Diane Wilson grew up poor along the Texas Gulf Coast and worked in a profession—commercial shrimping—that has not only bottomed out, but washed away in recent years. She raised five kids as a single mother. Wilson has also faced down guys in power suits, scaled towers in protest, held hunger strikes across from the White House, and continued to call Seadrift, Texas her home.
In 1989, when Wilson heard that Formosa Plastics Corporation, the U.S. affiliate of Taiwan-based Formosa Plastics Group, was expanding its facility at nearby Point Comfort, Texas, she called a public meeting, hoping someone might perhaps enlighten the community. With corporate executives breathing down her neck and local officials repeating the "jobs are good, we love jobs, any jobs" mantra, Wilson reluctantly took on the role of community activist. Two decades later, she’s still fighting Formosa. She also co-founded the women’s peace organization CodePINK and today advocates for better conditions within the Texas prison system—a system she found herself navigating in recent years, having been arrested 19 times for acts of civil disobedience.
PASKUS: It’s amazing to see what you’ve done. Not only with Formosa, but with your anti-war activism.
WILSON: It’s just serendipity. I promise you, it’s no plan. Matter of fact, I think the things you do when you don’t have a plan and just kind of follow your intentions are much more wonderful than you could have ever planned. It works real well because corporations can’t predict what you’re going to do. And that makes ‘em real nervous because they like to be able to predict what an activist is going to do and when they can’t do it, it kind of changes the dynamics.
How did your fight against Formosa galvanize you into the activism you are doing now?
I didn’t know what I was doing when I first called a meeting. I just thought, "I’m calling a meeting." I didn’t think, "I’m fixing to be an activist" or "I’m fixing to be an environmentalist." A couple of reporters were calling me an environmentalist and I thought that was very presumptive of me—calling myself an environmentalist. I thought, "I’m just a fisherwoman and I’m doing what I believe is right."
I did not have a natural speaking ability. I did not think I had leading ability or expertise. I really felt I was the wrong one to be doing that. In the back of my mind, I was kinda waiting for the right person that was going to walk up and I’d say, "Oh, this is the person that’s going to take it over and they’re going to be the perfect one." I finally realized I was the perfect one because I had a passion for the bay and that was the key. Having a passion.
Formosa has since expanded its facilities in Texas. What is your relationship with them and with the community nowadays?
Well, everybody knows what I do and if people want to get a message out or want to tell something about a chemical plant, they generally get a hold of me. With Formosa, we have a knock down, drag out situation, so I know what kind of corporation Formosa is, and their bottom line is profit. They don’t care for their workers. Every time workers tried to organize, Formosa brought in union busters.
I was talking just yesterday with one of the people who were working in a silo where they bring this PVC dust—and it’s out of spec. That means it’s exceeding the standards and they’re bagging the dust in one-ton bags. There’s dust everywhere. On the bags, it says "cancer causing." A lot of the workers are undocumented and can’t speak English. They’re tying rags around their face to keep out the dust and the company won’t do anything.
You have come back to Seadrift.
I lived in Seadrift my whole life. Seadrift is considered the last authentic fishing village on the whole Texas Gulf Coast. My family has been here 100 years. When I’ve fought for that bay, it’s who I am. If I gave up on the bay, I would give up the best part of myself. These battles aren’t just an issue or a cause. It’s my life. It’s my path. When you’re a poor fishing woman and you live in a trailer and you got a pile of kids, integrity is the only thing you have.
What are you working on now?
I’ve probably got too many issues. It’s like the trenches down here. It’s like hand to hand combat. There are two [proposed] coal burning power plants, a liquefied natural gas terminal and they’re going to be [building] it over a mercury Superfund [site] that we’re tying to get a health study on.
A nuclear power plant is trying to come in, and because I’ve been jailed so many times, I’ve got a Texas Jail Project. I do actions all over the state. As a matter of fact, I have to drive to Weslaco and Brownsville because the jails in Texas are horrible. I think it’s probably across the country that they’re bad. The United States is the number one country in the world for jailing people. It’s like, "Welcome to America. You’re arrested."
If Texas was a country, I think we would be like number four. We jail everything that walks. Especially if they’re minorities. I think I’ve been jailed 19 times. Every time I went to these jails, they’re always blacks or Hispanics. Always. And they’re very poor. Because they can’t afford bail, over half the people in county jails have never seen a lawyer or a judge. On average, they are there six weeks. In that time, you can lose your job and the state will take your kids. It can become a living nightmare. Most people think of people in jail, "They deserve everything they get." There is such a lack of compassion.
Laura Paskus is a freelance journalist focusing largely on western environmental issues.