Formosa Taking Emergency Appeal to Stop Prayer Event
Community Members Previously Threatened With Arrest for Visiting Ancestors’ Graves
June 18, 2020, Convent, Louisiana – Today, Judge Emile R. St. Pierre of the 23rd Judicial District Court upheld a temporary restraining order (TRO) allowing members of the faith-based grassroots community organization RISE St. James access to land, owned by Formosa Plastics, where enslaved people are believed to be buried. The TRO, issued Monday, allowed RISE to hold a one-hour prayer service on the site of the cemetery tomorrow, Juneteenth, to commemorate the day that celebrates the liberation of enslaved people from chattel slavery. Formosa is taking an emergency appeal to stop the event.
In March, RISE St. James and the Center for Constitutional Rights released an archeological report that shows as many as six cemeteries likely containing the remains of enslaved people may exist on property slated for construction by Formosa Plastics; in December 2019, the discovery of graves on the property was confirmed. Members of RISE St. James, who are the likely descendants of those buried there, have previously visited the site to lay flowers, pray, sing, and report on the significance to the community of the cemetery. Recently, however, despite state laws guaranteeing access to cemeteries, local law enforcement threatened arrest if the RISE members returned. After they were prohibited from returning to the site, RISE made multiple requests to Formosa to conduct a one-hour prayer service on the site commemorating Juneteenth, but they received no response from the company and were forced to request a temporary restraining order from the court to hold their Juneteenth commemoration.
The threat to arrest people who attempted to visit their ancestors’ graves was especially concerning, attorneys say, given that an underground pipeline running through the cemetery--which is believed to have already disturbed some of the graves--subjects the property to Louisiana’s critical infrastructure law. The law, which is under challenge as a violation of the First Amendment, punishes entry to property containing pipelines without authorization with up to five years in prison.
Advocates note that this is an especially important year for Juneteenth commemorations, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic’s disproportionate impact on Black communities, and during the upheaval in response to ongoing police violence and killings of Black people. They describe ongoing police violence and demand for change as a consequence of the country’s failure to fully reckon with and account for the traumatic history of slavery and its modern vestiges.
Bill Quigley is co-counsel in the case.
For more information, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights’ case page.
The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.