The Night the Lights Went Out

In the middle of February, while most people are dialing their thermostats up to the max, microwaving multiple cups of hot chocolate and huddling around their television sets, a few dedicated Chicagoans will give up electricity in order to draw attention to the electricity shortage in Iraq. These folks really mean it: Their electricity fast, "Lights Out Chicago," starts Feb. 15 and will last to March 20. They seek to experience some of the hardships and confront the difficulties that Iraqis are experiencing since their power has been cut short.

"My hopes for this fast are simply that many conversations will be sparked, and that people will stop and think for a moment about how their actions affect such crucial elements of Iraqis' daily life," said Laura Gardiner, one of the fast's organizers. "When I tell friends, family and acquaintances that I will be participating in an electricity fast, they are often dumbfounded as to how that is possible. This is exactly the response that I hope to challenge; to show others that what we see as difficult or nearly impossible is the reality for many people."

The electricity fast forms a part of the Winter of Our Discontent, a 33-day food fast taking place in Washington, D.C., organized by the Chicago-based group Voices for Creative Nonviolence (VCNV). The fasters will call for an end to the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq, reparations for the damage done by the war, and full funding for the reconstruction of Iraq, among other demands, according to Jeff Leys, one of the action's coordinators. In addition to fasting, VCNV activists will participate in civil disobedience and nonviolent resistance at the Pentagon, the White House, the Capitol and the World Bank, with quite a few risking arrest.

"Through creative actions, both the Winter of Our Discontent and Lights Out Chicago will press for the payment of war reparations by the U.S. to Iraq, for the damage inflicted by the past 15 years of economic and military warfare," said Joel Gulledge, an organizer with VCNV who will participate in both fasts.

As the Voices crowd abstains from food to call attention to the widespread hunger in Iraq, Gardiner and her co-organizers hope that Lights Out Chicago will provide the American public with a glimpse of the grim physical realities caused by Iraq's electricity shortage, which the Bush administration has no plans to alleviate.

Electricity shortages have increased dramatically since the 2003 invasion of Iraq, which critically damaged at least four power plants. The closure of a major oil refinery this past December has caused conditions to deteriorate further. Before the war, Baghdad residents had access to electricity 24 hours a day, while most rural areas followed a consistent schedule of four hours with electricity, then four hours without, says Gardiner. Today, according to IRIN, a U.N. humanitarian news service, people in Baghdad have power for less than eight hours a day. Moreover, access is fickle; Iraqis don't know when electricity will come on or shut off. In 14-degree Fahrenheit weather, that unpredictability is no small matter.

U.S. officials originally decided to build Iraq's new electricity plan on a foundation of natural gas, installing gas generators in many Iraqi power plants. However, according to a December report in the Los Angeles Times, the pipelines to transport that gas power were never built.

The United States has made clear that filling the electricity gap is not a priority. Of the 425 projects originally planned to improve Iraq's power situation, only 300 will be completed, according to a report in late January by the office of the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction.

"Even though it may seem like there have been gains in Iraq's power supply, those gains are not reliable," Gardiner said. She noted that many hospitals cannot function for lack of the electricity needed to power essential equipment.

The month of Lights Out Chicago will include several workshops to encourage those not participating in the fast to try out the electricity-free lifestyle in smaller doses. Mehmet Ak, chef and proprietor of the Chicago raw-food restaurant, Cousins Incredible Vitality, will lead a workshop on cooking sans electricity. Gardiner, Gulledge and others will also host a series of community-building get-togethers featuring electricity-free activities for fasters and non-fasters alike.

"I hope that both those who choose to abstain from electricity and others who find out about our project can't help but empathize with the millions of ordinary people in Iraq who are unable to rely on electricity," Gulledge said. "I also hope that people living in Iraq will learn of what we are doing, and know that the problems they face aren't going completely unnoticed."

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