A photo of the ExxonMobil Baton Rouge Refinery taken on June 18, 2020. (Photo by Jarvis DeBerry | Louisiana Illuminator)
Louisianians deserve news stories and columns that make their problems the priority. On June 18, 2020, five days before the Louisiana Illuminator launched, I drove to Scenic Highway in Baton Rouge to photograph the ExxonMobil refinery in case we needed pictures to illustrate either our planned story about plants claiming the pandemic prevented them from thoroughly monitoring pollution or plants seeking more property tax exemptions from the Louisiana Board of Commerce and Industry.
After pulling on the shoulder, walking the sidewalk next to the refinery’s fence and getting as many shots as I could with the “ExxonMobil” sign, I turned back toward my car and saw a Baton Rouge police car and a pick-up parked behind me and a police officer and an ExxonMobil employee huddling. When I asked what they wanted, the officer gave me a spiel about 9/11 and al-Qaeda and a Louisiana law that calls refineries critical infrastructure.
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“Are you saying it’s illegal for me to stand on a public sidewalk and take a picture?” I asked. Shocking, I know, but he seemed to know nothing more about the law than what he’d just parroted, and when I started questioning the Exxon guy, the officer said that guy wasn’t allowed to speak to me. Then when I gave the officer my ID, he quickly handed it over to the refinery guy so he could put me on their list.
When I saw the “Blue Lives Matter” bracelet on the police officer’s wrist, I came close to asking, “Say, buddy, don’t all lives matter?” But you know what they say: Discretion (which in this case meant shutting up) is the better part of valor.
After being instructed to call the refinery the next time I decided to stand on adjacent public property with a camera, I drove away thinking what a fitting introduction I’d just had to Baton Rouge and to my new job leading a newsroom covering state politics and policy. For what I’d just seen was a micro example of a public employee doing Big Oil’s bidding.
Many lawmakers at the nearby Capitol are similarly bossed around by Big Oil, Big Gas, Big Plastic, Big Anything that can afford lobbyists and campaign contributions. “We’ll monitor our own pollution,” industries say, and lawmakers say, “Sure.” “Give us tax breaks or we’ll leave y’all’s oil undrilled,” and lawmakers beg, “Please, don’t go.” “We don’t like those solar guys,” and lawmakers respond, “We’ll handle ‘em.”
In the main, they’re also in the “Blue Lives Matter crowd” even though nobody’s listed as blue on their birth certificate (or even in police reports) and even though “Blue Lives Matter” is a racist response to Black people’s anger at being disproportionately killed by police.
Since the launch of the Illuminator, lawmakers have attempted to make it illegal for municipalities to cut the amount of money they spend on police, the governor has been insufficiently outraged at the shocking brutality of the Louisiana State Police and the Legislative Black Caucus fell short in its effort to take away a misbehaving police officer’s near unquestioned right to claim qualified immunity when someone’s left hurt or dead.
Press freedom is limited. Years ago, there were seats for eight reporters on the floor of the Louisiana House, which gave those journalists the kind of access to lawmakers that readers deserve. Now they’re only four seats in the House, which makes it easier for lawmakers who don’t like questions to avoid them. During the recent veto override session, Louisiana House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, even reduced the number of seats available for reporters off the floor, putting even more distance between reporters and state representatives.
I’m providing this snippet of what’s happened since the Illuminator’s launch because this is my last column as editor. I’m moving on to the next thing. But I’m asking you to keep reading and sharing our stories. I’m leaving behind a great team of journalists who, with your charitable contributions, will be able to continue their remarkable work.
From the start, I said the Illuminator would stand out as a news site that would focus more on the people who have to live with the decisions made by politicians than on the politicians themselves. Louisianians deserve news stories and columns that make their problems the priority.
It’s been a pleasure helping move the Illuminator from an idea to a reality; it will be no less a pleasure watching what the team brings to light going forward.
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