In an effort to stop new oil and gas drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, at least two dozen Unitarian Universalists joined over 200 Gulf Coast residents and climate justice groups for a major rally inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans during a federal oil lease auction on March 23.
“As a people of faith who affirm and promote respect for the interdependent web of all existence, we show up when we are asked to support climate justice organizing,” the Rev. Deanna Vandiver told UU World. Vandiver, executive director of the Center for Ethical Living and Social Justice Renewal (CELSJR) in New Orleans, was among the UUs who joined the rally. “As Unitarian Universalists, we have made a faithful commitment to respond,” she said.
Although protesters’ chants nearly drowned out the auction, officials from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management nonetheless persevered in auctioning off nearly 43 million acres in the Gulf to such high bidders as Exxon Mobil Corp., Chevron U.S.A., and BP Exploration & Production, Inc. Oil prices have plummeted so far in recent months that the Superdome lease sale was one of the least lucrative since 1983, attracting only $156 million in high bids, according to nola.com, the online edition of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
Still, the protest was a critical battle in the ongoing fight for climate justice, said UUs who joined in a march to the Superdome and the protest at the auction. The UU presence included members of all New Orleans-area congregations, according to Vandiver, and at least two people who traveled from out of state.
“When so many members of the New Orleans UU community show up to support environmental justice work it’s always gratifying, but never surprising,” said Alicia Cooke, a UU who attends the Community Church UU in New Orleans and is co-founder of 350 Louisiana, a local affiliate of 350.org. Although there were no arrests at the rally, many of the UUs had volunteered to be arrested, Cooke noted.
“This is the best demonstration I’ve seen in the 13 years I’ve been in New Orleans,” said the Rev. Jim VanderWeele, minister of the Community Church UU in New Orleans. UUs, he said, “see the earth as being precious,” adding, “It’s beautiful to see this many people come out and say, ‘No.’”
Although federal officials did not interfere with the hundreds of protesters who swarmed into a large meeting room where the auction was held, VanderWeele was partially shoved off the stage by a police officer when he stepped up to support protesters who surrounded the auctioneer at the podium. Though upset about the policeman’s conduct, VanderWeele said he was not injured.
The Superdome rally was part of the national “Keep it in the Ground” movement, which has organized similar protests around the country over the past year, according to the Superdome protest organizers, which included the Louisiana Bucket Brigade,the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Rainforest Action Network. Similar protests around the country have led to the federal government postponing auctions in Utah, Colorado, and other places, the organizations said in a joint news release. There are currently 5,000 active federal oil and gas leases, mostly in the Gulf, they also noted. In response to industry claims that new leases provide jobs, protest leaders said there are 27,000 abandoned oil wells that should be deactivated and disassembled, work that the oil industry should be required to do and which would provide jobs.
Aly Tharp, network coordinator of the UU Young Adults for Climate Justice (UUYACJ), who is based in Austin, traveled to New Orleans for the protest along with Jimmy Betts, a member of UUYACJ who is on the Commit2Respond communications team, after she attended a planning meeting in New York for the UU Environmental Justice Collaboratory.
As a young adult raised in Texas, Tharp said she is “pained” to see the U.S. “consistently treat the Gulf of Mexico as one huge industrial sacrifice zone.” Tharp, who spent 20 hours creating banners for the Superdome rally, said that the Gulf continues to suffer from the contamination of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster in 2010, yet the federal government plans more auctions “to sell every possible acre it can to the fossil fuel industry for offshore drilling.”
Her motivation extends beyond protecting the waters and people of the Gulf, emphasized Tharp, who is on the executive team of Commit2Respond. “I am constantly called to work for collective liberation as a Unitarian Universalist in this climate-changed world. For me that means endeavoring towards mass mobilizations that create just transitions to non-toxic, non-exploitative, post-extractive economies,” she said. “We need more people who believe another world is possible, with the will to take the steps toward it.”
This story has been updated to reflect clarifications from Aly Tharp about where she grew up and about who attended the Collaboratory meeting in New York.