Left Out of the Gulf’s Recovery, Black and Brown Workers Seek Unity
Originally published on Colorlines.com
Photo: Shawn Escoffery
Keilen Williams had to leave his home in Pointe a la Hache, population of about 300, after Hurricane Katrina’s winds and storms devoured it. At the time, Williams, 34, was a shrimper in the small community of African-American fisher-folk who’ve worked and lived in this historically black region along the east bank of the Mississippi River for decades, and through many disasters. He’s since tried everything from setting up a shrimp business on the San Francisco piers to chasing oil clean-up work; nothing has put his family back on solid footing, and he’s frustrated.
“We used to have to do all of the work,” Williams complains, remembering the labor he invested filling the coffers of white distributors at Point a la Hache’s marina: cleaning the deck, cooking, bagging and piling the oyster sacks, hauling them off at the ports. It was poorly paid, but it was work. Now, even that is disappearing and he’s not clear where to direct his fear; he’s chosen the nearest target.
“White guys are getting Mexicans to work on their boats now because they’ll work for less money,” Williams frets. “We said we wasn’t gonna work for those slave wages.”
It’s said that once you pass a point called “White’s Ditch,” which is literally marked by a huge white fence, that you’ve entered “the black part” of Plaquemines Parish, which encompasses Pointe a la Hache and stretches to the southern tip of the peninsula. Residents call it “The End of the World,” and also “The Humble.” Black fisher-folk have lived here stretching back four, sometimes five generations.
Throughout those generations, African Americans have had to climb their way up out of slavery, poverty and disasters both natural and man-made to sustain their lives and communities. History looms over the land in the presence of Leander Perez, a racist political boss who strove to keep black people in Plaquemines segregated and powerless throughout the Jim Crow era. Perez is now deceased, but to this day some black residents will tell you that he still controls their environment.
It wasn’t until the 1960s that African Americans here began to own their own boats and leases, areas at the bottom of the sea where you could privately harvest oysters and other catch. On land, the fishers sold most of their net to big companies who bought it from them cheap and sold it at high markup to restaurants and markets across the country. They fed their families with the fish they kept and used it as currency for goods and services amongst themselves.
This is the past that informs the world black residents of Point a la Hache inhabit today. They look around that world at an ever-collapsing labor market in which they find a smaller and smaller place—and they search in vain for someone to blame.
“About 90 percent of the fishermen used to be black,” says Byron Encalade, a resident of Pointe a la Hache and president of the Louisiana Oystermen Association. “And then the Yugoslavians and Croatians, they came over and became oyster fishermen. Then the Cambodians and Vietnamese came. And recently with migrant workers from Mexico, they also have been putting in work for the oyster industry.”
Katrina came, too, knocking out everybody’s homes and boats. Given their position on this southeastern Louisiana peninsula, these communities are often among the first to get flattened, and Katrina proved completely devastating. Given that fishing is the only skill many of these residents have, when disasters delete their trade from the equation, they are left with few other options to make a living.
With the five-year anniversary of Katrina behind us and the drama of the BP oil spill officially declared over, the country’s attention has once again moved on from the Gulf. Much of last month’s anniversary coverage focused on the optimistic narrative of recovery; the region is steadily, if slowly putting itself back together. But places like Point a la Hache and families like Williams’ reveal an ugly underbelly to the new economy that’s being built. It is one in which opportunity is ever-more concentrated in a few hands, and in which profiteering capitalists and scapegoating politicians are pitting struggling workers against one another in starkly racial terms.
The Drowned Job Market
Hurricane Katrina impacted over 71,000 businesses throughout the state of Louisiana, causing the loss of over 300,000 jobs, not including the jobs of those who were self-employed, such as fishers. The New Orleans region that includes 10 neighboring parishes, among them Plaquemines, took a humongous hit, with 21 percent of its jobs lost. Employment in the oil and gas industries—which were once plentiful, as a result of the oil boom of the 1970s—was already on a downward slope before Katrina, due to the oil bust of 1986. Katrina hastened that slide, which didn’t start letting up until as recently as 2009. Although the numbers aren’t out yet, the BP oil spill has surely polluted that good news as well.
Indeed, the oil spill will very likely further tighten the shrunken labor market overall, especially in the tourism and retail industries, which both support and are supported by the fishers. It’s too early to say what exactly that impact will be in numbers, but just as after Katrina, what jobs do exist to fill the voids are in construction and clean-up. And just as with Katrina, nearly all of the contractors cashing in on the disaster capitalism with which this region has become far too familiar are white—and many have pitted black workers against brown for the cheapest labor.
Williams and his family lost everything to Katrina. As a displaced resident living in the Bay Area, where he once was stationed in the military, he found much more inclusive communities than the segregated ones he came from in Plaquemines Parish. This opened up an opportunity for him to sell Louisiana Gulf shrimp to a broader market. Like many Pointe a la Hache residents, Williams doesn’t have many skills that are transferable to industries beyond fishing. But he does have an entrepreneurial drive, and in the Bay Area, where seafood rules just as it does in coastal Louisiana, he put that ambition to use.
Williams is short, but his restless energy enlarges his presence. He has an encyclopedic knowledge of seafood, particularly shrimp—how long it needs to grow, the nuanced differences between Gulf waters and those of other coasts and continents. And while his youthful dress and vigor might lead some to cast him off as a street hustler, the scars and pocks on his face show a true fisherman’s wisdom and weathering.
Up in the north Californian bays, he was able to get Gulf shrimp sent to him in bulk. He sold them at the piers and to restaurants ready to take Tiger Prawn-sized shrimp at less than Tiger Prawn-going prices. It was his first sense that there was a demand for Gulf shrimp outside of the Gulf, and also that he could become a distributor as opposed to a fisher—and thus make more money.
When the coast began to clear back home, in early 2007, Williams moved to New Orleans instead of Pointe a la Hache, which was still having a tough time recovering. In New Orleans, he found even more success and profit than in San Francisco. He’d buy in Pointe a la Hache for $1 or $2 a pound, and then go sell in the streets for $5 a pound. In San Francisco, he says he sold for $12 to $15 a pound. But the costs of shipping bulk to north California could be imposing, if not prohibitive; in New Orleans, all he had to do was drive 75 miles south, pick up shrimp from his friends and family—or go catch it himself—and then drive it back.
Under the trademark “New Orleans Shrimp Man,” Williams sold to whoever passed by, and along the way picked up recognition from city council members, police and even state employees. Restaurants bought from him also. Nationally, he pursued diversity vendor programs so that his shrimp could be distributed to big box retailers like Sam’s Club. It was Williams’ dream to be considered the first African American distributor of Gulf shrimp in Louisiana.
His work in San Francisco and the streets of New Orleans brought him close, but the oil spill knocked the wheels off his train, and he didn’t have the resources to sustain the blow. His tiny business was nothing compared to long-entrenched players like Rodney Fox, a white distributor who controls much of the southeast Louisiana oyster trade and derivative seafood industries. Fox owns R & A Oyster Company, one of the largest oyster companies in the country, as well as Fox Trucking Company, both of which cement his stronghold on the seafood warehousing, transporting and processing industries—all major employment sources in Point a la Hache. The oyster business has been in his family’s name since 1960.
Back at the Pointe a la Hache marina—the hub from which hundreds of thousands of oysters, crabs and shrimp are collected and bought daily—Fox comes regularly to buy oysters off the fishers by the coffeesack. Oysters are bagged up at roughly 200 per sack, and Fox buys them at roughly $20 to $25 a sack—about the price some restaurants charge for just a couple dozen. He buys 800 to 1,000 sacks a day, has them processed and then ships them to restaurants and markets across the country
“Rodney gets all of this,” says Mike Bartholomew, an African American resident of Pointe a la Hache, spreading his arms across the whole marina. Fishers would like other options for their catch, says Bartholomew, but Fox is now the only one. “We’ve had strikes against Rodney,” Bartholomew explains, “but when [the fishers] are out of business, they can’t get any other employment.”
Fox sees it differently. Like Encalade, he notes the change in fishing workers’ demographics over the decades, and he assigns it to black fishers’ work ethics. “Not a lot of African Americans want to work anymore,” says Fox. “They just get free money from the government. That’s why we bring Hispanics in, because they don’t mind the work.”