Mississippi city dredges creek, tears down yard signs; mayor calls residents 'dumb bastards'
by Jenny Coyle
On a hot summer day when she was 10, Rose Johnson was baptized in Turkey Creek. Members of her Baptist church congregation in Gulfport, Mississippi, gathered shoulder to shoulder under willow trees singing hymns. Wearing a simple robe her mother had stitched for her, Johnson walked down the stream bank and into the clear, cool water. The reverend, standing waist-deep in the creek, put his hands over her mouth and nose, and immersed her in the water, saying, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost."
And so Rose Johnson was saved.
Now, as the first African American chair of the Sierra Club's Mississippi Chapter, she's trying to save Turkey Creek-and not just the creek itself, which has become the final resting place for old cement culverts, discarded tires, and other trash and polluted run-off. Johnson is also working to save the predominantly black community that surrounds it.
Turkey creek, before and after the dredging
In recent months, Gulfport Mayor Ken Combs has publicly called Johnson and her neighbors "dumb bastards" for their opposition to a wetland fill they fear will exacerbate flooding in their community. Sierra Club yard signs posted in the area for Earth Day were torn down by city crews. And under the guise of "flood control," the city illegally dredged and bulldozed Turkey Creek's banks, mowing down large trees and brush and stirring up decades' worth of polluted soil.
As a result, the Army Corps of Engineers has intervened, and the Sierra Club and NAACP have filed a notice of intent to sue the city for violations of the Clean Water Act.
Turkey Creek winds through the city of Gulfport at the state's south end, where the warm waters from the Gulf of Mexico lap at casinos that dot the coast. As the coveted coastal property was developed in the mid-1900s, blacks were banned from the beaches. So they built their own homes and recreated away from the resorts, in North Gulfport.
"We used Turkey Creek for fishing, swimming, baptisms, picking blackberries," says Johnson. "We didn't have to worry about white people driving by and yelling 'Niggers go home!' and throwing stuff at us. Nobody else wanted this area, so our parents and grandparents created these little neighborhoods and churches."
But when it rains hard, Turkey Creek floods, and the problem has worsened over the years as a result of wetland development in the area. The neighborhoods have no curbs, gutters, or sidewalks. Water is channeled into open ditches that run in front of the simple houses. When the water rises, one church fills waist-deep with creek water.
Breathing down the necks of these already flood-prone communities is a massive development proposed by Butch Ward, a well-connected Louisiana man who plans to build a multi-use commercial development in North Gulfport. He has applied for an Army Corps permit to fill 350 acres of wetlands, which Johnson says is bound to increase flooding. Wetlands serve as natural sponges, absorbing and filtering run-off.
Johnson and her neighbors have fought the development, a fact that deeply disturbs the mayor, who has received large campaign contributions from Louisiana developers.
In an April meeting with the editorial board for Gulfport's daily newspaper, Combs was asked about the North Gulfport community's opposition to development plans. "We're dealing with some dumb bastards," he said. "I'm not running for re-election, so I guess I can say that. None of those people voted for me anyway."
Ella Holmes-Hines, the city councilwoman who represents the Turkey Creek area, called for his resignation, as did the local NAACP.
Meanwhile, in May, the Sierra Club distributed yard signs in North Gulfport that read, "We can clean up Mississippi's air and water." They were a big hit, says Chapter Director Louie Miller. "All 250 of them were placed the first day."
Several days later, city crews yanked signs they said were placed in the public right-of-way, which stretches 20 feet each way from the center of the road. Signs placed on front lawns, but within that zone, were removed.
Howard Page, co-chair of the Club's Gulf Coast Group, who has gone door-to-door in North Gulfport to rally support, says the city was selectively enforcing the sign ordinance as retribution for community opposition to the Ward development.
The signs have since been returned and properly placed, and more signs are on their way. But the worst was yet to come.
In late May, in what the city claims was an effort to solve North Gulfport's flooding problems, crews with bulldozers illegally dredged and scraped the banks of a 1,500-foot stretch of Turkey Creek. The Army Corps ordered the city to stop until it obtained state and federal permits.
Debbie Dawkins, a state senator and former Mississippi Chapter chair, walked the area with Councilwoman Holmes-Hines. "There are definitely issues of racism and classism at work here," Dawkins says. The Sierra Club and the NAACP filed an intent to sue, which gives the city 60 days to comply with the law.
"At the very least they have to remediate the damage caused by this unpermitted, illegal activity," says Denise Hoffner-Brodsky, an environmental justice attorney for the Sierra Club.
Rose Johnson is up for the fight whether it takes place in court or in her front yard.
"These Turkey Creek neighborhoods may not look valuable, but if they flooded us out you can bet they'd be in here with bulldozers and in time you'd see highrises and other commercial development," she says. "They think we're dumb bastards? Just watch us keep our homes and neighborhoods."
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