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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