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from Chevron-Texaco where Iraqi oil is being refined
A personal reflection on the Bay Area's September 9 WTO solidarity action
from Chevron-Texaco where Iraqi oil is being refined, Richmond, CA
by rebecca solnit
The first thing I have to contend with at direct-action demonstrations is my own bad faith, and Tuesday’s demonstration at the Chevron-Texaco refinery where Iraqi oil is being processed was no exception. The demo was dominated by the usual scruffy suspects, but there were also a lot of Richmond community members, Father Louis Vitale and Father Bill O’Donnell looking sharp in their priest-collars, and some others to mix up our ranks, along with the jaunty sounds of the Brass Liberation Orchestra. Sometimes I remind myself that these demonstrations are at worst exercise, like keeping in shape for the moment when you need that muscle of dissent and courage the most; sometimes I remind myself that the usual scruffy suspects change the world when, say, they recruit several thousand others to join them in the streets of Seattle or to shut down San Francisco the day the war started. The Chevron action was sponsored by Direct Action to Stop the War (DASW), which shut down San Francisco when the war began, and which is connecting the ongoing war in Iraq with the interminable —but not inevitable--war of corporate globalization. So this action was in concert with fifty other demos in the US and thousands around the world as the WTO opens in Cancun (and activists in Vancouver, B.C., pulled off a lovely solidarity action that shut down Chevron headquarters there). Given that the war isn’t over, it seems important that opposition to it stay awake and in public too.
The war isn’t that far away. In Richmond itself, two Sikh taxi drivers have been killed recently in what seem like post-9/11 hate crimes, though those of us who came in through the BART train station saw that there are a lot more of them who have to keep driving their taxis to stay alive. And oil from Iraq has been coming into the Bay Area for months; a lot of our cars with NO WAR bumper probably have war spoils in their gas tanks. The DASW background goes like this, "ChevronTexaco's profits have quadrupled over the last three month period to $1.6 billion dollars as a result of war-inflated oil prices. ChevronTexaco, along with Shell, BP and several other oil giants have quickly cashed in on the US/British occupation, scoring big contracts to buy Iraqi crude. With U.S.-controlled Iraq expected to sell nearly 650,000 barrels per day between August and December, ChevronTexaco will do quite well for a company that claimed, before full scale U.S. bombing began on March 19, 2003, that it had no plans to move on Iraqi oil. Despite grand proclamations by the US occupation authority that proceeds from Iraqi oil sold to transnational corporations will benefit Iraq, the reality, it seems, is not quite so simple. The income generated from selling Iraqi oil goes into a fund to pay other trans-national corporations to "rebuild" Iraq. These corporations include Halliburton (est. contracts worth $1.14 billion), the largest oil servicing company and biggest money-maker off of Gulf War I, and Bechtel, which would love nothing more than to privatize Iraq's water supply. No elections. No accountability to the Iraqi people. No participation by the Iraqi people in the decisions about how the money should be spent. While Iraqi, U.S. and U.K. people continue to die in the continuing war, oil companies operate with special protection, under U.S. Presidential Executive Order 13303, which exempts them from any liability for environmental, human rights or other abuses related to their handling of Iraqi crude." That’s the background.
The foreground was a mile or so march to the gate where the trucks emerge with the newly refined oil. The Richmond police had already thoughtfully blockaded the gate for us, so the 22 of us willing to risk arrest sat down with them at our backs. Every once in a while I turned around and noticed that more and more of them were arriving, and that the new ones seemed to have a more exotic arsenal strapped to their body or clutched in their hands: what looked like concussion or tear-gas grenades, some sort of projectile weapon, and ubiquitous nightsticks. The April demonstration at the Oakland docks had taught me what those weapons could do: I still remember the bloody welts on those who were shot in the back. Eventually there were a hundred heavily armed cops facing us, with others shutting down the three nearest highway offramps, two helicoptors overhead—a formidable presence. But the police liasons for this action had done a brilliant job negotiating a number of terms beforehand—that the police would have their identities visible, that they would keep the visors of their riot helmets up—and they kept up the dialogue throughout this action. The cops are not the enemy we came to face that day, the war, the corporation, and corporate globalization are, and this time, though whenever I looked back the dozens of police looked like Darth Vader fetishes in all their armor and weapons, they let us be.
Mostly I faced forward and did what I did for a lot of this summer, watch day turn into dusk into night, and because we were facing east, we who sat down at the gates of Chevron, we also got to see the near-full moon rise through a bank of white cloud that glowed brighter and brighter before it broke through. It was a beautiful evening, and sitting still for nearly two hours under the wide, wide sky of industrial Richmond made it possible to feel what we had come to say: that it’s all connected. The refinery’s poisoning of the locals is connected to the larger damage and crime committed by Chevron around the world, which is connected to the war in Iraq, a war that even Blair’s ex-cabinet minister Michael Meacher admitted in Saturday’s UK Guardian is a war for empire and oil.: "The conclusion of all this analysis must surely be that the ‘global war on terrorism’ has the hallmarks of a political myth propagated to pave the way for a wholly different agenda - the US goal of world hegemony, built around securing by force command over the oil supplies required to drive the whole project." Welcome to World War Four, and the good news is that you can resist it from almost anywhere, because it’s almost everywhere. And thanks to a cell-phone call, we were connected to Cancun: the dedicated antiglobalization activist Starhawk phoned in a report from there, where there had been a huge procession on this day before 15,000 campesinos were expected to swing into action to demonstrate against what the WTO does to local economies and smallscale agriculture. But connected in the best ways too, to the resistance around the world—there were fifty other actions in the US and probably thousands around the world—to each other sitting there holding hands with an arsenal pointed at our back, to this wide open stage under the open sky. The same moon rose above Nigeria, above Iraq, above Cancun first.
That evening peace seemed like more than one of our demands, but a palpable mood. I wonder if it was because of my own stillness; otherwise I’d be restlessly roaming the periphery of the demonstration, as usual. But if oil is about fueling the ability of everything to move around at high speed, sitting still resists not only the politics but the essence of the issue. Being near Father Louis, having the black-bloc kids in their bandannas sweetly come by to see if we wanted to be fed, and the whole mood of the crowd helped. And it was an extraordinary evening. Mars rose. The moon cast shadows that stretched westward, and the police floodlights cast the long shadows of their bodies across us, eastward. The orchestra played; people sang and rapped. Henry Clark from West County Toxics Coalition spoke about what was going on, comparing environmental racism to slavery. Again, from DASW, "An August 9, 2003,a large chemical release from the Richmond refinery, said to be hydrogen sulfide, sent two dozen people to the hospital after emergency sirens and a "shelter in place" (close your doors and windows and stay home) order was given three hours after the release. The ChevronTexaco refinery in Richmond spews a deadly array of toxins –including cancer-causing dioxins - into the air, water, and land, of the largely African American, South East Asian and Latino local communities and into the greater Bay Area. The refinery and plant have had hundreds of accidents, including major fires, spills, leaks, explosions, toxic gas releases, flaring and air contamination that have inflicted severe illnesses, including asthma and deadly cancers, on the people of Richmond."
At 8:30, after nearly two hours of blockading the refinery gates, we declared a victory—setting our own timeline for the demonstration rather than waiting for the cops to do it for us-- and marched back to the rallying point in the moonlight. Afterwards, everyone agreed it was a beautiful, moving action—something mysterious had catalyzed, what was in our hearts, the beautiful sky, the threat of violence never unleashed, the great peace already made in a coalition of Richmond locals, Catholic priests, black block youth, and more.