Cherri Foytlin has a long black braid, a dead front tooth, a pierced lip and a level gaze. She is Din’e, Cherokee, and Latina, the mother of six children ages 10 to 21, and lives in Rayne, Louisiana, a small struggling town just off the interstate. She is one of a council of four indigenous women who lead an activist camp here called L’Eau Est La Vie (Water is Life). Other core members call her “a badass.”
For the last year and a half, Foytlin and the other activists have planned and executed dozens of direct actions from the camp’s several buggy acres, which belong by heritage to the Atakapa-Ishak, a Gulf Coast Native American tribe. At first glance, there isn’t much to see. A row of tents. A kitchen inside a garage. A carport that shelters an above-ground pool, half filled, and a truck currently under repair.
Yet from this scrappy home base, Foytlin and a handful of people have put their bodies in the way of the construction of the Bayou Bridge Pipeline again and again and again. This pipeline is a project of Energy Transfer Partners, a Fortune 500 company that is also the parent company of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Much like that higher-profile project, this one runs through a vital watery ecosystem, the Atchafalaya Basin, and threatens not only the water people drink but also the ways of life of indigenous and other local people. To prevent its potential havoc, Foytlin and the other L’Eau Est La Vie activists have battled the project from trees, on land, and by kayak. They have been cuffed, tasered, and arrested.
This Labor Day weekend, L’Eau Est La Vie put out a national call for reinforcements for a new wave of actions. It offered newcomers training in using ropes and climbing gear to scale a cypress tree and then establish and defend a tree sit, and led lessons in boat-based resistance, in which “kayaktivists” row up to remote swamp construction zones. Hands were also needed for ongoing construction projects: compost toilets, showers, and a library. I came down to learn why they are so determined. I also wondered why their fight has been almost completely ignored.
Saturday morning, hot and humid, started with a circle. A smudge stick of sage went around. About 50 people had gathered, more than had ever been here before. They introduced themselves as Choctaw-Houma, Chumash, Apache-Cheyenne, Lakota, mixed and white. They were elders and babies, many different genders and pronouns. Mark Tilsen, a core camp member who is Oglala Lakota, offered a song. Then Foytlin spoke.
“I am glad you’re here now, but I sure could have used you a month ago,” she said, choking up. “You come here to fight, be ready. Anything else, you can leave right now. We’re going to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline in the bayous of Louisiana.” A helicopter ripped the air overhead as if on cue.
The members of L’Eau Est La Vie see this fight as the continuation of the struggle that began at Standing Rock—quite literally. That’s because the Bayou Bridge Pipeline is part of the same network of pipes as those that make up the Dakota Access Pipeline. It is meant to ferry crude oil that comes all the way from the fracking sites in North Dakota. The destination: refineries in the predominantly African-American town of St. James, known for decades as Cancer Alley for the toxic impact of that process. Part of this fight is to get a safe evacuation route secured for that town in the event of a spill or other accident.
To bury this pipe, which runs 163 miles, west to east, through Louisiana, the company must clear a 75-foot-wide path, decimating an estimated 940 acres of delicate wetlands. Expert witnesses testifying in a civil action brought by Atchafalaya Basinkeeper and Earthjustice to halt the project argued that it will create “irrevocable harm” to the area—destroying old-growth trees and habitat that supports half of America’s migrating bird species and produces 90 percent of the region’s crawfish; reducing the basin’s ability to buffer storm surges from the Gulf and operate as a spillway for river floods.
In an attempt to forestall such disasters, the L’Eau Est La Vie activists have kept up a constant drumbeat of resistance. They have blockaded construction sites in kayaks, conducted tree sits, and chained themselves to equipment. One day they staged “Crawfish! The Musical,” singing and dancing to interrupt the workers. On September 4, Foytlin and at least three others disrupted construction and were arrested.
And they are not acting alone. Their direct actions are the tip of a spear of community organizing and legal action. A broad coalition of national and local environmental groups, joined notably by the Louisiana Crawfish Producers Association, have fought the pipeline in federal, state, and local courts and often won. For example, US Judge Shelly Dick granted a preliminary injunction in the Earthjustice case described above, but it was overturned on appeal. Through it all, however, Energy Transfer Partners has continued building even as the legality of the initial permits remains unsettled.
“Our construction activities have been and will continue to adhere to the stipulations of our permits,” Alexis Daniel, a spokesperson for Energy Transfer Partners, told me via e-mail. “Bayou Bridge believes that it has the necessary rights to move forward with construction.”
In recent weeks, the stakes for the activists have risen, thanks to new state legislation criminalizing protest. This legislation draws on a sample bill drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, likely in response to the example of Standing Rock, the largely peaceful and prayerful activist village that became an international cause célèbre during the last days of the Obama administration. This sample bill makes trespassing near “critical infrastructure” a felony carrying several years in prison, rather than a misdemeanor. An example of critical infrastructure? A construction site for a fossil fuel company. An example of a frequent ALEC sponsor and supporter? Energy Transfer Partners.
Versions of this felony protest bill have been introduced in Iowa, Pennsylvania, Oklahoma, Wyoming, Virginia, New York, Ohio, Minnesota, Colorado and Washington. However, the first one signed into law was in Louisiana, on August 1st. Not long after, L’Eau Est La Vie had the honor of being the first to run afoul of it.
On August 9, Cindy Spoon, a wasp-waisted young activist from Texas, and two comrades paddled in canoes close enough to the pipeline site to interrupt construction. Then they were apprehended. In a video taken that day, Spoon, still in handcuffs, tells the camera calmly but angrily, “They ripped me out of a boat, put me in a stress position…. We have no idea what we’re being charged with.” The people holding them were not, strictly speaking, police; as reportedby investigative journalist Karen Savage, they were state probation and parole officers moonlighting as private security for Energy Transfer Partners.
In the video, as Spoon and her comrades narrate, they are being marched onto the company’s easement, thus manufacturing the basis of the felony-trespassing charge. Then they’re turned over to the St. Martin Parish Sheriff’s office. At least 10 members of the group now face the felony-trespassing charge; as of this writing, Pamela Spees, an attorney with the Center for Constitutional Rights, says they are waiting to see whether the DA’s office will prosecute.
“This legislation, it didn’t come out of nowhere,” says Spees. “It’s part of a pattern of industry effort to quell protests.”
Still, the protests have not quelled, and what I really wanted to know was why. Why have the members of L’Eau Est La Vie dedicated their lives to this cause, in this way, in this place? Eating donated beans, bunking down with frogs and mosquitoes, posting tens of thousands of dollars in bail repeatedly, and showering under a blue tarp, when the pipeline is almost finished. When DAPL has been pumping crude for over a year.
“Sometimes in the course of a person’s life we have to make a decision about who we are and what we stand for,” Foytlin told me. She used to be a reporter for the local paper in Rayne and crossed over to activism after witnessing the impact of the 2010 British Petroleum offshore oil disaster on the wildlife and the fisherfolk, her neighbors. “I realized that sending my check to Greenpeace once a month wasn’t going to cut it.” She compared Louisiana’s relationship to the fossil-fuel industry to a battered woman who “keeps turning back to the one who’s destroying it.”
I feel the truth of that. I grew up in Baton Rouge and New Orleans. There are few places in the United States that are suffering so much from the reality of climate change today while also contributing so actively to it through the extraction and processing of oil and natural gas. On my way out of New Orleans to get to the camp, the streets of the French Quarter were running with rain. I watched a cooler float down Royal Street. It was 13 years and a couple of days after Katrina. Another storm that would decimate my hometown could be brewing off the coast of Africa right now as you read this.
Cindy Spoon told me that in her hometown of Denton, Texas, she went door to door in support of a fracking ban within the city limits. It passed handily by popular vote. Months later, however, in May 2015, the Texas legislature passed a ban on local fracking bans. “Why play by the rules when they just change the rules?” she asked me as we sat in the dark of the half-built library. The lesson she took: Direct action is the only way. “There is, of course, a lot of risk involved with the blockades, but there is a lot more risk involved in not trying to stop these things.”
It’s Mark Tilsen whose words moved me the most. He’s a large man, a 35-year-old poet, former English teacher, and veteran of Standing Rock. “There are a lot of scientists saying that it’s a wrap,” with regards to climate change, he said. “This isn’t a very far outside the mainstream idea…the switch [to clean energy] needs to happen yesterday.” But most people are scared of losing their comfort, he said. He implicitly contrasted that fear with the “continuous courage” he is witnessing in the activist camps. “We might have lost the fight to save humanity from catastrophic climate change, but we still have to act as if it’s possible. As we fight against this pipeline, we’re fighting against all pipelines.” Instead of asking why he is doing this with his life, I’m left with the question: Why am I not?
After lunch on that first day, they finally got the truck started. While two people in rock climbing harnesses still dangled from ropes lashed to the beams of the carport, the rain arrived.
The cool breezes were welcome at first, but the rain got louder, angrier, pushing us into the center of the carport as it blew in from the sides, deafening on the metal roof. Some of the dogs snapped at each other. The thunder cracked, seemingly directly overhead. Then a few people pulled out skin drums. A naked blonde toddler ran over to their circle. A chant rose above the sound of the storm.