Dissent Continues One Year After BP Disaster

Dissent Continues One Year After BP Disaster

(Photo: Phillip Langer)

Gulf Coast resident Cherri Foytlin still can't get used to being called an activist. “A year ago, I was just a mom trying to protect my kids,” she says. “But I've embraced my new responsibilities respectfully and proudly.”

Foytlin marked the one-year anniversary of the BP oil disaster by walking 1,243 miles from New Orleans to Washington, DC to remind the country that even though the Obama administration and BP claim that life in the Gulf is back to normal, facts on the ground prove otherwise. She says people are experiencing everything from kidney damage to skin lesions, wildlife is dying, the economic devastation continues and the ecosystem has forever been damaged.

Foytlin arrived in DC on April 14 after 34 days of rainstorms, heat exhaustion, tornadoes and countless blisters. She says it was worth it.

“I've met so many people along the way,” she says. “Fisherman showed me crabs and shrimps with burn holes in them. I saw fish with no eyes. One man said, 'I don't understand. Why would you care about us?' And he starts tearing up. At that point, I knew that this was about the people. I've been carrying them with me the whole time and sharing their stories.”

A mother of six whose husband lost his oil rig job after the disaster, Foytlin made international headlines in July 2010 after her emotional plea to President Obama aired live on CNN. “I am asking you, sir, as a patriot and as an honorable person, to come and hear our stories and hear the pain that we are in. We are crying out to you. Louisiana is crying out to you. We need your help.”

The people are still crying for help, but Foytlin says politicians and the national media aren't listening. Over the course of her journey, she was interviewed by several local and international outlets, but never heard from one national reporter. “We get more attention from the BBC and Al Jazeera English than CNN, ABC or NBC,” she says. “The national media bow down to the corporations. I hate to insult them, but the free press no longer exists. They have moved on. How many people have to die before they start telling the truth?”

Foytlin and other Gulf Coast residents took part in a number of rallies and meetings with politicians and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) officials to demand health care resources for the people of the Gulf, clean energy and green jobs. They also focused on the health and environmental effects of chemical dispersants.

“All waters are connected,” says Foytlin. “If we let one group suffer, we can guarantee it will spill over to other groups, and that's not right. I have to give my kids a better world. It has to be about more than greed and profit. I felt like they heard us, but reports in the national news are saying that everything is okay, so it's a double-edged sword.”

Drew Landry, a Gulf Coast musician who helped Foytlin deal with sore feet and treat her blisters, says the walk was about giving people a voice and getting the truth out. “BP is spending millions a week on media. Their message is, 'Everything is safe,' and that's not true,” he says. “We're seeing a ridiculous amount of dead animals, especially turtles and dolphins.”

Landry says national reporters began leaving the Gulf after the Obama administration released a statement in August claiming that 75 percent of the oil was gone. “The fact is, people are still getting sick. We're seeing it every day.”

Foytlin, Landry and others shared their stories and connected with the 10,000 youth who converged on Washington for Power Shift, a three-day conference that gives young environmentalists the tools and information they need to become community organizers.

On April 15, the first day of the conference, nine young climate activists were removed from the House gallery and arrested after attempting to sing a revised version of “The Star Spangled Banner” during the budget debate. After one person was removed, another began singing, “If you represent me, not the fossil fuel industry, you will stop wasting time chasing your dollar signs. Oh say, will you listen to our generation? If you refuse to hear us now, then we have to shut you down.”

Politico reports that police would not allow reporters to speak to the protesters as they were being cuffed in the hallway outside the gallery. One woman in handcuffs shouted that she was there because, “We want Congress to protect the Earth and the future.”

The US Capitol Police told The Washington Post that the protesters were charged with unlawful conduct for disrupting Congress. They sang during speeches by both Democrats and Republicans.

Deb Henry, a Utah resident who traveled to Washington for the conference, told the Salt Lake Tribune that the arrests were empowering: “I hope it has inspired other people to take more action than cards and letters that are ignored by their Congressman and senator.”

“I stood up in Congress because that is where I have been told, over and over again, that I have no voice. That I have no voice in my future,” writes Sam Rubin. “My future, which if I remain on the sidelines, will not exist. I stood up to sing because I will be silent no more forever.”

Peaceful Uprising reports that Henry, Rubin and the others were interrogated and detained for more than six hours. “They emerged inspired, radiant and ready to go another round.”

On April 18, thousands of young climate activists, including 100 from the Gulf, shut down a BP gas station.

Tulane University student Stephanie Stefanski told ThinkProgress that she drove 20 hours from Louisiana to take part in the conference and actions to let people know that the oil hasn't gone anywhere.

“I saw it two weeks ago, I touched it, I smelled it. It's still causing massive die-offs with dolphins, sea turtles, crustaceans and fish. It's causing public health issues,” she said. “I'm here to tell everyone this problem is still here one year later. The beaches are still oiled. They're trying to 'make it right' by paying off the community, but it's still destroyed. The fisheries are damaged. There's no money in, people still don't trust the seafood. They're not paying up for their damages.”

Rallies and marches also took place outside the offices of the US Chamber of Commerce and BP's government relations, where activists dropped off a bottle of tar balls and oil from the Gulf. Later that day, over 5,000 activists gathered in Lafayette Park and from there, 800 marched to the Department of Interior, the government agency that approves coal, oil and gas leases on public lands. Over 100 people, many wearing green hard hats, stormed the lobby and filled it to capacity.

“We pushed our way through the doors, passed through the guards and quickly sat down on the cold marble floor and locked arms,” writes Vanessa Rule, a climate activist and mother from Somerville, Massachusetts. “The guards and staff looked stunned. The shouts and chants were deafening. Seventy angry but peaceful and loving humans, calling for the end of mountaintop removal, tar sands pipelines, natural gas fracking and deep oil drilling, asked to speak to Secretary Salazar – two days after President Obama told a group of students to push him. We're pushing Mr. President!”

After three warnings and threats of felony charges, police arrested 21 people for trespassing.

Foytlin says connecting with Power Shift was the most inspiring part of her journey. “The kids were incredible. This is about them.”

Like Foytlin's walk, known as The Road to Washington, Power Shift failed to get the national media attention it deserved.

Here are a few other actions you may have missed over the past few weeks:

*On April 1, over 5,000 mostly white men wearing camouflaged jackets marched through the cold snowy streets of Waynesburg, Pennsylvania holding signs and banners saying, “We Are One: The Fight is Just Starting.” If it had been a Tea Party rally, and it sure looked like one, it would've received endless media coverage, but because these citizens expressed solidarity with workers in Wisconsin rather than concern about President Obama's birth certificate, the only national outlet that bothered to cover it was the Associated Press.

Leaders from unions representing steelworkers, farmers, teachers and maritime workers joined with the United Mine Workers of America in leading the 1.5-mile march along State Route 21 to the Greene County Fairgrounds, reports the AP.

“This fight is about the future. This fight is about the economy and this fight is for our kids and our grandkids and the kind of democracy they'll have. Solidarity forever,” said Leo Gerard, international president of the United Steelworkers. “Stand up. Fight back. No back step. We will win because we will stand together. Solidarity forever!”

“Let us re-energize ourselves and say to our enemies, to our friends, 'We are one! We are one!'” said Joslyn Williams, president of the Washington, DC Metropolitan Labor Council.

“This isn't a fight about Democrats versus Republicans,” added Tim Burga, president of the Ohio American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO). “This is a fight for all working families to save the middle class.”

Watch a video from the march and rally.

*On April 8, a few dozen men wearing high heels took to the streets of Anchorage, Alaska, to raise awareness about sexual assault and rape. Their signs said, “No Means No!”, “Shatter the Silence” and “Got Consent???”

Alaska has the highest sexual assault rate in the nation. According to the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center, more than half of the women living in the state have been assaulted.

“Sexual assault for some folks is still kind of a sensitive, dark issue,” said Walt Monegan, former head of the state troopers who now heads the Alaska Native Justice Center, in an interview with The Daily Caller. “By bringing this in a humorous light, it eases the acceptance and discussion of it. So, any way we can bring it to the surface is a good thing.”

On April 9, hundreds of men, including a two-year-old boy, struggled to walk in heels to benefit the Lubbock Rape Crisis Center in Lubbock, Texas, where more than 300 people were sexually assaulted last year alone, according to the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal. Seventy-five percent of Texans either have been sexually assaulted or know someone who has.

In the comment section of the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Jeff Ross wrote, “Walkers included men of many different types, conservative and liberal, young and not so young, gay and straight, many different skin tones, many different shapes and sizes.”

Over the past month, Walk a Mile in Her Shoes marches took place in Redding, California; Columbia, South Carolina; Westminster, Maryland; Orem, Utah; Palestine, Texas; and Newport News, Virginia.

According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), someone in the United States is sexually assaulted every two minutes, one in six women and men in the United States has experienced an attempted rape, 60 percent of assaults are not reported, and 15 out of 16 rapists will never spend a day in jail.

Over 100 marches across the country are scheduled in the coming months.

*From April 15-18, Tax Day, over 300 “Make Them Pay” actions took place from Honolulu, Hawaii, to Flint, Michigan, to raise awareness about corporate tax dodgers like General Electric (GE), BP, Bank of America, Verizon, Wells Fargo and ExxonMobil.

Watch flash mobs take over Bank of America in San Francisco and a Verizon store in Washington, DC.

About 40 people rallied in front of a Bank of America branch in Naples, Florida. Mary Ellen Odierna, 74, took to the streets decades ago to speak out against Vietnam and nuclear power plants. “I didn't think at this age I'd be back again doing it,” she said in an interview with WZVN.

Barbara Myhrum, 83, told the Burlington Free Press that her frustration with the US corporate tax code and “shockingly high” corporate salaries prompted her to attend her first-ever protest at GE Healthcare in South Burlington, Vermont, where 45 demonstrators attempted to deliver a mock “tax bill” to executives before being stopped by security guards.

GE employees and retirees protested outside of the company's offices in Fort Wayne, Indiana, to call for an increase in their pension and an end to outsourcing. According to the protesters, in addition to dodging taxes, the company has shipped more than 20,000 jobs overseas in the last five years. GE now employs more workers overseas than it does in the United States.

In an eight-and-a-half hour speech in December 2010, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) discussed the disappearance of manufacturing jobs in the United States, citing a statement by GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt at an investors' meeting on December 6, 2002. Said Immelt: “When I am talking to GE managers, I talk China, China, China, China, China. You need to be there. You need to change the way people talk about it and how they get there. I am a nut on China. Outsourcing from China is going to grow to $5 billion. We are building a tech center in China. Every discussion today has to center on China. The cost basis is extremely attractive.”

A month later, President Obama awarded Immelt the top position in his administration as head of the Council on Jobs and Competitiveness.

*On April 18, a dozen demonstrators, including people who are homeless, students and social justice advocates, arrived at the Olympia, Washington, Capitol after walking 50 miles over four days to protest budget cuts and corporate tax giveaways.

Gina Owens, a disabled grandmother and community activist who used to be homeless, said if the cuts continue, she could end up on the streets with her grandchildren. “Why should that happen when I pay taxes everyday? So that our big corporate heads and our banks can pay zero? Something is definitely wrong with our tax system. Help me to help people in my position,” she said.

Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington State Labor Council, told the Public News Service that the walk started in Auburn, Washington, because it's home to Weyerhaeuser, an international timber company that paid no federal or state taxes in 2010. In 2002, CounterPunch's Jeffrey St. Clair described Weyerhaeuser as “the great behemoth of the timber industry, which has rampaged through the rainforests of the Pacific Northwest leaving ruin and extinction in its wake.”

According to the group We Are Washington, “Lawmakers have a choice. They can close tax loopholes for corporations and wealthy individuals or continue cutting valuable public services. Not one single tax exemption for corporations has been touched despite more than $12 billion in cuts to core services over the past three years. Last year, our state gave away $6.5 billion in business tax loopholes. It's getting out of control and it needs to STOP.”

The group plans to take part in a five-day fast to keep the action going.