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A Conversation With Eco-Outlaw Diane Wilson

(Photo: ACMEBoston / Flickr)

Renegade activist and Texas shrimper Diane Wilson was arrested in London on April 14, 2011, while protesting outside BP's annual meeting. Wilson, who successfully fought Formosa Plastics to keep them from dumping toxins in the bay near her home and chained herself to an oxide tower to protest Dow Chemical's refusal to take responsibility for Bhopal, was attempting to enter the meeting and present BP directors with a Black Planet Award (begun in 2006 by a grassroots group in Germany to call attention to the world's worst polluters) when she was taken into custody. Wilson is the author of “An Unreasonable Woman” and “Holy Roller.” Her latest book, “Diary of an Eco-Outlaw: An Unreasonable Woman Breaks the Law for Mother Earth,” is available now from Chelsea Green.

Wilson recently spoke with Chelsea Green's editorial director, Joni Praded, about her latest book.

What moved you from a quiet life shrimping on your Texas bay to the life of an activist?

I read an Associated Press story about my county being number one toxic polluter in the nation in l989. That information was too horrendous for me to ignore, so I simply called a meeting, and it snowballed for the next 20 years.

Your new book, “Diary of an Eco-Outlaw,” picks up where your first book, “An Unreasonable Woman,” left off. Back then, you were fighting Formosa Plastics, trying to keep them from discharging waste into your bay, and you had stripped the engine out of your boat, painted it white, and sunk it over their plant's discharge pipe. How did that become a turning point for you?

Che Guevara said, “Boldness has magic.” And what happened after that boat sinking can only be termed “magical,” because, even though I wasn't expecting anything, I not only got the support of the apathetic fishermen – they hadn't yet joined me in trying to keep polluters from discharging waste into the bay and thought I was crazy for trying – but I also got zero discharge agreements from two giant multinational corporations, Formosa Plastics and [aluminum producer] Alcoa. I had been told zero discharge was impossible, but I found that by risking all, the impossible was possible.

You've since taken on Union Carbide and even tried to make a citizen's arrest of Warren Anderson, the company's CEO. Can you tell us what motivated that?

I was struck by the fact that there were many, many people in jail for insignificant reasons – traffic tickets, forged checks, library fines, etcetera – yet Warren Anderson, who was responsible for over 20,000 deaths from the Bhopal disaster and had a warrant for his arrest in India, was seemingly untouchable. No one was doing anything about that outstanding warrant because he was part of the wealthy corporate Union Carbide/Dow empire. And for no other reason. And it was wrong. And it seemed especially wrong after I went to India and saw the results of the tragedy firsthand.

When you tried to track down Warren Anderson, you were actually on the lam. What gives you the courage to do what you feel is right even when more cautious voices advise otherwise?

I am inner directed, and having integrity on how I live my life is critical. I knew tracking down Anderson was the right thing to do, so I had to do it. Warren evaded my citizen's arrest, but that didn't mean it wasn't the right action to do. I know there are many activists out there who only want to do an action if they can get a guarantee that it will succeed, but not me. To me, it's important that I try. The only thing that can stop me from what I believe to be my true path is if I have flat-zero energy. And I have a lot of energy.

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It seems like your activism started with environmentalism, moved on to human rights as you began to try to help sick workers at various chemical plants and victims of the Bhopal disaster, and now includes, as a cofounder of CodePink, world peace. That's quite a progression. Do you see the world differently now that you're trying to battle injustice on so many different levels?

I have always seen life as the big picture, but when I was younger, I thought the whole story was Seadrift, Texas, where I lived. I literally did not believe anything existed outside Seadrift's city limits. I thought the world ended there. I still see the big picture, but now the big picture has no boundaries, no borders and stretches out into the cosmos. And I don't think this, I feel it intuitively. And I wouldn't say how I've acted is a progression; I'd say it's water flowing down a hill. There's no way to stop it.

You've been moved to conduct several hunger strikes, and you've been jailed for civil disobedience more than 50 times. Your book is surprisingly humorous and extremely upbeat for all the very serious territory it covers. What keeps you so positively focused even when you've seen the worst?

I'm cursed with enthusiasm. And spontaneity. So, when I see something bad, I see that as an invitation to make it better. For example, being jailed all those times and for such lengths of time in some of the worst jails in the country, didn't depress me – it gave me ideas on how to fight it and change the way things are done. That's how Texas Jail Project got started. It wouldn't have happened unless I had been jailed. For instance, now, instead of just listening to horrendous stories of women in jail going into labor while shackled and tied to their beds, we try to do something about it. During the last Texas legislative session, Texas Jail Project helped make shackling of all pregnant women inmates, whether in prison or county jail, illegal. So, I believe things happen for a reason.

You mention that you follow your gut when you plan an action – and sometimes even surprise yourself. What's the most surprising action you've taken so far?

Taking over a TV station in Baghdad. Hey, we weren't even supposed to be in Baghdad. It was illegal for US citizens to be in Iraq before the invasion in 2002. But there we were. I was with an early, early version of CodePink, and we were there to give support for United Nations inspections, none for invasion – and also to let the people of Iraq know that all American citizens didn't support an armed invasion into their country. There were a million news sources in Baghdad – foreign, local and American – and we were really getting tired of a particular American TV station broadcasting cheerful words for invasion. So, we decided to take over the TV station. And we did. I was amazed that we did the action, and even more amazed that we succeeded.

Another surprising action was going nude in front of BP's corporate headquarters in Houston over the oil spill in the Gulf. I'm extremely shy, and as a child, I would hide under the table if I heard words like “pregnant” (in those days, they called it “PG”) or “bra.” A guy asked me out for a date once – and I hid under the bed. I refused to come out. Yet, here I was in the middle of Houston heat and traffic, in the nude. Well, I had a sandwich sign – front and back – but in between … I amazed myself.

You're a hero to so many prominent environmentalists and peace advocates, but you're humble to the core.

Why, thank you very much … but, my daddy always, always said, “Do not blow your own horn.” Also, I was very, very shy and lacked confidence in my early years of activism, so I really didn't think I was doing anything that great. And besides, there were lots of folks out there telling me I was pretty stupid. I only got praised when I got out of Texas. And I'm always totally blown away by it. For example, my mother still does not believe that people like what I do. She thinks I'm making it all up.

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