We End Up with the Disaster

Prince Shakur

Photo: Taliesin Gilkes-Bower

Down the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, from the Dakotas to the petrochemical swamps of Louisiana, new solidarities and new tactics flow.

In the summer of 2017, reporter Karen Savage showed up to the floating encampment established to blockade the Bayou Bridge Pipeline in Louisiana, sometimes referred to as the “tail end of the Dakota Access Pipeline.” Both projects are being built by the same corporation, Energy Transfer Partners (ETP). The Louisiana camp and the blockade of the Dakota Access Pipeline in Standing Rock, South Dakota share a name, L’Eau Est La Vie, a translation into Creole of the phrase “Water is life.”

Karen Savage did not know when she showed up to the camp that she would leave in handcuffs, not once but twice. She did not know that she would be one of the first arrestees under a new law, Louisiana House Bill 727, which rendered unauthorized entry of a critical infrastructure project punishable by up to five years in prison. Over the course of the summer, she saw countless activists (“water protectors”) and journalists arrested. A private security firm, freakishly named TigerSwan, assisted the police.

Karen’s career in journalism and her connection to some of the activists involved in the Bayou Bridge blockade dates back to the Deepwater Horizon explosion in 2010. In 2013, Karen and Bayou Bridge activist Cherri Foytlin collaborated on a Huffington Post article about the faulty science BP used to mislead the public about the extent of the company’s oil spillage. An independent journalist who covers intense political situations, Karen often comes into conflict with the state. As she covered protests following the death of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, law enforcement pointed guns at the group and later arrested her violently.

Karen covered the actions of water protectors in Bayou Bridge’s L’Eau Est La Vie. Based on her connection with Cherri, the protectors trusted her and agreed to tip her off when actions were on the way. While reporting, Karen documented her relationship with law enforcement carefully. In June 2017, she published an article revealing that when ETP attempted to hire TigerSwan to protect the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, their license application was denied due to an ongoing lawsuit against them for their illegal operations in North Dakota. After their attempt to hire TigerSwan failed, ETP resorted to another security option, employing off-duty Louisiana officers through a contract to defend the Bayou Bridge Pipeline. The phenomenon stopped before her article was even published, Karen noted. Her journalism was having an effect.

For months, the pressure around water-protector activism had been building. Cars passed the camp, the drivers rolling down their window to shout “White power!” Helicopters hovered above the activists at all hours. An ETP contractor struck a water protector in the head with the butt of a shotgun. Cherri was particularly familiar with this kind of harassment: in past situations, bricks had been thrown through her window and her cat poisoned. In a 2018 Facebook livestream, Cherri recalled being lured out of her home by a woman who claimed her children were lost. When Cherri stepped outside, two men emerged from the bushes, knocked her to the ground, and beat her before running away.

Simon Williams, an activist against the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, describes the camp’s early days: “When they started clearing trees, we set up tree platforms to block their construction and established a swamp-camp on state land. For months we kept a permanent presence there, sometimes moving camp or setting up satellite camps.” Even those engaging in tree-sits were subject to danger when climbers scaled the occupied trees on behalf of ETP and began to cut down branches.

July brought new actions to halt the construction of the pipeline. On July 16, water protectors from the camp protested outside the Louisiana Radio Network to demand that Gov. John Bel Edwards take action. From July 16-31, the #NoPipelines #RiseToAction campaign encouraged people around the nation to oppose all pipeline projects in their localities.

“The deputies really didn’t come out in force until the end of July and that’s when I started seeing them more often,” Karen told me. “By then, there were a few of them that knew me by name, but after a while, they would all recognize me.” They would simply “smile in your face and do whatever they want[ed] to do to you anyway.”

On August 20, 2018, Karen was tipped off by water protectors about an oncoming action to halt the construction of the pipeline. For weeks, the water protectors had strategically attempted to expose the fact that ETP’s construction of the pipeline in various areas of the swamp was illegal, since they had not received permission from landowners whose private property would be affected. Knowing this, Karen came prepared with written acknowledgment from landowners that she had the right to be on their property.

As one water protector was suspended in a sky pod—a platform strung between two trees and, as such, not technically an act of trespassing—Karen stood beneath a tree in an area close to the easement where the pipeline would be built, legally ETP property. St. Martin Parish deputies on the scene told Karen that she had to leave and encouraged her to step onto the easement with them. Karen recalls deputies asking ETP workers what to do next. The pipeline workers claimed they had affidavits from landowners who did not want water protectors there. Karen and three water protectors were arrested. It was clear, in her view, that the deputies were working under “the direction of the pipeline company.” In other words, they may as well have been private security.

After her release on bail, Karen continued to document and report from L’Eau Est La Vie. On September 3, 2018, members of camp invited Karen and other media workers to another action, where St. Martin Parish deputies tackled Cherri in an attempt to arrest her. The next day, tensions rose once more when four brutal arrests occurred: deputies and ETP workers tackled, choked, and pepper-sprayed water protectors as the activists blockaded construction.

On September 10, ahead of a hearing scheduled to determine the legality of ETP’s ongoing construction, the company agreed to stop construction in the contested area. The alleged agreement between ETP and the Atchafalaya River Basin landowners was, however, a false gesture: ETP had already finished their work.

“Today, the US is once again the leading producer of oil, thanks to new technologies that enable extraction from places like the Bakken Plateau in North Dakota and the Permian basin in West Texas.”

Eight days later, Karen showed up at the public boat ramp to document another action involving kayaks and banners. After photographing officers on the scene, she was asked to come closer to talk to them. Video footage of Karen’s arrest shows her shouting in pain as she is handcuffed. Officers claimed they had a warrant for her arrest. During our interview, Karen noted that this claim must have been false: a police officer in Lafayette Parish had checked her criminal record the day before during a stop for her broken tail light.

During the arrest, Karen’s fear heightened when she realized that what should have been a twenty-minute drive to the police station was taking more than an hour. “I’m still alone with this male officer in the back of a police car with handcuffs on in the middle of a sugar cane field in south Louisiana and I also know that they hate me,” she said. “It was either an intimidation thing or because they didn’t have a warrant. You can’t have a prisoner show up to the jail before the warrant does, because how are you going to process them?”

It wasn’t until hours later that Karen’s bail was set at ten thousand dollars with a charge of unauthorized entry. Ann White Hat, a water protector who was also arrested that day after leading a prayer ceremony, had bail set at twenty-one thousand dollars and was charged with the same offense. In a video of Ann White Hat’s arrest, she demands to know the conditions of her own supposed warrant. She says she has called a nearby police station and received confirmation that Savage had no arrest warrant in her name either. Karen told me it was clear that the majority of the people brutalized and arrested were indigenous women.

Aside from environmental damage, pipeline companies and the workers they hire can put nearby indigenous communities at risk in other ways. In 2012, North Dakota’s Uniform Crime Report saw an increase of reported rapes from 207 the previous year to 243. The emergence of “man camps,” or temporary housing set up for the multitude of workers hoping to find employment during the Bakken oil boom, was a suspected catalyst. The issue was brought to the attention of the United Nations in 2014 ahead of concerns over how the Keystone XL Pipeline could affect indigenous women, who are 2.5 times more likely to be sexual assaulted than women of any other demographic.

Karen made sure to note during our interview that as a white woman covering the protest, she was targeted because of her camera.

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On June 4, 1879, the first long-distance oil pipeline, built by the Tide-Water Pipe Company, was tested before a large crowd in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. From that moment on, America became a nation obsessed with the extraction of oil. The country’s rise to dominance in the twentieth century was due in no small part to its ready access to the chief energy source for the technology of the era. Today, the US is once again the leading producer of oil, thanks to new technologies that enable extraction from places like the Bakken Plateau in NorthDakota and the Permian basin in West Texas. These technologies pull millions of barrels out of fields once thought exhausted and move it cheaply, through pipelines, to coastal refineries.

It is because of those refineries that the area around the Bayou Bridge Pipeline, one of the most densely built petrochemical corridors in the world, is known as Cancer Alley, due to the extremely high rates of cancer among the primarily black residents.

“Instead of buying the people out, they are waiting for us to die off. That is their plan—they don’t have to settle with us,” said Keith Hunter, a sixty-year-old Cancer Alley resident during a 2017 interview. Keith passed away from respiratory illness last year.

This February, the Center for Biological Diversity sued the Trump administration for not releasing public records related to plans to build a Formosa Plastics plant alongside the Mississippi River that would destroy roughly 100 acres of wetlands in Cancer Alley. The plant will also be gifted $1.5 billion in tax breaks due to the Industrial Tax Exemption Permit, which offers “80% property tax abatement for an initial term of five years” for bringing jobs to a region. Since the area was rezoned as industrial roughly ten years ago, residents have come forward with increasing health concerns ranging from asthma, headaches, stomach aches, heart conditions, and more.

L’Eau Est La Vie camp promises to unite the fight against dispossession of Native Americans with the fight against environmental racism affecting Cancer Alley, whose residents live among the slave plantations of the nineteenth century.

“We end up with the disaster,” writes LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, the founder of Sacred Stone Camp in Standing Rock, in reference of the damage done by corporations like ETP.

For those in anti-pipeline movements, the disaster is environmental, but also legal and physical. Little Feather, a water protector from Standing Rock, was sentenced to three years in prison for alleged participation in blockades against police. Another water protector, Vanessa Dundon, lost sight in one eye after police shot tear gas canisters at her head at close range. When speaking in a video on the difficulties of gaining adequate healthcare with her Indian Health Insurance card, Dundon said, “I’ll never see again. It took too many days. I fell through the cracks of our system. That’s why I’m standing here now. I know that this is a bigger battle. I came here to save the water . . . which I hope we did.” For Karen, the disaster lies in the effects of her arrests, and the fact that she is now wary even of walking alone when in Louisiana.

As of October 2018, the Bayou Bridge Pipeline is 86 percent complete. Energy Transfer Partners has predicted that they will finish it this year.