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Gulf Coast residents target BP as Deepwater Horizon oil spill anniversary nears

Gulf Coast residents Cherri Foytlin and Anne Rolfes occupying BP headquarters in Houston yesterday.(Flickr / RAN / Matthew Kerkstra)

Gulf Coast residents Cherri Foytlin and Anne Rolfes occupying BP headquarters in Houston yesterday.(Flickr / RAN / Matthew Kerkstra)

Next week will mark the fifth anniversary of the April 20 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, a disaster that killed 11 workers and leaked 4.9 billion barrels of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico for months after the explosion. In commemoration, six Gulf Coast residents took up civil disobedience yesterday at a BP headquarters in Houston, Texas. Holding banners and signs that read “Never Again: No Sacrifice Zones” and “No Kill, No Spill: Keep It In the Ground,” they demanded that BP take responsibility for the spill, which continues to affect Gulf Coast communities and economies.

FuelFix reports that 15 to 20 people gathered in the company’s glass-encased atrium for about an hour, while just a handful were eventually charged with trespassing for refusing to exit the lobby.

In a press statement released by the Rainforest Action Network, which supported the action, arrestee Cherri Foltyn said, “The truth is that the oil is still here, and so are we.” Continuing, Foltyn, a mother of six who traveled from Southern Louisiana, explained, “We have a right to thrive. Anyone who keeps us from that is an enemy to us. This is our battle. This is everyone’s battle. And we will not yield.”

Protesters promised that theirs would be just the first in a week-long series of actions to commemorate the spill’s anniversary. Across the Atlantic today, as well, activists are scheduled to protest a BP shareholder meeting in London.

Coordinated by a coalition of groups known as Gulf South Rising, the week’s events will include a mix of community festivals and educational opportunities as well as confrontational nonviolent direct action, spanning Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and Florida. “Come Fish On My Boat” events, for instance, will pose an open invitation to local, state and federal decision makers as well as the media to “spend a day fishing with Gulf Coast fisher-folk” affected by the spill. A National Day of Action is scheduled for Monday, April 20, featuring a number of vigils and remembrance ceremonies throughout the region.

Part of Gulf South Rising’s long-term strategy for this year, according to their website, is to “shift the regional narrative from resilience to resistance,” working with groups from around the area to “build regional movement infrastructure.” They are also looking to encourage community and ecological healing related to the spill, and advance regional efforts towards indigenous tribal and land sovereignty — centering the work of those on the frontlines of the disaster and continued climate destruction in the Gulf.

Among those arrested Wednesday was Anne Rofles, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, which over the last several years has worked with the United Steelworkers in an effort to make oil refineries safer for both workers and the surrounding community. “In Louisiana,” she said, “our oysters are dying, our fishermen are out of work. BP has killed our livelihood and our culture but instead of taking responsibility for that harm, the best they can do is churn out glossy PR photos of white sand and blue water.”

Wednesday’s action came as the Department of Interior released “one of the most significant safety and environmental protections the department has launched,” according to DOI secretary Sally Jewell. While the regulations proposed are more comprehensive than any passed to date, they also include a three to seven year grace period for corporate compliance. As Vice recently pointed out, it was only after being faced with public outrage in the wake of the spill that the Obama administration “reorganized” to separate the regulatory bodies responsible for collecting revenue and implement safety and environmental protections. These tasks had both previously been charged to the Minerals Management Service.

Of these regulations and others implemented since 2010, Laurel Sutherlin at the Rainforest Action Network said, “Half measures and minor tweaks are entirely insufficient.” As the movements for immigrant rights, civil rights and gay marriage have taught us, even incremental policy changes are unlikely to come about without significant pressure. Five years later, Gulf South Rising may well help expand the definition of what “disaster relief” really means.