As a member of the Brookhaven Landfill Action and Remediation Group (BLARG), I have heard from a broad range of speakers at our Friday night meetings. The group has engaged in dialogue about the landfill and environmental justice with a multinational incinerator corporation; a local, family-run garbage trucking company; the head of the state environmental regulatory body; and a town ad hoc committee for solid waste disposal.
Sometimes the discussion gets heated. As a lawyer, I’ve been trained to remain objective, to see both sides — corporations have shareholders to answer to, family businesses want to stay afloat, the state is out of touch with local needs and mired in bureaucracy. The guests may have been surprised by the depth of the grievances, and we may have been dismayed by their responses, but they did come to the meeting and listen, sometimes for over two hours.
My experience the morning of Friday, April 2, could not have been more different. Our Town Supervisor spoke about Long Island’s Solid Waste Crisis, hosted by Long Island Metro Business Action. I was hopeful and excited to hear from the Supervisor. For eight months BLARG had been inviting him to our Friday meetings, only to be met by eight months of silence. We submitted a letter signed by over fifty local organizations and leaders asking for a meeting. Nothing. Now we could hear directly from him, and ask questions.
The Supervisor opened with a slide show on the waste crisis. He seemed committed and informed, although his presentation made no mention of environmental justice or the communities most harmed by the landfill.
Then it got ugly. An environmental justice leader asked the first question. Instead of answering, the Supervisor attacked this community member. He revealed her hometown, labeled it “one of the wealthiest” and called her “disingenuous” for asking a question about the impact of the landfill on North Bellport.
I was shocked to hear this from an elected official. He does not answer to shareholders — he answers to us. He is not up in Albany, out of touch. He is right here, dealing with this issue every day. Or is he? Why is he spending time researching this community leader instead of meeting with the people she is advocating for?
Later in the call he attacked her yet again, saying nobody in North Bellport knows who she is. This is a blatant lie that could only be meant to further discredit and undermine her. He cast her as an outsider, a troublemaker, a “wealthy” person who could not possibly empathize with her North Bellport neighbors. I don’t recall the Supervisor calling our past president “disingenuous” for speaking for those in zip codes a world away from Manhattan and Palm Beach. Does he prefer I ignore the needs of the North Bellport community because the landfill odor doesn’t reach my doorstep?
Elected leaders seek to divide us because it works. We are weak when we are divided. We don’t learn about the struggles of those with different life experiences. We blindly believe the system works because it has always worked for us, but not for everyone. We see people like us in government positions, on government committees, on groups appointed to represent the “community.”
I have learned so much from BLARG, but the most important lesson is to challenge the prevailing notion of community. Like love, people throw this word around detached from the hard work that makes it real. Community rings hollow when there are neighbors crying out for a seat at the table only to be shut out and silenced as witnessed on April 2.
In his defense, the Supervisor claimed that he follows the “majority” because “that’s how democracy works.” This was another chilling comment. The tyranny of the majority drove our founding fathers to create a system of representative democracy, not direct democracy. Minority opinions have a cherished place in our system because every one of us will be in the minority at some point and we need to be protected, not crushed. That is Civics 101. Not only did the Supervisor grossly misrepresent our system of government, but for those attuned to history, he harkened back to darker times of mob rule, where minority voices demanding to be heard were silenced with clubs, dogs and lynchings.
For the good of our community — our entire community — I beg you not to fall for it. Since Friday, I have spoken to many people about what I saw at the meeting. Most did not know who the Supervisor was, or what he did. They were not plugged in, busy with their own lives. Still, every one of them was outraged by the attacks on an environmental justice leader in our community, a black woman, a professor, someone trying to make this town a better place for everyone. This reaction cut across zip code, income, race and political party.
The April 2 meeting ended with a hot mic moment from the Supervisor. Into his cell phone and unmuted, our elected leader said this of the meeting: “It was all BLARG.” You could hear the disgust and disdain in his voice. BLARG was nothing more than a waste of his time, a fringe group to be avoided (as he has done for eight months), unworthy of a voice.
This was a first for me. I’ve never been part of a group that had to beg and scream to be heard, only to see its leader publicly, personally attacked for it. I have not been one of the disenfranchised, those who have been lied to over and over, who were redlined into a part of town and forced to accept the toxic, noxious Brookhaven Landfill as their neighbor. Even the proposed closing is a slap in the face. They are told it will close when it is full, not in response to their cries for clean air, water and justice. “The distrust is real,” I was told by another BLARG member. It certainly is, and it will only spread after Friday’s call.
The Supervisor has finally agreed to meet with BLARG. If he wants to use this as an opportunity to rebuild trust, I recommend the following:
Please leave the “discredit and divide” tactics at the door.
Come to listen — really listen — especially to the parts you do not want to hear.
Be mindful of your messaging — especially words that have a deeper meaning, that say, “You have no right to speak. Your voice doesn’t matter.”
There may be anger, but instead of reacting, understand the source of the anger. When people are shut out, silenced and discredited for years, anger is the result. I felt this for one short hour on Friday morning, and it left me shaken. Imagine feeling this for a lifetime, for generations.
If the Supervisor approaches the meeting with an open heart and an open mind, with a willingness to step outside of his lived experience, it can be a first step in rebuilding the trust we desperately need to confront and win against this waste crisis.