For many along the Gulf coast, last week’s anniversary of the country’s greatest oil disaster was a solemn affair. The constant barrage of happy PR from BP and local government officials stood in stark contrast to the folks who live near coastal areas still devastated by the onslaught of oil.
The happy talk doesn't sit right with many folks in Grand Isle. For most Louisianans, the island beach community is a refuge from the heat and the stickiness of the swamps and marshlands nearby. It’s a place to let your hair down, run through the sand and forget about the modern day hassles that plague us all.
But the BP oil disaster changed all that. Grand Isle was one of the hardest hit of all area in the Gulf. A year later, residents still struggle with rebuilding their lives, praying that tourists will once again venture to this sandy outcrop on Louisiana’s most southern coast. The early signs here are not very good. Tar balls continue to wash in, another oil spill dumped more crude on the beaches a few months ago, and ocean waves still spit brown, dirty foam onto the beach. Dead fish and birds dot the beaches.
All of this does not deter the hardy, vivacious souls of this wind-swept coast from remembering the good life and having some fun. With this in mind, locals Karen Hopkins and Darlene Eschete organized the Big Oil Panty Protest, described as a day of “peaceful protest for the lack of response and cover-up of the clean-up and health issues experienced by many Gulf residents.” Here’s how they advertised it on Facebook:
Well if your panties are in a wad and you want to unwad them to symbolize this protest, bring them on over to the "BIG OIL PANTY PROTEST" to be held on the beach in Grand Isle on April 23, 2011 in conjunction with other events to be held the same day (see below). We shall "EXPOSE" them all when we take off our panties (not really - just a figure of speech!) and hold a "Mock Burning" in protest!
Remember the burning of bras in the 1960's to call attention to the feminist movement? Well, they really didn't burn their bras that day, but many women did remove their bras and burn them wherever they were in support of the movement. So, if you can't attend, I ask you take a pair of panties and hold a Mock burning in solidarity at 5:00p.m. on April 23, 2011 to show your support!
Organizers Karen Hopkins (top) and Darlene Eschete Photos: Rocky Kistner/NRDC
On a picture perfect Saturday afternoon, members of the community and other supporters gathered at Grand Isle’s Pirate Daiquiri and set up tables sporting live oaks saplings to plant and medical help for those in need. Children, dogs and people of all ages milled about, as donated panties and underwear from supporters dangled from clothes pins, flapping in the sea breeze.
“Today, we’re taking a stand for our children and their children,” shouted Darleen into a small megaphone. “I know the oil’s still out there. I’ve been breathing it for a year. We need to take action now. The president’s oil spill commission findings have not been implemented. We need to step up to the plate and call our congressmen and knock on their doors.”
Darlene took her message straight to Congress last week when the House Natural Resources Committee held a field hearing in nearby Houma, LA, to discuss the drilling moratorium and the impact of the oil spill. Darlene brought a five gallon bucket of tar balls she collected on Grand Isle, walked into the hearing and plopped the bucket in front of committee. Startled congressmen stared at it in bewilderment until it was taken away by security caught off guard. Darleen had made her point: the oil is not gone.
A bucket of tar balls in front of the House Natural Resources Committee in Houma, LA
Next up at the Big Oil Panty Protest was organizer Karen Hopkins, who works for Dean Blanchard Seafood, the largest shrimp buyer in the state.
“We need to clean house. We’re being poisoned and lied to and ignored. We shouldn’t operate under the government’s idea of the truth. We need to operate under our own truth. We need to take action and put in office people who stand up for our community. Public service is not self service!”
Then, awards were given out for some of the top prizes, including the panty queen, the largest pair of underwear and the most outrageous outfit. All of the panties and underwear donated to “burn” were then strung them up on a large clothes line, and carried around in circles as protesters shouted slogans demanding that BP and the government clean up the beaches still soiled by the crude. “We need to take action now!” they shouted. “No more lies!”
Later, as the sun sank in the horizon, a band played rock and roll while people sipped daiquiris, listened to music, thinking of the future. No one could say what would come next. Karen has organized three Grand Isle events and said now she wants to take her fight straight to the politicians.
“I intend to target and work against the filthy and dishonest politicians and corporations who have committed crimes against the people for far too long,” she wrote attendees later on Facebook.
There will be plenty to work on in coming weeks. Instead of pushing for the reforms of the bi-partisan oil spill commission, Congress is set to vote on three bills that will increase industry offshore drilling operations without proper safeguards. After the world’s greatest offshore oil drilling disaster, the power of the oil industry is once again flexing its muscle to control the political agenda—and the politicians they support. In Washington, little has changed since the Deepwater Horizon blew up a year ago.
But in communities like Grand Isle, change is coming. People like Karen Hopkins and Darlene Eschete are examples of a growing number of residents determined to protect their coasts from economic and political forces that could destroy it. To them, a show of panties and underwear flying in the breeze is not a publicity stunt, but a symbol that that the women of Grand Isle have had enough of the status quo and will fight for a clean environment and their community.
Come elections next year, it just may be enough to catch some oil-funded politicians with their pants down.