Sometimes it just doesn’t matter how much good you want to do for the world; people are going to hate and fear you anyway. This doesn’t just apply to the X-Men, dentists and high school grammar teachers; it also applies to politicians. While much of the public likes to criticize “Washington” and “the government” for not doing their jobs, plenty of mayors, state representatives and legislators are out there putting in work and getting no respect for it; in fact, sometimes the opposite. Especially if they are women, and especially if they are African American.
So I guess there should have been no surprise when Missouri state Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal was grabbed and told to “shut up!” by a legally blind, angry white man who was tired of her just doing her job. Yes, she was fighting to keep him and his family from dying of nuclear radiation, but that doesn’t mean he had to deal with all of her blackity-blackness, either.
St. Louis has a problem, and not just the often apathetic African-American voters who have given up power time after time. Nor is the problem just the endemic, systematic racism in the local police departments that led to the Ferguson uprising. Or the fact that St. Louis doesn’t even get the credit it deserves for founding Panera (it’s true!).
No, St. Louis’ biggest problem is that it’s a dump. Specifically, 121,000 tons of nuclear waste dumped in the area dating back to World War II’s Manhattan Project, which produced America’s first nuclear bomb.
Much of the enriched uranium used for the project came from businesses in St. Louis that never properly cleaned up or even covered the nuclear waste. Over the last 70 years, the soil, air and specifically the Coldwater Creek area of northern suburban St. Louis have been contaminated, and even when some of the materials were moved to the West Lake landfill, contamination continued. The result? Ridiculously high rates of cancer and radiation-borne diseases in the area.
The health map for the Coldwater Creek region looks like a Verizon 3G coverage ad. There are over 2,725 cases of diseases related to waste contamination, ranging from cancer, brain tumors and autoimmune diseases, far above the national average. The recent HBO documentary Atomic Homefront covers the story of suburban moms of the Just Moms STL group battling it out with federal and state agencies who denied that anything was wrong with the strange odors coming from the creek, or 6-year-olds getting brain tumors.
One would think that massive cancer rates and environmental Armageddon would bring communities together across race and class, right? Cancer doesn’t see color, right? Did I mention this was St. Louis?
“The Coldwater Creek people are like the Crips and the other side are like the Bloods. But I’ve gotta represent both, even the [Gangster] Disciples,” Sen. Chappelle-Nadal (D-University City and Ferguson) told The Root.
Assertive and passionate, Chappelle-Nadal has been a thorn in the side of white bigots and complacent black politicians in St. Louis for years. She receives death threats on the regular and, at one point, had to have police protection around her home. Chappelle-Nadal engaged in record-breaking filibusters to protect same-sex marriage and the environment, was teargassed while protesting during Ferguson, and fought expulsion from the Legislature after posting on Facebook “I hope he gets assassinated,” over President Donald Trump’s comments after the white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Va.
Despite all of her trials, or maybe even because of them, she’s worked tirelessly to confront the problems of Coldwater Creek; to date, she’s held over 100 town halls on Coldwater Creek contamination. Chappelle-Nadal is like a character in a John Grisham novel mixed with a little Erin Brockovich and Fruitvale Station. In other words, she’s not the one. But somebody didn’t quite know that.
On Feb. 23, Carl Chapell, a legally blind white man who has lost two family members to nuclear-waste-related illnesses, interrupted Chappelle-Nadal in the middle of her question, grabbed her and told her to shut up in front of the entire town hall.
“I was like, ‘What in the hell? Who is touching me?’” Chappelle-Nadal said. She didn’t stop talking, though, and later on she came back to let Chapell know that he could taste these hands if he touched her, or yelled at her, again.
Maybe Chappelle-Nadal’s style isn’t for everyone, but it still raises the question: Why would this man attack a politician who is trying to pressure the Environmental Protection Agency and the state government on his behalf? Why would someone tell Chappelle-Nadal to shut up when she’s pushing for environmental cleanup? Who does that?
The mostly white Coldwater Creek activists, of course. The same racial and class tensions that led to the uprisings in Ferguson permeate any unified attempts to clean up the northern counties of St. Louis from toxic waste. A simple perusal of the Coldwater Creek—Just the Facts Facebook group shows that there is a lot of overlap between the “Blue Lives Matter,” “Mike Brown was a thug” and “I Love Ferguson” crowd and these Coldwater Creek activists.
According to Chappelle-Nadal, the activists have blocked many African Americans from joining in the class action suit over the waste. Activists have consistently tried to differentiate their plight and diminish that of West Lake Landfill residents, as if cancer and birth defects care about school district lines or zip codes.
“A lot of this is about where you come from, what high school did you go to?” Chappelle-Nadal says, pointing out that Coldwater Creek activists mostly went to high school and grew up together.
“People say you don’t have family here, this isn’t your district,” she adds. “My father actually died of kidney failure, and he worked at the airport and was breathing that Coldwater Creek air every day. My constituent Carol Williams has fourth-stage cancer and will lose her tongue. This is my last term in office; we’ve got to do something about this. No matter what.”
Although there is a shared interest between Chappelle-Nadal and the grassroots group Just the Facts, St. Louis’ convoluted racial history makes working together impossible. Even when something happens, clear and plain as day during the community meeting, a hit piece by the local newspaper paints Chappelle-Nadal as the aggressor.
The article, in the Clayton-Times, in which Chappelle-Nadal is clearly grabbed by a white man, is titled, “[Chappelle]-Nadal Appears to Shove Man at Public Hearing, Grassroot Group Rejects Her Involvement.” How is it that a man grabbing and yelling at Chappelle-Nadal didn’t make the headline? (Did I mention this was St. Louis?)
As for possibly being attacked by other angry white men while she’s on her mission, Chappelle-Nadal doesn’t seem that concerned; in fact, she refutes the claim that her attacker was blind, as if she pummeled some defenseless old man.
“He’s legally blind, but he can see!” she scoffed.
That’s true—he wasn’t blind enough to keep him from seeing and walking up to a black woman he thought was speaking out of turn, whom he felt the right to lay hands on and yell at. I’m not sure if that’s grief, racism or radiation sickness, but clearly there’s always been something in the water in St. Louis, and that’s something I don’t think even the EPA can clean up.