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.


Renee Prisble Una said...

I feel like you wrote this to me because of my facebook comment. I drive way more then I want to, and that's part of why I asked, because I've been wondering what my relationship is to this disaster. May I gently point out, that now is the time to invest in a bike that you can rely on and to outfit it with racks and bags to reduce your car usage. Its putting these types of changes off, or not prioritizing them that has in part brought us to this huge dependence. I mean why spend $700 on a bike today, when your car works and gas is still cheap? Well you know why... I am proud to report, that I've finally got my act together enough at our new studio that I am now riding (with surprising ease) the 12 urban miles (1hr) each way to and from my studio, but unfortunately, not everyday. I think the truth is we are all guilty and we are all responsible, and while protesting may help some people cope with this, I believe more small things need to be done by individuals, starting with me.

Penelope said...

Hey Renee,

Actually driving to the protest is something I've thought about myself a lot. Your comment did make me think about it some more, and I wasn't intending to direct my post at you. I don't have a car right now, and I'm working on getting a bike I can actually ride. I also have back problems that mean I can't ride a bike every day.

Also, I'm not sure people up north really know how hot and humid it is here. Before I lived here I would have have thought that anyone who said it was too hot to ride a bike was a wimp. Riding to a bike to stand out in the mid-day 100 degree heat is too much for many people. There was no shade at the protest (the cops made people take down the one shade tent). I still think it's important to have people show up, even if they have to drive.
I do think it would be better if events were scheduled later in the afternoon or early in the morning so people could actually use non fossil fuel transportation more.

Renee Prisble Una said...

I can appreciate the cost of the heat. It will be 90 today here, and if I rode my bike to my non-AC studio, I would accomplish nothing once I got there. Are Southerners planning these things? I'm surprised that they don't plan them at more temperate time of the day.

Bad backs are bad backs, but many many women are not fitted properly for their bikes. If and when you up grade, contact me and hopefully I can long distance help you out. My bikes used to cripple me, but I've recently made some big changes and I ride pain free. I also made big changes to my desk, which resulted in a nearly back pain free existence.

ana dane said...

at least you are thinking about this horrendous natural disaster on a personal level, and making incremental changes to affect a new energy policy. so many people moan about our dependence on oil, then hop right in their air-conditioned cars and head off on a mile-away drive.

i'm very proud of you. i don't know if i could have stood 10 minutes in that heat. and you're telling people about it, which is as important- because if they're not confronted with it, people won't consider change.

on another note, i am leaving alone the fact that "sex and the city 2" is what brought you back from a yearlong blogging hiatus.