Who Is Alex Lotorto, Well Street Occupier?

Giles Howard
President of The Publius Foundation, a nonpartisan student think tank dedicated to advancing personal and economic liberty.

In spite of a relentless campaign heavy on fear and light on facts, those opposed to natural gas extraction in our region have failed to win the debate over hydraulic fracturing.  Although people rightfully want to ensure natural gas development is done in a way that will limit its environmental impact, poll after poll after poll demonstrates that more Pennsylvanians and New Yorkers support natural gas extraction than oppose it.

Having failed to achieve their goals through open debate, opponents of natural gas extraction are entering a new phase of advocacy eschewing peaceful communication and seeking instead to prevent people from using their land, or performing their jobs, in accordance with the law.Activists are now disrupting public meetings, blocking access to injection wells and holding civil disobedience training sessions in preparation for disruptive and potentially illegal actions.

A leading voice in this move away from public debate toward disruptive or illegal conduct is activist Alex Lotorto.

Identifying himself with a variety of organizations including the Industrial Workers of the World, the Energy Justice Network and Occupy Well Street, Lotorto is something of a professional protester (see video below).

I first became aware of Lotorto when, as a member of Students for a Democratic Society, he organized something called “The Pittsburgh Freedom School“ to take place at the University of Pittsburgh in April of 2010. Generally a collection of anarchist and socialist lectures, the Freedom School was notable for including a session entitled “Nonviolent Direct Action Training” in which participants would “Learn and practice how to prepare and execute civil disobedience including affinity groups, blockades, lock-downs, street marches, dealing with police, and building occupation.”

Facing University pressure, the Freedom School’s organizers moved the event off campus after Pittbriefly.com, a small student news site, published an article quoting from the Freedom School’s schedule and bringing attention to the “Nonviolent Direct Action Training” session.

The fracas over the Freedom School led me to dig deeper into Lotorto’s background and into his understanding of “nonviolent direct action.”

While attending Muhlenberg College, Lotorto was active in the group Students for a Democratic Society. Lotorto participated in the February 2009 occupation of New York University’s Kimmel Cafeteria. Organized by student group Take Back NYU, the occupiers demanded, among other things, the creation of 13 annual scholarships for Palestinians, tuition stabilization for all students and legal and disciplinary amnesty for all the occupiers involved. Although defined by the organizers as “nonviolent,” the Kimmel occupiers injured two security guards in the course of their grandstanding.

A little more than a year later, in his April 2010 interview with PittBriefly.com, Lotorto defined nonviolence:

“To me, nonviolence is a commitment to non-injury, which is what… I mean, that’s… blocking a street is not violent. There are many definitions of violent. I think that hurting a person is violent… It’s important to know what tactics there are.”

Additionally, Lotorto told PittBriefly.com that the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle and the 2010 California Tuition Protests conformed to his understanding of non-violence. This is especially disturbing considering that the California protests, replete with the occupation of university buildings and the blocking of streets, culminated in an attack on the home of UC-Berkely Chancellor Robert Birgenau where students attempted to set fire to the residence.

Taken together with his involvement in an organization like Students for a Democratic Society, Lotorto’s past actions and public statements create the image of an ideology of “nonviolence” that, in order to publicize radical agendas, embraces actions ranging from the destruction of private property to preventing citizens the lawful use of public and private property like school buildings and roads.

Moving forward, Lotorto appears to be laying the groundwork for a campaign of “nonviolent direct action” that will prevent people engaged in the natural gas business from exercising their legal rights with the ultimate goal being to restrict their ability to earn a living in accordance with the law.

Emblematic of this campaign is a pamphlet entitled “How to Occupy Well Street.” Available on the website of Occupy Well Street – a group that lists Lotorto as “Coordinator for Upper Delaware Valley” — the pamphlet states, “People turn to direct action when other options appear closed or ineffective.” The pamphlet illustrates how a group could block access to a well pad and provides information on attracting media attention and planning for arrests.

A sign that Occupy Well Street would like to put the pamphlet’s tactics into action soon, the organization just hosted a workshop on “Anti-Fracking Direct Action.” Lotorto is also organizing an “Anti-Fracking Bail Fund” designed to:

“be used for bail when people fighting the use of hydraulic fracturing are arrested during a direct action at well sites, government officials’ offices, corporate offices, and to block natural gas industry infrastructure.”

Judging by the small group of RSVPs for direct action training (19) and the small amount of money in the Anti-Fracking Bail Fund ($115), Lotorto is attracting very little support for actually physically disrupting the drilling process. With this in mind, the greatest danger is that Lotorto and activists like him, through sheer histrionics (ex. Lotorto’s statement that, “If you think you’re going to drill, you’re going to have to hang me“), will be able to transform or dominate the debate over drilling.

What we must recognize is that the pivoting of Lotorto and activists like him toward disruptive or illegal conduct is a sign that they are losing the public debate over natural gas extraction. With this in mind, the most effective way to counter such grandstanding is to continue to have an honest discussion within our region regarding the pros and cons of natural gas extraction.

As the polls above demonstrate and the radicals like Lotorto fear, we’re reaching a pro-drilling consensus as people learn more about the industry and hydraulic fracturing. Such a consensus is the strongest possible rebuttal against those who believe that their ideology and fear empowers them to disrupt the lives and livelihoods of people in our region.

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Comments

  1. Benjamin Ketchum says:

    Alex is a great organizer within the movement. He is calling for tactics that have successfully been employed in movements such as women’s suffrage, civil rights, Indian independence and the more recent Arab spring. Non-violent direct action is as old as America itself (the Boston Tea Party).

    Those who oppose tracking in the Marcellus find themselves up against a multi-million dollar public relations campaign wage by high paid, professional marketing strategists. As a grassroots movement of concerned citizens, we must use the means at our disposal, which often means our bodies. We are simply following in a long line of proud, American protest. The industry’s attempts to villify us as extremists is a sign of their lack of acknowledgement as to the seriousness with which this issue resonates with the citizens of affected areas.

    Having been pointed out previously by EID myself, I can say Alex should treat this piece as a badge of honor. He has obviously gotten your attention!

  2. Alex Lotorto says:

    Giles, as part as a lengthy response to you, first, I’m not a “professional protester” and have never been paid to protest. I don’t personally know anyone who ever has except my opponents (some of whom write for this blog). I actually have had over a dozen hard labor jobs, two corporate internships, three jobs at call centers, gigs as a professional dinner and wedding pianist, and am currently a web designer, consultant, and home care provider for a sick family member.

    I’m 25 years old and, as I’m sure you’re also aware, since you seem to have an obsession with following my work, a vast majority of my time is spent working on local legislation, institutional divestment from the industry, in addition to a myriad of other ways working people can fight drilling from coming into their communities.

    You were present in Pittsburgh in 2010 when the city banned drilling, were you not? I introduced Ben Price of the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund to the Lincoln Place Action group and others that packed City Council meetings repeatedly with concerned citizens in an unprecedented exercise in democracy in recent SW PA history.

    I often praise property rights of landowners because my family has owned land in rural PA and before that, a farm in NJ, my entire life. However, as you may have studied in economics, externalities of industrial activities, with the classic example being pollution, is one major way that state involvement is required to create the disincentive for those externalities. In studying the industry, you can see that not only has PA DEP and the state’s oversight of this industry been totally inadequate as far as fines and frequency of inspections.

    By scanning the thousands of violations, specifically the environmental and safety violations, cited by PA DEP, you’ll quickly begin to see a pattern: well casing failures, spills, inadequate erosion and sediment controls, lack of blowout preventers, leaking valves. These are just many of the violations that occur at well sites.

    If you zoom out from just the well sites, you’ll see pipeline right of ways being constructed that require the dredging of streams in sensitive watersheds, blowouts of drilling mud used for “dry crossings”, more erosion control problems, and inadequate welds and inspections.

    If you consider the plastics industry that is about to descend upon the region due to the projected Shell Oil ethane cracker plant, you’ll see cancer rates above average in Charleston WV and “Cancer Valley” in Louisiana.

    If you consider the suppliers of the drilling, you’ll see Lafarge cement, a new member of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, burning tires to fire their cement kiln in Whitehall, PA just outside Allentown where I attended college. You’ll see chemical cars riding on train trestles that were built before the Civil War.

    If you consider the local economic impacts, traditional rural industries such as tourism and recreation (where my family derives our income), agriculture, real estate, and related industries are being displaced by the industry that ruins the reputation of our region as a great place to live, raise a family, and retire. After paying off mortgages for an entire adult lifetime with hard-earned wages, I have spoken to hundreds of people who are concerned that their house will be worth less after drilling nearby. It’s for those people that “direct action” is needed, which is historically precedented in Pennsylvania from Valley Forge to the Whiskey Rebellion to the Molly Maguires. However, I am NOT advocating the violent tactics pursued by the terrorist George Washington at Valley Forge. (sarcasm). I am training people how to do sit-ins. You can call that violent if you’d like, however, I get to call the University of Pittsburgh “Rutgers” from now on.

    I am not advocating violence. It’s actually very insensitive of you to write an article blasting the tactics of nonviolence the same weak we honor a great man with a federal holiday who supported labor strikes, disrupting diners by sitting at their all-white lunch counters, and marching in the streets (which of course impedes traffic). Students who were educated at MLK’s Freedom Schools DID participate in occupations of colleges and universities in pursuit of their civil rights. They even disrupted the Democratic National Convention that same year.

    As per your understanding of Seattle 1999, I recommend you watch the documentary “This is What Democracy Looks Like”. When I refer to those demonstrations, that’s representative of the nonviolent direct action I refer to: marches, sit-ins, blockades, and street theatre. Yes, some people broke windows in Seattle, but by most people’s definition, a pane of glass is not a living being. Glass can be broken, shattered, scratched, pierced, but it can’t have “violence” against it. “Violence” is a word reserved for living things. I have people explore this in my trainings, otherwise, putting a sticker on a light post, or sticking up a flyer with gunky tape, or tracking mud into a building, would be considered violence, because it clearly hurts the property. Is that included in your definition of “violence” as well?

    If you read Occupy ‘Well’ Street’s site, you’ll see nonviolence is all that’s advocated there. It’s actually pretty straightforward.

    As far as property rights go, a property owner has a right to develop their land to the boundary of their property line, including corporations that developed their land. However, they do not have a right to ruin the property values of their neighbors. Historically, zoning laws address this in Pennsylvania. Issues from burn barrels to septic tanks have been traditionally controlled by local governments. The gas industry, however, led by the likes of Senator Scarnati, who got whisked away to the Steelers Superbowl by CONSOL Energy last year, wants a special “permitted use” status for themselves in local townships as debated during the passage of SB 1100 recently, and a pre-emption of all local ordinances that currently restrict them.

    That, my friend, is an undermining of democratic rights of local communities and property owners who wish to exercise tighter controls than Harrisburg currently provides, up to and including banning drilling, water withdrawals, compressor stations, and wastewater storage altogether.

    What’s the answer to drilling? First, we have to preserve and enhance the rural heritage and traditional industries that we currently have by not allowing Marcellus development to continue. Second, we need to provide tax incentives to industries I’ll list off the top of my head, green construction, weatherization of homes, wind turbine manufacturing, wind turbine assembly, wind turbine installation, electric vehicles and components, solar panel manufacturing, solar panel assembly, solar panel installation, geo-thermal manufacturing, and geo-thermal installation. The first people who should be hired into those jobs should be the Pennsylvanians who took jobs with the gas industry, including many of my friends.

    To be honest, both public and private investors are the ones who are going to decide the fate of Pennsylvania. The decisions that they make regarding where they put their money will decide how many wells are drilled. In fact, colleges and universities have one of the biggest roles to play. In capitalism, investors are the kingmakers of corporations. That is why I educate pensioners, congregations, and students about the important factor of socially responsible investing. It’s in the tradition of the Global Sullivan Principles that fostered divestment from South African apartheid and the anti-nuclear divestment that has prevented the construction of new nuclear reactors for decades.

    Giles, I recall you’ve been an advocate of Native American and indigenous rights. You’ve written pieces rightfully criticizing the actions of Christopher Columbus and his genocide and slavery of indigenous people he encountered. As someone who grew up in an Italian household, I thank you, and I’ve used your articles to explain it to my family.

    I encourage you to take the same approach to the likes of Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake, who has little regard for the people of Pennsylvania who lived here long before drilling. Proud people who are my neighbors here in God’s Country, who hunt and fish these lands as their recreation and live a simple life. Many of these same people are the ones questioning the gas industry now. I am among them. From Wyalusing to Damascus, from Peters Township to Butler, people living among leased properties are attending local meetings at a never-before-seen rate. I’m proud to be a rural Pennsylvanian.

    -Alex

    P.S. http://www.owsstopfracking.org has been up in it’s current version for a total of two months and since I’m not a professional protester, as you can see, some of the links aren’t working yet because I haven’t had time to fix them. No I’m off to help my sick family member and buy groceries, you know, the devious tomato sauce and garlic I use to concoct my warlock’s brew. Muahahaha.

  3. Andrew Wagner says:

    If Giles Howard writes a blog on some corporation’s public relations site, you know you must be doing something right.

  4. A different Alex says:

    Interesting, the very fact that you even have to spend time trying to convince others that people opposing drilling are “radicals” must mean you’re worried. Otherwise, why take the time to write a page-long post about one specific person? And by the way, industry-influenced or industry-based “facts” aren’t necessarily in-tune with reality. After all, let’s not forget the industry stands to gain a sh**load of money if they can drill more…but who doesn’t love fat wallets huh? Good luck with your campaigns to brainwash the public into thinking drilling has more benefits than costs…unfortunately for you, reality is against you.

    • SideShowBob says:

      WOW….Moe, Larry & Curly…….3 USEFUL IDIOTS (“As a grassroots movement of concerned citizens, we must use the means at our disposal, which often means our bodies.”) for the “green” efforts of hypocrites and swindlers like the Kennedy Clan, George Soros, John, Patricia & Ramsey Adams, etc….and, Ben, we didn’t point you out, we exposed you for the buffoon you really are.

  5. Liam Swanson says:

    Ha! An article about how scary Alex is. When the right wingers suckling at the teat of industrial capital fail to come up with real arguments, they attack scary people… a sign of idiocy on your part, my corporate-whore friend.

    Of course, the Pitt Briefly article that skewered SDS, the Freedom School, Alex, and I was a poorly-written mashup of lies, misquotes, and fearmongering. This article is not much different.

    Yet, the right wing have the ability to mould reality to their image because they have money, time, and a 300 year long cultural hegemony over most of the world. Right wing libertarians like to say that supporting business helps individuals. Actually, it helps corporations and imperialist governments dominate the world and grow incredibly wealthy at the expense of the majority of the population. Our high living standards in the United States come on the backs of the exploited majority throughout the world. Our cheap shirts from Pakistani sweatshops. Our oil from dominated Middle Eastern countries. Our land stolen from the Indians we committed genocide against. Our wealth built upon African and Indian slavery. The list goes on and on, yet right wing libertarians like to point out the heroic entrepreneur as their model citizen.

    What a farce. I’m only 20 and I’m already tired of hearing it repeated again and again in textbooks, the media, presidents’ speeches, and idiotic psuedo-intellectual babble from folks like Giles Howard.

    - Sincerely,
    Liam Swanson

  6. yakatuus says:

    Hi, what a great biography of Alex Lotorto! You really put a lot of time and energy into providing such a great resource of information for protesting fracking in our community. Kudos! I have one quick question though. Your basic premise seems to be, “illegal conduct is a sign that they are losing the public debate” but you never really address this? I mean its pretty clear that Lotorto’s view is that fracking is dangerous and extremely harmful. If someone was poisoning the well water in your town, and they had the legal right to do so, what other recourse is there? You never address this point in your article.

    “Those who believe that their ideology and fear empowers them to disrupt the lives and livelihoods of people in our region.” This is quite the assumption, especially because you never justify or provide evidence of this. I mean is this article based on research, or investigation?

    Your whole article seems to suggest that the “pivoting of Lotorto” means something dangerous. Yet it also shows that he hasn’t pivoted from his positions throughout his activism.

    Now obviously, this is simply a hate piece for the sake of hate. But at least try to make a point or put forth an argument.

  7. I am the Bull says:

    Alex is my expungement

  8. Robert F. says:

    Glad to see EID puts so much faith in polls that they site 3 of them in this article.

    How about this one?

    “Seventy-two percent of voters polled said there should be a halt in hydraulic fracturing, or simply fracking, in Ohio until more was known about the impact of the process, Quinnipiac found. ”

    http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/01/19/us-energy-fracking-ohio-idUSTRE80I2HF20120119

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