"They're Hijacking Our Rally!"

Opponents of the Potrero Hill power plant expansion could use a lesson in organization.

Even in this build-power-at-all-costs political environment, it's not impossible for traditionally powerless, already polluted communities like southeast San Francisco to stop an unwanted power plant.

In March, the city of South Gate, in southeast Los Angeles, convinced a prospective generator, Sunlaw Inc., to walk away from a proposed project, despite the company's unlimited public relations budget and heavy union support. South Gate managed to score its upset victory by creating a masterfully orchestrated opposition campaign. As one of the organizers, Alvaro Huerta of Communities for a Better Environment, says: "We sat down in October and basically planned it out, and everything fell the way we planned it."

Spread over five months, the opponents' efforts combined intense outreach, unwavering political support, and some first-rate media spinning. They willingly played the race card in the heavily Latino community, sending Spanish-speaking activists to counter "well-to-do white guys in suits," as Huerta puts it. They also convinced activists and politicians in neighboring cities to join their fight, creating a substantial groundswell of opposition to the plant.

But, seeing Gov. Gray Davis' increasingly public agitation with localities resisting power plants he desperately wanted built (which would culminate in his April ramrodding of a Calpine plant through the approval process in San Jose), the activists realized they needed help in Sacramento. "We knew that if he showed up with a hard hat and a shovel, we were in trouble," Huerta says. So they enlisted the help of the Statehouse's Latino caucus to ward off Davis.

Lastly, the protesters generated a surge of media attention when South Gate's mayor, Raul Moriel, went on a five-day hunger strike. Suddenly, there were stories in the Los Angeles Times, San Diego Union-Tribune, and L.A. Weekly, all questioning why a polluted city like South Gate needed a 550-megawatt power plant.

In the end, Sunlaw tried to trump the protesters by tying its proposed plant to a ballot referendum. The company, not aware of the success of the massive grass-roots campaign against it, figured it would win easily. It was crushed.


As it turns out, Communities for a Better Environment is one of the point groups resisting the massive expansion of Mirant Co.'s Potrero Hill plant. Obviously, the organization -- which specializes in activism on behalf of polluted urban communities -- would like to duplicate the events of South Gate in San Francisco. But at a June 12 rally to publicize its cause, there were signs that things weren't going so smoothly. Most of them read "Public Power Now!"

The rally was organized jointly by Communities for a Better Environment and the national consumer activist group Global Exchange. It was supposed to be an opportunity for environmentalists to talk about how a new power plant would worsen the already polluted air in southeast San Francisco. But at 5 p.m., the scheduled start time, the environmentalists filtering into Esprit Park quickly saw they had something else coming. Instead of a rally focusing on stopping a plant, it wound up dwelling on seizing one.

While the environmental protesters, arriving a bit late after a public hearing on the Potrero plant expansion, scribbled out their protest signs at the back of the crowd, Global Exchange co-founder Medea Benjamin and Utility Reform Network President Nettie Hoge were already holding court in front of the television cameras, talking about price gouging, the need for publicly owned power plants, and how they were about to symbolically "seize" Mirant's facility. In other words, everything but the environment.

With her 30 or so followers adequately riled up, Benjamin marched the troops east, toward the power plant. The environmentalists were in the back trying to keep pace.

Pam Wellner, an environmental protester who lives nearby, seemed puzzled. "The Bay Area already has bad air," she said. "What's that have to do with public power? We're supposed to be talking about the Potrero expansion here."

When the marchers reached the power plant gates, however, Benjamin and Hoge continued to monopolize the TV cameras.

"Mike, Mike," one of the CBE folks said to organizer Mike Thomas. "They're hijacking our rally. It's Medea's protest. No one is talking about clean air!"

"Why are we saying we want to seize a power plant?" another asked. "We don't want a power plant."

In the end, after Benjamin and Hoge stepped aside, the environmentalists finally got a brief crack at the cameras, although it wasn't good for much time on the evening news. The event left them in a rationalizing mood.

"I guess if they're talking about seizing the plant, and the plant gets seized, then the permit's up," said Peter Walbridge, the Potrero resident who had been tugging at Thomas. "So, yeah, seizing would work, I guess. Personally, though, I don't care if Medea gets all the press in the world, which she does. If this plant gets built, and there's public power, then the public is just poisoning the public."

 
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