Protesters Dressed as Zombies March Against Coal in Oakland

"If we just keep showing up, I think we’ll be hard to ignore"

Nearly 100 protesters, some with zombie masks and others donning face paint, gathered in front of a prominent Oakland developer's house on Monday evening to oppose coal transport in their city.

The anti-coal activists are pushing back against Phil Tagami’s plans to transport coal through a terminal his company is building at the former Oakland Army Base, located on the waterfront. 

“I’m outraged at Tagami,” said Thorild Urdal, an East Bay nurse. “The people have spoken, and we said we don’t want coal in Oakland. It’s dangerous to our health and to our environment.” 

The protesters assembled at 5 p.m. on the sidewalk outside Tagami’s house, where they played coal-themed carnival games — including Pin the Coal Underground, a remix of the popular Pin the Tail on the Donkey — and danced to a loud drumbeat provided by local high school students. Oakland police officers watched the demonstration nearby. 

Michael Kauffman, an organizer with No Coal in Oakland, said the zombie theme served dual purposes: it represented the harmful effects of coal and other fossil fuels, while also allowing young protesters to dress up on the eve of Halloween.

“We’re all No Coal in Oakland zombies today,” said Kauffman, whose face was covered in gray paint. 

Tagami did not emerge during the demonstration, although some of his neighbors briefly watched from their doorways. The music and chanting could be heard from several blocks away and lasted for about an hour. 

As the owner of Oakland Bulk and Oversized Terminal, Tagami is behind the revitalization of the Fox Theatre and the Rotunda Building. He is currently suing the city of Oakland over its recent ban on the storage, handling, and shipment of coal, a lawsuit that the protesters want him to drop. 

The City Council in June enacted the ban as a direct response to the developer’s $250 million project. Tagami, who could not be reached for comment, alleged in the suit that the ordinance violated a pre-existing contract he has with Oakland.

“Coal and petcoke provide a substantial amount of this nation’s energy needs,” Tagami’s attorneys argue in the suit, calling the ban's benefits “illusory." 

Still, city officials maintain that the coal ban is necessary to protect public health and the environment. In addition to coal’s effect on climate change, dust from the ore has been shown to cause respiratory illnesses, they said.

Alameda County has the third highest hospitalization rates for asthma-related ailments out of all counties in California, according to the region’s health department.

About 25 percent of children aged five to 17 in West Oakland have asthma. That's the same area that activists fear would be hardest hit if Tagami’s plans for the terminal are given the green light by a federal judge. 

The protest also comes as President Donald Trump's administration rolls back Obama-era efforts to focus on clean power and energy. A major talking point of the blustery business mogul's 2016 campaign was the revitalization of coal country, a pledge he has vowed to keep.

Flanked by Kentucky miners, Environment Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt in March announced that “the war on coal is over." 

That message was not lost on the anti-coal protesters in Oakland.

“We need influential people in our city — like Tagami — to take a stand when our environment is under attack by the federal government, not try to bring more coal in,” Michelle Sanchez opined. “I don’t think it’s going to happen, but it’d be nice.” 

Although Tagami did not make an appearance at the protest, activists said they think their message will be heard. If not, they are fully prepared to return, with or without the Zombie garb. 

“We may have to show up again,” said protester Linda Curry. “Maybe Thanksgiving, or Christmas. If we just keep showing up, I think we’ll be hard to ignore.”

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