“This is not just an economic crisis, it is a cultural crisis,” organizer Lauren Goldfinch told a crowd of protesters Saturday, wearing a homemade BP T-shirt smeared with what appeared to be oil. “I’m not here to condemn the use of oil, but to demand accountability for this disaster. We need transparency and accountability now.”
Still recovering from hurricane Katrina, economically intertwined with the oil industry, and on the front lines of the ongoing war with oil in the Gulf, New Orleanians understandably have complicated feelings about the newest disaster knocking on their door.
Although only a single sign in the crowd referred to the Obama administration – a man wearing an Uncle Sam costume held one that read “Mr. President, Take Control of BP Now” – New Orleanians are growing increasingly frustrated with the administration’s handling of the crisis, oil spill activists say.
An electoral island of blue in a predominately red state, New Orleans was carried by Obama with 59 percent of the vote in 2008, while winning less than 40 percent statewide. But 11 weeks into the BP oil well disaster, criticism of Obama in the city, though still muted, sounds much like that of President George W. Bush after Katrina.
“Too little, too late—it’s the same thing again,” said Ms. Goldfinch, a member of the grass-roots Krewe of Dead Pelicans. “People are pretty upset and enraged, but don’t want to criticize Obama, because policy-wise he’s probably the best president we’ve had on the environment. But from letting BP use [the dispersant] Corexit to blocking the media and making it easier for [BP] to get away with murder, this has been a corporate controlled disaster. His response has been pretty bad.”
While no recent polls have been conducted in Louisiana, national polls show that the crisis is affecting Obama’s approval ratings. A Marist poll from June 30 found that a majority of American voters think his handling of the oil spill is the same or worse than President Bush's handling of hurricane Katrina. Fifty-seven percent of respondents said the response to the BP spill was at least as bad as Katrina, including 23 percent who said it was worse.
A CBS poll in mid June found that 45 percent of Americans disapproved of his handling of the Gulf crisis (70 percent disapproved of BP’s performance), with 35 percent approving. A Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll from June 23 found that Obama’s overall job approval rating had dropped to 45 percent – 5 points lower than in May and the lowest level of his presidency – while 48 percent said they disapproved of his performance. Half disapproved of his handling of the spill.
“It’s too weak and it’s too late,” said Ro Mayer, founder of the Dead Pelicans, an oil spill activist group – styled after a Mardi Gras krewe – with over 5,000
members on Facebook. Ms. Mayer, a 57 year-old real estate agent and costume designer, started it the day after the Deepwater Horizon rig blew up.
“People are getting angrier every day here,” Mayer continues. “People are absolutely furious about the dispersants. I voted for [Obama]. I have mixed feelings about it. [The Obama administration] did not inform the public about the details of this disaster. They did not step up to the plate at the beginning and take it seriously. They’ve just stood back and let BP do what it wanted to do. BP is operating like a foreign government here.”
Beth Galante, director of the New Orleans office of the environmental nonprofit Global Green, is more circumspect with her criticism. “It’s a jaw dropping cataclysm, and we know [the administration is] working as hard as they can,” said Ms. Galante. “The most important task for Obama is coming after the well is capped, in making sure that BP is held 100 percent accountable for the spill, and pursuing an agenda of developing green energy.” This week Global Green is issuing a joint statement with 20 other nonprofits in Louisiana, calling on the Obama administration to revitalize Louisiana’s economy with alternative energy initiatives.
But Galante also recalled her recent trip to Grand Isle with a camera crew, where she was threatened with arrest if she violated the Coast Guard’s new directive banning the public and news media from within 65 feet of an oil containment boom. “We were told that the beach was a crime scene and told to turn off our camera, which was kind of scary,” Galante recalled. “We understand safety concerns, but we think the public should be given as much information as possible, and the press should be given good access.”
On the sidewalk in front of Jackson Square on Saturday evening, New Orleans resident Susan Woodruff vigorously offered her opinion on the administration’s response to the microphones of several news crews, as her husband and teenage son stood by. “Do you see anyone from our federal government here getting something done?” asked Woodruff. “They need to get out of the way and let our local officials do it. [Plaquemines Parish president] Billy Nungesser and Bobby Jindal are actually out there solving problems.”
After the protest, the Krewe of Dead Pelicans met at a bar on nearby Decatur Street, where the krewe’s volunteer jazz brass band played on the sidewalk and later led a second line parade through the French Quarter, raising awareness about the disaster in the Gulf.
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