Saturday, January 19, 2013 Rochester, NY - On January 9th, Governor Cuomo delivered his third State of the State address in Albany. More than 2,000 anti-hydrofracking demonstrators from Niagara Falls to the Hudson Valley met him there, not in the convention center but outside in the Empire State Plaza concourse. The concourse was set up like a chamber of commerce exhibit displaying everything from giant posters of the new Franklin D. Roosevelt “Four Freedoms” State Park to an interactive model and video of the Wild Center in Tupper Lake. But on that day the concourse became a highly organized, clearly demarcated protest zone. According to some officials this was the largest demonstration in the speech’s history.
Why rally in the first place? Assuming that readers are familiar with the hydraulic fracturing controversy, I will merely provide an update on the political process from the viewpoint of the anti-hydrofracking community. According to an impassioned statement released by the New Yorkers Against Fracking coalition:
On November 28th, the Department of Environmental Conservation took the reckless step of releasing draft rules and regulations that would sanction the process of fracking in New York State, thus setting the clock ticking on a decision-making process that, absent intervention, could lead to permits in early 2013….Never mind that the environmental impact statement (SGEIS) that is supposed to serve as a scientific foundation of those regulations has not been released to the public. Never mind that the unfinished health ‘review’ that is supposed to sit at the heart of the SGEIS is shrouded in secrecy. Never mind that the work of the health study is being carried out by three outside experts who are contracted for a mere 25 hours–three days–of their time. Never mind that Governor Cuomo said NO to New York’s own physicians and scientists who have demanded a transparent, comprehensive health impact assessment.
Cuomo The Cagey
The Governor purposely avoided the subject but gallantly christened Albany as the “progressive capital of the nation”. Someone should remind Mr. Cuomo that progress can only happen if we know where we come from and where we are going. Take away clean drinking water and everything that stands for progress goes down the sink in a hurry. Singer-songwriter Natalie Merchant of New Yorkers Against Fracking said “We simply want Governor Cuomo to listen to the people he represents and would be most impacted by fracking, not the gas industry.”
In 2010 Andrew Cuomo won election over Buffalo businessman Carl Paladino by 62% of the vote. During his first year as Governor, he passed the budget on time, reduced expenditures without raising taxes, pushed for ethics reform, worked to enact a same-sex marriage bill with help from even a few social conservatives, revamped New York’s antiquated tax code, championed local businesses through social empowerment projects and regional innovation competitions, and rehabilitated the vaunted reputation of the New York Governorship after the sexual fiascos of Eliot Spitzer. His approval rating hovers around 70%, and many pundits anticipate that he will be the next President of the United States.
Yet no one is sure which direction Cuomo intends (or wants) to move on hydrofracking -- for there appears to be serious consequences either way he decides. On the one hand, if he bans fracking outright he will lose a major source of capital from the gas industry for his presidential war chest. On the other hand, he will be liable for any accident (let alone environmental catastrophe) linked to hydrofracking for the rest of his political life. Cuomo is a savvy politician; it is no wonder that he has employed the strategy of delay.
Getting back to the actual rally, it was a remarkable event on several distinct levels. There were endless chants of “Ban Fracking Now!” to the point when the three words became one cascading, thumping, bone tingling rhythm of vocal determination. I had never participated in a collective song experience quite like that before. My theory is that Cuomo delayed his speech by more than an hour because the sound was so deafening in the concourse.
On an artistic and cultural level, nothing compares to watching folk singer Pete Seeger lead various groups in spontaneous sing-along of “This Land is Your Land.” Seeger, that intrepid peace warrior looked like a banjo wielding lumberjack from the North Pole. When I first realized that he was in the building (for he entered casually through the back entrance of the concourse hundreds of feet away from the epicenter of the rally), I could hear ever so slightly at first, and then with increased definition, the opening verses of that marvelous song. I gravitated toward the small crowd already circulating him like fireflies. After he was finished serenading his intergenerational band of earth lovers, he preceded to the throbbing hub of the protest and into the open arms of the anti-fracking organizational hierarchy, local and independent media, hundreds of clumped together demonstrators, and a dozen or so New York State Troopers.
Speaking of the State Troopers, I thought their conduct was flawless all afternoon. Countless challenges arose, but not a single situation got out of hand. At one point, a large counter-protest consisting of landowners and pro- gas demonstrators emerged as if they were waiting back stage for their cue. On one side of the aisle stood hundreds of anti-fracking protestors, and moving in the opposite direction was a train of white middle-aged farmers, some with their wives. Unlike the fracktivists, I noticed how these demonstrators did not bring their children and grandchildren. They carried signs like “NY Friends for Natural Gas,” “Build New York’s Economy!” and “Now that the Hysteria is Over, Let’s Try Science.” The Joint Landowners Coalition of New York said as many as 300 invested landowners were present in support of drilling.
At one point, both groups began to peacefully collide into a single mass of high voltage human energy. Yet people never resorted to overt acts of verbal or physical violence. During that moment I was reminded that these farmers deserve our compassion. For decades they have been neglected by the government and the consumers they once served. Some of them believe that natural gas extraction is ugly but no worse than the timber industry. Why should they miss out on this windfall? They certainly can use the money. If one looked close enough they would detect the poverty in their hair, the toil etched in their finger nails, and the concern emblazoned in the white heat of their eyes.
There was one incredible scene in the midst of this beautiful chaos when Pete Seeger was orchestrating yet another impromptu chorus of “This Land is Your Land” and the pro- gas demonstrators began chanting hoarsely “Drill Baby Drill!”
I wasn’t sure whose song would prevail, or if the two would just crash into unrecognizable noise. Ultimately, the passion fueling the farmers’ mantra began to fade out. After all, many of them are unaccustomed to political rallies, let alone a genuine display of nonviolent social resistance complete with an exorcism by Reverend Billy from the Church of Stop Shopping and nonstop pulsating bongo drumming. 45 minutes after the arrival of the landowners nearly half of their force had wandered off to the cafeteria.
Peak Oil be Damned! Our Haphazard Foray into Hydrofracking
In Awe of New York’s Finest
I will conclude this reflection from the largest demonstration in the history of the State of the State address by returning to the performance of the New York State Troopers. They maneuvered with unwavering focus, in total harmony with their surroundings, and they never became overwhelmed. Demonstrators were treated with the same degree of courtesy as assembly-persons; what is more, the police allowed people to be completely themselves without expressing sarcasm, resentment, callousness, or anger. Undoubtedly one of them would have acted swiftly and perhaps even lethally if a protestor crossed the proverbial line. But the fact that the boundaries never felt like they needed to be crossed is a testament to the flexible, respectful and democratic interaction between the police and protestors that day, just Americans with different uniforms.
Overall it was a victorious moment for the anti-fracking movement. Anyone who was in Albany in the Empire State Plaza concourse was challenged to think more critically about the highly volatile, inevitably unprofitable gas extraction process known as hydrofracking. I also believe that someone from Governor Cuomo’s inner circle made it known to him that something special was happening outside.
What made the rally so inspiring for me personally was watching passionate people disagreeing without wanting to hurt each other. I also witnessed policing at its finest. In retrospect, I now understand that this day was not only successful for the anti-fracking movement but for participants in civil democracy anywhere in the world.
Postscript - On my way home to Rochester, I happened to stop for a bite at the Oneida thruway service plaza. The young cashier noticed my “Ban Fracking” sticker and asked me where I picked it up. I told her about the rally. All of a sudden her spirit began to lift. She thanked me profusely for going to the protest. Apparently her grandparents own a farm in southeastern Pennsylvania. For the last year their water has been undrinkable because of the residual effects of hydrofracking. They are ordering 50 gallon jugs of water every week for their livestock.
-George Payne is Peace and Justice Educator at the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence in Rochester.
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