Tides Recognizes BP Environmental Warriors on Long Gulf Coast Marathon Fight

Casey Budesilich from Tides with Awardees Brenda Robichaux and Marylee Orr

New Orleans     Twenty-two years ago the Tides Foundation began giving the Jane Bagley Lehman Public Advocacy Awards on an almost annual basis to largely unrecognized local grassroots organizers and activists making a huge difference on major issues in what I have always called “the vineyards.”  During my more than 30 years on the board of Tides from its founding 37 years ago by Drummond Pike until I went on senior status in 2009, the most fun thing I ever got to do was help decide and give out the JBL’s with Drummond, Russell Long and Susan Carmichael, Jane’s children, and Andrea Kydd, my old friend and comrade, much missed but now also gone.   From the minute I heard that the JBL’s were going to recognize advocates who had stepped up for Louisiana and the Gulf Coast in the face of last year’s British Petroleum (BP) oil spill disaster, I started lobbying for various local freedom fighters and for the opportunity for Fair Grinds Coffeehouse  to be able to host the awards ceremony in our 2nd floor Common Space.

The awards winners and those in the final four were amazing.  Brenda Dardar-Robichaux, former chief of the Houma Nation and a longtime advocate and organizer in defense of the Louisiana bayou country, coast area, and cultural traditions and livelihoods was there with her husband, Mike “Doctor Mike” Robichaux, her father, and a lot of her family from the Raceland area.  The other winner was Marylee Orr, the long time executive director of the well known, Baton Rouge-based, Louisiana Environmental Action Network (LEAN), that is always at the table hammering away on the policy side.  Close behind the winner’s circle was our New Orleans-based, Gulf Coast advocate, Aaron Viles of the Gulf Coast Restoration Network, who was also present for the ceremony.

It was a great event with Rosa King and Casey Budesilich coming down from San Francisco to preside and present.  Zee Thornton, Fair Grinds’ Manager, went over the line and saved Tides a small fortune by personally catering the event and drawing on her old tricks working as a line chef at some of New Orleans’ best restaurants.  We just about had to chase people away after closing.   Fantastic!

On the other hand, every conversation I had was disturbing with the winners.  Aaron and Marylee both mentioned conversations with activists in Alaska continuing to warn that based on their experience with Exxon and the Valdez spill, this could be a 20 to 30 year battle.  Viles was not ready to concede that BP could be his life mission.  Aaron kept shaking his head that BP thus far had spent more in PR and “brand” protection in the media, than they had in actual Gulf Coast restoration, despite all of their claims.

Everyone believed the biggest danger was dispersants; the chemicals used to “breakup” the spill.  The after affects are not known, but continue to be seen as the biggest lurking danger.   Zee’s oyster dressing was the best I had ever had, but Brenda’s family told Beth Butler from A Community Voice that they, sadly, were still afraid to eat oysters since the spill.

Dr. Mike caught me on the balcony to tell me what he called “a long story,” but it turned out to be frightfully important.  He has treated more than 200 victims of chemical poisoning who worked or were affected by the dispersants and the spill.  Talking to other doctors, they are finding that the symptoms and response are the same as soldiers who came back from the Gulf War with similar chemical exposure.  The tracking of problems and reactions is disturbingly close.  I could say the good news is that Dr. Mike and his colleagues are coming up with a treatment regime that is helping, but the bad news behind the headlines is that few have recognized that this is a modern version of Agent Orange effects from what Dr. Mike referred to as “our war,” meaning Vietnam, as he was talking to me.

These were happy people celebrating their awards, plaques, and the critical “no strings” cash contributions that come from this Tides JBL, but asking the organizers how they saw the future was guaranteed to take the smiles off their faces as they looked at the horizon and saw nothing but more hard work, hard times, and long struggle.

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Cairo 2050 Plan and Egyptian Revolution Postponed

IMG_1206Cairo        The weekend in Cairo is Friday and Saturday.  On the Friday day of prayers organizers had called a rally to reignite the spirit of Tahrir Square, predicting a vast assemblage of  people with some promising that a million would be in the square.  The call had been to speed up the process and accelerate real reforms promised months earlier in the square.

These rallies kick off at midday and then usually build throughout the days, swelling after the evening prayers in the late afternoon.  After a Turkish coffee at the decadent seeming Cafe Riche founded in 1908 with its pictures of Egyptian singers and movie stars from decades past on the walls, we walked the couple of blocks to Tahrir, following a group of several hundred marching under banners ahead of us.  We circled the crowd without difficulty with its multiple stages blaring speeches in a kind of battle of the bands.  Vendors and street sellers were everywhere.  Drummond Pike walking with me told me it reminded him of something from the 60’s, sort of a mini-Peoples’ Park thing.  He captured the spirit well, friends were reuniting, fathers holding their children up for photos, conversations and cigarettes being shared everywhere.  Having traversed the entire square, we would be pushed to say there were 20,000 there, though we gamely tried to estimate 50,000 to keep a stiffer lip about it all.  The tactic had become a strategy, a rally a reunion, and clearly organizers were going to have to find other ways to sharpen the edge to reignite the pressure of the street on the system.

IMG_1200The weakness of the rally and the interesting fact that the Presidential candidates the Organizers’ Forum had met with had all been unclear whenever the question of the spring date for their election arose, has now come together more concretely.  During the week and sometimes on the same day we would be meeting with them, the seven Presidential candidates were meeting together and sometimes with representatives of the military to discuss the election and the rules.  It now seems clear that they knew something was afoot, were part of it, and were not sharing it with us.  Military governmental stand-ins had negotiated a series of agreements with representatives of the parties.  The deal crafted did not guarantee the military a place in government in the future, nor were basic rights agreed that would drive the writing of the Constitution after the parliamentary elections coming at the end of November.  In fact no firm date was set for the Presidential election, but it now seemed likely to have been postponed for up to two years until the spring of 2014, leaving the military and he existing apparatus in power in Egypt until then.  It is hard not to believe that the many people we met during the week will now believe the revolution is postponed, and worry that it may be in the process of being hijacked in the name of stability, security, and the spinning narrative elites want to present to the rest of the world.  Organizers and activists will no doubt be in intense and difficult, if not divisive, discussions now throughout Cairo and the country.

IMG_1210Some things are also worrisome where bureaucratic momentum may be more irresistible than revolutionary ardor.  I kept hearing comments about something called Cairo 2050, a long term planning process that the government’s planning agencies had rolled out in 2010.  Reading about it and talking to various planning experts, Cairo 2050 was a strange amalgamation.  At one level it tried to present itself as creating a greener and more modern city, but the parks and walking spaces would be at the price of massive relocations of informal settlements and industries to the sprawling suburbs of Cairo.  The powerful tourism industry, now reeling, would find Old Cairo and Islamic Cairo made into walking districts for example.  There had been some protest about the plan from different directions, and I was told that there were new reports being crafted that might respond to the plan.  When we visited with the zabaleen there had been a curious remark about moving their production process in the future, which seemed strange, since invariably residents would fiercely oppose living at such a distance from their work.  Now with no government fully legitimized and no clear role for citizen accountability, though it would be desperately required to turn something like this around, I would worry that it would move forward under the radar with tragically adverse impact.  Cairo 2050 itself seems to be set in the pattern of Delhi, which also has pushed recycling to the end of the metro line and rebuilt settlements at the far outreaches without substantially impacting any real change and seeing the same slums regenerated in response to the lack of jobs in the suburbs and the distant travel.

IMG_1211Our days in Cairo are numbered, but I will be worried about this revolution and its great spirit and promise for a long time as the dates continue to be pushed back on the calendar.

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