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Vigil in front of PG&E headquarters in Oakland protests power cuts

on October 11, 2019

On the otherwise quiet and dimly-lit Clay Street, a group of roughly 50 people gathered for a candlelit vigil in front of Pacific Gas and Electric Company’s Oakland headquarters on Thursday evening. Protestors held tea light candles as they gathered around speakers, who led the crowd through moments of somber observance, followed by chanting: “PG&E is a convicted felon!” referring to a ruling by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) that PG&E was responsible for the 2018 Camp Fire that caused $30 billion in liabilities.

The demonstration comes after several days of power outage in the greater Bay Area as the company shut off power to over 30,000 people in Alameda County alone to prevent fires that might be caused by trees hitting power lines during high winds. The vigil was organized by Sunrise Movement, a youth-led organization founded in 2017 with a focus on making climate change an urgent priority. The crowd was illuminated by a slideshow projecting the words “environmental racism; corrupt, criminal company” above the company’s signage. Nearly half of the protestors wore black t-shirts with “Green New Deal” printed across the top in white block letters.

Caroline Choi, a member of Sunrise Movement and a high school senior, said the vigil was organized to show that lights are on during the blackout, and to demand that PG&E strengthen its resilience by being able to provide power during high winds. As a youth activist, Choi said these events are also important in demonstrating that young people can also push big actions. “A lot of people patronize high school students by saying, ‘Small actions matter.’ But I think people should also be encouraging students to take bigger actions and think outside the box,” she said.

Many protestors said they see the power cuts as an inadequate response to wildfire risks by PG&E and that the company should instead be putting its efforts into handling power line maintenance. “I’d like to see public attention paid to the way PG&E is attempting to eliminate its liability instead of serving its customers,” said West Oakland resident Michael Hoexter.

Michael Sandberg, who lives in North Berkeley and came to the vigil out of what he called “general rage,” said he thinks PG&E should “be able to think of better solutions than to shut everybody’s power off.” Part of that includes updating the company’s infrastructure, he said. “It’s just frustrating that the solution to the fires they caused last year is to say, ‘All right, no one gets power.’”

A number of protestors reminded the crowd that PG&E was found responsible by Cal Fire for the hugely destructive Camp Fire, when a live wire broke free of the 99-year-old PG&E tower that was still active 25 years after what PG&E policy considers the end of its “useful life.” Cal Fire investigators also determined that PG&E equipment was responsible for starting fires in Napa and Sonoma Counties in 2017, and that the utility didn’t properly maintain power lines or cut trees near lines. 

Eric Rude, a member of East Bay Democratic Socialists of America, said he sees PG&E’s response as part of a longer history of mismanagement. “We’ve seen this pattern from PG&E. This is not bad luck. Climate change is happening. But what PG&E is telling us right now is that they can’t keep us safe. Their system is not built to be safe in these conditions. And it never has been,” he said.

Other activists spoke to the particular challenges some community members have faced due to the power shutoff. “Have you tried communicating in American Sign Language in the dark?” asked disability activist Stacey Milbern. She waited while some crowd members nervously chuckled. “It’s not easy,” she said.

She went on to list the ways disabled communities face a different set of challenges without power. “This week in the Bay Area, disabled people and elders without power are having difficulty breathing, moving, eating, staying alive,” she said. Milbern said she relies on her ventilator 16 hours a day, which requires electricity. Blind people are crossing the streets without traffic signals or audible signals to tell them when to cross, she noted. “Countless numbers of people are being forced to through out groceries without knowing where the money will come to replace them,” she said to a chorus of snaps reaffirming her statements.

She said the disabled community has relied on supporting each other through “mutual aid” during this time by checking in with each other, hosting friends and strangers who need a place to stay with electricity, sourcing generators, and making sure people who need power for medical equipment have access to power.

When Milbern called PG&E to ask about the safety protocol for “medical baseline” customers, or those who rely on electricity for medical support, she said she waited on the phone for two hours and 20 minutes, until a representative told her: “This is why we let the public know, so that they would be able to prepare.” Milbern said she had not been directly notified; she only realized that she might lose power when saw her address listed on several maps showing blackout areas. There were 872 medical baseline customers affected by the power outage, according to PG&E’s website.

In the East Bay, PG&E cut off power in parts of the Berkeley and Oakland hills, which are generally affluent and well-resourced neighborhoods. But it also cut off power to a large part of East Oakland, which has many low-income neighborhoods.

“These companies are perpetrating environmental racism, because instead of having blackouts in areas where people can afford generators and food and water and can afford to prepare, they’re doing it in low-income communities who can’t,” said Cemre Gönen, a member of Youth vs Apocalypse, a Bay Area youth-led climate activist group.

Others had ideas for solutions. “It’s a utility that should just be publicly owned. That wouldn’t solve all the problems, but it would solve some problems and be a step in the right direction,” said Mike Hickey. “The problem is they didn’t do proper maintenance on their lines. They know that and now their solution is to cut down a big part of the grid. They’re not really responsible to anyone but their shareholders.”

Hickey’s priority is “to democratize the grid and localize it and have more community control.”

The office remained closed for the night, and PG&E officials made no comment on the vigil.

Standing in a tight-knit circle, the demonstrators ended the vigil with a song:

“Light is returning,
even though this is the darkest hour.
No one can hold back,
hold back the dawn.”

Then they blew out their candles.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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