POLITICS:

Occupy Wall Street shows its greener side in weekend shout fest

NEW YORK -- Environmental activists spent the weekend here trying to push their issues to the forefront of the Occupy Wall Street movement, staging mini-protests in the shadow of the World Trade Center on everything from relicensing the Indian Point nuclear power plant to hydraulic fracturing to global water scarcity.

The protests were the result of three weeks of planning by an Occupy splinter group that wants to use the broader movement's momentum to bring attention to energy-sector profits and what the activists view as widespread greed within associated industries.

Until now, Occupy has focused intently on core economic issues like executive bonuses, tax loopholes and the perceived disparity between the "wealthiest 1 percent" of Americans and the middle class. But some want to do more and narrow that focus to specific environmental causes.

Enter the "environmentalist solidarity group" founded by March Young, a quiet 30-year-old who describes his background as "mostly in the arts," and 24-year-old Stephanie Sawyer, a graduate of Columbia University's environmental sustainability program.

Young and Sawyer are the brains behind the environmental splinter, which is one of 70 or so "thematic working groups" within the Occupy movement that are, in a sense, lobbying to have their demands placed at the front of the protest's horizontal leadership structure. Their idea coalesced Sunday, when Zuccotti Park near Wall Street saw six hours of "direct action" on everything under the environmental sun.

Three weeks ago, Sawyer said she was strolling through the protest's rows of tarps and ragtag residents wondering how she could contribute. "We were walking around Zuccotti Park and thinking, 'Wait, where is the environmental side of this movement?'" she said.

So she and Young drafted plans for their group and put it into motion. The result was a vocal, sometimes heated Sunday forum on fracking, tar sands, nuclear power, renewable energy and "strategies of eco-resistance," to name a few choice subjects.

To get there, they had to negotiate the oddball underworld of Occupy, a kind of Island of Misfit Toys crossed with the certainty and passion of a group of protesters who have been ensconced in Lower Manhattan for 46 days and counting.

Plotting the protest

Before the environmental protest came to be, Young and Sawyer had to organize. They put the word out within Occupy and held a working group meeting Friday in an indoor public atrium on Wall Street where the right to assemble is guaranteed, just as long as there is no loitering.

Anyone was welcome to attend, as long as they were willing to sit in a circle and raise their hands like dutiful students when they had something to add. Those attending were young and old, pressed and wrinkled -- and all looking for a say.

Among the matters discussed at the meeting were an "Occupy Halloween" idea in which protesters would dress up as corporate villain superheroes or oil-covered animals; a proposal to occupy an abandoned building and use it as an environmental headquarters; and whether traditional nongovernmental organizations should be brought into the fold.

At one point, one participant said she had heard the Sierra Club was circulating flyers taking credit for the planned Sunday day of protest. Russell Mendell, a member of the group Frack Action who says he is also a member of Occupy, was outraged.

"It's not really acceptable that any one group claim this as their own," he said. "That's bullshit."

This prompted what has becomes a standard mode of communication within Occupy: the wagging of five fingers in the air. Five wagging fingers means "I agree" in this lexicon, and Russell's declaration was met with a dozen or more hands wagging in the air.

"So many NGOs have become not radicalized," Sawyer offered, "but I still think it's important to invite them down."

The meeting also featured a nasty side dispute between two women (neither of whom identified themselves) about whether corporate farms were worse for the environment than fracking. The elder of the two sided with fracking, prompting a quick exchange of insults.

This prompted a raised hand and a complaint. "She just called me a miserable old woman," the elder activist told the group.

Echo Lake, who showed up with a feather in his hair and a bag of jelly doughnuts, tried his best to calm the group down.

"The environment is also our feelings," Lake said, to mumbles of approval.

In between, conversation ranged over the Canada-to-U.S. Keystone XL pipeline, oil-sands crude development, the destruction of the Amazon, shutting down the Indian Point nuclear power plant in upstate New York and the recent White House decision to let BP PLC resume deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico. Flyers were distributed, including one under the banner "Occupy Japanese Consulate" calling for a sit-in at the Consulate-General of Japan in New York over the Fukushima nuclear meltdown. Lake ate at least three of the doughnuts.

In the end, after the wrangling had subsided, the group agreed on a moderator for the Sunday forum (a bearded man in glasses who resembled the late gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson) and settled on a list of topics. They would include climate change, oil sands, renewable energy and eco-resistance, but not mountaintop removal because it turned out a scheduled expert just could not make it to the protest on time.

Human megaphone

The environmentalist solidarity group got lucky. An October snowstorm had pummeled the city the day before, but Sunday morning dawned bright and blue, officially Day 44 of the OWS occupation.

A dozen or so activists formed near the corner of Broadway and Liberty Street, within eyesight of where two planes struck the Twin Towers more than 10 years ago. They were talking about the Keystone XL pipeline, tar sands and President Obama.

Duncan Meisel, from Tar Sands Action, was leading this section of the protest. Because amplifying equipment is banned in the park, Meisel spoke in broken, staccato sentences about Keystone and tar sands and then waited for a nearby group to repeat what he just said.

"We must stop tar sands development," he said, after which the group repeated his line in unison, creating a kind of human megaphone. "And that is why we must stop the Keystone pipeline," the group added, following Meisel's lead.

A man wearing a Washington Redskins hat questioned Meisel's repeated mentioning of the White House. Why not blame Republicans, too? the man asked. This prompted a reply from Meisel that was echoed by the megaphone.

"President Obama is the only person who can stop the Keystone pipeline," they chanted, somewhat disjointedly, "which is why we're focusing on pressuring the president."

Frack Action's Mendell got into the act, to pitch a Nov. 6 "day of action" in which thousands of activists intend to surround the White House with a call to stop Keystone. He said they had two buses headed for Lafayette Park already and were hoping to fill a third.

On the side, Mendell and Meisel in interviews said the day of trying to elevate environmental concerns at OWS was going well. Both dismissed criticism that the movement may have become watered down by a host of side issues that tend to appeal to left-leaning political groups.

"This is about linking arms between the various movements," Mendell said, arguing that "the same 1 percent" is benefiting from U.S. energy policy and tax loopholes for energy firms. "There's not a lot that separates the environmental movement and Occupy Wall Street."

Meisel defended the connection as well, stressing the link between "energy greed" and the top 1 percent. He said a number of protests would take to the streets Nov. 6 to back the action in Washington, D.C., including plans to surround a federal building in Portland, Ore.

That will be followed by a protest Nov. 21 at the Delaware River Basin Commission, in Trenton, N.J., where Mendell said "thousands of people" are going to show up to oppose regulations that might clear the path for fracking operations. Beyond that, for the protesters here, the future looks bright.

"We think there's a big pool of discontent," Meisel said. "We're not going to stop."

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