Hundreds of anti-fracking protesters waved signs and chanted in unison in front of the Plaza Hotel Tuesday evening, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s fundraising dinner began inside.
“We’re here to send a message to Governor Cuomo, as well as his supporters, that fracking is a danger to New York’s health and communities and environment, as well as a risk to Governor Cuomo’s political future,” said Eric Weltman, senior organizer at Food & Water Watch.
He added that hundreds of Cuomo’s financial supporters would be at the dinner. The cost of a priority table of ten? $50,000, according to the Wall Street Journal. The cheapest seat was $1,000.
As protester Simone Harris led me through the crowd to find the protest organizers, she wasted no time, chanting as we walked: “Ban Fracking Now! Ban Fracking Now!” She grinned, happy to be there.
“Because there is no way to frack safely and we are getting our water from the area that would concerned. Letting it go, for the profit of others, is crazy,” she said.
Harris, as with the rest of the protestors, stands for a ban on fracking in New York, not just an extension of the current moratorium. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, requires injecting millions of gallons of water laced with an array of toxic chemicals deep into the earth to cause fissures that allow drillers to tap previously unreachable deposits of oil or gas. Large parts of central and southern New York sit atop the Marcellus Shale, a geological formation that is believed to contain large amounts of natural gas.
The crowd swelled at its middle, with hundreds of chanting protesters holding posters blocking our path through. Harris thought it best to leave the barricaded area, which was the length of the looming Plaza Hotel and about 15 feet wide, to get to the other side. A woman, like others scattered around the city block and Plaza steps, handed me a flyer about the event.
“Do you know what fracking is?” she asked me. “Would you be kind enough to call our governor and tell him, No Fracking in New York?” I told her I was a member of the press, here to cover the protest. She smiled, “I love you. Thank you.”
Harris ushered me forward, back through the barricade. “We do actions periodically and there is never any media there,” she said.
The protest was sponsored by New Yorkers Against Fracking, United For Action, Sane Energy Project, Credo, Food & Water Watch, Catskill Mountainkeeper, Frack Action, Occupy the Pipeline, VeRSE (Vestal Residents for Safe Energy), Brooklyn for Peace, and Environmental Action.
Paul Simon reportedly gave a concert at Cuomo’s gala. In response, musicians in the crowd strummed parodies of his songs with anti-fracking lyrics, accompanied by bongo drums, whistles, and cowbells.
“We’re basically trying to show Cuomo wherever he goes, we are not going to go away. So it is an opportunity right here,” said Lyna Hinkel of the climate change group 350.org which has helped organize grassroots campaigns against the fossil fuel industry. “We did this with Obama when he visited, when Prime Minister Harper from Canada was here, so we’ve been trying to show up and let them know wherever we can that we are a big movement and we are not going to rest.”
This protest immediately followed the NY Crossroads anti-fracking rally in Albany on June 17, which coincided with Cuomo’s State of the State speech and was a rally Alex Beauchamp, the Northeast Region Director at Food & Water Watch, described as “empowering.”
“3,000 people. Huge rally. Bigger than everybody thought,” Beauchamp said. “I think it shows the movement is getting bigger and bigger and it is not going to go away. And obviously today, this is just another sign of that.”
The crowd began to chant “We are unstoppable. A statewide ban is possible,” while someone hit a cowbell to the beat and a man yelled “Cuomo!” during pauses.
“We are fighting all the infrastructure in New York City and statewide […] that will bring all the fracked gas into New York City,” said Clare Donohue of the Sane Energy Project. “There are four pipelines right now and an LNG [Liquified Natural Gas] port they have just announced. That is off the Rockaways and Jones Beach, if you can believe it,” she said. “There are twenty-three infrastructure projects statewide in just New York. It is crazy.”
Sane Energy is part of an Upstate/Downstate New York coalition, through which Donohue has noticed a startling trend. Pro-frackers, she said, push the perception that only wealthy New York City residents oppose fracking, depriving rural New Yorkers of much-needed income.
“It is not like that all. We have a huge coalition upstate,” she said. “People upstate are much more informed about this than in New York City. You think we are the center of everything? Eight million people and you can walk up to anyone on the street and they haven’t heard about fracking yet.”
She was most alarmed that few in New York City knew about the pipelines or felt fracking impacted their lives.
“It’s New York. We’ve been through 9/11. It’s like, Oh, people are trying to bomb us all the time,” Donohue said, with an ironic shrug. Her eyes get serious. “There was an explosion in a suburban San Francisco town called San Bruno. Same size pipe, same pressure, [but] suburbia, so not very dense. It took out thirty-eight homes. If you translate that kind of destruction into the West Village, into Harlem, it is insane. In New York, you blow up the pipeline, then you blow up the cars, then you blow up the boilers; it is explosion, explosion, explosion.”
She looked out at the crowd, now bobbing to “Hey, hey – ho, ho – Hydrofracking’s got to go!” By her estimates there were about 300 to 400 protesters, “pretty good for such short notice.” Gov. Cuomo announces his itineraries shortly before events. This protest was promoted for just one week.
Donohue said, “We have ten people from Poughkeepsie that we’ve never met before, who saw it on Facebook and came all the way. We have women in wheelchairs. People are so invested in this. I mean, it is ninety-freaking-degrees.”
I caught up with the Poughkeepsie group moments later, finding Pat Robson wedged between two Citi Bike racks, which acted as the front of the police barricade.
“They are killing our people for money. And the people are here to show them we voted them in. We don’t want poison in our water.” Robson said. She lives in Pawling, a town 30 minutes outside of Poughkeepsie. “This is my first time [at a protest]. I just wanted to do something, instead of sitting home and complaining. I called up my girlfriend here, she’s got her grandkids here, because we believe that your grandkids should have good water.”