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Gulf oil spill: New Orleans protesters rage against BP

May 30, 2010 |  9:36 pm
Cole-oil
Despite pelting rain and occasional blasts of thunder, some 200 people gathered in New Orleans’ French Quarter on Sunday to hear speakers demand the ouster of BP and other oil giants from the gulf region and to plead for volunteerism to save turtles, birds and other wildlife.

Organized by locals in the last week, the rally was publicized through social networking sites, including Twitter and a Facebook group, BP Oil Flood Protest.  Homemade signs waved by the boisterous crowd spoke to the anger: “Brass balls, not tar balls,” “BP oil pigs” and “Kill the well now.” And one sign, "BP sleeps with MMS"  spoke to what President Obama has called a "cozy" relationship between oil companies and federal regulators at the Minerals Management Service.

Many speakers, including the president of the United Commercial Fishermen's Assn. and an environmental studies professor from Loyola University in New Orleans, assailed what they saw as the inadequacy of BP's response to the spill. More people took the stage after showing up and asking to have their say.

“I’m a little upset that the perpetrators of a crime that killed 11 people are still in charge of the crime site,” said musician Dr. John, an impromptu speaker, referring to the crew members who died after an explosion on the Deepwater Horizon rig April 20.

Dr. John, whose formal name is Malcolm John Rebennack Jr., was handed a red bullhorn by rally organizers. At times, speakers’ words were briefly drowned out by the blasts from boats plying the Mississippi River nearby.

Actor Tim Robbins, who has been shooting a movie in New Orleans, was another unexpected arrival. He did not speak to the crowd, but he said on the sidelines that a flight he had taken over the spill area about 10 days ago had convinced him it was far worse than most people imagined. “We got down below 3,000 feet and saw huge, huge globs of oil about to hit  Raccoon Island,” Robbins said of the barrier island that is one of Louisiana’s most important seabird nesting sites.

One speaker was Dean Blanchard, who owns one of the largest shrimping businesses in the gulf. He said he is worried about keeping Dean Blanchard Seafood Inc. alive. He employs more than 1,400 boats and about 6,000 people. Through a thick Creole accent, Blanchard said in an interview that May to July is usually the busiest time of year and that he and his staff had initially bet that shrimping this year would reach an all-time high. Now, he said, "I've cried more in the past couple weeks than in the past 30 years....They're shutting me down."

Patrick Brower, 32, wore a beige shirt that read, "Make wetlands, not oil."  When he heard Sunday that BP's so-called top-kill operation to plug the well had failed, he said he was devastated.  Noting that the hurricane season starts June 1, he said, "We could have oil in the city."

Mary Ann Bohlke, 66, said she was at the protest because the gulf is "our life." Clutching an umbrella, Bohlke teared up while talking about the effect of the spill. "It's the second time that we've been trashed," she said, referring to Hurricane Katrina. "The country's watching us go down."

Doc Mancina, who owns a sushi restaurant near the French Quarter, said he's been forced to purchase more expensive frozen seafood to stay stocked. "It starts to add up," he said, adding that it's costing his restaurant an extra $15,000 a month. "We're already fragile after Katrina," he said, holding a sign reading, "Oil's not well in Louisiana." "It just brings back the feelings of isolation and loneliness."

Librarian Danielle Brutsche, 37, wore a shirt that read, "Our addiction to oil is killing us." In between clapping for speakers, she said she believes the effects of the spill will be much more long-lasting than that of Hurricane Katrina.  "It's like a nightmare you can't wake up from," she said.

This being New Orleans, however, all was not gloomy. Up the street, the crowd crammed into Café du Monde to eat beignets was even bigger than the one at the rally in Jackson Square. And two of the protesters were dressed in costume.

Yellow horns made of construction tape protruded from hard hats worn by William Horswood and Craig Harlson. Dressed in white jumpsuits, they had adorned themselves with red paint and gray shoe polish and headed to the protest with wire "oil-soaked" plastic birds around their necks. "It's New Orleans," said  Horswood, 46. "You have to do a costume."

--Tina Susman and Nicole Santa Cruz, reporting in New Orleans

Photo: From left, John Mancina, Doc Mancina and Amy Bohlke voice their concerns at a rally in New Orleans on Sunday.  Bohlke's sign reads, "We are worth more than BP's bottom line."  Credit:Carolyn Cole/Los Angeles

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