If someone asked you what came to mind when a huge multinational corporations was dumping toxic waste on indigenous peoples’ land, you are likely to think of far-off places like Ecuador where Chevron refuses to pay for the damage to land, water and the health of native peoples caused by oil run-off. This conflict between Indians and Chevron was documented in the film “Crude” that represented advocacy film-making at its finest.
As it turns out, a similar drama unfolded not 40 miles from New York in the 1990s when the Ramapough Mountain Indians sought damages against Ford Motor for dumping the toxic waste from their Mahwah plant into the soil, water and abandoned iron mines where the native peoples lived. A documentary titled “Mann V. Ford” that is every bit as powerful as “Crude” tells their story tomorrow night at 9pm on HBO, the premium cable channel that is one of the best places to go on television for hard-hitting political material. It is a sad commentary on the state of PBS’s Frontline that you need to go to cable TV to see such a film.
When you think of American Indians and environmental racism, you are likely to visualize reservations in New Mexico or Arizona where nuclear waste material is dumped. But the Indians who lived in suburban-style tract housing in New Jersey suffered more than any Indians in recent history. As children, they swam in nearby streams and rolled around on fields that contained paint and other toxic waste, including PCBs, Freon, heavy metals, lead and arsenic. Now in their forties and fifties, they are suffering cancer rates triple those of other people in New Jersey, a state infamous for environmental health hazards. Today, almost every home in Upper Ringwood, the town where they are based, has someone who died from cancer, or is suffering from diabetes, kidney stones, miscarriage, asthma, gastrointestinal disease or skin disorders.
Ford decided that these people were not worth worrying about since the general perception—racist to the core—was that the Ramapough Mountain Indians, who are descended from the Lenapes, were “trash” that deserved everything they got. They were seen as backward hill people who were culturally akin to other mountain peoples in the Ozarks or West Virginia. The assumption is that anybody who kept a car seat on his or her porch deserved to get cancer from Ford Motor toxic waste.
The documentary focuses on Wayne Mann, the lead plaintiff in the case. Mann is an articulate and passionate spokesman for his people. Like other members of this ethnic group, Mann obviously has African-American as well as Indian roots. This is the case for the Seminole people in Florida as well. He is advised by one of the lead attorneys, a feisty Blond-haired woman named Vicky Gilliam who hails from rural Louisiana and who had seen the impact of agricultural chemicals and oil spills on her own farming community. She is their Erin Brockovich.
Back in 1958, when I was in 8th grade, we went on a field trip to the Mahwah plant that had opened up three years earlier. The Ford employee who escorted around the plant kept making the point that this was the most modern and efficient auto plant the world had ever seen. Little did we suspect that 9 years later the plant management would decide to dump their waste in Upper Ringwood, obviously to save money. This was at a time when the reputation of American corporations was at an all-time high. The General Electric Theater aired on Sunday evening at 9pm, considered one of the most prestigious shows on television. Speaking for GE, Ronald reminded us that progress was their most important product. And all the while GE was dumping PCB’s in the Hudson River, the same way that Ford was dumping it in Indian country.
As is customary with HBO documentaries, they can be viewed on-demand from Time-Warner and other cable providers. If not, you can watch them on your computer if you are an HBO subscriber—a new feature available at www.hbogo.com.