Breakfree Albany (5/14/16) Reflection
by Grant Taylor
“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” - Mahatma Gandhi
When Liberty Bus Lines pulled into Lincoln Park (South End of Albany, New York) there wasn’t much sign of what was to come during the next 8 hours. Signs were strewn about on the ground, about 50 people were gathered around talking, a PA system was being set up, and the sun was shining.
Someone got onto our bus and introduced us to the Breakfree Action Event with some enthusiastic shouting, this was a great way to get our adrenaline pumping. After all, we had just travelled about 3 hours and it was 9:30 am, needless to say we appreciated the energizing wake up. By 10:30 a lot more people had showed up, maybe 900 or 1500, I don’t know.
We were first introduced to the event by a local pastor over the loudspeaker. Other local leaders, and professionals spoke, introducing the audience to the problems: public health and safety, environmental racism and environmental justice issues, emergency response, and environmental resource protection such as clean air and water among others.
A specifically important issue in Albany, New York, is the dangerous crude oil being carried in the rail cars to the Port of Albany to be loaded onto ships for further distribution to refineries. The problem with the railroad carrying this material has been shown in more than 10 tragedies where the DOT 111 Railroad Car, not designed to carry flammable liquids, has overturned, spilled, and exploded. These horrific accidents have taken the lives of over 50 people from Lac Megantic in Canada, to Texas. These cars are passing within 50 feet of homes and playgrounds in downtown Albany, and the DOT Evacuation Zone for a spill is .5 mile, with a Potential Impact Zone of 1 mile. Check out this recording from PBS, minutes 48:53 - 56:15.
After the introduction in … we split into two groups and marched to our initial action locations. One group went directly to an intersection of railroad tracks and road right outside the Global Partners property, which would shut down their business for the day.
The group I marched with headed towards a low income housing community located within 50 feet of these dangerous trains. We would meet up with the others later on, a little to the north of the community housing.
Citizens who live in the Ezra Prentice Community of low income housing, a predominantly black population, are unfairly positioned to experience the deadly impacts in the case of an emergency. This is blatant systematic environmental racism being perpetuated by big oil lobbyists influencing policy that allows such a potentially disastrous system to continue unchecked.
The American based energy supply company Global Partners LP has been moving Bakken crude oil from North Dakota to Albany by rail since 2012. Once in the port of Albany the oil is offloaded from the trains and loaded onto ships bound for refineries on the East Coast. In 2014, the amount of oil rolling through the port tripled without any community input.
There is a major concern from the residents about a foul smell of gasoline and oil fumes from the Global Partners property and crude oil business. While the company is following all regulations and permits, and the toxins released in the process are within acceptable limits determined by the federal government, the citizens are still marginalized and neglected. The discrimination is clear, states and cities pay more attention to more affluent communities. Bad smelling air, dirty water, noise pollution, broken roads and sidewalks, and more are mitigated for citizens and communities who contribute more to the economy...
These issues are felt by anyone who lives near rail lines that carry the red “1267” crude oil placard. More globally, the proliferation, development, extraction, refining, and general dependence on any and all fossil fuel is contributing to the drastic climate change the world is experiencing. Included in these issues which affect people who have no control over preventing them are oil spills and other toxic releases into air and water supplies, fires, droughts, floods, and other extreme weather events, and the often unnoticed impact these have had on human health even years after the initial events.
Together with this community, myself and about 200 others celebrated the awareness we were generating that day. We listened to some speeches from local residents while kids played in the nearby park. There were absolutely no rail cars in sight, no bomb trains to take pictures of. I believe this was an intentional play by Global Partners LP to take the spotlight as far away from their day to day business as possible. Normally, such as in this picture taken from Google Maps there are hundreds of rail cars near this residential area. This was a small piece in a larger effort to bring awareness to the injustice these communities suffer.
After about an hour at Ezra Prentice, we all marched towards the larger action going on that day. There were already a few hundred people blocking the main intersection of road and railroad that leads to Global Partners LP, effectively shutting them down for the day. It was great to see all the support that our movement was getting in our little neck of the woods, here in the Northeast.
People were laying on the railroad tracks, dancing, eating food, playing music, having discussions, making artwork, and just taking everything in. A few people spoke on a stage about the issues in Albany and on a more global scale, pertaining to crude oil transport and fossil fuel extraction. A DJ played music as the day wined down and some of the protesters began to leave. Some of the participants began to pick up trash that was littered all over the railroad tracks and the surrounding drainage areas.
Around 5 pm the wind was picking up, rain began to spatter, and the cops started to notify us that we had to move. This was a critical point in the action and we had to decide as a group whether we would stay and protest even now that the cops had explicitly told us to leave. Some of us, such as myself, were committed to getting on a bus at 6 pm and heading home. However, there were about 50-75 people who were seriously considering camping out there for the night. I watched as they set up huge tarps slung over long climbing ropes that were tied to light posts. When I left the scene, they were having a seriously democratic discussion as a group. I don’t know what happened after that.
We were on the bus, on our way home again after a very long day. It was an empowering day; it was an awesome experience to see so many people come together for the same cause. We all found a sense of community that day, amongst citizens of this earth who believe in equal rights, and environmental protection. As we rolled home on our bus, I couldn’t help but contemplate the world we are fighting for…one where fossil fuels remain fossilized.