(St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee members and civil rights activist Percy Green at St. Louis City Hall, protesting Veolia’s involvement in apartheid and segregation in Palestine. Photo: St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee)
On January 16, 2013 at City Hall in St. Louis, Missouri, a diverse group of 60 Palestinian rights organizers; environmental activists; workers; civil rights leaders; veterans; local business owners; students; members of the local Muslim, Christian, and Jewish communities; and other concerned citizens packed a meeting of the St. Louis Board of Estimate & Apportionment (E&A) to show opposition to a proposed city contract with Veolia Water. Two mayoral candidates on the 3-person board, which considers public contracts, took opposite sides over the contract, prompting the third member to call for a public hearing for testimonies from local citizens regarding Veolia.
Contract opponents lined the halls leading to the mayor’s office, citing Veolia’s abysmal record of poor environmental standards, labor abuses and involvement in human rights abuses in Palestine. Each held a sign stating “Say No to Veolia” followed by their personal reasons, which included: “I can’t ride their buses because I am Palestinian,” “I think all people deserve equal treatment,” “My tax dollars are not for corporate profit,” “They don’t have to drink our water,” “I love coffee.” The mayor’s office had to change the meeting venue at the last minute to accommodate the large public turnout. [Click here for photos.]
The St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC) learned of the proposed $250,000 Veolia contract for a four-month consultation for the St. Louis Water Division in December 2012 after the story was leaked to the Riverfront Times. When the contract came up for approval, PSC organized in less than 24 hours a grassroots effort to tell the E&A Board, which is comprised of St. Louis City Mayor Francis Slay, Comptroller Darlene Green and President of the Board of Aldermen Lewis Reed (running for mayor against Slay), not to approve the contract without investigating Veolia’s record. At the December 19, 2012 meeting of the Board, the Board agreed they could not in good conscience vote to approve a contract with so many allegations outstanding.
Immediately, the PSC reached out to diverse communities to join the fight against Veolia, all under the coalition St. Louis Dump Veolia.
The contract was reintroduced last-minute to the January agenda by Mayor Slay, the contract’s chief proponent. Slay had received a trophy and award check for $15,000 from the President of Veolia Water in 2007, on behalf of the City. Following mass mobilization by the coalition, Mayor Slay decided one day before the January meeting to remove the contract from the agenda, delaying the vote for a second month.
In the presence of an uncharacteristically large audience and media presence, the two mayoral candidates Slay and Reed came head-to-head in tense disputes regarding agenda items, transforming the meeting into what some coined an “ad-hoc mayoral debate.” President Reed ended by praising the public showing and affirming his opposition to the Veolia contract, while Slay stressed that the public had misconceptions about the company.
Comptroller Green, who holds the deciding vote, said she hoped the public’s voices could be heard and asked for a public hearing. The PSC delivered and posted letters to Comptroller Green asking her to reject Veolia from the Palestinian Freedom Riders, Boycott from Within and the Civic Coalition for Palestinian Rights in Jerusalem.
Veolia has been a major focus of the global Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian freedom and equality. The St. Louis campaign against Veolia may be the first time that a BDS campaign has entered mainstream political discourse and, perhaps, a mayoral race. Media coverage in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the Riverfront Times and St. Louis Public Radio acknowledge that Veolia’s contracts in Israel/Palestine have been instrumental in bringing the controversy out in the open.
The nationwide We Divest campaign targets Veolia for divestment from the holdings of financial services giant, TIAA-CREF. St. Louis-area resident and PSC member, Steve Tamari, is the lead filer for a nationwide, broad-based shareholders’ resolution calling for divestment from Veolia and other companies that profit from Israel’s human rights abuses. Individuals holding a CREF account are encouraged to sign on to the shareholders’ resolution and to vote in support of the resolution before or at the July 2013 annual meeting.
St. Louis Dump Veolia is committed to keeping up the pressure on City Hall until the Veolia contract is rejected once and for all. The PSC will be mobilizing residents to testify at the hearing, putting the Israeli occupation, and its corporate enablers, on trial for all to see.
The next E&A meeting will occur on Wednesday, February 20 at 2pm in St. Louis City Hall.