the local wildlife began a mass extinction event, one that is continuing to ripple through the entire ecosystem and destroying an entire region of the country’s ability to sustain itself. Modern environmentalism is often the property of wealthy progressives in Blue States, and because of this fact we often miss that the most clear consequences of environmental collapse are felt by working class people who depend on a respectful economic exchange with the natural world. Any effective environmental organizing works hinges itself on a particular issue as experienced by the people it personally affects, not simply in the abstract, and so this is one of the most clear cut examples of how an environmental disaster can demolish an entire community. In a world where talk of ecofascism has become both hyperbolic and ever present, this is a piece of history that shows how this process works: we destroy our ability to sustain life and then demagogues use the pressure that has been created to push through a hateful agenda.
The final third of the book is about local activist and fisherwoman Diane Wilson fighting primarily the Formosa company over subsequent decades, a battle that arrived mostly after the armistice between the white and Vietnamese fisherman began. Through a combination of lawsuits and publicity stunts (like hunger strikes) she brought executives to the table in an effort to initiate cleanup efforts and reduce plant emissions, winning major victories by looking at how plant runoff affected the health of both employees and the waterways they were dumping in. The victories here were real, but, as Wilson has to acknowledge, they are a drop in the bucket of the massive onslaught the coastline is facing, and, along with cheap shrimp imports, she was largely unable to save the way of life that inspired her to raise the issue in the first place. But as she escalated the campaign she received pushback from the white fisherman who often worked for the chemical plants and depended on them, so she turned to the Vietnamese. In the end, it was all of them, working across racial lines of identity, that were necessary to confront the real culprit for the crisis.
“Jody and David Collins, Gene Fisher, James Stanfield, Louis Beam, and others repeatedly claimed they were fighting communism, but they were lashing out against capitalism all along,” writes Johnson, pointing out that there were few secret plots afoot other than the logical continuation of an economic system based on growth at all cost and the exploitation of the earth and people alike. It wasn’t that the Vietnamese were a part of a plot, it’s just that the situation of dwindling resources benefitted whoever was willing to live on less, to work beyond their limits, to give up the life they dreamed of. “The only way to win was to make less and live with less.” The irony is that now the fishermen who remain, few in number, have followed their Vietnamese colleagues’ lead and currently work as a co-op, banding together as they should have when the crisis began.
The energy of crisis is real, it hasn’t been manufactured in the minds of people carrying Trump flags and chanting about electrified border walls. The temperatures are rising, the Galveston coast is a more volatile place, with rising waves and crashing storms that get more shocking each season. The resources are evaporating, and the market is driving people to work harder while taking home less. The question is if we are going to turn on our neighbor, or lay responsibility with those in suits, the same people who duck responsibility and often push us to blame other helpless people struggling to get by. What would have happened if Billy Joe Aplin, a Klansman who wanted to manipulate anger for racist ends, had kept his attention on the chemical companies? What if they had banded together from the start? What if we all did? The final chapters show what just one committed activist can do to mitigate a tide of pollution from devastating her home, so the question remains: how much could we stop, how many livelihoods could we change, if we finally directed our anger at those responsible?