Gulf Watch: Keystone XL Impacts on the Gulf Coast and Looking 'Suspicious' (Black)

Two controversial stories hit home on the Gulf last week: One, concerning the ill-advised but fated Keystone XL pipeline, which President Obama decided to greenlight the southern portion of, directly impacting the Gulf; and another concerning the troublesome trend of young, African-American males losing their lives after mostly trivial encounters with law enforcement officials, or those pretending to be. In New Orleans, the city has suffered the shooting deaths in two separate incidences -- one concerning Justin Sipp, killed in a shootout with police while on his way to work at Burger King, and the other concerning 20-year-old Wendell Allen who was unarmed but seemed guilty of no more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Both New Orleans murders shared a few similarities with the killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla., mostly in that they involved young black men who were confronted for "looking suspicious."

1. It was just weeks ago that President Obama signaled that he would reject the Keystone XL pipeline, which would pump oil from dirty tar sands in Canada and ship them them across the country to the Gulf Coast. Mainstream media reports often note that "environmentalists" were excited about Obama's decision. But the truth is, that anyone who cares about breathing clean air, drinking clean water, about living in a clean environment, about decreasing greenhouse gas emissions, about converting the nation's dependence on dirty fossil fuels to a good-faith reliance on clean energy saw this is as a victory for mankind. But earlier this week, President Obama changed course and decided to approve the southern portion of the Keystone XL pipeline, which would still impact the Gulf Coast given it's Galveston, Texas endpoint. 

Talia Buford reported in Politico

“Right now, a company called TransCanada has applied to build a new pipeline to speed more oil from Cushing to state-of-the-art refineries down on the Gulf Coast,” the president said, standing in front of rows of green-tinted pipes for an outdoor speech on a chilly, overcast morning at a TransCanada pipe storage yard near Cushing, Okla.

“And today, I’m directing my administration to cut through the red tape, break through the bureaucratic hurdles and make this project a priority, to go ahead and get it done,” he said.

The move was mostly in response to blaming of the President for rising gas prices despite the fact there is nothing he can do policy-wise to make prices come down. He even acknowledged that gas prices are, in part, set by consumer behavior.


“Even if we opened up every inch of the country — if I put an oil rig on the [White House] South Lawn, if we had one right next to the Washington Monument … we’d still have to buy the rest of our needs from someplace else if we keep on using the same amount of energy, the same amount of oil,” Obama said. “The price of oil will still be set by the global market.”

Texans ain't havin' it, though. NRDC's Rocky Kristner has blogged a bunch from Texas documenting the fight residents there have been waging to stop from being placed at the bottom of the Keystone XL toilet. You can read here about the many feats of activism staged to oppose the pipeline since its proposal. But out of Texas, Rocky reports about environmental justice champ Hilton Kelley, who from Port Arthur has had to fight off a multitude of encroachments from the oil industry on public health. Says Kelley:

“We grew up with the smell of sulfur and various other chemicals that’s being dumped into our environment. A large number of people are suffering from bronchitis, acute asthma, and there’s a lot of folks in this community with liver disease and cancer due to the emissions I believe that are being dumped into our air and the types of chemicals that we’re breathing….we say no to the Keystone XL pipeline because we don’t need any additional pollution being dumped into our air, and that’s what it’s going to bring.”

2. Conversations around Keystone XL were mostly overshadowed, though, by the conversation around Trayvon Martin, the 17-year-old black teen who was shot by a wanna-be police officer named George Zimmerman during an encounter that started when Zimmerman spotted Martin walking innocently through a residential community. Zimmerman pursued Martin because he looked "suspicious," and though 911 calls reveal a narrative where Zimmerman pursued and confronted the unsuspecting Martin before the attack, the shooter is claiming self-defense and to date has not been arrested mostly because of the protection of Florida's "stand your ground" gun laws. This is a pitiful, but all too familiar story for any person of color who has had a loved one killed or harmed for walking through a neighborhood or place where "they didn't belong." In some necks of the American woods these are called "Sundown Towns," neighborhoods that since slavery have been zoned as official killing fields for any black person caught in a white community. 

Associated Press reporter Jesse Washington wrote a moving piece about how he had to explain this painful history of violence toward African Americans to his 12-year-old son, as well as the "Black Man Code," which is explained by Washington as:


"Always pay close attention to your surroundings, son, especially if you are in an affluent neighborhood where black folks are few. Understand that even though you are not a criminal, some people might assume you are, especially if you are wearing certain clothes.

Never argue with police, but protect your dignity and take pride in humility. When confronted by someone with a badge or a gun, do not flee, fight, or put your hands anywhere other than up.

Please don't assume, son, that all white people view you as a threat. America is better than that. Suspicion and bitterness can imprison you. But as a black male, you must go above and beyond to show strangers what type of person you really are."

It's a shame it has to come to this, in America, in 2012. But it's a conversation that many African American parents are having with their children, including in New Orleans. There, two African-American young men were killed over the last few weeks -- actually dozens of African-American were shot and killed in New Orleans over the past few weeks, a tragedy in and of itself. But two in particular, Justin Sipp and Wendell Allen, along with Justin's brother Earl, who was shot but not killed, were killed by police under questionable terms that at base had to do with the criminalization of their race, and the lack of trust that exists between black communities and police departments. 

Bridge the Gulf contributor Pam Nath wrote about the Sipp and Allen killings while also highlighting the peculiar responses of white New Orleanians who seemed to praise the killings somewhat as a proper defense reaction to the protection of neighborhood and property. Nath pulled a verse from a neighborhood listserv where one white person attempted to explain away the Sipp killing as a necessary, non-discriminatory act for ridding the city of guns and drugs, despite the fact he was pulled over for nothing worse than having a broke car light. Sipp's criminal record was put into question, though he was just trying to get to work at Burger King, but the criminal record of the killers -- New Orleans' police -- was not. Wrote Nath:


Given the harassment and brutality that black communites routinely experience at the hands of police, any signs of anxiety exhibited by black persons during police stops are as likely to be the result of negative expectations as they are to suggest a guilty conscience. But this anxiety can add to the already existing stereotypes about black criminality in increasing the likelihood that black folks will be interpreted as acting “suspicious.”  

If the police report that Justin Sipp pulled out a gun and began firing on police is true, one can only guess at the experiences that led him to conclude that a shoot out with police officers was preferable to whatever was happening or whatever he expected to happen as the result of the police stop.

The “record” of the police department as a whole or of individual officers is not, however, what gets emphasized in the media or in conversations about the incident in white communities.  Within hours of the shooting, the arrest records of Earl and Justin Sipp were released to the public, reinforcing stereotypes that they were “criminals” and “felons.”  Interpreting arrest records also looks different depending upon one's past experiences.

 All but one of the arrests of the Sipp brothers failed to result in convictions and the one that did involved a plea to a reduced offense (unauthorized use of a credit card). In the TV cop shows that populate our psyches, arrests that fail to lead to convictions are often the result of technicalities, mistakes on the part of police or judges or juries that allow guilty people to “walk.”  In black communities, racial profiling and police harassment are an everyday reality, and that's exactly what arrest records (especially arrests without convictions and arrests that result in pleas) indicate.