Tuesday, November 9, 2010
By: Gregory W. Esteven
[Originally posted to pslweb.org]
Project Gulf Impact forum provides glimmer of a new people’s movement
On October 10, Project Gulf Impact and Loyola University held an Oil Spill Forum on the Loyola campus in New Orleans.
The purpose of the forum was to allow coastal Louisiana community members to speak about their perspectives and experiences in the aftermath of the Gulf oil catastrophe. Panelists included a former director of an EPA-contracted laboratory, wives of fishermen and other workers, and activists who live along Louisiana’s coast and surrounding areas. In all, there were around a dozen speakers and about 50 audience members.
The forum, which included videos, panel presentations, and a vibrant discussion period, had political importance beyond its turnout. It provided a view of an emerging social justice movement in the areas affected by the spill. Two prominent themes dominated the discussion period: sharp criticism of the U.S. government and corporations responsible, and the need for a reconstruction effort that meets the needs of poor and working people.
Scientists, community members and new activists speak out
Cheri Foytlin, an activist and a mother of six, described her attempts at dealing with the authorities since the oil spill: “The government wouldn’t listen to me because I’m nobody.”
Susan Felio Price, a Cajun woman born in the Louisiana bayous, said, “I have been waiting for Obama to do something—to save us. He hasn’t. … I believed in a system that I thought worked.” She went on to describe how she has been personally lied to by representatives of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Navy and the Federal Department of Agriculture.
Kimberly Wolf, a former director of an EPA-contracted laboratory, perhaps expressed the sentiment most strongly, trembling with emotion as she spoke. “This government is willing to poison over 14 million people for profit. The U.S. government is not going to protect you. They are going to drop you on your heads…We have to be at war with our government. This is a war for the generations.” Similar messages were repeated throughout the forum and met with frequent applause.
Most of the panelists themselves had experienced medical conditions because of the spill, and to have witnessed the profound public health implications in the coastal communities. Noting the authorities’ lack of interest in this aspect of the oil spill, panelist Vicki Perrin said, “We see people getting sick. We talk to them.”
Perrin is a leader of Project Gulf Impact, which started out as a documentary film project and has transformed into a non-profit organization whose mission is to “document the economic, environmental and human health impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.”
Multiple panelists brought up the fact that people in the fishing communities have unexpectedly become activists in response to the oil spill. Working class leaders have emerged in the Louisiana coastal region, and they are beginning to get organized.
Several panelists emphasized the important role being played by women from these communities in the movement for social and environmental justice. All of the panelists, excluding two from Project Gulf Impact, were women.
One panelist, Lauren Goldfinch, is even known as the “accidental activist,” because, like others, she never envisioned herself doing this kind of work. Goldfinch explained how necessity pushed her to take action: “My homeland is being ravaged before my very eyes.” Undoubtedly, many others would share Goldfinch’s sentiment if they knew such a movement existed.
BP’s “gobbledygook” science
The forum exhibited profound mistrust about the supposedly “scientific” information being put out by the U.S. government, the mainstream media and major corporations. Attendees suggested a monumental campaign—bordering on conspiracy—has been launched to suppress the truth about the causes of the spill and its impacts.
Panelists argued that alternative media and scientific sources were required to get the real story about the environmental consequences of the spill.
Heather Rally, a veterinary medicine student who worked on the “Project Gulf Impact” documentary and has experience in marine mammal rehabilitation, called the level of misinformation “mind-blowing.” “The media and scientific community are bought and paid for by corporate dollars,” she explained, in reference to the scientists contracted by BP to “investigate” the spill. Their lack of transparency makes their findings dubious, and they do not adhere to the basic principles of scientific investigation.
Environmental scientist and panelist Lauren Goldfinch called BP’s data “gobbledygook.” She also said that the FDA is insufficiently sampling the entire coastal area when looking for signs of oil contamination. She maintained that they are only testing where oil is visible on the surface of the water. It is clear, however, that oil can be found at much lower depths, in large part because the application of chemical dispersants has caused the oil to sink. In addition, Goldfinch explained that authorities have adjusted the “danger” level for contamination, setting it three times higher than it had been before. This fosters the impression that the levels of contamination are much lower than they actually are.
Gavin Garrison, the director of the documentary project, asserted that the EPA has gone back and removed data from their website and that critical media articles have changed or removed from websites.
Some have taken the investigation into their own hands. Vicki Perrin, the vice president of the Coastal Heritage Society of Louisiana, stated that she and other activists have been testing rainwater for the presence of dangerous chemicals in the aftermath of the spill. She maintains that they have been finding dangerous levels of chemicals like copper, magnesium, chloride, nickel and aluminum in the rainwater. Some of these problems predate the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe as Louisiana has a long history of environmental degradation. Like economically impoverished areas elsewhere in the country and the world, it has been used as a dumping ground by the worst corporate polluters.
A regional history of underdevelopment
Louisiana is one of the richest states in terms of natural resources, but its residents remain some of the poorest in the country. Institutionalized racism and national oppression remain intense and seemingly intractable here. This is a legacy deeply rooted throughout the historic “Black Belt”—the geographic band that stretches across the southern United States in which slave populations were concentrated and the largest plantations dominated.
Before U.S. imperialism began its worldwide march to extract resources and expand its markets, it first had to extend its reign over its own territories. The South in particular became a virtual colony of Wall Street, which—like the “banana republics” of Central America—delivered raw materials, agricultural goods, and eventually cheap labor, while remaining far less developed economically.
The economic condition of Louisiana—along with much of the South—remains an especially powerful indictment of U.S. capitalism and its political institutions. Rather than provide the “American dream” of social mobility, chronic poverty, underdevelopment and extreme inequality have been the norm.
Louisiana’s historical experience continues to provide a deep well of resentment against the U.S. government, among different sectors of the local population. For some, this resentment has echoes of Huey Long populism, which electrified the state in the 1930s. For others, it takes the form of “state’s rights”—which has long been used as a slogan for the country’s most reactionary right-wing currents. The simple characterization of Louisiana as a mere hotbed of reaction, however, is misleading. These different strains often mix together in a complex, if contradictory, way. Understanding these contradictions will be necessary for activists who seek to build a revolutionary, class-conscious alternative in the South.
In the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and now the oil spill, criticism of the government has increased sharply in the state. Local activism has increased dramatically as well, even if the movements are still in early stages of development and often lack coordination.
The for-profit system has proven that it can only function with that purpose, and has been unable to respond to the multiple crises. Elites, both national and local, have demonstrated their unwillingness and inability to envision a reconstruction program that prioritizes the needs of poor and working people.
It is partly in this light that laissez-faire “libertarianism” has gained traction in Louisiana—as part of a general anti-government attitude. But if implemented, the libertarian program would allow the unrestrained rule of private corporations; it would make the region’s economic and natural disasters even worse.
Among youth, on the other hand, there has been a striking interest in socialist and anarchist ideas. A recent nationwide Pew poll on capitalism-versus-socialism found that the millennial generation is essentially divided on the merits of each. While the poll did not include any meaningful details or definitions, it seems to be confirmed among the youth of Louisiana, who have not grown up in the era of Cold War anti-communism.
Since the Deepwater Horizon spill, many now refer to the corporate domination of society. There has been a noticeable shift in everyday conversation with workers and students, at protests and in public forums such as the one hosted by Project Gulf Impact.
While vast potential exists to build a vibrant social movement in Louisiana, we need strong working-class organizations and activists who are unafraid to talk about a new system, socialism.
Such organizations help provide coordination among disparate oppressed sectors, and give political direction during these difficult times of crisis. There is undoubtedly a rise in right-wing, racist extremism, and the Tea Party’s fake populism aims to channel the people’s righteous indignation in the wrong direction.
The multiple crises facing Louisiana will not spontaneously create the revolutionary change we need. Revolutionary organization, and tireless self-sacrificing fighters are required to show the people of this state that there is an alternative. If you’re one of those fighters—or you want to be—we invite you to join us.
The author is a life-long Louisiana resident and activist in Hammond, La.