New Orleans, Louisiana, June 22
The protest begins at noon, beneath a black skyscraper. “Stop spilling! Stop drilling! Stop killing our planet!” cries a woman in a scarlet sunhat. A group of about a dozen people wave handmade posters and a man with dreadlocks films. On the shoulder of one female protester, where a pet parakeet might perch, rest two dolphin stuffed animals. The woman wears a sarong decorated with dolphins that appear to be levitating and she has a dolphin ring, a dolphin necklace and two dolphin tattoos, one on her ankle and the other on her chest.
“I’m a psychic and a dolphin communicator,” she says. “I teach dolphin skills to humans, or I did. I’m not too fond of humans right now.”
A woman named Cindy Sheehan takes the bullhorn. In 2004, her son, Specialist Casey Sheehan, was killed in Iraq. A year later, she set up a makeshift camp in a ditch near President Bush’s Crawford, Texas ranch and protested the war.
“I want people to know that we will not forget the animals and the planet,” shouts Sheehan. “We are not just coming in for a photo op like some people in the government do, we are here to make a difference.” She shakes a fist at the skyscraper, where several energy companies have offices; on the fourteenth floor is the Deepwater Horizon command center. “We want people up there to know their days of unlimited profit at the expense of our planet are over,” says Sheehan.
I see Larry Everest, a rabble-rouser I recognize from a BP town hall meeting a few weeks earlier. He is wearing a fanny pack and a T shirt stamped with the face of the leader of the U.S. Revolutionary Communist Party. “BP and the government have been unwilling to tell the truth so we have organized an independent mass action to stop the horror,” says Everest, who flew to the gulf six weeks ago, from Berkeley, California. Their group is the Gulf Emergency Summit. “We see this as the beginning," says Everest. "We plan to galvanize many many thousands of people.”
Right now they have about a dozen. Aside from a handful of local TV cameramen and myself, there only seems to be one onlooker. He has a pony tail and is without a shirt, watching curiously and smoking a cigarette. A pair of businessmen chuckle and walk on. A meter maid smirks. A delivery boy bicycles by without noticing. For the nation’s biggest environmental disaster in history, there doesn’t seem to be many protesters.
I ask Sheehan why not. “I will tell you what’s going on with kids these days,” she says. “My daughter is 29 years-old and she’s still in grad school. She is trying to pay her rent, pay her loans; when she gets out she’ll have $80,000 in debt. She cares about these issues, but she just doesn’t have time.”
The TV men make moves to leave but Everest stops them. “Come on,” he yells. “We gotta go now!” Protesters schlep their banners and signs across the courtyard to the front entrance. Everest, the dolphin communicator and a few others stay back and about eight of us enter the building. The mood is feverish. “Do they have kids and grandkids,” one woman wonders. “That’s what I want to know.”
Inside, a giant mobile made up of hundreds of shiny metal fish hangs from the ceiling. Three Coast Guard officers are seated at a table, eating lunch from Styrofoam containers. A protester begins shouting: “Stop the drilling now! Stop the killing now!” We approach the elevators. The security guard doesn’t quite know what to do. “You all can’t be coming in here,” he says. But we file into the elevator anyway and head for the fourteenth floor.
Two sheriffs are waiting for us. “Can you please get back on the elevator,” says one. “I can’t get arrested,” says Sheehan, who was arrested in 2005 for demonstrating on the White House sidewalk. She and a few others leave. A large protester with spectacles and an overflowing gray beard plants himself in front of the cops. Beside him is the woman in the scarlet sunhat and two college-age protestors, the only two in the group. We are squished into a small lobby with the sheriffs and a handful of security guards, inside the office I can make out a cluster of cubicles and people moving busily about. A dapper man in a polo shirt and black slacks steps out. He is chewing gum. “I’m with BP, I’m the head of operations here,” he says calmly. “If you have something to deliver, we’ll take it.”
The protestors are at a loss. I get the feeling they were expecting an oil-spewing zombie or Tony Hayward himself, not an anonymous gum-chewing dandy.
“I’m going to have to ask you to leave our space,” he says. No one does.
“Look, this is a legitimate group representing millions of people,” pleads the woman in the sunhat. “You guys need to pay for this, and pay for all the devastation.”
The sheriffs look frustrated. The BP man remains calm. The protestors are speechless. Tension breaks when the man with the overflowing beard asks if they can at least leave some literature. “Sure,” says the BP man, “we’ll take a look.”
A security guard escorts us out of the building, the rest of the protestors cheer our return. Everest approaches me excitedly. “This should give you a sense of what we’re trying to do,” he says. “We’re trying to bring people together to stand up to the power and not just let them do whatever.” He continues talking but fat rain drops begin falling. Within seconds it is a downpour.