When Big Oil Lives Next Door

“We’re watching you! We’re watching you!” chanted activists as their colleagues were carted away by “police” in a role-playing exercise at Our Power Camp in Occidental, organized by the Ruckus Society and others, for more than 50 representatives from US and Canadian communities affected by the energy industry. “We’re coming out of this war in Iraq and seeing how oil, militarization, and global conflict are all interrelated,” explained Sarada Tangirala of Project Underground, an event sponsor. “But we also need to make those connections about how communities here are facing these issues every day.”
Delegates to the June event ranged from members of the Gwichi’n Nation in Alaska, who object to drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to members of the Eyak Preservation Council, which has fought for years against a 1500-megawatt power station that drains water and takes coal from Navajo land. Air pollution (and how to document it) was a common theme. Juanita Stewart of Aslen, Louisiana, a small town 20 miles north of Baton Rouge, has been trying to get a nearby Exxon facility for over five years to cut emissions and reduce truck traffic. “The property line is at our playground. There are foul odors coming from the facility, a lot of [exhaust] when the trucks come through.” She taught campers about the Bucket Brigade, a low-cost way of sampling and monitoring air pollution. “There are so many different commonalities that people are fighting,” said Carla Perez of Communities for a Better Environment, “anywhere from the corporation to the type of exposure in their community, whether extraction, a refinery, or a power plant.”
Refineries, explained Tangirala, are often sited “in low-income areas, predominantly communities of color. Or the places these facilities are sited end up becoming lower-income neighborhoods. Either way, it’s communities of color that are predominantly affected.” Says Stewart, “we do not get the jobs, we have health problems, our property has depreciated. In the state of Louisiana, it’s not politics anymore, it’s politricks. They’re tricking us all the time.”
“We need to get together more and know what’s happening in everybody’s communities,” said longtime Richmond activist Ethel Dotson. “Be in one accord about what to do. It’s basically the environmental organizations that get funded. It needs to be the actual people who live in the community and suffer the pollution.”
Workshops covered how to site a demonstration and how to talk to the press. Leaders pointed out that there is no one-size-fits-all organizing technique. “We in the Bay Area see a lot of hard-core direct actions going on, especially in the antiwar movement,” said Tangirala. “But for a lot of people, that’s not how you get the attention of tribal council members or others in your community.”
The camp was the first of several planned to support energy activists.

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