The Intersection of Slavery & Transit - TribPapers

The Intersection of Slavery & Transit

Saint James' church is just one of the stops on the walking trail honoring the works of James Vester Miller. From trail pamphlet.

Asheville – Rosa Parks was a courageous woman who defied the imaginary forces of racism instilled in people’s minds and showed she would not be held hostage to them. In demonstrating what was possible, she blazed a trail for anyone willing to follow. For those too young to know, back in the Segregation Era, when laws required people of color to sit on the back of buses, Parks, asserting her humanity, simply sat in front of the line of demarcation.

The document, read by Asheville City Councilwoman Maggie Ullman, proclaiming February 4 as Rosa Parks/Transit Equity Day, claimed inequity persists in transit to the detriment of persons who are not Caucasians, have disabilities, or are of meager means. The disparity, she read, had become worse in recent years due to cuts in transit subsidies leading to increases in fares.

From there, the proclamation burst into commentary about how extremes in temperature are raising the sea level, forcing droughts, inducing storms and flooding, spurring wildfires, and spreading diseases that are disproportionately harming “workers, people of color, and poor people.” Why? Because it’s the down-and-out who rent the cheap homes in the floodplains, the mobile homes in tornado alleys, and the tenements near fume-spouting factories and highways. This, read the document, “constitutes a civil rights crisis of our time.”

The point was that transit must expand in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and stave off eschatological catastrophes. And since transit must expand, it may as well expand with equity. That is, people who have historically been pushed down and held back by their would-be peers could become the drivers and bus mechanics of the future once they’re laid off from automobile factories and service stations.

Nothing was said about slavery continuing to this day or the role governments play in exacerbating natural disasters until later in the meeting. A request for council to authorize the purchase of four diesel buses was removed from the consent agenda for consideration at council’s February 14 meeting. But that did not spare it from public comment.

“Hi, my name is Jonathan Wainscott. I know the issue has been pulled [from] the buses this evening. I think it’s an interesting confluence with the social justice and transit they were just discussing. It’s come to my attention recently that the electric buses that we have bought and may crave here in the city come with a very high fingerprint of slavery.

“What I’m talking about is the mining and extraction of the minerals necessary for lithium-ion batteries. And all of the minerals that are needed for this production are coming out of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. And it’s a tremendous rape of that country’s resources and people in order to get the cobalt necessary to make these batteries.

“There are strip mines that are essentially pits filled with tens of thousands of human beings, men, essentially breaking the earth with hammers. They don’t even have backhoes to make this happen. Women and children then sift through piles of debris in industrial mines, breathing in toxic fumes without a mask at all to bring this so that we here can use cell phones, earbuds, laptops, electric vehicles. The bigger the battery, the more slavery there is in it. The bigger the vehicle, the bigger the battery.”

“So, I just would like you to consider this, as I know that there is some consternation perhaps about the use of old-fashioned diesel buses, but that might be a better way to go. I mean, we could probably even make them eco-friendly by making them peanut-powered and [getting] some Jimmy Carter peanuts and [using] some George Washington Carver peanut science, and [making] them biodiesel, and [doing] right by the world here in Asheville, as we think globally and act locally.

“So, keep that in mind as this comes up on the next agenda. Thank you.”

The other proclamation on the agenda declared February Black History and Legacy Month. Mayor Esther Manheimer read a condemnation of all who would objectify and control others for their own gratification. Such insults have been shown to yield destructive power over lives for generations, and that is why the city has committed to paying reparations.

Instead of encouraging wallowing, the proclamation called upon all to celebrate the contributions of Americans of African descent in fields “including but not limited to, medicine, science, architecture, education, government, engineering, the arts, leadership, and social justice.” Ending with a flourish, Manheimer read, “In honoring the immeasurable benefactions of African-Americans locally, in our society, and [around] the globe, all Americans are encouraged to reflect on the past successes and challenges of African-Americans and be inspired by these achievements, such that every citizen continues to improve our society, so that we live up to and embody the ideals and virtues of freedom, equality, and justice for all people of the human race.”

Andrea Clark was among those expected to receive the proclamation. She was sitting in the front row, yet she did not advance to the podium until later in the meeting, when she was invited to do so by Councilwoman Sandra Kilgore. To honor her grandfather, Clark and “some very fine people” created the self-guided James Vester Miller Historic Walking Trail two years ago. Miller’s online biography is subtitled “From Slave to Master Mason,” as his construction company is credited with building many of the area’s architecturally interesting churches, among other buildings. Clark’s latest endeavor is to try to get more people to see and appreciate the fine masonry inside some of the churches.