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BET, Soledad O’Brien Launched a New Series With Shingle Mountain

"Disrupt and Dismantle" explores racist policies that disenfranchised Black and Brown Americans. They kicked it off in Dallas.
Joseph Haubert

On Sunday, BET premiered the first of six 40-minute episodes for Soledad O’Brien’s new miniseries, which is titled “Disrupt and Dismantle.” The reporter and editor found stories across the country that showcase the impact and longstanding trauma created by racist policies that disproportionately affect communities of color. O’Brien starts in Dallas, next to Marsha Jackson’s home, where a pile of shingles that weighed somewhere between 50 and 100 tons has stood for years.

In a preview for the series, which began last Sunday, O’Brien says she and her production team wanted to “highlight things that were unfolding in time right now, to connect the dots to a history that is a discriminatory history, then explain what could be done to change those things.”

And so they launched their project in southern Dallas.

I doubt there is a monument as visual as Shingle Mountain that can better highlight what can happen to a community when industrial zoning is allowed to coexist with residences, further flamed by lax oversight on the part of local and state governments. Blue Star Recycling, whose CEO was a former roofer who lives in Collin County named Chris Ganter, is accused of using the city’s loose zoning enforcement to create a monstrous, illegal dump next door to Marsha Jackson. She says it ruined her quality of life. (Ganter has denied any wrongdoing.)

Jackson’s voice cracks on the phone in interviews. Her doctor suspects the fiberglass that blows in the wind from the shingles next door has caused rashes on her hands and arms. She doesn’t allow her 12-year-old granddaughter to venture outside, lest the particulate matter from the shingle pile aggravate her asthma. She lived next to this mountain since its arrival in January 2018; the city began removing it last December, after reaching a $1 million settlement with the land owner.

The activists, attorneys, and community leaders who have worked for years to raise awareness of this incredibly visible monstrosity have long maintained that the city’s zoning is the root of the dysfunction. After all, without the plot of land being zoned for an industrial use, Ganter and his Blue Star Recycling company doesn’t show up and start buying used shingles from contractors who didn’t want to wait in line across the street at the city dump. Even though deed restrictions should have prevented such a thing from happening, City Hall and the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality only noticed it after the shingles stopped up a nearby creek.

“If you have the land primed for a toxic use, you will continue to attract that same toxic use and the only way to undo it is to actually get rid of that industrial zoning,” Evy Mayo, the environmental activist and paralegal who has helped research the pollution that plagues southern Dallas, tells O’Brien.

In a lawsuit filed last year against the city of Dallas, Jackson alleges that the city’s zoning is racist, that it doesn’t allow industrial uses in Whiter, more affluent parts of town. She also alleges that deed restrictions on the property should have prevented this dump, but the city noticed it when it was too late. She wants the land rezoned; Mayo and others have developed a formal plan to do just that, which could take years to be approved.

“The City does not issue permits in violation of deed restrictions and does not impose heavy industrial zoning adjacent to single family homes in predominantly White non-Hispanic residential neighborhoods,” reads Jackson’s lawsuit.

Much of this is a tumbledown from redlining policies beginning in the 1930s, which relegated Black and Brown Dallasites to certain parts of town by denying them federally-backed loans. Neighbors moved in over the years in the form of concrete batch plants, factories, the McCommas Bluff Landfill, and Shingle Mountain.

The shingles are only part of the problem. Look in Joppa, where factories have for years belched out chemicals right next to homes. All of this is a design of zoning, freeing pollution to perpetuate in parts of town that are predominantly Black and Hispanic. O’Brien has dinner with Joppa resident and activist Temeckia Derrough and her son, who explain the pain and frustration of living in a polluted part of town that had been all but ignored by city policymakers.

O’Brien explores all of this, speaking to all involved, including Ganter who, like he did when I took a ride in his truck a few years back, defended his actions by saying the city had zoned it for uses like Blue Star. Jackson’s councilman Tennell Atkins basically admits the city isn’t proactive enough in identifying and quashing illegal uses: “a whole lot of businesses are probably operating without a permit, and once you find out about it you enforce,” he says.

Dallas clearly has a lot of work to do as it pertains to zoning and enforcement near homes in southern and West Dallas. After O’Brien’s premiere and a Washington Post article that preceded it, a national audience can pay attention, too.

Disrupt and Dismantle airs on Sunday nights on BET. You can stream it through your cable provider.