Yes for Ecuador! Or, Confessions of a Fired Chevron Contractor

A resounding cheer for the US appeals court that ruled on September 19, 2011, that Chevron cannot escape an $18 billion fine on behalf of Amazonian residents for the corporation's massive pollution of the rain forest. Needless to say, Chevron will appeal the decision; it has been doing so for 18 years. If it manages to crawl out from under this fine, it will not be for lack of effort by activists who keep the spotlight on Chevron for this and other practices that damage the environment and the communities that depend on it.

I was a Chevron subcontractor during George W. Bush's second term, and there were many mornings I'd honk and wave to friends as I drove to work while they protested corporate polices at the gates of Chevron's headquarters in San Ramon, California.

My first day on the job coincided with Bush's re-election. It was impossible to miss the expressions of corporate jubilation in the hallways, break rooms and offices that day; someone wrote “WAR” and drew a smiley face on the whiteboard in my office, too.

Over two years, I successfully implemented a global web site located in a building east of Chevron headquarters. My job performance was good enough that, on completion of that project, I was offered another in corporate headquarters – one floor below then-CEO David O'Reilly, where I rubbed elbows with Chevron's corporate publicists and marketing mavens.

One of my first responsibilities was to put a “lighter, brighter face” on the public web site Chevron devotes to explaining its side of the Ecuador story. My foreboding about my new role was matched by that then-dark and dreary site, which was branded with Texaco's black and red palette. Moreover, it was populated with self-serving legal rhetoric about why Chevron was blameless in the horrors that oil spills and lax environmental controls visited upon Ecuador's forests and on its people.

It was difficult to pretend to enjoy my work or that I had much in common with my colleagues. As a lifelong social justice activist, I was aware of corporate malfeasance around the globe, and I was not good at keeping my emotions hidden. Moreover, my only son was serving in the US Army – to my mind, the element used to project US might in foreign lands and safeguard oil fields for corporations like Chevron. (Eventually, my son was honorably discharged after serving one tour of duty in Afghanistan and two in Iraq.)

I was fired within three months. Had I been a true believer, I'd have fired someone with my attitude, too. For example, meeting with the marketing team in 2006 about Chevron's strategy to beat Proposition 87 – the Clean Alternative Energy Act – I quipped that Chevron should create a marketing campaign to promote a new gas standard: instead of miles to the gallon, I suggested, the standard should use number of dead Iraqis to the gallon. (Chevron contributed over $34 million to “No on 87” – and won: that Clean Alternative Energy Act failed.)

My experiences convinced me that corporations like Chevron act like cults. There's the isolation: believers do not mix with nonbelievers; isolation ensures believers do not doubt or question the corporate mission or the corporation's role in their lives.

For days before protesters would arrive at Chevron's gate for a permitted protest, employees and contractors would be sent emails decrying the action, warning about traffic congestion and frustrations, and offering assurances about personal safety, which implied protesters were intrinsically violent people. (Actually, the majority of left activist groups espouse and practice nonviolence as a matter of course.)

Corporations pay (or donate?) decent salaries that allow members to entertain themselves shopping, consuming and keeping up with the Joneses. The threat of being cut off from the corporate tit is terrifying, and employees obey and believe the corporate messaging – in Chevron's case, the concept of “Human Energy” – even when faced with conflicting evidence.

In 2005, the ChevronToxico Campaign for Justice in Ecuador somehow convinced the management of Mudd's Restaurant, right across the street from Chevron Headquarters, to exhibit “Crude Reflections: ChevronTexaco's Rainforest Legacy.” This series of 50 photographs documented the human and environmental impact of what experts believe is the worst oil-related environmental disaster on the planet. Few, if any, Chevron employees attended.

Who Is Supa Strika?

I have never hidden from my activist friends that I contracted with Chevron – or any corporation. Indeed, I believe that those of us who espouse “left” ideologies ought to work in corporations at least once. Then, when we challenge corporations' activities around the globe, we also understand how the mindset operates at home, how employees' minds are colonized by fear: fear of losing their jobs, fear of knowing, and fear of speaking the truth in meetings. Fear keeps publicists and marketing mavens churning out campaign messages that white- or green-wash corporate misdeeds too.

I chose Supa Strika as my pseudonym partly because I am fearful: publicly criticizing the corporate hand that feeds does not put bread on my table. (I've been underemployed for more than two years as it is!)

Additionally, Supa Strika is a wildly popular comic series in Africa, South America and Asia Pacific that features a fictional soccer team – all brown-skinned – that sports Chevron's Caltex- and Texaco-branded jerseys. I grew up in South Africa, so I know that the vast majority of soccer-crazy South African children cannot afford real soccer balls; they improvise by stuffing plastic bags that litter the streets into other plastic bags until they form something hard enough to kick. Instead of Caltex and Texaco jerseys, they wear rags.

Ironically, Supa Strika editions originate in the very Chevron headquarters office in which I worked, where employees churn out and distribute thousands of these colorful and well-executed comics to hoodwink children. Indeed, Chevron has taken global sponsorships to a whole new level with an innovative animated version of Supa Strika for television. Chevron reports that this “extends beyond traditional sports sponsorship and results in significant brand recognition.”

But activists can, and do, fight back. We expose these companies' internal workings and understand what keeps employees enthralled; then we support decisions like that of the recent appeals court.

What's our message? Corporations like Chevron might hide for 18 years or more, but they will not escape their fines.