Thursday, June 17, 2010
Why I'm Ok with Driving to the Oil Disaster Protest
I’m teaching composition this summer and I’ve told my students that I would be attending some protests about the oil blowout this week. They wanted to hear about the protest (or just avoid more talk about active and passive voice). “Do you have signs and stuff?” “Are you all angry and screaming?” “Do you, like, carry a pitchfork?”
A pitchfork? I tried to explain to them that while I was angry about what was going on, I didn’t stand around screaming. From the back row came the comment, “It’s too hot to be mad.”
And it is.
I’ve been to two events this week on at the Baton Rouge capitol – one organized specifically for the workers and about the use of Corexit on Tuesday and a loveyourcoast event put together by a couple student organizations and some others (Sierra club was one). C and I only lasted a little more than an hour.
It was so hot and so bright on the white capitol steps that it felt surreal. There were a couple singers with guitars. I recognized some faces from Tuesday. A line of about eight people held signs. I admit I was expecting a massive crowd of hundreds. I think there were between twenty and thirty people there. I’m wondering how much that would change if the protest were scheduled for 4pm?
I’m amazed at the people who were out there before we got there and who stayed out there after we left. I’m still dragging from standing on those steps. Some of the legislators saw us. While I was there we got some curious glances, but mostly the capitol workers walked around us. At one point the cops told people to take down a shade tent.
While it is legal to protest in Louisiana, apparently all protesters should suffer in the sun.
Enough with my negativity. Seeing Dr. Riki Ott speak was amazing. She’s worked with Valdez survivors for thirty years and is one of those rare people who can witness suffering and injustice, be angry enough to try to change it, and remain enthusiastic. She warned us that BP was using the same tactics as Exxon had with the Valdez. She told us we were doing the right thing being there. She knew about those awful feeling of hopelessness and powerlessness. Organizing and coming together, she told us, would lift us up.
And she’s right. But that’s something I’ve struggled with in regards to activism: does it make a difference to show up? My urge is often to do something really big. And often I think that if I can’t develop superpowers and fix it, why bother? Dr. Ott reminded me of the importance of bearing witness. Sometimes the most we can do is stand with an umbrella behind some people holding posters in the 100 degree heat.
This disaster has a whole other layer added to the problem of showing up: I’ve thought more deeply than I ever have about how I get to the protests. I’ve wondered if it is counterproductive to drive to an oil disaster protest. Or if the fact that I’m driving there means I shouldn’t be complaining about oil companies.
Nope. As a person living in an oil dependent society I better be complaining. If it means I have to drive to do it, so be it.
My options were for today: drive or don’t go. It’s too far to walk. I don’t have a bike I can ride that far right now.
I’m glad I went. They needed people there today and I’m proud that I was one of them. Don’t get me wrong: I hate being so dependent on fossil fuels. I wish gas cost a lot more because I think that’s the only way public transportation in Baton Rouge and the rest of Louisiana will be a viable way to get around. I’d like my next car to have the engine modifications done so it can run on vegetable oil. But this disaster doesn’t mean I’m going to stop going to work (driving or buses are my only way to get there). Why would it mean I wouldn’t go to a protest?
Dr. Ott suggested we meet every week on the capitol steps. I hope people do and I’d like to be a part of it. I hope some days I’ll be able to ride a bike or take the bus. But if I can’t, I’m still going.