November 1, 2012 —
In a democracy, there are different ways for people to be empowered. In the run-up to Election Day on Tuesday, one way seems obvious: at the ballot box, citizens still hold real power—one man, one woman, one vote at a time—if they chose to exercise it. Another vehicle for empowerment can be seen these days every time a group of citizens gathers in Orange County at the construction site of a natural gas compressor station in the Town of Minisink, NY to raise their voices and hoist their protest signs against an industrial-scale project being built in their residential neighborhood.
The right of these citizens to assemble—and thus their right to protest—is guaranteed in the First Amendment of the Constitution. They and others, who have taken up their cause, come together as individuals to increase their collective influence and authority against powerful opposition. Arrayed against them are the multi-million-dollar Millennium Pipeline Company that is pushing forward with construction and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which has declined to halt the work. The determined protestors continue to press their case through every means available, including enlisting other individuals and organizations to join their fight. This is grassroots “people power” practiced in a time-honored way.
Another tool of empowerment was the citizens’ online petition, launched in 2011, which demanded that FERC deny approval for the compressor station. It outlined the residents’ health and safety concerns, which they also expressed in municipal public meetings. Among their concerns are the potential for carcinogens to be released into the air and water of their community and the potential impact of noise and vibrations, 24 hours a day, of such a large industrial machine in their midst. Further, the petition listed their grievances, including that there had been no independent health or safety studies and no independent environmental impact reviews had been made.
This July, with two of five FERC commissioners dissenting, the commission approved Millennium Pipeline Company’s Minisink project, rejecting an alternative proposal to locate a smaller compressor station at a different, more rural, location that would not impact so many people in a residential community. On September 18 after Minisink Residents for Environmental Preservation and Safety appealed for a rehearing, the commissioners agreed. Yet five days later, they nevertheless authorized construction to commence. On October 9, FERC specifically declined to halt construction. This is one of several injustices the protestors perceive—if a rehearing has been promised, shouldn’t construction be stopped or, at least, shouldn’t the rehearing be expedited? And why is this industrial project being sited in a residential neighborhood in the first place?
Stop Minisink Compressor Station (or StopMCS.org), as the opponents call their group on Facebook and their website, has continued to widen their call for more people to attend their protest rallies. They have won support from U.S. Representative Nan Hayworth and from U.S. Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand for an expedited FERC rehearing.
This is people power at work. And although this may look like a David and Goliath fight, never underestimate the power of suasion from people who believe they may have everything to lose. After all, Gandhi, the man who said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world,” persuaded enough of his countrymen to stand up to injustice and, together, they brought down the British Empire in India through peaceful protest and by owning the moral high ground. If the Minisink residents, who clearly feel they own the moral high ground, can enlist enough others to their cause, they may just win their fight.
This is what people power is about—people reclaiming the promised power of democracy—people standing up and saying, “The power is ours.” This brings us back to Tuesday’s election. Turnout among American voters is notoriously low. Perhaps more registered voters should look to the example of Minisink residents by celebrating people power and turning out to vote.