A year ago BP began filling the Gulf of Mexico with oil.
Last week BP blocked a woman from entering its annual meeting.
Which will prove the bigger mistake?
BP may have chosen the right country to hit with the worst oil disaster in world history. If there's any population that will take seeing its land and water destroyed for corporate profit lying down, it's got to be us. We're split between gratitude and indifference: should we thank BP or just stay out of its way?
BP may have chosen the right government to kick in the teeth. BP agreed to a $20 billion settlement that falls very far short of the damage. A year later, the U.S. Department of Justice is pretending to consider the possibility of charging BP with manslaughter for the deaths of 11 men in the explosion that started the gusher. Such a step wouldn't scrape the surface of the death and destruction BP has created, but it would constitute such a radical reversal of President Obama's doctrine of immunity for corporate crime that nobody really thinks it's likely.
But BP (which stands for Belching Petroleum) has made one wrong move. BP has pissed off Diane Wilson.
To understand why this blunder could prove fatal, read Wilson's newly published “Diary of an Eco-Outlaw: An Unreasonable Woman Breaks the Law for Mother Earth.” This is an hilariously entertaining book of an almost impossible sort.
For years I've met fulltime hardcore activists full of powerful and colorful stories that I thought I knew would die with them. Most people are tragically and frustratingly allergic to writing anything down. Wilson is an all-out activist, a Gulf Coast shrimper turned civil resister who has made herself a major thorn in the side of several multinational corporations. She's part Forest Gump, part Erin Brokovich, part Daniel Berrigan, and she has put her stories down on paper. Her book is a guide to becoming a one-person justice movement.
Wilson has not only lived as a shrimper who experienced the arrival of the polluting chemical companies that would kill off the shrimp, but she has put that experience into context — and I mean context:
“I'll admit right up front that I'm soft and foolish about the fishermen so I imagine now that our inability to see our own end back then was like that first Indian who saw the first Spanish ship. At first, he couldn't see the ship. There was nothing in his life or the land where he lived that allowed him to imagine — let alone see — a Spanish galleon. But he could tell that the water moved different. So he did something that, probably, his granddaddy or daddy taught him. Or maybe it was his momma that taught him to watch the water carefully. So he saw how the water swirled and how the light hit the water with a charcoal blackness that he only saw at night. But it wasn't night. It was broad daylight. Then he saw the ship! It probably took two days for that Indian to see the heavy bobbing ship that was fixing to change his life forever. Fishermen aren't nearly as quick so it took us forty years to see the pipes and cement and metal towers and tanks and flares and fences and chemicals of every description that were coloring the very air we breathed. And, I say with every ounce of kindness that I possess because I love the fishermen, we were fools.”
So a woman who had struggled to become a shrimper in a man's world became an activist, a resister, a hunger-striker, and an aid to whistleblowers, not to mention an author. Wilson very rapidly developed into the kind of activist who will act immediately upon the wildest idea available. When Union Carbide / Dow was poisoning her corner of Texas, while shortchanging the victims of a disaster the company had caused in India, Wilson scaled a fence, climbed a tower, dropped a banner, and chained herself up. Wilson declared herself an unreasonable woman and announced the need for more of the same. Inevitably, she was involved in launching one of my favorite peace groups, CodePink.
One of Wilson's more entertaining stories involves her sneaking into a fundraiser to protest then-Vice President Dick Cheney. Another is when she decides to sink her boat on top of an illegal discharge pipe, the Coast Guard tries to stop her, and a surprising ally takes her side.
Wilson's book is part of her activism, exposing the crimes and lies of the corporations she has protested. Her repeated willingness to risk jail leads to some of the best whistleblowing in the book, as she describes the horrors of the Texas penal system:
“Shandra was six months pregnant at the time and her police file clearly stated that she was not to be picked up until after her delivery because Shandra had a rare uterine condition that was very problematic, especially in a jail cell. That mattered not a whit to the sheriff's department. The sheriff was running a reelection campaign and outstanding warrants didn't look good on the campaign trail so in the cell Shandra went. When Shandra started bleeding the guards said she was just trying to get out of jail or she just wanted drugs. Shandra had to 'prove' she was bleeding to the guard with a bloody pad. When her water broke and she went into labor in earnest, the nurse who answered the intercom button on the jailhouse wall (a button the inmates were told never to press) said Shandra was hallucinating and trying to get drugs so they guessed Shandra needed to go into isolation to learn her lesson — and stop bothering the guards. Shandra put up a fuss and the guard said Shandra was going the 'hard way or the easy way' and threatened to use the Taser gun on her. Fortunately an alarmed guard (yes, there are some) convinced Shandra to go into isolation, but once there, the baby started coming feetfirst. A breech birth. With a baby dangling to her knees, Shandra crawled sixty feet to a call button, pressed three times, and yelled that she was in labor. When the guards and nurse finally arrived, they rushed her to the hospital, but her baby died en route in the ambulance.”
The stories Wilson tells about Union Carbide and Dow and Formosa and BP are worse, far worse. The actions she takes to counter their crimes include single-handedly filling in for the government agencies — notably the EPA — that are supposed to enforce laws. Wilson generates media coverage of abuses, educates the public, attempts citizens arrests, and afflicts the comfortable when she can't comfort the afflicted. After organizing a CodePink naked women's protest of BP in Houston, she greeted one of its bought-off senators, Lisa Murkowski, in a Congressional hearing by pouring oil-looking syrup all over herself and denouncing BP's destruction of the Gulf. Then Wilson managed to get back in, to another hearing the same week, to protest BP's then-CEO Tony Hayward with black paint all over her.
As Wilson demanded Hayward's arrest through the microphone of world media (and the end of his work running BP would be announced the next day, his departure from the company a month later), Wilson herself was the outlaw under our system of so-called justice. She faced criminal charges in Texas from which she was fleeing, and now in Washington, D.C., as well, but hopped a plane to Taiwan where she would present a Black Planet Award (for destroying part of the planet) to Formosa Plastics, the biggest corporation in Taiwan. The headlines all celebrated “The Woman Who Fights Formosa.”
The last line of Wilson's book is “Now — where's that Tony Hayward?”
She found him (or his company) last week, with another Black Planet Award, and despite being kept out of BP's shareholders' meeting, helped generate stories around the world about the oil that is still killing the Gulf of Mexico where once upon a time a woman could make a living with a shrimp boat.
The U.S. Justice Department, by the way, is interested in whether you think BP should be subject to the rule of law. Tell them: [email protected]