Climate & Social Justice

WaterFire Protest Targets National Grid, Fossil Fuels


WaterFire protesters targeted event sponsor National Grid. (Tim Faulkner/ecoRI News)

PROVIDENCE — Protesters were drawn to WaterFire on Saturday night to challenge its main sponsor, National Grid, while showcasing art of their own.

Environmental, labor, utility ratepayer, and animal protection groups used creative methods to send their message to visitors lining the Providence River on Sept. 8. In addition to WaterFire’s traditional fire dancers and living statues, a range of mixed-media messaging delivered a more defiant attitude to the popular event.

A slide show run by Climate Action Rhode Island, an affiliate of the national group, was projected on the side of a bridge spanning the river with phrases blaming National Grid for contributing to pollution, sea-level rise, and other climate-change problems.

Labor group United Steel Workers Local 12003 used a similar tactic, displaying a message on the side of a nearby downtown building that read, “National Grid Puts Profits Before Safety.”

National Grid is in a contract dispute with 1,200 pipeline technicians who want the utility to restore wages and retirement and health-care benefits.

Some of the the groups coordinated their actions during a rally and march, while drawing attention to state and federal elections. Many of the 175 activists held campaign posters and banners during the march and a few candidates joined the action.

The slide show displayed on the side of the Crawford Street Bridge didn’t attract security or police but it did draw rebuke from some of the black-clad WaterFire volunteers. About a half-hour into the slide show a man who was seen on one of the boats tending the fires marched up to the team running the slide projector, cursed loudly, and violently shook the projector before leaving. At 8 p.m., the director of operations for WaterFire and another staffer threatened to have the protesters arrested unless the slide show was shutdown.

The protesters moved to a location at the north end of the river and ran the projector for about 30 minutes until their portable battery died.

National Grid didn’t have a booth at WaterFire. A spokesman said the utility hadn’t intended to have a marketing presence at the event. The spokesman didn’t comment on the protest.

During the rally at Roger Williams Memorial Park, Daisy Benitez of the George Wiley Center explained how National Grid eliminated a program to help low-income ratepayers.

“National Grid are reverse Robin Hoods, stealing from low-income households. Taking from our neighborhoods and our families across the state who have no incomes or low incomes,” Benitez said.

Student activists from Brown University, the Rhode Island School of Design, the University of Rhode Island, and Stonehill College joined the rally, march, and protest.

“We’re here to take action on changes in our climate that are coming right down from the top on environmental policies, or lack thereof. And we’re here to be heard,” said Beth Cronin of Stonehill’s Student for Environmental Action group.

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