“Tears From Mayflower” part 2

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April 4th, 2013 DAY 5 OF SPILL
“Whose property?”

We rode into town towards Lake Conway. When Exxon’s Pegasus line broke, the twenty-two foot gash spilled tar-sands intended for refineries in the gulf where it would be exported overseas. Instead, it ran like a river through the subdivision, down the storm drains, through a creek under the interstate and settled into any body of water in its’ path. The tar-sands mixture moved quickly with the help of a hard rain that came and went before we arrived. We’d soon find evidence of just how far it had spread.

As we came down the interstate we crossed a land-bridge dividing the lake. This had been just a bridge before the spill, which Exxon filled in with gravel in a sorry attempt to save the larger part of Lake Conway. The cove was to our right. For the many residents with lake front views, the cove had been a beautiful site just a week ago. Now they saw death; lifeless lily pads stained brown with sickness and murky waters hiding the rest of the failing vegetation.

To the left was the rest of Lake Conway, which still had a blue hue. It was a sign that made it easy to assume the oil had not reached this portion. The media and Exxon stuck to the denial story the entire week, insisting that they had and I quote, “stopped the oil just in the nick of time”. Unfortunately, that was far from the truth.

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Jak was taking pictures of the cove when an American flag flying over a private dock caught his eye. We parked and headed there to ask permission to film from the backyard. Minutes after receiving permission the Mayflower police arrive. The officers were polite and left quickly after confirming our right to be there.

The residents had come out (probably because the cops showed up) so I went to make conversation with them. (A follow-up interview I did with these residents will appear under “testimonies”) Once again, within minutes, more cops show up. This time it was the Faulkner County Sheriff’s Department. The sheriff walks up to me and the residents. “Are you with them?” he asks, motioning at the group by the dock. “Yes sir” I said. He turns to the residents. “Do they have your permission to be here?”
“Yes, is there a problem? Y’all told us there was nothing out there.”
“Well,” he retorts, “They’re too close to the scene so I’m going to ask them to leave”. He turns to relay his order to the rest of our team. “Can I have your name sir?” I ask. He spins around, barks “Deputy Sweeney” at me and walks away.

He confronts Jak and the others, asking the question he already had an answer to. “Y’all have permission to be here?” “Yes we do” Jak replied. “Not from me you don’t. I own this property now and you’re gonna leave.” We leave the yard and the baffled residents to obey our “order”. Well, almost. Two of our group go across the street with a camera to film the cove but Sweeney stops them in their tracks. I watch from across the road as he grabs the arm of one, grabs the camera with his free hand and physically forces them off the street and back to us. We accept that we’ve worn out our welcome and drive back up the interstate.

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We are not the type to be deterred by cops. Everyone on our team has been arrested more than once, and we didn’t come here expecting anything less, so we pressed on and picked another target; the woods directly across the cove and one step closer to the spill site.

We parked in a random lot cornered by the on and off ramps to the highway. From there we ran into the woods like a team of spies having just deployed to ambush the enemy. We slowly made our way, snagging thorns as we stalked our prey; the mysterious yellow men who crept along the shoreline in their gurgling vessels.

Right away we caught footage of an oiled duck near the bank. It was a triggering moment for me. I instantly decided that I, with no net, would rescue this poor creature. I dropped all my belongings and tried. (I ended up forgetting my stuff there, having to go back through the woods and past the workers to find it.) I was to wrap it in my shawl when the oily bird had another jolt of energy and vanished from site. The rest of the time was mostly spent trying not to be spotted by the yellow men. The workers surrounded us as we ducked and weaved between the trees. We crawled around under their noses, taking pictures of oil slicks in the cove-fed creeks on the wrong side of the booms. It was a clear indication that booms were not working to contain anything out here.

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I couldn’t tell if the others felt discouraged by our attempt at “breaching enemy lines”, but we were all anxious to get out of there and go somewhere else. We’d accepted that we could get arrested, but I think all of us would’ve preferred it not be on day two. We scouted for a while, assessing how the hell we might get closer. We tried driving right through the police check point. We pass with no problems.

From there we could see a majority of the work force lit up like a football field with their machines roaring. Hoses sprayed so high into the trees you’d have thought there was a forest fire. Every time we drove by ( a total of three times that day) we slowed down and took pictures. It was not until the third time, which we had already decided would be our last, that we got pulled over.

I swear I felt it coming. I had a bad feeling for most of the day and with good reason. Once again a Faulkner County Sheriff came over to us. Our story would be we were lost, just trying to get back to the highway. I tried not to crack a smile when the officer said, “Y’all lost? We’ve seen y’all drivin’ around all day.” He takes our drivers’ id then tells them to step out of the car. After a bit he comes back for our id’s and runs them for warrants. We start broadcasting live while we wait. Our driver comes back after what felt like an eternity. It always feels like an eternity when you’re pulled over, doesn’t it? The driver tells us what that the sheriff had strict orders to arrest us on site and charge us with criminal trespassing and obstruction of a government operation. But, if our id’s
came back clean he would let us go. Then came the all to revealing quote.
Sheriff to driver: ” I am getting a lot of money to keep people like you out of these workers’ way.” It is a weird feeling when your suspicion is unapologetically confirmed to your face by the state. We drove away shook up but relieved. We cracked jokes and laughed about the experience on the road back to Little Rock. Sometimes, laughing is all you can do.

To Be Continued…

In Solidarity Forever,
Lauren

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“Tears From Mayflower” part 1

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*Note to the reader: names have been changed or omitted to protect the identities of some individuals. Police officers real names appear here.

“Oil will spill, it’s just a matter of when.”
-Chief Jackie Thomas of the First Nations, British Columbia.

I quietly took a knee and set down my clipboard at the water’s edge, trying to eavesdrop on the interview filming only yards away. I’d later learn that the interviewee was Lynn Slater from the Hawk Center, the animal care facility that initially handled oiled animals-that is until Exxon took over and confiscated dozens of her patients. I’m straining to hear what she’s saying when I hear a voice. “Are y’all testin’ the water?” I turn to see a man in shades walking up to me. “I guess you could say we’re testing the waters” I say with a smile, for a moment recalling the past week. The man in shades introduces himself with a strong handshake. His name is *Tom, a local Mayflower resident with a list of concerns including Lake Conway. He’s a chatty guy-eager to share everything he knows about the town, the lay of the land, and his personal story. He would soon become one of our closest allies in Mayflower and a dear friend. That is how the week had been-synchronicity everywhere, each providing another, all somehow working as if conspiring for us, whereby guiding the telling of this quiet town’s story. This time I had my “official-looking” clipboard (a gift from another Arkansas ally) to thank for it.

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We first heard about the spill at base camp. “Pegasus pipeline ruptures in Northwoods Subdivision…” It came in through someone’s device, our window to the rest of the world, and so began the swirling conversation around me as to what to do. “We should go there” was all it took, uttered without hesitation from Jak. I quickly agreed as my mind joined the others in a logistical brainstorm, the creative chaotic energy lifting my spirits high. We were going to the front lines again…this time to confront Exxon Mobil-an all too familiar beast.

Jak and I had just arrived in Texas that weekend but already, like some adventures had been, we would be off as quickly as we landed. I was anxious as our carload left a couple days later. On the road my mind never stopped swirling. “Am I ready for this? Do I know enough to do this story justice?” Our goals as a team was to investigate/report the spill, document testimonies and aid this small town being dragged into the national spotlight by another tar-sands disaster. We were about to take on a lot. But, considering that the root of the Tar-sands Resistance is to save and protect communities like Mayflower from these events, this was an opportunity to experience one of our fears first hand: tar-sands oil flowing down residential streets, seeping into delicate marshlands and diluting down elusive waterways. It`s yet another live display of what so many across this continent are desperately trying to stop; the inevitable by-product of an unaccountable industry`s greed. The campaign was now counting on us-Mayflower, potentially, was counting on us. Realizing my selfishness, I cast out my self-doubt at the Texas border.

Our team was armed with one borrowed video camera, 4 cell phones, a few external batteries, a wireless hotspot, 2 tripods, a nook and another borrowed lap-top. Not too shabby for a band of broke radical activists that live in tents. We would need intuition, a little impulse, and mostly to let the universe do the rest. We knew the mainstream media was locked out. It was our job to break in.

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April 3rd, 2013 DAY 4 OF SPILL
“Our First Encounter”

We rode into Mayflower mid-day and were all eager to get a glimpse of the rupture site; perhaps too eager. We decided to split up-3 of us would take the car around to the exiled media corner near the Exxon command center. (This is where concerned residents and media were encouraged to go and be subsequently threatened with arrest) Jak and I went on foot. We were dropped off at a church on Snugg Circle, a road that curves directly behind the fence of the Northwoods subdivision and rupture location. Jak and I walked through the parking lot, livestream in hand, trying to stay invisible among the thickets. There were workers only twenty feet from us, huddling in groups and surveying certain areas. We would find out later that they were picking future dig sites, a “look and see” operation where they would dig without a land owner`s knowledge or consent. It was another half-assed attempt of Exxon`s to see how far back from the pipe the oil had spread, then quickly fill the holes back in if they seemed okay. I was tense as we moved-we knew better than to assume these workers were nothing more than an extension of the state. The payroll was full of extra eyes and ears to keep people like us away. Acting as a police dispatcher, the second a phone came out we knew we`d probably been spotted. We went as far as the tree line and crouched, taking in the scene among the evacuated homes.

The sounds of machines was deafening, sprinkled with the beeping of trucks parking. The smell was overwhelming, instantly stinging my nose and eyes. My heart beat fast as I watched hoses spraying, claws digging, some workers even idling like the engines. The chaos was evident. With all of their billions in profit, Exxon hadn’t gained much insight. Many lessons should have been learned from their previous blunders at Port Valdez and the Niger Delta. It might as well have been 1989 as I watched this frantic operation and methods being used that had proven ineffective in the past. I felt sick to my stomach as we headed back to meet back up with the others.

As we got back into the car we noticed a cop car coming up the road towards us. “Well, looks like we’ve been spotted” I thought to myself. We drove along Snugg Circle, the cop tailing close behind. He flashes his lights. We pull over and sit in silence. The Mayflower Police officer walks up and politely greets us and without hesitation gives us our first warning. “Now, we know who you are, we know why you’re here, if you try anything stupid or go anywhere you’re not supposed to go you won’t be given a warning. You’ll be taken straight to county jail. Understood?” We nod. He goes on to briefly say that he understands our cause and tells us to have a nice day, ending with a “Welcome to Arkansas.” A warm welcome indeed.

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This would be one of several encounters with the Mayflower P.D., the Faulkner County Sheriff’ls Dept. and the Game and Fish Commission, all we suspected to be on the Exxon payroll. These folks were clearly acting as Exxon’s first line of defense against us. A question that I never dared to ask them was, “Who did they THINK we were?” It made me feel good, in a strange way, that our team was a potential threat. It is a position I have become accustomed to being in.

You will always be a threat when you not only attempt to find the truth, but also share it with those who need it most.

We got a lead that a several people on Snugg Circle wanted to be interviewed. After coordinating sit-downs with any of them proved difficult, (because these residents, none evacuated, were literally too sick from the fumes to even talk with us) we shifted our focus to Dam Road, a residential street that snakes along Lake Conway. No one from these lake-front properties had been evacuated either (even though some had tarsands right in their backyards) so there were quite a few residents there willing and eager to talk with us. (My experience with these residents will appear under “testimonies” in a later section)

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All along the cove, which is the southern tip of Lake Conway, there were signs of activity; boom checkers, crews in airboats scanning the water for signs of life and scattered groups on foot inspecting the shore. We visited the shoreline several times. The first visit we saw some student volunteers helping an Exxon worker collect animals, both dead and alive. We got a glimpse of oil-covered nutria, dead. It’s just one of countless animals that didn’t make it. The Exxon worker quickly came and took it away.

To be honest, considering that roughly 500,000 gallons of tarsands oil had just leaked in the town, Dam Road was quiet. It was an eerie ‘Twilight Zone’ feeling as the only signs of disaster were these scattered men in yellow suits and an air monitoring truck, slowly circling from time to time.

To Be Continued…

In Solidarity Forever,
Lauren