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Victory of Versailles

Battles of environmental justice are often defined by small, tight knit, communities challenging larger and more powerful governmental institutions that determine the course of action when questions concerning the public’s exposure to hazardous wastes arise.  When battling the injustice problems associated with these conflicts, many times the grassroots organizations fail to defeat dominate governmental powers and must succumb to legislation that may not have their best interests in mind.  However, as the story of David beating Goliath tells us, a well-organized fight from a position where the chances of failure are great can sometimes result in an upset.  This type of success story is exemplified by a small Catholic community of Vietnamese people in post-Katrina New Orleans that fights against the siting of a toxic landfill in the documentary “A Village Called Versailles.”

Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath devastated people of every socio-economic class that lived in New Orleans and its effects have reshaped the city forever.  The storm’s destruction was impartial and presented challenges to residents in all walks of life but the government’s decisions during the rebuilding process was not distributed as justly.  Before the storm, Versailles was isolated from the rest of the city and the residents kept to themselves.  Although this area one of the hardest hit in the entire city, they returned quietly to assess the damages and begin the rebuilding process. Their humble determination and sense of community resulted in a recovery effort that was much faster than may places in New Orleans. Things seemed to be headed in the right direction until it was discovered that the city had decided to build a landfill that would be filled with toxic materials from debris that had accumulated.

While the community’s unified recovery process did a great job of rebuilding the inhabitants’ homes, it also provided a way for the government to impose the building of an unwanted landfill taking advantage of the unsuspecting citizens.  This illustrates a classic example of participatory injustice where the community’s lack of governmental evolvement was exploited by a political decision that failed to take the interests of the effected party into account.  With their backs against the wall the community, led by their influential Catholic priest, a Vietnamese activist named Mimi Nugyen, and a white attorney, prepared to fight against the injustices that they were up against.

At first, the requests that the Versailles people suggested were as simple as asking the landfill developer to promise to include a lining into the building plans. These attempts were quickly overruled with the hopes that the citizens would simply surrender to a government that seemed invincible as is often the case in other battles for environmental justice.  Unfortunately for the politicians, this was not an ordinary situation. In an attempt to fight for what they believed in, more and more people started attending public hearings to voice their concerns, state and federal lawsuits were filed, and organized protests were conducted.  Instead of folding under the governmental rule, the residents stood strong becoming an increasingly powerful force by coming together to defend their livelihoods and, in turn, their cultural identity.

The village of Versailles’s fight for environmental justice is one success story amongst many failed attempts to stand up to the authority of unjust governmental decisions. Unlike the ineffective attempts of other communities that collapsed under the pressure, these disadvantaged citizens can attribute their success to using the insurmountable odds that were stacked up against them as a catalyst that brought them together, not a force that pulled them apart.  Many times these grassroots organizations lose sight of what they are really fighting for.  They focus only on the environmental injustices themselves and forget that they are defending their community’s rights in a country with the promise of “liberty and justice for all.”

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