Hazel and Goliath
Excerpt from Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call. Interview with Hazel Johnson (Born: January 25, 1935 Died: January 12, 2011). Photo of Ms. Johnson holding her Presidential Medal of Freedom.
It started with her husband. Hazel Johnson’s sweetheart of seventeen years died an early death from lung cancer. Within ten weeks of diagnosis he’d passed away. As Mrs. Johnson began to look for answers she discovered she wasn’t alone, a significant number of people in her Southeast Chicago neighborhood were and had been dying from the disease. A high percentage of infants were born with tumors and defects. It wasn’t genetics, it wasn’t lifestyle, it was the very air they were breathing, the water they drank and the homes in which they lived. The environment was silently altering the very bodies within which they lived.
After educating herself about pollution, toxins and contamination, she put her new found knowledge to work and started PFCR (People For Community Recovery). With her leadership, things started to change. Surrounded by toxic dumps, incinerators and disposal sites, PFCR galvanized the community and successfully challenged some of the largest corporations and politicians in America to take notice and clean up the area they’d been ignoring for years.
Let me start from the beginning. How I really got involved was my husband had died of lung cancer and at the time they didn’t know what was the cause of it. hen a few years later I heard that our area had a high incidence of cancer and I wanted to know why. We had a lot of people being ill and I knew there was something wrong. I didn’t know what it was at the time.
I started making telephone calls to the health department and was fortunate enough to get in touch with Dr. Reginald Jones. He was well abreast about the area. He explained to me what was going on in the South East side of Chicago . . . about all the contaminants and things. He told me of an organization that was dealing with the environment. I made numerous calls and found out about the Environmental Action Foundation. At that time they had a young man whose name was Kent Silva. I questioned him on a lot of things, about different types of chemicals. He sent me a lot of literature so I could read up on it.
PCR (People for Community Recovery) really started in my bedroom. I did a lot of studying to see what the problem was that we were dealing with out here. When I first started a lot of people thought I was crazy. People said I didn’t know what I was talking about, because this was something new to everybody. They weren’t talking about the environment then like they do today.
In our apartment, in the attic, we have what I call angel hair. I called for them to remove the angel hair from the attic of our apartment. The kids would climb up in there and come out crying and stinging, you know, from the fiberglass. We had that removed.
After that we started fighting against Waste Management across the street because the odor was horrible . . . you had the garbage smell. I started doing a little research on Waste Management and learned how they were dealing with chemicals with the incinerator; how they were burning chemicals from many parts of the United States.
And the garbage . . . I’d never been concerned about the garbage before, until I really got involved with the environment and what was going on. This was all in the early eighties. You know, you put your garbage out and you don’t think about it no more. After I got involved dealing with the environment I got to be more concerned about the garbage and the whole recycling bit of it.
The Waste Management over there. (Nods outside.) I waited until my fifties, in July of eighty-seven, before I went to jail for stopping the trucks that were going in there. We had the media . . . we had a lot of people. In fact we had over five hundred people participating with this stopping the trucks from coming in. We had planned it. We had big garbage cans. Some people were out their barbecuing, with sandwiches and stuff. We had a party. After all the media left Waste Management called the police on us and seventeen of us decided to go to jail for “trespassing”.
When it came to court the judge didn’t know what to do, because he complimented us on what we were doing. Then he called the lawyer and talked to her in the back, in the chamber and when he came back he just said, “Stay away from the property for six months.” After that, we were next door to the property, on the expressway, with big signs and truckers and cars passing by were honking, blowing their horns and carrying on. We really had a lot of excitement going along the expressway. Waste Management called the police on us again, but there was really nothing they could do. We weren’t on their property.
We were saying how we didn’t want another landfill right across the street from a high school and everything, because of how it would affect the people.
And at Miller Manor they had some well water, which was so contaminated you couldn’t even drink it. It smelled just like a rotten egg. It was horrible! And they’d been paying taxes for water they couldn’t even use. There were about six families of older people. A lot of people didn’t believe the city of Chicago had wells, because everybody thought they had all the new system. When the EPA came to check they find out the city has over two thousand wells! After they got so much publicity for that the mayor came in and helped those people out. They didn’t even have a hydrant. If they had had a fire the place would have burned down automatically. So they went in and installed a water system and a hydrant and stuff and they started getting regular water, which they didn’t have to pay for since they’d been paying all those years before and couldn’t even use it. It made a big difference.
The media really picked up a lot of things I’ve been doing. I think that’s made a lot of these success stories that I talk about. The media participated a lot in it too. One little girl, I like her very much, her name is Deborah Nargent and she’s on ABC. She was a great help with the asbestos problem and gave me little tips of what to do and how to be successful with what we were doing.
Sometimes it gets frustrating getting folks to do what they should have in the first place. Like I’m telling my daughter and everybody right now, I am worn out. I am tired. At one point I’d never get home until ten or eleven o’clock at night. I’m working here during the day, then in the evenings we’d have meeting after meeting. Now I’m exhausted. I’m an older woman. At one point I was in the air two or three times a month, going to universities and speaking to meetings or before congress talking about the environment.
I’m on the CSI (Common Sense Initiative), dealing with the industry people in Washington. I asked my daughter Josephine if she’d like to be on the board for that because I’m tired. I don’t want to do no more running around here and there. A lot of people think that’s pleasure. To me it’s not because when I come back I’m worn out. I have to rest two or three days returning from wherever.
But I’m fortunate to say that the majority of the things I’ve fought for are real successful. When I first started a newsman from the local ABC came and asked me, “How do you think a small minority group like yours can buck up against a Multi-million dollar corporation?” I said, “You never know what you can do until you try.” About a year or two later I wrote him a letter outlining all my accomplishments, but he never returned or called saying he’d received the letter. Later on, when we were having a protest about the airport they were talking about building, he was there. I asked him, “Did you receive my letter?” He said, “Yeah, I received it.” But he made no comment on it.
Then we fought for the lagoons to be cleaned up and they cleaned up three of them. They had over 30,000 contaminants in them. Some of the stuff that was put in there had been in so long that they couldn’t tell what it was. A few barrels had paint solvent; some had baby sharks and baby pigs that had been used for medical research, that were in formaldehyde. They had problems trying to clean it all up because whatever was down there was such a mess it would clog up the trucks taking it out. They had to go back and get more money because it took a lot longer than they’d expected. The South side of Chicago was a forgotten area. Nobody was saying anything about the South East side until I got involved.
I’ve discovered that there are more waste sites and dumps around people of color and in poor areas than in other communities; not just here, but all around the country. We’ve brought this issue to national and international attention. I went to the world summit in Brazil. e had women from around the world discussing the problems in our communities. They had people from more than a hundred and twenty five countries. It was the first time they’d ever gotten so many dignitaries from different countries to sit down and take a picture together.
Complete profile of Ms. Johnson and others at Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call