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This Is What Democracy Looks Like

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[Editorial Note can be found at end of article]

March in Minisink

Earlier March in Minisink

The March

First, we hear them – air horns and drums, then bullhorns, then chanting voices. The first thing we see is four marching boys. They’re maybe happy and excited and chanting “This is what democracy looks like.” I’ve just met Jessica Briecke and we’re standing on a subdivision corner in rural Orange County, New York. She’s wearing a Minisink High sweatshirt and a walking cast. She tells me her thirteen-year-old is one of the four boys. The march passed this corner a while ago and is now coming back. Tanyette, her husband Vincent and their five-year-old arrive. I recognize Tanyette from the internet video in which she drives her car, explains the issues, and interviews townspeople (which you can watch here). Tanyette gets ready to take a picture of the boys and Mom says, put the Pringles can behind your back. He doesn’t.

explosion

No Explosion

It seems incongruous, a protest march in this rural setting. There’s more than two hundred people marching, mothers and fathers, youth, some older people, some toddlers in strollers. They’re marching in opposition to Millennium Pipeline’s plan to build a natural gas compressor station in the middle of their community. It’s beautiful here, calm and fertile. Minisink is sparsely settled and this many marchers is a sign of broad support. I’m stirred by my first glimpse of the marchers, and my first thought is that they’re right, this is what democracy looks like.

Most of the marchers are friends and neighbors, people from right around here. Lately though people are showing up from farther afield. Here’s Angela Monti Fox, seeming indefatigable and experienced in these matters. I tell her I saw her son Josh (director of Gasland, learn more here) at a public meeting on fracking in Katonah and she says, “he gets around.” I talk to people who made the trip today from Pennsylvania, Westchester County, New York City. I take a picture of a woman with a homemade “No Explosion” sign. I talk to a young man whose sign says “Ask me why I occupy.” He tells me it’s because he cares so much about his future and gives me a card for Occupy Minisink.

Asha

Asha not quite arrested yet

I meet Shawn Cahill, a competent guy with some dad energy. As the first person arrested, he’s earned a verse in the Minisink resistance folk songs. He’s got a manila folder with maps of the site Millennium prefers, which is surrounded by “190 homes within ½ mile”, and the alternate site (the Wagoner Alternative) “surrounded by 1,289 acres of hunting land” which is already owned by the company and had, until recently, natural gas infrastructure servicing the same line that will be compressed by the new Minisink compressor.

The second person arrested was Asha Canalos, an artist who characterizes the resistance here like this, “It is a social experiment in working together for a common cause. [It’s] an example of how Americans could overcome their differences and rebuild the country.” (you can see where she said that here.)

The Issue

The seeds for today’s protest were planted more than a year ago. Millennium sent a letter to everyone living within half a mile of the site on Jacobs Road. The letter outlined their plan to build a 12,260 horsepower compressor station. One of the recipients was Primilla Malick, a woman who not only thought this was a very bad idea, but was prepared to do something about it. She created a flyer and put it up at the post office. A couple people responded. Before too long, a substantial handful of people, a lot of them moms, started to work together in earnest. They began to do research, make phone calls and figure out what they could do to stop the plan. I learned of the Minisink situation through Primilla. She appeared at an anti-fracking vigil in Mount Kisco (which I wrote about here), as did her son Shaheen Malick who offered a haunting performance of Pablo Casals’ “Song of the Birds” on the cello.

Aftermath at Artemas Fire

Aftermath at Artemas Fire

Natural gas pipelines need compressor stations every so often to keep the gas flowing. They are not innocuous pieces of infrastructure that fade into invisibility like the green electric utility boxes that lurk behind green chain-link fences and a clutch of skinny trees. The compressor station the company has in mind is a major industrial installation, with two 52-foot stacks and two 6,130 horsepower compressors that will make noise like two jet engines running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The smokestacks will release 61,000 tons of air pollution a year, including volatile organic compounds, neurotoxins and carcinogens. It’s sited directly across Jacobs Road from the home where the Baum family lives with four children under twelve, in the middle of a subdivision that’s home to dozens of young families. Additionally, natural gas facilities, including compressors, are extremely dangerous. Millenium’s parent company, NiSource, operates a compressor station in Artemas, Pennsylvania that exploded and burned on November 2nd, 2011. It shot flames hundreds of feet in the air, burned out of control for more than four hours, and forced the evacuation of more than 150 residents. Explosions at compressor stations can cause catastrophic damage and kill people. Natural Gas Watch.org publishes a column entitled “This Week In Natural Gas Leaks and Explosions.” which you can investigate here They reported last month that “across the United States, natural gas pipelines and compression stations continue to explode with astonishing regularity.” On the other hand, one of the Minisink moms tells me she attended a meeting where a design consultant working for Millennium enthused that the facility could be painted whichever color the residents preferred.

Regulatory authority for natural gas infrastructure rests at the federal level with the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC). People from Minisink began intervening in FERC’s deliberations on Millenium’s application for the “certificate of public convenience and necessity” in August, 2011. That certificate has now been issued, authorizing Millenium to build their station (by a 3-2 vote. There will be a rehearing). Minisink citizens who consider the plan neither necessary nor convenient have organized themselves as Minisink Residents for Environmental Preservation and Safety (MREPS). They’ve been travelling down to D.C. for FERC meetings even though they’re not allowed to participate. They say they attend the meetings, something no one else really seems to do, so commissioners can “put a face to” the members of MREPS. The current legal battle is to block the FERC order authorizing commencement of

Compressor Station

Compressor Station similar in size to the one proposed for Minisink

construction pending a rehearing.

Minisink has an unusual proportion of law enforcement and civil service personnel, both current and retired. It’s clean, quiet, non-commercialized, has great schools, is affordable, and is at the outer limit of the zone within which NYPD and FDNY are allowed to live. Many of these responders lived here on September 11th, 2001 and many have moved here since. A lot of them spent weeks or months working at ground zero, and a significant number of them have developed cancer, respiratory disease or both. There is considerable fear that the added insult of additional carcinogens and airborne toxins will have serious health consequences for them.

The Response

Minisink’s response has followed familiar contours. It’s still mostly in the DIY phase. I haven’t talked to anyone here who had previous experience in anything like this, and few who had strong political or environmental beliefs that would lead to taking the stands they’ve taken. Their experiences in the last year have been an education in how business as usual is conducted in realms they hadn’t traveled before.

Shawn Cahill has an analogy to describe the difference in experience and power between MREPS and their adversaries: Imagine the New York Yankees came to Minisink high school and we’ve never played baseball before, and they tell us they’ll play us one game if we find people who are willing, teach them the game and field a team – and if they win, they get to take away our high school. It’s like that.

Saturday's Marchers

Saturday's Marchers

I talk with a couple moms, Annamarie Odland and Donna Biondolillo, about the process and their experiences. Annamarie, an open-faced woman of Norwegian extraction with a toddler in her arms, tells me that even though they’re very different from one another and didn’t really know each other, they’ve really learned to accept each other and work together. She never thought she’d be doing something like this. Things just sort of came together – if someone’s good at research, they do research; if someone’s good at getting people to participate, they’re on the phone. She tells me it got so demanding she started to feel she was neglecting her kids and had to step back and take a break. Donna, friendly, compact and intense says, “even when you’re not working on it, you’re thinking about it. It gets to be an obsession.” Her husband was at ground zero, and when I ask her about it, I see the fear she felt in those dark days flash briefly across her face.

They’ve organized themselves to inundate the FERC process with letters which at first were labeled as “Filed by: Individual No Affiliation.” Now they’re working with a D.C. lawyer named Carolyn Elefant who practices this kind of law and their filings are now labeled “Filed by: MREPS.” Even with the lawyer, there’s a lot of legal tasks still to be done by MREPS. Primilla has taken on a lot of that work – work that’s both challenging and exhausting.

The march is finished and we’re standing on the sweeping front lawn of the Baum house, across from the construction site. The site is quiet now but no one knows how many days it will stay quiet. There’s kids running and playing, a lot of them. Moms and dads are passing the who’s watching whom assignments back and forth. There’s something healthy and reasonable and normal going on here, a community that’s been knitting itself together, despite, or perhaps because, it’s being threatened by something dangerous, ugly and inexplicable, that came out of nowhere.

Jon Wellinghoff

Jon Wellinghoff FERC Chairman, 1 of 2 dissents on Millennium application that passed with 3 votes

Cheryl LaFleur

Cheryl LaFleur, the other dissenting commissioner

I talked earlier to Ety, a woman who introduced herself by saying “Tom’s my husband.” I don’t know who Tom is, and she tells me, “He’s a big part of the energy behind all this.” By now I’ve identified her husband, he’s Thomas Salamone and I later find a statement from Ety about a previous protest, “I am so proud of my husband, who spent the day out there standing for this town of ours.” He’s been busy. There’s a meeting in a circle on the grass, and he needs to talk with a state trooper who looks to have some authority. When I get a chance to talk with him, the energy he’s been supplying is immediately apparent. Wiry, 36 years old, with clear green eyes and a soul patch, he’s determined, articulate, and personable – a natural leader. He tells me he’d just as soon be sitting off in the woods somewhere, but 13 months ago he decided he couldn’t stand to not be involved. He’s got a critique of the state of affairs in America and the world that seems to flow from his experiences during the last year. “America has got to get up off the couch,” he tells me, “We have to stop waiting for someone else to make it better.” He says that what the public says doesn’t matter anymore. The system’s become so polluted that politicians feel that if they support us they’ll lose their re-election funding. He’s saying there’s no one who’s going to protect the interests of the regular citizen, not the government or the politicians or the corporations, so we’re going to have to do it ourselves. He’s glad the Federal Appeals Court granted a stay on the order allowing construction, but that could vanish by Thursday morning. He talks about other people who have started to understand that regular people are going to assert their rights and protect themselves on their own. He talks about Occupy Wall Street, Occupy Minisink, the Arab Spring, the protests in Spain, Portugal, Greece. He says the son of John Bonacic, their state senator, is a lawyer for Millennium, that the Fords, who sold the land to Millennium (but not before first selling the rest of the land for all these houses) sit on a town board (Zoning? Planning? Both? I don’t quite follow it) that gave Millennium the green lights it needed at the local level.

“How much can you keep forcing on people?” he asks. “There’s gonna be a line drawn somewhere. And soon.”

What’s Next

This weekend, things have reached a crossroads, a moment of equipoise. The Minisink protest is poised on the brink of drawing outside the lines. As befits a community with a high proportion of law enforcement and civil service, pretty much everything so far has been legal and proper. People keep remarking on the amiable and helpful attitude of the state troopers.

America has a proud tradition of public protest

America has a proud tradition of public protest; a Minisink protest shows the flag earlier in the week

If things don’t go well in court and construction resumes, there are people who are advocating beginning serious civil disobedience or direct action. Tom’s ready to lead people there, and he knows opinion is divided. The meeting on the grass is a training in non-violent resistance from people up from New York City who have experience with intense protests, with being arrested and treated badly by law enforcement personnel. The two arrests at the beginning the Minisink protests were calm and orderly – everyone behaved themselves, and Shawn and Asha were back on the street in a couple hours. The training begins with the message that the fundamental thing in creating of movement is remembering that individual people matter, that the first mandate is creating a culture of care, where people know each other and will go to bat for each other. The more people care for each other, the less likely they are to become divided.

As the training continues I’m thinking about knowledge that’s well-known in one community being completely novel in another. I think this kind of talk – of going limp, spending days in jail, police officers who lie, videotaping the arrests and making sure you can hear the shouted names of the people being arrested – might provoke anxiety in people who have been writing letters, doing research and marching with a friendly state trooper escort. “Things tend to escalate,” says the earnest young activist with the short red beard and large plastic earring, “and you may find yourself involved with something you didn’t expect.” Law enforcement people you thought were your friends, well, word can come down from on high and they won’t be so friendly any more. Don’t bring alcohol, drugs or weapons to a protest, but do bring any medicine you can’t be without, along with the prescription. Don’t have anything sharp in your pocket that might cause an injury while you’re being arrested because you can be charged with felony assault of a police officer. State-sponsored violence in support of corporate interests has a long history in this country and around the world, and depending on how things proceed there’s a possibility that Minisink might become part of that history. Tom has invited these activists because he wants people to be prepared should they have to deal with more dangerous confrontations.

All the forces are currently balanced and held in suspense. There’s the first stirrings of wider publicity, and experienced activists are starting to pay attention. There’s already concern that Minisink’s aims and non-partisan approach might be in conflict with some of the political orientations outside groups might want to bring in. At the same time, they’re going to need some help. It’s clear Millennium intends to prevail in federal court, and they are quite intent on beginning construction once they get the green light. Though things have been relatively calm so far – spirited protests with some mild civil disobedience – push hasn’t yet come to shove.

The Context

I’m struck by the asymmetry of battles like these. Seeing the rag-tag army of marchers I felt the thrill of people taking democracy into their own hands. But I also register that they are here, outdoors on a Saturday, marching toward a muddy construction site, taking time from everything else they could be doing on their day off, because they’re fighting for what they believe in, what they feel is necessary for the sake of their lives and their children. And hoping some media show up. Their adversaries are not here, not outdoors, and when they’re working to support the compressor station plan, they’re getting paid, and paid well. They work in comfort, wearing nice clothes in climate controlled offices and hearing rooms, eating nice lunches and drinking free coffee. They have budgets, legal departments, PR professionals, and years of training and experience. And what’s at stake, really, for them? Looking good, getting a promotion, burnishing a reputation, avoiding embarrassment?

The people of Minisink add their efforts to already full lives: they already have jobs and they’re raising children, and they’ve got just the one year of hard-won experience. It’s not news, of course, this asymmetry. We accept it as a matter of course, since we know selling natural gas is a better paying gig than opposing it. But sometimes it hits me with renewed force. One of the functions of government is to apply a corrective to that imbalance, to level the playing field and ensure that might doesn’t always determine right. It’s a testament to perseverance and passion that these battles are ever joined.

In Sex, Economy, Freedom & Community Wendell Berry talks about an “economic elite whose ambitions are global, and who are so insulated by wealth and power that they feel no need to care about what happens to any place.” He also points out that “the global industrialists will go anywhere and destroy anything, so long as there is a market for the result.” Resistance to such destruction comes, when it comes at all, from people banding together to defend their own particular place, their home place. It’s not about curbing corporate abuses or reforming laws or regulations, it’s about protecting themselves, their children, their futures, their homes. Wendell Berry also says,

“A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves.”

If Minisink wasn’t a community before, it most definitely is now.

There are two stories here. In one, a determined band of citizens commit themselves to preventing a single instance of planned corporate harm. In the second, power differentials, corruption, rampant greed-fueled destruction and the withering away of mechanisms to protect the will of ordinary people become increasingly obvious and intolerable, and, as Tom Salamone intimates, lines begin to be drawn. The people of Minisink, sensibly, want to limit the meaning of what’s going on here to their specific battle. From a global perspective, the story in Minisink collapses into a single point in a much larger mosaic.

Part of that larger mosaic, one of the big pictures, has to do with the global shift from a broadcast to a network communications infrastructure. What that means is that instead of NBC, ABC, and CBS talking to us, and us listening, all of us are talking directly to all the rest of. That changes everything, and the changes have just barely begun. I remember the first time I came to understand what a “bond counsel” was. He’s a lawyer who examines a bond issue to make sure everything is as it should be. Since bond issues are pretty standardized instruments (at least they were then) it’s a very easy job. Since bond issues tend to be about large amounts of money changing hands, bond counsel fees are enormous. There’s a whole hidden world, I realized, where people know how these kinds of thing get done, and where everyone’s a member of the club.

But now everything is becoming more connected and therefore more visible. People organizing themselves to oppose a compressor station in Minisink can find and talk to people opposing a compressor station in Colorado, and to people in Michigan who oppose their water being sold to Nestle. Thousands of people marched against NATO in Chicago this summer. You’d hardly know it from the mainstream media; I watched it on Twitter. Occupy Wall Street can easily and instantly communicate with Occupy Austin and Occupy Minisink. Perhaps the regular people are ahead of the curve for now. Maybe those cozy bond counsel worlds are becoming not quite so cozy, not so backstage, and the people in those worlds might be caught a little flat footed. Because the fact is, a lot of the people in those “we run the world” jobs are qualified not because they’re so terribly smart but merely because they’re willing.

The problem with a story like this is that looking at the big picture leads into so many other big pictures, most of them very big. What about, after all, all this natural gas infrastructure? And energy infrastructure more generally, and the catastrophic consequences of its failure, and who pays for that, and what’s at risk? And what about balancing the “public good” of a compressor station with the harms and risks? Natural gas ratepayers’ bills will go down by how much, are we estimating, because of the extra 12,260 horsepower worth of compression? And what about balancing the public good, risks and harms with the private good of owning that infrastructure? What percentage of this natural gas that needs compressing comes from fracking? How is the fracking going in Pennsylvania, and will it end up happening in New York? What effect will the widespread and growing opposition from lots of regular people in New York have? And while everyone is saying “cleaner than coal,” and “jobs,” and “bridge fuel,” what about natural gas being another fossil fuel that releases greenhouse gasses, maybe more than oil when you figure in all the leaking methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide? And what about causing irreparable harm to the biosphere for generations to come? And what about the overwhelming influence energy companies have over the legislators and regulators who are supposed to be delivering our democracy to us through our sadly decayed and corroded democracy pipelines?

It’s an age old story, the relationship between the rulers and the ruled, the 1% and the 99%, the haves and the have-nots, the powerful and the powerless. It is stirring indeed, people in the street chanting “This is what democracy looks like” or “The people united will never be defeated.” Perhaps these times are a race between increasingly bold techniques of control and a broadening movement of regular people saying No. On the occasion of the massacre carried out by the British Government at Peterloo, Manchester in 1819 Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote The Mask of Anarchy and expressed the finely balanced equilibrium supporting business as usual by saying: “Ye are many – they are few.”

Something in our times is quietly forcing new leaders and movements up out of the ground. Thomas Salamone is a natural leader, a populist who realizes that we’re on our own – we have met the cavalry coming over the hill, and he is us. Primilla Malick and the moms and dads of Minisink are acquiring new skills, organizing, learning to use the internet and the courts to make their stands and to navigate the intricacies of FERC and the Freedom of Information Act. No one knows how the story of Millennium’s compressor station plan will end. Just as no one knows the end of the big story of all the other regular people who have had enough forced on them to begin drawing lines of their own.


[Editorial Note: There is ongoing news about the situation in Minisink. For what the people who are involved are saying, see here and here. For what others are writing and broadcasting, see here, here and here. There’s also my first gestures toward a resource page here. I’ve been following the day to day developments in the story for a while (see here and here) but I’m doing something different than newspaper-style journalism. So, expect some brief character sketches, meditations on the dynamics and the context. I’m trying to tell the story of individuals, and a community, under particular conditions and to investigate the meanings of that story.]

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