Progressives in Texas may already know about how Houston climate change activists are protesting the XL Keystone Pipeline with a hunger strike. But do most Houstonians know?
A hunger strike is a blatant attempt to manipulate public opinion by staging a public act of self-denial. The thinking goes, if the activist demonstrates that his willpower is stronger than his oppressors, that has enormous persuasive value. These things can be very annoying for public officials who for one reason or another find themselves on the opposite side of the policy question.
The Houston hunger strikers are protesting their wrongful arrest at a Valero refinery. As of this date, they have been striking for 18 days.
That is not a trivial amount of time, and the issues behind this strike are not trivial either. Diane Wilson and Bob Lindsey broke the law by locking themselves to Valero tanker trucks in November. Valero is likely to benefit from the XL pipeline, and local environmentalists accuse Valero and other companies of poisoning the area around the refinery. The protest website states,
Valero Energy Corp’s refinery emits life threatening poisons and pollutants that directly impact Manchester residents. Valero fills the air, water, and land in and around the community with toxic chemicals linked to terrible rates of cancers, asthma, and lung and skin ailments, with the full knowledge that the impacts of its pollutants will disproportionately affect the people of Manchester. With a nearly 90% Latino population, this is an obvious example of environmental racism.
Manchester is completely surrounded by industry. To the north and east is the Valero refinery with the Lyondell-Bassal refinery to the southeast, Texas Petro-Chemicals plant to the south, a Rhodia chemical plant and a trash shredding facility to the west, a wastewater treatment facility to the east, a Goodyear Tire plant to the southeast, along with the Interstate 610 overpass bisecting the community and an industrial rail yard forming the community’s southern perimeter.
I once visited this area for a tour organized by the Sierra Club. It’s about 30 minutes away from where I live. It is a heinous place to be; no person would want to live anywhere close to this hell hole. Yet the place is inhabited by a lot of lower-income people and families. There is a school a few miles away that because of its proximity was once labeled the most dangerous school in America.
Even if fewer people lived there, the place would be a nasty eye sore and a potential hazard for Houstonians. Even if we didn’t have to worry about climate change, the place would still be a bad source of carcinogens and a possible source of dangerous accidents.
The two people who were arrested were seasoned activists. Bob Lindsey had a father and cousin whose deaths can be traced to toxic chemicals released into the Gulf; his sister developed cancer which can also be tied to the petrochemical industry. Diane Wilson, a 4th generation shrimper in the Gulf Coast, has continuously petitioned the Courts and lawmakers to prevent chemical companies from polluting the bays where her family and friends went fishing. Diane has used hunger strikes before, and both are serious committed people.
I suppose I could talk about the reasons why the Keystone pipeline are to be opposed, but they have been adequately covered in many places. Honest people could disagree both about their tactics and the policy they are protesting. Why then has the Houston Chronicle provided so little coverage of the hunger strikes? Googling a bit, I see that almost 3 weeks ago the FuelFix energy reporter wrote a “he said, she said” article about their arrest. Not a bad article considering, but the Chronicle has never followed up on it. And certainly the subject bears revisiting — 18 days is a long time to wait before writing the follow up on a hunger strike article. Do these nonviolent activists have to go on a killing spree to awaken any media interest?
Shouldn’t a city newspaper report on such events? Or should it instead provide reports about the zoo’s cheetahs, a winning football team, or Christmas decorating tips? I can’t explain the Chronicle’s avoidance of this current event. Is it just lack of resources? Or does the Chronicle have a policy against covering hunger strikes? Googling a bit, I see that a week ago the Chronicle published a news service report about Iranian hunger strikers and has even figured out a way to “monetize” site visitors looking for news about hunger strikes.
I have a unique perspective on the issue because in fact some of my college students in Albania participated in hunger strikes against their government. A few days before it happened, the US embassy had already brought me to the capitol city of Tirana, but when I heard about what the students had done, I predicted (correctly as it turned out), that it would cause all the schools in the country to shut down. True, Albania is a much smaller media market country, and in this case there were 60 students protesting, but the issues are no less important in Houston. The fate of the planet is at stake.
In Albania, the hunger strikers precipitated a series of unfortunate events. The Berisha government declared the hunger strikes illegal because the students hadn’t received the proper license (apparently it is illegal to have any strike without obtaining the proper license). That caused the police to sneak into the university building to arrest the students, causing a fierce gun battle which cost lives. It was a tragedy for all, and that action triggered lots of violence and civic unrest (which eventually caused Peace Corps to send us home).
When these events happened in Albania, emotions were strong on all sides. But it would have been unthinkable NOT to cover the hunger strikes. Even the state-run Albanian TV covered the hunger strikes. To contrast, there is practically no coverage in any mainstream outlets of the Pipeline hunger strikers (except Channel 39) and skimpy coverage even by progressive media.
I’d almost prefer to think that there was some conspiracy not to cover this event in the mainstream media. Instead, it’s more likely that mainstream media is too busy with other things (some important, some not-so-important). I really don’t have a problem with general news site providing news about entertainment, sports and technology. These things are certainly important in their own way. But if the bigger news sites focus too much on these things, the burden of reporting these things falls on unpaid bloggers and Facebook groups.
Bloggers can certainly do a good job of reporting (see here ) , and Facebook groups like this and this can provide you with interesting news (and that not just about consciousness-raising/media manipulation events like hunger strikes). Both bloggers and Facebook groups provide incomplete versions of what’s happening. But does that mean mainstream news is better? In many ways, these mainstream news sources are much much worse because they provide the illusion that they are covering all the news that ought to be covered.
The sad fact is: if I want to find out what’s going on in Houston, reading my city paper is probably the least helpful thing to do. That’s very sad.
P. S. Both individuals are my heroes.
Update #1. The hunger strike has now lasted 29 days. The Houston Chronicle still not deigned to provide any coverage of it. As I write this, the top story on the web edition of chron.com is (I kid you not!) Best Lines of Ron Paul’s Career.