Asked for an “official” job title, Iris Marie Bloom calls herself a “citizen journalist” and a “galvanizer.” “Documenting social change movements as they happen is incredibly important,” she says.
Most recently, Bloom’s curriculum vitae identifies her as one of the organizers of the Coalition against Pilgrim Pipelines-New York (CAPP-NY), an active member of the New Paltz Climate Action Coalition, a Town of Marbletown Environmental Conservation commissioner, the founder/director of Protecting Our Waters and a regular volunteer at the SPCA in Kingston. But she has been an activist working on a broad spectrum of social justice, health and environmental issues since her student days at Wellesley College. “In 1979, I went to a march against racist murders in North Carolina, and I looked around and thought, ‘Where are all the white people?’”
Since those days, Bloom has been involved with the anti-racist, anti-apartheid and antiwar movements. After being “jumped from behind while jogging” in 1987, she “became motivated to study self-defense.” But she didn’t stop at training herself; she went on to teach martial arts to more than 10,000 students after founding an organization called Women’s Anti-Violence Education (WAVE) in Philadelphia. “I’m a bit of a rescuer,” she admits. “I don’t like to see people or animals suffer.”
In 2009, she says, she “shifted her energy” to water and climate issues after becoming aware of fellow Pennsylvanians being displaced from their homes by health problems caused by well-water contamination from the hydrofracking industry. She began interviewing and writing about them, founding Protecting Our Waters to organize efforts to safeguard the state’s watersheds. While still maintaining its core mission to oppose fracking, the organization’s geographical focus has expanded to include New York State since Bloom moved to the mid-Hudson in 2013 after visiting a friend who was working on farmworkers’ health issues.
Nowadays, stopping the proposed Pilgrim Pipelines is at the top of her agenda; but with her experience involving such a wide variety of progressive issues, she’s quick to spot the connections among water protection agendas everywhere. So it was that she felt obligated to join in the nonviolent resistance effort by the Hunkpapa Lakota tribe and their allies, both indigenous and non-Native people, at the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, along the proposed route of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), which is intended to carry fracked crude oil from the Bakken shale deposits. The Great Plains are already crisscrossed with shale oil pipelines, Bloom notes; recently, “There were 292 pipeline spills in North Dakota in two years [2012/13]… There was a 67,000-gallon spill from a different pipeline while I was there.”
Since the protests began in April 2016, thousands of supporters have visited the encampment, many staying for months at a time. It was essentially a gigantic nonviolent sit-in, intended to block the paths of bulldozers excavating a pipeline route near the confluence of the Cannonball and Missouri Rivers. The protestors called themselves “Water Protectors,” but their indignation was heightened on Labor Day weekend when a DAPL crew began bulldozing a two-mile-long ditch through an area containing Native burial sites. When protestors tried to block the machinery, they were attacked with dogs and pepper spray and arrested. Despite the fact that participants in the Oceti Sakowin encampment are forbidden to have weapons of any kind on-site, “The arrested people were strip-searched,” Bloom recounts. “When I saw the courage and bravery of the people being arrested, that’s when I knew I had to go.”
Through friends in Ithaca and Erie, Pennsylvania, she obtained introductions to a Lakota elder at the encampment named Helmina Makes Him First, who invited her to pay a visit. In October, with wintry weather drawing near, Bloom began asking her friends for donations of “coats, socks, hats, gloves, blankets, sugar and coffee” to bring with her: “My little car was so packed!” On October 27, the day after she arrived at Standing Rock, she said, “The police started firing rubber bullets.” One horse died, a man was shot off another horse and trampled; 141 protestors were arrested.
Bloom lived for a week in a tent at the main Oceti Sakowin camp with the family of Helmina Makes Him First, who “showed me around,” she says. “It makes a tremendous difference to know an elder.” Following an orientation and nonviolence training session, Bloom spent some of her time interviewing participants; “I made sure to do a lot of listening.” But she also tried to make herself useful to the Water Protectors in practical ways, mostly by helping in the cooking and medical tents and driving people to the showers, the Indian Medical Service or the front lines. “I did a lot of potato-chopping,” she laughs. She acted as a driver for a firekeeper from the Havasupai tribe in Arizona, who had suffered several broken ribs after being knocked down and knelt on by police in an action on October 22.
Upon her return, Bloom created a PowerPoint presentation documenting her time at Standing Rock, including grim photographs of people severely injured by police or DAPL’s paramilitary guards. “There were many waves of police brutality, consistently vicious,” she reports. One woman, a medic, was struck in the face at close range with a teargas canister while trying to assist an injured journalist; another, from upstate New York, lost the use of her arm after it was struck by a grenade. People drenched by water cannons were strip-searched, and were kept in dog kennels with concrete floors without any outerwear in frigid weather, Bloom says. “I’m trying to document what happened.”
Since coming back to the Hudson Valley in early November, the energy activist has been engaging in a “speaking tour,” distributing fliers, tabling at fundraisers – all with the intent of illustrating the connection between the fracking industry and the brutality at Standing Rock. She recently initiated a campaign against the Pilgrim Pipelines in Rensselaer, “the fourth city on the pipeline route.” She approached the mayor and city council, testified, shared maps and canvassed until “the local people took it forward.”
“I’m really proud of the work CAPP-NY has done,” says Bloom. “We’re all Water Protectors and climate protectors. You don’t need to go to Standing Rock to be involved.” One action that Hudson Valley residents can take immediately, she says, is to divest themselves of investments in the fossil fuel industry and other companies heavily invested in fracking. To find out more about the divestment campaign, visit https://protectingourwaters.wordpress.com, while https://stoppilgrimpipeline.com offers information about actions opposing the Pilgrim Pipelines project in New York. For updates on the situation at Standing Rock, visit www.ocetisakowincamp.org.