The Harris Ranch fire swept west out of Potrero this week, and in doing so, it isolated nearly 300 people who did not evacuate the area beforehand. This includes many immigrant families who never received a notice to evacuate. Now, many of the remaining Potrero families are still without electricity, while water and other supplies are running low. Some have backup generators, but fuel levels are dropping. Five of the deaths attributed to the fires were in or around Potrero.
Potrero, that distant rural community about an hour’s drive from the coast, has seen different kind of sparks of late before the Santa Ana winds brought more. The community has been in conflict ever since Blackwater proposed building a training facility out in a valley just north of the community. The company wants to build a training center for military and law enforcement personnel on a 800 acre chicken and cattle ranch. Initially, the Potrero Planning Board voted for it, and now those members who voted for the project face a re-call vote scheduled for December.
Blackwater is the controversial security company that has found itself under the glare of the klieg lights lately as its actions in Iraq have come under public and Congressional scrutiny. Its hired gunners have been accused of killing Iraqi civilians without cause in mid-September, and in other incidents. Blackwater employees guard State Department diplomats in Iraq and elsewhere.
BLACKWATER OPPONENTS MOBILIZED TO OPPOSE TRAINING CAMP
Several weeks ago, over the weekend of October 6 and 7, hundreds of Blackwater opponents mobilized against the proposed camp. Locals joined with environmentalists and peace activists in a series of encampments, rallies and a march up to Blackwater’s property. On Sunday, Oct. 7, approximately 300 people rallied to hear speakers who universally condemned the camp and its sponsor on environmental, moral, and policy grounds — including Rep. Bob Filner. The crowd then marched the one mile to the locked gate, staffed by Blackwater personnel. Opponents of the camp describe Blackwater as a war-profiteer and call the facility a training camp for mercenaries. Blackwater, of course, bristles at the description.
Despite the fires, and despite the fact that Blackwater personnel delivered food and other supplies to burned-out residents, many of those residents still oppose Blackwater’s plans. Jan Hedlun, a planning board member and Blackwater opponent told press she still opposes them. Hedlun, whose property was left looking like a moonscape from the fire, said the proposed facility would pose increased fire risks. “It only took one spark,” she said, to set this fire off. Although she is grateful for the relief that Blackwater brought, she is not deterred from her stance. “We’re in survival mode now. We’ll get back to the political arena later,” she stated.
Brian Bonfiglio, project manager for the Blackwater facility is also undeterred by the fires or the opposition. The fires reportedly came within a quarter mile of the property where he wants to build the training site, but because it consists of grassland without trees, it did not burn. Bonfiglio claimed his company remains on track to build the facility, which would be called Blackwater West Coast.
Over on the East Coast, on Friday, October 26, Senator John Kerry called for expanded investigations into Blackwater’s alleged tax evasion. This stems from Blackwater’s practice of misclassifying its workers as independent contractors and not employees, which has allowed the company apparently to avoid paying millions of dollars in taxes. Pressure has been building on Secretary of State Condy Rice for her failure to adequately monitor the company and its multi-million dollar contracts with her department. The disclosure of what Blackwater has gotten away with is still reverberating through the halls of government.
MEANWHILE, RELIEF EFFORTS FOR POTRERO RESIDENTS ARE FRUSTRATED BY LAW ENFORCEMENT
Efforts at fire relief by volunteers in getting supplies to some of the migrant and other families in the Potrero area were frustrated over the week by law enforcement officers. Volunteers from the Chicano Park collection efforts were reportedly blocked by Sheriff’s deputies as they attempted to deliver food and supplies to trapped people. One deputy at a road blockade supposedly said, “Why do you want to go into Potrero? There’s nothing but drug dealers there.” Finally, under escort by fire fighters, the volunteers were able to get in. Observers claim that, in contrast, Blackwater was allowed easy access when it made its three deliveries of food and generator fuel to residents.
Despite the ease with which Blackwater was able to make its deliveries, it will not be easy for them to build their training facility. There is a substantial array of forces opposed to them here, a coalition of locals and activists across the county and state; their actions in Iraq have given them an exposure on the national and international levels that will be very difficult for them to overcome. What all of this should amount to was summed up in one woman demonstator’s sign out at the Potrero rally, which stated, simply, “enough!”