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Water Protectors Take Action to Keep Pipeline Out of Black and Indigenous Communities

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Water Protectors Take Action to Keep Pipeline Out of Black and Indigenous Communities
Cherri Foytlin hangs up a sign about the Bayou Bridge pipeline resistance near the site of construction in Plaquemine, Louisana. Jen Marlowe

By Jen Marlowe

Chants of "St. James needs an evacuation route!" came from the dozen-plus activists gathered at Louisiana Radio Network on July 18. The activists were part of the L'Eau Est La Vie ("Water Is Life") camp, in Rayne, Louisiana. They want to stop the construction of the Bayou Bridge pipeline in Louisiana from St. Charles to St. James, through the Atchafalaya Basin.


They were at the Radio Network because they want to get the attention of Lousiana Gov. John Bel Edwards, who was holding his monthly radio call-in show there. They believe that the struggle against the pipeline is inherently connected to the struggles against extractive capitalism and White nationalism, and the movements for Native rights and Black lives.

One of the water protectors' demands is securing an evacuation route for the 5th District of St. James Parish, which is accessible by only one road. The Mississippi River hems the community in on one side, and sugar cane fields the other. Crude oil terminals, petrochemical plants, and oil tanks line the residential stretch. If an industrial accident occurred, the predominantly low-income Black residents would be trapped.

"This is on the intersection of a lot of things," said Cherri Foytlin, who calls the fight "a justice issue, right in the heart of KKK territory." Foytlin originally hails from Oklahoma and is of Diné and Cherokee descent. She's lived in Rayne for 15 years, where she raises six children.

Foytlin recalled the 2010 BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. She remembers finding a dying pelican and burying the bird after it expired. "I came back and took a really hard look at myself and said … 'What are you going to do?'" What she did is walk from New Orleans to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness about the impacts of the disaster. "I'd walk through one community and they'd be dealing with mountaintop removal," she said. "I go to the next community and they're dealing with uranium mining." It was during the walk that she deeply understood how access to clean air and water connects to poverty and racism, Foytlin said.

Anne White Hat, who is Sicangu Lakota, relocated to New Orleans from Rosebud, South Dakota, eight years ago and has been involved at L'Eau Est La Vie since the camp's opening water ceremony in December. Her native home and her adopted home are located, respectively, close to the Dakota Access and Bayou Bridge pipelines, both owned by Energy Transfer Partners. She believes it is significant that the Bakken crude oil passing through the Dakota Access pipeline will end at the Bayou Bridge pipeline, and she sees strong parallels between the communities impacted in both places. "We're communities of color, at the beginning and at the end [of the pipeline]," White Hat said.

Travis London, a Creole man from neighboring Donaldsonville, has close ties to St. James. His grandfather was born there. London serves on the H.E.L.P. Association of St. James. He also works to prevent gun violence and improve access to health care and education in his community. London views the environmental fight as embedded in all his causes and believes that greater unity in these struggles would benefit them all.

In 2017, London learned about plans to build the Bayou Bridge pipeline. He decided to go check it out. En route, he was stunned by how many petrochemical plants had sprouted up in and around St. James. London researched Energy Transfer Partners and Phillips 66, the co-owners of the pipeline, and learned about multiple spills. He met Foytlin at a hearing in July 2017 and linked up with L'Eau Est La Vie.

Now, London conducts pipeline-related research, engages in direct action, and attends community meetings. He emceed St. James' Juneteenth celebration, which L'Eau Est La Vie attended. "Everywhere the industry tries to influence, I want to be there," he said, the youngest of his four children scrambling onto his lap. "I've got to try to fight them back with the law, and try to fight them back with direct action, and try to get people together."

The No Bayou Bridge Pipeline campaign has achieved some legal victories. In February, U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick ordered an injunction to halt construction of the pipeline through the Atchafalaya Basin. On April 30, St. James District Judge Alvin Turner Jr. ruled that the Department of Natural Resources had improperly issued a permit for construction and ordered DNR to ensure that Bayou Bridge Pipeline LLC create evacuation plans in the event of an emergency. But now, DNR is appealing Turner's decision. And the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals overturned Dick's injunction.

Foytlin purchased the land on which L'Eau Est La Vie sits when she learned that the pipeline route was slated to go through it, and officially "launched" L'Eau Est La Vie on June 24, 2017. Truthout reports that the purchase forced the pipeline to reroute.

Now the camp serves as the base for a continuously rotating group of a few dozen water protectors. Those in camp are asked to follow the lead of local indigenous women, like Foytlin, and other people of color. Some of the water protectors from the L'Eau Est La Vie sleep in encampments in the swamp and directly block pipeline workers' construction access from kayaks in the bayou, among other actions. Others sleep in tents pitched in a grassy field in the camp, where they cook meals, care for children, orient new arrivals, and plan actions together.

"Right now, we're fighting the pipeline because we're trying to protect our land and protect folks, but this will be over, and [the camp] is our opportunity," Foytlin shared. She imagines community gardens, a space for organizers to rejuvenate, outdoor classrooms for children to rediscover indigenous ways of being in the world. And she envisions the camp serving as a humanitarian staging ground in an era of increasingly debilitating storms.

The fence outside L'Eau Est La Vie camp. Jen Marlowe

Monique Verdin sits on the L'Eau Est La Vie camp council and the tribal council for the United Houma Nation. She works on divestment for the No Bayou Bridge Pipeline campaign. Like other divestment campaigns, this campaign calls on people to move their money from Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, U.S. Bank, Citibank, and other banks funding the pipeline as a way to pressure them to divest their shares in the companies building the lines.

"We've seen the promise of progress, and we've also seen the side effects of what comes with those promises," Verdin said. For the people in St. James, she said, those effects include living next to toxic waste facilities,poor air quality, disappearing land, and, in the case of the Bayou Bridge pipeline, possibly irreparable damage to the wetlands of Atchafalaya Basin, the largest swamp in the U.S.

London agreed that there's a contrast between industry promises and reality. He called it "the illusion of community growth" held out by industry. Real growth, he said, would be indicated by college kids returning to give back to their communities, a reduction of domestic violence, and an expansion of small businesses.

Harassment and intimidation of water protectors is routine, Verdin and Foytlin said. Drivers shout, "White power!" as they pass camp, said Foytlin. She also remembers four occasions when women from camp were stopped by people in unmarked cars with flashing lights. L'Eau Est La Vie tweeted that an ETP contractor assaulted an activist with the butt of his shotgun.

Verdin can identify what she called "shining victories" of L'Eau Est La Vie camp. Acquiring the camp and forcing the pipeline to reroute is one. She also sees the rulings of Louisiana judges Turner and Dick as unprecedented despite higher courts challenging those rulings.

On a deeper level, Verdin sees presenting this model of resistance a success in itself. "People in south Louisiana have been so beat down and told: 'You have oil and gas or you have nothing.'" The current system is built from a plantation economy; before oil and gas, there was cotton and sugar cane. Many of today's plant workers are descendants of slaves and sharecroppers. Verdin's hope is that the pipeline resistance will remind people "that we deserve better and we don't have to just take it. That we can challenge them."

White Hat sees power in the connections between her stance for justice and those fought by her people years ago. At a recent action locking down to machines on the pipeline easement, White Hat sang songs to the spirits of the bayou. This type of spiritual expression was not permitted, she noted, until the 1978 passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. If White Hat's relatives hadn't stood and fought for their right to pray, she may not have been able to sing on the easement without fear of arrest. "I did end up going to jail anyway, but it wasn't for praying," White Hat added with a chuckle.

Felicia Teter, who was arrested outside the governor's radio show at a L'Eau Est La Vie action on July 18, still sees problems. Despite the aspirations of the camp, she said, those with privilege—especially those who are White and male—speak more during camp meetings or fail to follow the lead of people of color. "You don't shed your Whiteness just because you show up at a camp. You don't shed your maleness. … But still, it's really frustrating." Teter hopes this will be a camp conversation soon.

Verdin and London both feel that local community support must increase, but don't see how until folks are offered real alternatives for employment outside of oil and gas jobs. "Give them a small business, give them a college degree, give them a high school diploma, and I bet they pull out of the plant," London said.

Foytlin is frustrated with movement allies using L'Eau Est La Vie actions to promote their own messages, which detract from the specific goals of the actions. She points to the action outside the governor's radio show. One environmental organization brought a banner declaring independence from fossil fuel. "That wasn't the message for this action. This action was to talk about St. James," Foytlin said.

Despite the challenges, and the very real possibility that the pipeline will be completed soon (ETP's website states that the pipeline is to be completed by the end of 2018), an air of optimism and hope prevails. Foytlin finds inspiration in people putting their bodies on the line for this cause. "That's sacrifice. That's beautiful, that's amazing, and it's bringing more and more people together."

Reposted with permission from our media associate YES! Magazine.

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A net-casting ogre-faced spider. CBG Photography Group, Centre for Biodiversity Genomics / CC BY-SA 3.0

Just in time for Halloween, scientists at Cornell University have published some frightening research, especially if you're an insect!

The ghoulishly named ogre-faced spider can "hear" with its legs and use that ability to catch insects flying behind it, the study published in Current Biology Thursday concluded.

"Spiders are sensitive to airborne sound," Cornell professor emeritus Dr. Charles Walcott, who was not involved with the study, told the Cornell Chronicle. "That's the big message really."

The net-casting, ogre-faced spider (Deinopis spinosa) has a unique hunting strategy, as study coauthor Cornell University postdoctoral researcher Jay Stafstrom explained in a video.

They hunt only at night using a special kind of web: an A-shaped frame made from non-sticky silk that supports a fuzzy rectangle that they hold with their front forelegs and use to trap prey.

They do this in two ways. In a maneuver called a "forward strike," they pounce down on prey moving beneath them on the ground. This is enabled by their large eyes — the biggest of any spider. These eyes give them 2,000 times the night vision that we have, Science explained.

But the spiders can also perform a move called the "backward strike," Stafstrom explained, in which they reach their legs behind them and catch insects flying through the air.

"So here comes a flying bug and somehow the spider gets information on the sound direction and its distance. The spiders time the 200-millisecond leap if the fly is within its capture zone – much like an over-the-shoulder catch. The spider gets its prey. They're accurate," coauthor Ronald Hoy, the D & D Joslovitz Merksamer Professor in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior in the College of Arts and Sciences, told the Cornell Chronicle.

What the researchers wanted to understand was how the spiders could tell what was moving behind them when they have no ears.

It isn't a question of peripheral vision. In a 2016 study, the same team blindfolded the spiders and sent them out to hunt, Science explained. This prevented the spiders from making their forward strikes, but they were still able to catch prey using the backwards strike. The researchers thought the spiders were "hearing" their prey with the sensors on the tips of their legs. All spiders have these sensors, but scientists had previously thought they were only able to detect vibrations through surfaces, not sounds in the air.

To test how well the ogre-faced spiders could actually hear, the researchers conducted a two-part experiment.

First, they inserted electrodes into removed spider legs and into the brains of intact spiders. They put the spiders and the legs into a vibration-proof booth and played sounds from two meters (approximately 6.5 feet) away. The spiders and the legs responded to sounds from 100 hertz to 10,000 hertz.

Next, they played the five sounds that had triggered the biggest response to 25 spiders in the wild and 51 spiders in the lab. More than half the spiders did the "backward strike" move when they heard sounds that have a lower frequency similar to insect wing beats. When the higher frequency sounds were played, the spiders did not move. This suggests the higher frequencies may mimic the sounds of predators like birds.

University of Cincinnati spider behavioral ecologist George Uetz told Science that the results were a "surprise" that indicated science has much to learn about spiders as a whole. Because all spiders have these receptors on their legs, it is possible that all spiders can hear. This theory was first put forward by Walcott 60 years ago, but was dismissed at the time, according to the Cornell Chronicle. But studies of other spiders have turned up further evidence since. A 2016 study found that a kind of jumping spider can pick up sonic vibrations in the air.

"We don't know diddly about spiders," Uetz told Science. "They are much more complex than people ever thought they were."

Learning more provides scientists with an opportunity to study their sensory abilities in order to improve technology like bio-sensors, directional microphones and visual processing algorithms, Stafstrom told CNN.

Hoy agreed.

"The point is any understudied, underappreciated group has fascinating lives, even a yucky spider, and we can learn something from it," he told CNN.

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