Image Analysis of a Protesting Family
The Diamond Alkali plant, also known as Diamond Shamrock, was located at 80-120 Lister Ave in the Ironbound section of Newark, NJ. It is widely known as a producer of Agent Orange during the Vietnam War. Agent Orange was an extremely toxic herbicide used for clearing the jungles of vegetation so the Viet Cong could not hide and ambush US troops. It is linked to cancer and birth defects among the Vietnamese population as well as troops that served there. A by-product of the manufacturing process of Agent Orange, dioxin, was discovered at the abandoned Diamond Alkali plant in the summer of 1983. It is an extremely toxic substance, resulting in the area being immediately quarantined. Upon testing the soil and groundwater, the EPA found that there was dioxin contamination in both, and it had been dispersed throughout the Ironbound section of Newark by truck tires. Protesters took to the streets demanding action and answers as to why this was ever allowed to happen. The image I have chosen depicts protesters in action, focusing on a mother and her two children holding signs, with other protesters in the background. All of their signs bear confrontational messages directed at Diamond Alkali. Protesters like them played a large role in getting the Ironbound cleaned up through their activism. This image shows that the dioxin affects the entire community, particularly the children, but also their fathers who may have been exposed to Agent Orange while at war, or as workers at the plant.
Children were victims of the dioxin exposure just as the adults were, and they were equally important in the protests to clean up the Ironbound. Among the first things to catch my eye when viewing the image were the woman with a doll that was holding a sign and the two children in the foreground, each holding a large picket sign themselves. While the doll was not a real baby, it was representative of one. Its purpose was to give a voice to babies through the writing on its sign, as they were affected by dioxin more than anyone. Being that babies are still developing, exposure to dioxin at such an early stage would have likely caused severe medical problems that would have manifested themselves in childhood. The babies might have even suffered prenatally from the dioxin affecting their mothers’ bodies. The effects of dioxin on the young and unborn cannot be understated.
The two children standing in the foreground are likely siblings and belong to the woman holding the doll. Each holds a picket sign with a confrontational message directed at Diamond Shamrock (Alkali). On the left is a boy about eight to ten years old and his sign says, “Diamond Shamrock WHY did You Hurt my DADDY and ME?”. His sister stands beside him and looks to be about the same age. Her sign says, “Diamond Shamrock Why are you Killing our Dads?”. It was likely Diamond Alkali did not care much about the children any more than the adults or they would have been more careful with the disposal of waste, however the children were most likely present at the protests and in this picture for publicity purposes. When children are affected, it prompts more calls for action, so children were probably instrumental in getting the Ironbound cleaned up. Their signs directly implicate Diamond Alkali as the cause of the dioxin contamination and make it clear that they are solely to blame. Pressure from the children at the protests gained power if the picture was made public since it tugs at peoples’ emotions and makes them more likely to take a stand on the side of the protesters.
Like the children, another group suffering from dioxin exposure were the men of the community. When taking this picture at face value, it is clear that whole families were affected by the dioxin, and while there was only one man in the picture, the children’s signs ask Diamond Alkali why they were hurting their fathers as well as themselves. Looking deeper, it is interesting that their signs specifically call to mention their father, who may have simply been another member of the community like them, but he could have been a plant worker who was exposed while working at Diamond Alkali. Also likely is that he may have been a Vietnam veteran exposed to Agent Orange while overseas. Their father is not in the frame, and this leaves room to wonder where he is. Perhaps he is hospitalized as a result of exposure to dioxin, or perhaps he was simply unable to attend the protest. However, he is mentioned on their sign, and again children can be powerful weapons when it comes to activism. The public is more willing to listen to a child than an adult, and this translates to pressure on Diamond Alkali to help contain and remove the dioxin. They are protesting on behalf of their father, and would likely be more effective than him, especially if he was a Vietnam veteran, since the public attitude toward them was unfavorable. Many believed the war was unjust and the media did not help the military’s public image.
The dioxin contamination in the Ironbound was unfortunately not a unique occurrence. Months before the discovery of dioxin at the Diamond Alkali plant, the EPA began discussions to buy out the land in Times Beach, Missouri, due to dioxin contamination. However, the dioxin can be traced back to the early 1970s when a waste oil company obtained contaminated oil from a plant in Missouri producing Agent Orange. It was not until 1983 that relocation began. In popular culture, the last episode of M.A.S.H. aired in February of 1983, setting the still unbroken record for the most watched television episode at an estimated 125 million viewers. Clearly the Vietnam war was still on everyone’s mind in the 80s, and it would not be going away any time soon for the people of Newark as dioxin was discovered at Diamond Alkali a mere three months after the episode aired.