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Bad Neighbors

ON JUNE 2, 2015, I celebrated my birthday at the Iberville Parish Court in Plaquemine, Louisiana. Plaquemine is about twenty miles southwest of Baton Rouge at a sharp turn in the Mississippi River, and I had woken up early to get there on time, filing in quietly with two friends who were there to have their case heard. We took our seats, and watched as the side door opened to admit eight men in orange jumpsuits. They were chained at the feet, hands, and necks.

“Are y’all having fun yet?” the judge asked, flashing a grin at the tiny audience.

Until his retirement in 2017, Judge James J. Best of the Eighteenth Judicial District of Louisiana presided over Iberville, Pointe Coupee, and West Baton Rouge Parishes. Locally he was most known for once grabbing a young black man by the neck during a sentencing hearing and declaring that he ought to be “taken behind a shed and whipped.”

There were three cases on the docket that day, and Judge Best made quick work of the first two: he denied the probation petitions of the chained men in the front row and then dismissed a police misconduct case brought by a man who had been crippled by officers during his arrest. Then it was our turn.

My friends, Janice Dickerson and Vivian Chiphe, were up against Axiall Chemical, one of the largest vinyl manufacturing facilities in North America. The company was seeking to expand its plant onto the grounds of Revilletown Cemetery, where Dickerson’s and Chiphe’s forebears, some of whom had worked the land beneath the plant as slaves, were buried. Dickerson’s and Chiphe’s families went back to the founding of Revilletown, a small settlement created in 1874. Former slaves, organized as the Mt. Zion Baptist Association, bought a parcel of land from David Reville, a white doctor from Kentucky who owned the Reville Plantation. The present-day cemetery was established on this land, since the deceased could no longer be buried in the plantation’s slave cemeteries. Revilletown’s Mt. Zion Baptist Church was built a year later in 1875, separate from the Mount Zion Baptist Association.

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“Rural spaces,” writes Elizabeth Catte, author of What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia, “are often thought of as places absent of things, from people of color to modern amenities to radical politics. The truth, as usual, is more complicated.” With activists, historians, and political scientists as guides, Left Elsewhere explores the radical politics of rural America—its past, its priorities, and its moral commitments—that mainstream progressives overlook. This volume shows how these communities are fighting, and winning, some of the left’s biggest battles. From novel health care initiatives in the face of the opioid crisis to living wages for teachers, these struggles do not fall neatly into the “puny language,” as Rev. William Barber says, of Democrat or Republican. Instead they help us rethink the rural–urban opposition at the heart of U.S. politics. The future of the left, this collection argues, could be found elsewhere. With contributions from William J. Barber II, Lesly-Marie Buer, Elizabeth Catte, Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, Nancy Isenberg, Elaine C. Kamarck, Michael Kazin, Toussaint Losier, Robin McDowell, Bob Moser, Hugh Ryan, Matt Stoller, Ruy Teixeira, Makani Themba, and Jessica Wilkerson.