9/5/2018 Update: L’eau Est La Vie Camp is asking people call St. Martin parish police to demand that they release recently arrested water protectors: (337) 394-8931. Learn more about the situation here.
“L’eau est la vie” means “water is life.” In southern Louisiana, these are the words water protectors have chosen to name their campaign to stop the construction of a pipeline — what is in effect the tail end of a project that includes the Dakota Access Pipeline. The struggle here in Louisiana is a continuation of what emerged at Standing Rock, where the people declared “water is life” in the Lakota language, “Mni wiconi.” Roughly 1,500 miles separates Standing Rock and the Atchafalaya Basin, but the waters and the peoples are inextricably connected. What took shape on the Great Plains along the Missouri River continues downstream in the swamplands of Louisiana, in the homelands of the Houma, Chitimacha, and Chahta.
In the bayous of the Atchafalaya Basin, water protectors are confronting the interlocking evils of racism, poverty, militarism, and ecological devastation. These evils are clearly at work in the construction of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline — a pipeline spanning 162 miles across the state of Louisiana, impacting more than 600 acres of wetlands and 700 bodies of water. The pipeline terminates in St. James Parish, in a poor Black community already ravaged by the health effects of the oil and gas facilities in their backyards, including high rates of cancer, asthma, and miscarriages. The proposed pipeline would carry up to 13,000 gallons of crude oil per minute through the parish, right in the heart of the infamous “Cancer Alley.”
The project is a joint venture of Energy Transfer Partners — the oil and gas company responsible for the Dakota Access Pipeline — and the U.S.-based multinational energy company Phillips 66. From the big banks that finance this project to the state elected officials, courts, and law enforcement officers that protect it, the Bayou Bridge Pipeline is a case study in the interconnections of forces we, as poor and dispossessed people, must confront.
At the heart of L’eau Est La Vie is Cherri Foytlin, an indigenous, Louisiana-based organizer, who has also served on the national steering committee for the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Knowing Cherri over the years, I have come to see her as the Mother Jones of the Gulf Coast — a committed, brilliant organizer with a deeply rooted spirituality. She has brought together everyday people across colorlines, faith and spiritual traditions, and fronts of struggle. The water protectors reflect Indigenous communities, Black communities, veterans, LGBTQ folk, labor, and environmental justice activists. They represent local Louisianans as well as water protectors from the Great Lakes and other impacted regions of the country. Grassroots journalists such as Karen Savage are on the ground making sure the struggle there breaks out of isolation and the story gets told to the world.
Earlier in August, I heeded Cherri’s call to come down and support the L’eau Est La Vie camp. (While there are important ways to support L’eau Est La Vie from afar, they need numbers on the ground. Here’s more info on how you can join them.) While I could only stay for a few days, I was able to get a better sense of the day-to-day struggle — the brilliant tactics and deep dedication of these water protectors.
I also could see firsthand what was worth protecting. The imperative Cherri puts out constantly is “Protect what you love.” This fight is about protecting her family, her community, and the extraordinarily complex and beautiful life that abounds in the cypress swamps of Louisiana. For a few days I helped hold the ground — the encampment out in the swamp — along with other water protectors, and I was able to behold both the beauty of the ecosystem and see up close the abomination of the destruction ETP is wreaking, as it mows down centuries old cypress forests in a matter of hours in preparation for laying its toxic pipeline.
Not long after I was there, the water protectors were subjected to even greater harassment, including arrests. They’ve been able to use social media to expose the violence of the pipeline and the repression of their work, baring moral witness and taking action to protect the people, the water, and the land in the path of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline. Their leadership demonstrates that the poor and dispossessed, facing powerful and monied forces, are unwilling to let them kill our families and our planet. This struggle underlines the importance of breaking our isolation and breaking the silos that keep us organizing against enmeshed evils as if they were separate entities.
The struggle in Louisiana makes it so clear that poverty, racism, militarism, environmental devastation and distorted moral narratives are all operating at once to defend the profits of the pipeline. Note well: the profits are not just those of a particular industry — in this case, the fossil fuel industry. The profits go to capital. One way to make the bigger connections is to look at all the banks and other financial institutions directly invested in the Bayou Bridge Pipeline. A crisis of this scale reveals the necessity of a broad social movement, linking leaders and struggles like those defending water as life, in a campaign to transform the nation and change what is politically possible.
The struggle in Louisiana makes it so clear that poverty, racism, militarism, environmental devastation and distorted moral narratives are all operating at once to defend the profits of the pipeline.
The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival aims to address the five evils together. A core part of our task is to lift up and be there for our sisters and brothers, wherever the organized poor and dispossessed take action. The Poor People’s Campaign is just one part of a broader social movement of the dispossessed — struggles will continue to break out everywhere. Keep the water protectors in Louisiana in your hearts and prayers. Show up for them in whatever way you can.
L’eau Est La Vie Study Guide
Learn more about the struggle in Louisiana and the brave resistance of the water protectors at L’eau Est La Vie Camp by reading the following pieces. To receive up to date info about the frontlines organizing work of L’eau Est La Vie Camp, visit their website and follow their Facebook page here.
- “Good water in their bodies and good air to breathe”: A Conversation with Cherri Foytlin — This conversation with Cherri Foytlin was conducted as part of The Souls of Poor Folk Audit of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.
- “Protesters take to the sky to fight Bayou Bridge Pipeline” — This report from the New Orleans ABC local affiliate gives some sense of the tactics the water protectors employ to challenge the construction of the pipeline.
- “Recent Arrests Under New Anti-Protest Law Spotlight Risks That Off-Duty Cops Pose to Pipeline Opponents” — This article shows how the state worked to serve the interests of the fossil fuel industry, through the passage of specially crafted legislation and deployment of a broad array of police.
- “Water Protectors Charged With Felonies Under Louisiana’s Anti-Protest Law” — More from Truthdig on the specially crafted anti-protest law in Louisiana and its deployment against water protectors in the bayou.
- Watch a recent interview with independent journalist, Karen Savage, giving a frontline perspective of the current state of the struggle.