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The Accidental Activist

Frustration motivated her to organize the Krewe of Dead Pelicans

On June 5, about 600 people, many of them dressed in Gothic mourning clothes or costumes resembling oiled birds and oil plumes, marched through New Orleans’ downtown Warehouse District to protest the ongoing BP oil spill disaster.

Brass band in tow, the street parade, more commonly known in New Orleans parlance as a “second line,” was featured in local and national news organizations, and kick-started a movement to speak out against the oil spill and the environmental damage.

At the helm of the operation is a self-described “gray-haired old lady” named Ro Mayer. Wearing a black dress and veil that day, she quieted the crowd with a call to remember the oil workers who lost their lives when BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded.

A longtime New Orleanian, costume designer and real estate agent, Mayer, 57, had never called herself an activist until the oil spill compelled her to take a stand. In late May, she started a Facebook group called the Krewe of Dead Pelicans—named after the state bird—and attracted more than 5,000 members in one week. As the orchestrator of the second line, she has become a leader for thousands of people who feel helpless and indignant in the face of the oil spill.

Since the placement of a temporary cap on the oil well, Mayer says her online community’s focus has shifted slightly, from stopping the oil to “Clean up the Gulf, protect the environment.”

Getting the truth from BP

A big focus, she says, has become “getting the truth out of BP” about what Corexit—the chemical dispersant being dumped into the Gulf—is doing to the fish and sea turtles and to the health of people using it for the cleanup.

The Krewe is also planning to host an oil-spill-themed juried art show in November. Proceeds will go to ProtectOurCoastline.org, which provides financial relief to Louisiana fishermen.

More at home chatting on her porch than marching in the street, Mayer is definitely not a typical protester. “This is the first time I’ve ever taken on a cause,” says Mayer, who had made it through the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and was one of the first people in her flood-ravaged uptown neighborhood to rebuild their home.

But after the Deepwater Horizon rig blew up, she was just another resident terrified by the increasingly horrific news coming out of the Gulf. Sometime in mid-May, as the severity of the spill worsened, she began experiencing anxiety-induced muscle cramps.

“Literally, it made the part of my body tremble between my shoulders to the top of my head. I know it’s a fear reaction, because there’s no end in sight. It’s endless.”

“Katrina was a dress rehearsal for this.”

It’s not over

The turning point for Mayer came after friends and colleagues around the country told her the oil spill was finished as a news story. “When about the third one said, ‘Oh that’s over,’ I said, ‘Oh my God, we need to do something. We need to be in the streets.’ ”

The second-line protest was the Krewe of Dead Pelicans’ offline public debut, and with it came a boost of momentum, exposure and responsibility. Counter-protesters, whom Mayer says were Tea Party activists, created websites and e-mail chains decrying the second line as “liberals partying while the Gulf dies.”

Mayer does her best to ignore the critics and keep up with the incessant flow of news reports and research surrounding the oil spill, but has decided to focus on art and creativity as a means of spreading awareness.

Molly Reid is an arts, culture and environment reporter based in New Orleans. Her work appears regularly in the Times-Picayune.

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