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New Orleans Activist Embarks on 1600-Mile Bike Ride for the Gulf

Picture_7.jpgMalik Rahim says Americans need to change their lifestyles and move away from fossil fuel dependence.
The BP oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico provides a fitting backdrop for the fifth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina on August 29. Who better to connect the two disasters than longtime New Orleans community organizer Malik Rahim, who helped found Common Ground Relief in the aftermath of the 2005 catastrophe? Rahim, who calls himself a "novice cyclist but veteran activist," is tackling the 2010 spill with a 1600-mile bike ride along the Gulf and up the eastern seaboard to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness of the need to wean ourselves off fossil fuel dependence.

He originally planned to hit D.C. on September 22, the same day that Bike4Peace is bringing cyclists from all over the country there on World Carfree Day. But extreme heat has slowed the 62-year-old ex-Black Panther, and his arrival may be delayed. He aimed to ride 35 miles a day for 45 days but may take longer.

Numerous media reports have commented on how Gulf communities hit by the BP oil spill were just on the verge of finally recovering from Katrina. But few mention the historic responsibility of the oil and gas industry in the hurricane's destruction. Geography places New Orleans in danger from storms, but it took decisions that favor a petroleum-based transportation system to wreck the city's natural defenses, leaving it more vulnerable than nature intended.

Rahim is drawing attention to the role of wetlands in the Gulf. One reason Katrina so clobbered New Orleans was the damage that oil exploration and drilling had already done to the wetlands that used to buffer the mainland. Wetlands absorb the impact of a hurricane's storm surge like a sponge. The wall of water that produced most of Katrina's trail of wreckage reached almost 30 feet in places. Every square mile of wetlands reduces that storm surge by about a foot.

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Transit Riders Launch Grassroots Lobbying Push in Dire Political Climate

Advocates for urban transit riders in 14 metro areas climbed the Hill today to pitch lawmakers face-to-face on the need for extra federal transit operating aid, a grassroots lobbying effort that could face considerable challenges even as Democrats craft a new jobs bill with a focus on infrastructure.

geddies.jpgLee Gaddies of Detroit speaks at today's event. Photo: TEN

Today's event, organized by the Transportation Equity Network (TEN), brought local community advocates to the House's Longworth building for roundtable sessions with aides to several members of Congress.

Federal Transit Administration executive director Matthew Welbes briefed the group on his agency's new shift away from a solely cost-effectiveness-based standard for approving new funding plans, and TEN co-chair Sarah Mullins hailed a victory for transit equity in Minneapolis, where light rail planners have added three new stops in lower-income areas.

But as the grassroots lobbyists prepared to make the case for more transit operating aid in the coming Senate jobs bill -- the House version allowed cities to spend 10 percent of their Washington funds on keeping trains and buses running -- Jim Kolb, staff director for House transport committee chairman Jim Oberstar (D-MN), was on hand with a candid assessment of the battle facing transit riders.

Kolb began by outlining an impasse that will be familiar to Streetsblog readers: Oberstar's $500 billion, six-year transportation bill, which aims to fundamentally shift federal policymaking away from a road-centric perspective, is languishing as Democrats decline to find a way to pay for it.

Meanwhile, the uncertain flurry of short-term extensions to the current law and the decision to route stimulus transport funding through state DOTs has given defenders of the status quo time to dig in their heels.

"A lot of folks who work for state DOTs have real concerns about the bill we put out," Kolb told the groups. "They don't want to have a conversation about accountability -- we have a different vision with our bill."

But with more than 10 percent for transit operating proving a hard sell in itself, getting a spending-shy Congress on board for that new vision is likely to be even more difficult. As Kolb put it: