Trisha Mukherjee tells the story of Frederick Tutman, a Riverkeeper standing up for the local environment and community in the face of corporate bully tactics.
On a sunny day in August 2016, Frederick Tutman was driving up Route 4 on his way home when his phone rang. It was an unknown number. Tutman picked up the call, held the phone to his ear.
There was no “hello” or “who’s speaking?” from the other end. Instead, Tutman just heard screaming. It was a man’s voice, yelling so loudly and aggressively that Tutman had to hold the phone away from his ear. “How dare you!” he shouted. He continued on and on, never pausing to let Tutman respond.
The voice was the owner of Vera’s White Sands, a glitzy beach club and resort that Tutman had written a complaint about due to their pollution of the adjacent waterway. The manager accused Tutman of entering and inspecting the resort without permission. None of what he said was true, but the belligerent phone call was just the beginning. Vera’s White Sands would go on to file a $300,000 lawsuit against Tutman, trying to silence his environmental advocacy. Little did they know who they were up against.
'Vera’s White Sands would go on to file a $300,000 lawsuit against Tutman, trying to silence his environmental advocacy. Little did they know who they were up against.'
I met Tutman on a balmy August day. Driving towards Upper Marlboro from Washington D.C., buildings slowly became dispersed, the buzz of traffic transformed into the hum of crickets, and highways thinned into empty roads bordered by looming trees. Posters painted with “For Sale: Live Crabs” stood posted in front yards, and houses hung back behind long gravel driveways.
A sign announcing “Patuxent Riverkeeper'' greeted me when I reached Tutman’s office in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. At the end of the gravel driveway, Tutman sat at a picnic table on the wrap-around porch of an elegant white building. Dressed in a black Hawaiian shirt and a baseball cap, he played with his labrador, River. He’s in his mid-60s, a big guy — “people expected me to play football,” he tells me. He has an easy way of talking that at once demonstrates wisdom and confidence and welcoming.
Tutman is the Patuxent Riverkeeper. He’s an advocate working to protect, conserve, and replenish the waterway and the communities that have arisen over millennia along its banks. Although it may sound idyllic, it’s a dicey job. Tutman has become the best-known advocate on the river — a figurehead of sorts. This has landed him in opposition to the people who prioritise profits over the health of the river. They want Tutman out of the way.
'Tutman has become the best-known advocate on the river — a figurehead of sorts. This has landed him in opposition to the people who prioritise profits over the health of the river. They want Tutman out of the way.'
But that’s not an easy task, especially considering that Tutman’s family has been living along the Patuxent for generations. His great grandfather told stories of drowning unwanted puppies in the water. His grandparents and parents, all farmers, drew water from the river to irrigate their crops. As a boy, Tutman would go swimming in the calm waters. Decades later, he still does. But his relationship with the river has changed over time. When he was a kid, the river was a watering hole, an opportunity to jump in, splash around, cool off. “It came from that way and went the other way,” he remembers. That was it. But now, it’s become more of a spiritual undertaking: “I have this general sense that there are powerful forces behind this work.”
In the Maryland region through which the Patuxent runs, tobacco was king until a few decades ago. Long before the United States gained independence from the British monarchy, enslaved people were forced to work the land, cultivating the cash crop from rows of plants that stretched as far as the eye could see. Once harvested, hogsheads of tobacco would be rolled to the banks of the Patuxent, where British tall ships would pick them up for export and sale. The current Patuxent Riverkeeper office, where I spoke to Tutman, was one of five tobacco-inspection stations in the state of Maryland since the 1500s. Tutman’s family farmed tobacco as their livelihood for generations.
Long after tobacco fell out of vogue, the culture of racism and exploitation that served as the foundation of slavery in the region remained strong. Tutman remembers a time when the river was segregated. White families owned the land closest to the water, and black people were not allowed. Even as the United States experienced the Civil Rights movement, the passage of the 14th Amendment, and desegregation in the 1960s, white people in the region dragged their feet. Schools had to be forcibly desegregated by the Federal Government. The public land agencies that oversaw the properties adjacent to the river would often cede them to racist clubs, and these clubs wouldn’t allow any person of colour onto the premises.
Tutman and other activists were fighting this segregation until around 20 years ago. The members of one such club, in a public meeting, stood up and proudly declared, “If you open this to public access, you'll have guys in baggy jeans, in gold jewellery, drinking old English malt liquor out of paper bags next to the river.” These abrupt and unabashed racially charged statements were not uncommon. “Things have been slow to change,” Tutman sighed.
'Long after tobacco fell out of vogue, the culture of racism and exploitation that served as the foundation of slavery in the region remained strong.'
The history of racism, segregation, and injustice along the Patuxent compels Tutman to see himself as an environmental advocate, yes, but also, and perhaps more importantly, as a civil rights advocate. “[Other environmental groups] largely talk about crabs and oysters,” says Tutman. “Save the crabs! Save the oysters! They never talk about people, ever, ever, ever.” He believes they want to make the work as neutral and uncontroversial as possible. Acknowledging the connection between poverty and pollution would ruffle feathers.
But Tutman sees it differently. “In my wheelhouse… you empower communities. You deal them in, you bring them into the conversation.” The Patuxent Riverkeeper, which is the name of Tutman’s organisation as well as his job title, takes marching orders from the communities along the river. They might help raise money, write grants, find creative solutions, and mediate tensions. They might be a voice for smaller, less wealthy, less powerful communities when they are taken advantage of. This strategy uplifts the flora and fauna of the Patuxent without forgetting the people who make their lives on the river too.
'In my wheelhouse… you empower communities. You deal them in, you bring them into the conversation.'
At the moment, neither are doing too well. In 2021, the Patuxent River received a 23% health score — abysmally low, even significantly lower than the unflattering 50% health score of the Chesapeake Bay as a whole. Tutman is the first to admit the dire environmental straits: “it’s a failing bay.” Black communities along the river have also faced public-health crises and poverty throughout history, and this disparity hasn’t disappeared with time.
Tutman tells me of a little town of 70 people called Eagle Harbor that sits downriver from his office. The majority-black town was hit with flooding that is believed to have rendered its water supply unsafe. Yet, when the residents of Eagle Harbor applied for funding from the Chesapeake Bay Trust and other organisations to fix this basic need, they were rejected time and time again. The reason? “It had no nexus to saving the bay,” explains Tutman. Many grant-giving organisations only want to fund popular environmental issues, like saving animals or cleaning the water. They turn the other way when it comes to supporting the people who can serve as stewards of the land — if only their basic needs were met.
The residents of Eagle Harbor asked The Patuxent Riverkeeper to step in, and Tutman and his team were able to secure $1 million in funding, which was then re-upped to $5 million, for the town. In terms of the funding issue, “It’s changed from a hopeless place to a place with hope,” he says.
'Many grant-giving organisations only want to fund popular environmental issues, like saving animals or cleaning the water. They turn the other way when it comes to supporting the people who can serve as stewards of the land — if only their basic needs were met.'
Along the banks of the Patuxent, Tutman grew up with a group of kids from vastly different backgrounds. Some of his classmates were the kids of government workers accustomed to the marble structures and suits and ties of Washington D.C.. Others were the kids of farm workers and sharecroppers, kids who wore the same clothes every day and stayed home to help out on the farm during harvest season. Early on, Tutman was distinctly aware that your social class determined much of your life’s path. He despised this classification system, and any classification systems in general. He liked defying expectations and never sought to be in the insider clubs. “It’s more fun being outside,” he shrugs.
While Tutman was in school, his father became a Peace Corps administrator and moved his family to Sierra Leone and Tanzania. Tutman didn’t go to school while his family lived abroad; instead, he was assigned to a Peace Corps volunteer named Phil whom he travelled the country with. He remembers living through two military coups with Phil, amongst numerous other adventures.
But the river communities of Sierra Leone influenced him most. He started riding riverboats through the densely forested interior. Roads were hazardous and gasoline was unreliable, so boats were the go-to form of transportation. The rivers were highways of commerce, information, and community. As the boat chugged on the water, Tutman would sit on the wheelhouse roof observing the life and activity around him, scribbling down notes in a journal. He watched people get groceries by stopping at a jetty, purchasing goats and chickens, and loading them onto the deck. He observed the trees and the birds and the water as it flowed by. He realised that the river was a lifeline.
'As the boat chugged on the water, Tutman would sit on the wheelhouse roof observing the life and activity around him, scribbling down notes in a journal. He watched people get groceries by stopping at a jetty, purchasing goats and chickens, and loading them onto the deck. He observed the trees and the birds and the water as it flowed by. He realised that the river was a lifeline.'
After returning to the United States, Tutman learned how to cut audio tape and produce audio at a radio station in Amherst, Massachusetts, becoming a host at age fourteen. His professional life led him to a career in media: he took out some loans, bought a quarter million dollars of video equipment, and became a stringer. His work took him all over the world, covering international news and affairs with companies like the BBC. But in 20 years, the work had worn him down. The media, he felt, was just exploiting other people’s pain and suffering. “I don’t think we were helping anybody but ourselves,” he says.
He remembers one instance in particular. Standing with a group of reporters in front of the Casa Rosada in Argentina, Tutman witnessed a woman, a fellow journalist, fall to the ground nearby. She was having an epileptic seizure. But none of the reporters put down their cameras to help her. They were afraid of missing that coveted shot.
He tried, time and again, to pitch stories about the environment to the media companies he worked with. Over and over, he was met with a common refrain: “if it bleeds, it leads.” Tutman soon left media. He cut off most ties so cleanly that several of his previous colleagues thought he had died.
Eventually, he went to law school with the intention of studying criminal law. One day, a Riverkeeper came in to speak to the class of hopeful lawyers. “You know when someone sucks all the oxygen out of a room? It was that guy,” Tutman said. He was captivated by the Riverkeeper’s presentation. He’d never heard about a Riverkeeper before. He started reading a book by Bobby Kennedy, Riverkeepers, to learn more. It was a page turner. “It was actually much more interesting than the criminal law stuff I should’ve been studying,” he laughs. But he was gripped by the stories of citizens fighting formidable opposition with rather primitive tools — and winning. It was a revelation: “we, as citizens, have the power to change these outcomes.”
'He tried, time and again, to pitch stories about the environment to the media companies he worked with. Over and over, he was met with a common refrain: “if it bleeds, it leads.” Tutman soon left media. He cut off most ties so cleanly that several of his previous colleagues thought he had died.'
Founded in 2004, The Patuxent Riverkeeper uses strategic advocacy, restoration, and education to achieve “long term sustainability for the ecosystem of the entire Patuxent River basin and the people who rely on its future.” Tutman runs The Patuxent Riverkeeper with a defiant righteousness. He’s well aware that sometimes, well-intentioned environmental movements can be corrupt below the surface. The main problem he points to is funding — not just the lack of it, but how it’s distributed.
First of all, money is distributed in issue-based allotments. Organisations that distribute funding — such as large environmental conservation groups — will grant money to organisations interested in issues like “water pollution” or “crab species preservation.” Smaller organisations that rely on the grants will therefore tailor their work to these issues specifically, even if those aren’t the biggest needs of the place they’re in. For example, Tutman notes, many environmental organisations will not work on diversity, equity, and inclusion, simply because they can’t get funded for it. This only exacerbates the inequality and lack of democratic contribution to the environmental movement.
Second, the money often goes to the wrong places. Grant distribution can be more influenced by friendships within political or leadership circles than by the actual need at hand. The money usually goes to white, upper-class areas. In fact, The Patuxent Riverkeeper helped conduct a study that demonstrates this with the numbers. Tutman recounts how one woman, whose husband was in a top position at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, was appointed to a state government committee to study the best places to designate as restoration sites. In a self-serving move, she chose her own backyard and received $2 million in grants to beautify her beachfront property. Meanwhile, the residents of Eagle Harbor couldn’t even get a $15,000 grant to secure safe drinking water.
Given the constraints that come with funding, Patuxent Riverkeeper doesn’t take grants that impose conditions or conflicts with their community-based accountability, which limits them monetarily. Instead, they scrape together money in whatever ethical ways they can. They rent kayaks. They rely on donations from board members and cultivate relationships with major donors. People see the work that they’re doing and the community they’re building — drum circles, a summer camp for kids, strategic-planning meetings — and feel moved to contribute how they can. “It’s a dog-and-pony show,” Tutman says. He handles much of The Patuxent Riverkeeper’s paperwork. When I ask him if it feels like a nine-to-five, he replies, “Actually, feels more like a 24/7.”
Patuxent Riverkeeper strategically uses the legal system to hold polluters accountable. The litigious nature of his work makes Tutman’s job more difficult but more impactful. Much of his work involves investigating and suing establishments whose actions are harming the river and its people. The Patuxent Riverkeeper has sued construction companies, developers, and polluters.
The first time Tutman was offered a grant (read: bribe) for shutting his mouth, he was somewhat dismayed at the amount. It was just $5,000, put forth by a coal-burning power plant downriver that The Patuxent Riverkeeper had sued. “If you really want to coerce me, if you really want to buy me off, offer me some real smoke,” he laughs.
Of course, Tutman is joking. When he was offered a $250,000 bribe several years later to drop a lawsuit, he politely declined, though he was flattered. It meant the polluters felt truly threatened about his advocacy. But no matter how large a bribe is offered, Tutman is confident that “once you sell your soul, you never get it back.” Integrity is at the core of everything he does.
It doesn’t stop at bribes — Tutman has been physically attacked for his work. He was once punched in the nose by a housing developer whose project he was trying to stop. He makes sure his doors are locked at night. He’s always a little on guard.
'But no matter how large a bribe is offered, Tutman is confident that “once you sell your soul, you never get it back.”'
Violence against environmental advocates around the world is unsettlingly common. I think of Ken Saro-Wiwa, the Nigerian writer and environmental activist, who was tried by a special military tribunal and hung. His crime: after petroleum companies like Shell polluted the land and the water, Saro-Wiwa called on the government to hold polluters accountable. Saro-Wiwa was executed in 1995. Since then, attacks and murders of environmental defenders have only increased. In 2020, 227 environmental defenders around the world were killed. This is the worst year on record, and more than double the number of murders in 2013. Particularly in Colombia, Mexico, and the Philippines, advocates’ lives are at risk. Tutman knows Waterkeepers in other countries who he says “don’t have anything close to the First Amendment rights that we have,” but in the United States, advocates hesitate to speak out because they won’t get funding if they do. Activists around the world and in the United States also face another challenge: SLAPPs.
SLAPPs, an acronym for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation, are exactly what they sound like. When activists or journalists or everyday citizens call out entities — often large corporations — that are harming their communities, they might be hit with a SLAPP. They’ll be notified of a lawsuit against them, perhaps for defamation or libel or another such charge. The advocate, then, might spend thousands of dollars on a lawyer to defend themselves, not to mention the time and effort and mental toll. This doesn’t come easy to many advocates, who are struggling to continue with their work as is.
Wayne Goldstein was a civic activist in Montgomery County, Maryland. He was passionate about historic preservation, land use, the environment, and holding the local government accountable to its promises. He was described by a friend as “an earnest and perceptive watchdog on county government and county politics [who] never let that earnestness get in the way of a delightful sense of humour and love of life.”
In 2009, Goldstein collapsed on the steps of a government building on his way to a hearing. He died of a heart attack at just 57 years old. Tutman and others in Maryland’s activist circles suspect that his death was caused by the stress of defending himself against a SLAPP that he could not raise the legal funds for. In a gut-wrenching way, the SLAPP suit was successful. Goldstein could never cause trouble again.
If the SLAPP is successful, the advocate will stop making noise. Sure, we have First Amendment rights in this country, but mechanisms like SLAPPs make those rights difficult to protect. That’s why some states have been enacting stricter anti-SLAPP laws recently, but many are still prohibitively vague. As a country, the United States still has a long way to go.
'Violence against environmental advocates around the world is unsettlingly common.'
Established in the 1960s, Vera’s White Sands Beach Club was once the private White Sands Yacht Club, owned by Dr. Effrus Freeman and his wife, Vera. The tiki-style club was decked out with Polynesian statues, leopard-print bar chairs, and colourful orbs hanging in macrame netting from the ceiling. It was known for raucous parties and a cinematic mix of glamour and exoticism. The main attraction of the Yacht Club eventually became Vera herself. Also known as the Leopard Lady, “she was quite the character,” Tutman remembers, comparing her to May West. Vera had wavy white hair and fingers laden with chunky rings. She often dressed in colourful robes and emanated the scent of her trademark perfume, Black Narcissus. Vera had a consort, an Indian man named Kumar whose uniform included a turban, at attendance. She sat at the bar, surrounded by a cloud of glamour, drinking her daily martini and signing autographs, until she passed away at the age of 92.
Like Vera, the clientele that frequented Vera’s White Sands was loud, in-your-face, tacky, and glitzy. They had raucous parties, complete with roaring speed boats and wet t-shirt contests. The neighbours couldn’t sleep. They couldn’t live in peace.
But it wasn’t just the noise bleeding late into the night that was an issue. Some neighbours believed that the boats stopping at Vera’s brought drugs, and the establishment was being buoyed by drug money. On the environmental side, Vera’s White Sands had a gas pump on one of the docks that they didn’t have a permit for. They also didn’t have a septic system, which was a cause for concern given the club stands right by the river.
In 2014, Tutman sent a letter including a bullet-point list of the neighbours’ complaints to the Maryland Department of the Environment. He listed issues like:
- “(1) Odor from the non-compliant sewage system …
- (3) Drunk and disorderly patrons trespassing and publicly intoxicated within the community at… odd hours …
- (9) Backhoes, Bobcats, JLGs, and Asphalt equipment stored on residential lots …
- (13) Pipes with unknown discharges into nearby creeks ...
- (16) Vera’s residential home being rented by the room like a commercial business and a flop house. Obnoxious, loud people screaming and disturbing the peace late at night and into the morning hours.”
One neighbour had also individually complained before, and Vera’s sued them. The case was dropped when the neighbour promised to not complain anymore. As the Patuxent Riverkeeper, Tutman felt obliged to document and communicate the sentiments of that neighbour and the many others whose lives were being disrupted by Vera’s business practices.
The government was no stranger to the ruckus at Vera’s. The numerous complaints and violations came to their attention regularly, but because of the establishment’s political connections, they often went unaddressed. There were quiet acknowledgements, though. Tutman tells me that county employees were barred from eating business lunches at Vera’s. The government didn’t want its employees to patronise such an establishment.
'Like Vera, the clientele that frequented Vera’s White Sands was loud, in-your-face, tacky, and glitzy. They had raucous parties, complete with roaring speed boats and wet t-shirt contests. The neighbours couldn’t sleep. They couldn’t live in peace.'
In 2015, Tutman showed up at Vera’s. He stopped by to check out some things the community had complained about, and politely declared that he was the Patuxent Riverkeeper. The manager on duty was friendly. She invited him in and gave him a tour around the property. Tutman wrote his cell-phone number on the back of his business card and left it with the manager in case anyone wanted to reach him. The visit came and went without incident.
It was only when he got the phone call driving up Route 4, with the voice on the other end screaming and cursing belligerently at him, that he knew something was seriously wrong. Steve Stanley, the current manager of Vera’s, was furious. He wanted to know who the pesky, irritating neighbours who had complained against him were. Tutman refused to spill. He was an advocate for the community, and he does his job with integrity. He wouldn’t give up their names, no matter how loudly Stanley yelled, no matter how much he cursed, no matter how much political power he could wield to shut Tutman up.
Vera’s White Sands eventually filed a SLAPP against The Patuxent Riverkeeper and Tutman personally, suing him for libel, defamation, and injurious falsehood in the 2014 letter he wrote with the sixteen complaints. From the start, Tutman knew the case was a sham. Under the First Amendment, Vera’s lacked a judiciable legal case. Suspiciously, Stanley was also suing Tutman and The Patuxent Riverkeeper for $300,000 dollars, the exact amount Vera’s was fined by the government for a violation.
The court date was set for June 14, 2016. The Patuxent Riverkeeper, given their litigious activism, already had lawyers ready to defend themselves — also Tesla’s lawyers for the region. A smaller organisation, or one with a different focus, might not have been so lucky.
'Tutman refused to spill. He was an advocate for the community, and he does his job with integrity. He wouldn’t give up their names, no matter how loudly Stanley yelled, no matter how much he cursed, no matter how much political power he could wield to shut Tutman up.'
On the day of the trial, Tutman’s lawyers asked him not to come in person; they wanted to convey that coming to court for a case like this was not even worth his time. His lawyers appeared on his behalf, prepared with all the necessary documents and details. Steve Stanley, meanwhile, had shown up to the deposition in a ripped t-shirt. Rather than arguing his case, Stanley fixated on the word “bellicose,” an adjective that Tutman used to describe his behaviour. As the ultimate signal of disrespect, Stanley couldn’t even recall Tutman’s name nor The Patuxent Riverkeeper’s name. Instead, he referred to Tutman as “that coloured guy.”
The court quickly dismissed the accusations of libel and injurious falsehood. Proceeding to evaluate the claim of defamation, the judge concluded that Tutman was merely stating the complaints of others, not defaming Vera’s. Tutman’s speech was also protected by Maryland’s anti-SLAPP laws.
I wonder how Stanley felt when he walked out of the courtroom. I wonder if he felt rejected, or if he had expected the outcome and just wanted to get a rise out of everyone. I wonder if he even cared. The last time Tutman checked, Vera’s hadn’t paid the fine that they owed the government for the violations anyway.
Tutman, though, knew what the outcome would be from the beginning. Throughout the process, as scary as it can be to get sued, Tutman knew he was in the right. All his experience had taught him to stay calm and work with integrity. His family history growing tobacco by the Patuxent inspired a sense of responsibility to the region. The riverboats in Sierra Leone had taught him to value the life the river gives. His friendships with the communities on the Patuxent had taught him that people are always worth more than profit. His mornings out on the water with his dog, River, observing the ripples in the water, feeling the spiritual pull of the natural world, engendered a devotion to the river that could not be shattered with angry phone calls, bribes, threats or lawsuits. When it comes to polluters, “Our job is to make as much trouble as possible,” reflects Tutman. And that’s exactly what he plans to keep doing.