A small group of activists gathered closely together on Flagstaff Hill in Schenley Park in Oakland on Friday evening and lit candles in recognition of those whose lives have been upended by a toxic train derailment in nearby East Palestine, Ohio.
Darkness had settled over the park, and a quiet, somber mood prevailed — until a dozen people gathered around a balloon-festooned picnic table 50 feet away began singing “Happy Birthday” to a friend. Their voices and subsequent laughter served as an ironic audio backdrop to the activists’ more serious ceremony.
And it was a reminder of a simple fact: In the weeks and months after a disaster, most of the outside world forgets all the stories of loss and despair and moves on to the next life event, the next big news.
This is what brought seven activists from distant cities — Harrisburg, Chicago, St. Louis, Boston — to Pittsburgh this past week. They came to offer some relief to East Palestine residents still awaiting a return to normalcy after several Norfolk Southern rail cars carrying toxic chemicals jumped the tracks in early February.
“It’s not a story that’s talked about anymore,” said Andrew Dwyer of Boston. “As the news cycle progresses, it falls off the radar. We want the communities to know we’re paying attention.”
Dwyer and the other activists spent much of Friday buying bottled water, groceries and other supplies and distributing them to residents affected by the derailment. They planned to return to the East Palestine area Saturday for a rally in nearby Lisbon, Ohio.
“We’re here because we’re pissed,” said Joy Marie Mann of Harrisburg. “We’re sad but we’re pissed.”
Mann has interviewed a number of East Palestine residents for her video podcast, “Savage Joy,” and she’s been at once moved and disturbed by what she has heard.
“It’s really hard to hear their stories,” she said.
Some people in East Palestine continue to live in hotels because they fear their homes and communities are contaminated by toxins released by the damaged rail cars. “They come on my show crying, saying nobody cares about them. They don’t want to get out of bed in the morning, they have no hope for the future,” Mann said.
“These people have a median income of $27,000 per year per family. This is poverty level, and they’re being told the homes that have been in their family for generations are going to be demolished. They’re living in hotels, they are bathing with bottled water. And they’re being told they are too demanding when they go to city council meetings.”
Political leaders have done little to help, noted Zach Schimel, 18, a recent high school graduate who traveled from Chicago with his mother, Jackie. Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine’s request, made more than two weeks ago, that President Joe Biden issue a Major Disaster Declaration in East Palestine languishes on Biden’s desk. The declaration would guarantee federal aid.
“Look where our leaders were at the time this tragedy happened,” Zach Schimel said. “I believe it was around this time that President Biden took a trip to Kyiv to meet with President [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy of Ukraine to discuss further funding of the war with Russia. Donald Trump came to East Palestine and took a photo op in McDonald’s. It shows you the state of politics in this country. Leaders of the two mainstream parties are not interested in improving the lives of mainstream people. They care about their donors.”
The East Palestine residents who have been standing up and demanding accountability did not expect to become activists, Mann said. It was a role thrust upon them in February. “It’s beautiful that they’ve come together in such solidarity,” Mann said. “But it’s infuriating that they’ve had to help themselves because no one else has.”
The seven people — in addition to Dwyer, Mann and the Schimels, they included Pittsburghers Jenna Kolby and Johann Guldenschuh, and Lauren Filla of St. Louis — met through past activism. They were joined by Beth Schongar of the Pennsylvania Green Party.
Before lighting candles, they unfurled a banner decrying Norfolk Southern’s treatment of East Palestine residents and made brief speeches into a megaphone. A few people walking through the park and enjoying the evening stopped to listen.
One was a 25-year-old man from Lawrenceville. Afterward, he hung around to ask the activists a few questions.
“I’m always interested in people who do things rather than just say things,” he said.