December 5, 2019 11:10:08 AM
Slim Smith - [email protected]
A press release delivered to The Dispatch earlier of this week alerted us to a community meeting Tuesday where Kerr-McGee/Tronox issues would be discussed.
It was issued by a group I was not familiar with, The Committee for Environmental Justice, so I arrived early for the meeting to learn more about the group from Carl Lee, the person who had dropped off the press release at our office.
Arriving at 5:45 p.m. for the 6 p.m., meeting, I instead found Lee had already commenced, even as people were still filing into the Municipal Complex courtroom.
Lee was striding up and down the center aisle, his voice booming. The first words I heard from Lee: "If they think they can run me out of town, they're going to wind up in the cemetery."
What followed was more than an hour of sermonizing, demonizing, moralizing and patronizing. There were times when the purpose for which the meeting was called seemed to have been abandoned.
Lee held the floor the entire time. There were no other speakers. No questions were asked or solicited (aside from a couple of people who tried to steer Lee back to the purpose of the meeting by asking him to "get on with it.")
Lee took shots at government at every level -- national, state and local -- referenced anecdotes from his past and made reference to politicians and celebrities, both living and dead. Among them were, in no particular order, Trent Lott, Roger Wicker, Oprah Winfrey, Bob Dylan, Jed Clampett, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, Cindy-Hyde Smith, Phil Bryant, Medgar Evers, Fannie Lou Hamer, Danny Glover, John Grisham, Barack Obama, Jim Morrison, Stevie Wonder, Diana Ross, George H.W. Bush, George Wallace and Rosa Parks. And that's just a partial list.
At first, the crowded room (more than 100 citizens, most of them with personal stakes in the Kerr-McGee case) sat in awkward silence, sometimes exchanging bewildered looks with the person seated next to them as Lee bounced from one stream of consciousness observation to another.
About 30 minutes in, people seemed to be having conversations with those around them as the murmur of the audience competed with Lee's soliloquy.
Twice, when audience members urged him to get back to the subject, he told them they could leave if they didn't like what they were hearing.
After 45 minutes, a few folks gave up on the whole affair and left.
The rest of the crowd stuck it out. What had been advertised as a community meeting became performance art. When the audience seemed to grasp that, their attitude changed. They settled in, laughed at Lee's more sensational comments and appeared to be enjoying the show.
The original idea was that Lee would read a letter The Committee for Environmental Justice (more on this group in a minute) planned to send to the New York bankruptcy judge in charge of the Tronox case. The letter raised objections to the way the claims settlements have been managed and criticized the clean-up effort for a lack of transparency and misinformation. The letter asked the judge to meet with six members of the committee to discuss the issues in greater detail.
Lee started reading the letter, which was displayed on two monitors so the audience could read along, at 6:05. He didn't finish reading the seven-paragraph letter until 45 minutes later, departing from the text after a sentence or two to rail against all manner of evils,be they real, imagined and recollected.
The meeting ended at 7:10, largely because the crowd began to exit en masse.
After the meeting, I asked Lee about the members of the Committee for Environmental Justice. He seemed to be coming up with the names off the top of his head, finally, saying if the people he mentioned didn't want to be on the committee, he (Lee) would be a "committee of one."
The whole thing was a hot mess. I doubt anyone who attended walked out of the meeting with a relevant piece information the person didn't already know.
And yet there is something meaningful to be drawn from this episode, a couple of things that can be taken as fact.
First, Carl Lee can draw an audience. Second, he can hold it.
But can he take it anywhere?
Nothing I heard Tuesday night suggests he can.
But there is a larger, more substantive point here, one that should not be obscured by Lee's antics.
It was the audience itself.
These are the people for whom the Kerr-McGee saga has taken a tragic toll -- on themselves, their families, their neighborhoods, their property. They are frustrated by the process. They don't understand how the settlement process works. They don't understand why some of their neighbors have received settlements and others have not. They don't understand why some residents are offered a few thousand dollars while others walk away with ten or even hundreds of thousands.
Above all else, in the words of the prophet Hosea, "they are destroyed for a lack of knowledge." The Garretson Resolution Group, which administers claims and settlements, has been appalling in its failure to provide even basic information. An attorney who represents some of the citizens said claims have languished for two years or more without any communication at all.
It's no wonder, then, that people are frustrated, angry, disillusioned. They have every right to feel that way.
Those sentiments, as much as anything, are why more than 120 people showed up to hear Lee speak. Whatever else may be said, Lee is giving those frustrations voice. He's the only one, in fact, who appears to be doing that.
That is why his effort, if not his execution of it, is worthy of respect.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]