It is still early Wednesday morning when gas-mask guy crosses Austin Street and stands on the sidewalk under the sign of the Twisted Fork. Dressed in Black Bloc black, he has covered his head in a tight wrap of black cloth and attached a nose level gas mask with a white elastic band. His head looks like an unused wig stand with a huge piglike nose.
Looking through the thin cloth stretched over his eyes, gas-mask guy looks across the 1300 block of Lamar Street toward the Four Seasons Hotel. First, along the near curb he sees a row of hip high metal bars stretched from corner to corner. From above and behind the bars he next sees a row of horse eyes gazing back through plexiglass visors. In the saddles sit a dozen horse cops gazing at the gathering crowd.
The day is fresh. The Black Bloc has not yet launched their freedom walks up and down Austin Street. And officer McDonald is walking the sidewalk along Lamar with an air of confident authority.
“Stand over there!” says the officer to gas-mask guy, pointing to a section of sidewalk closer to the Lamar Street curb.
“Who owns this sidewalk?” asks gas-mask guy.
And officer McDonald explains how the city’s section of the sidewalk begins along the line of brick that has been inlaid around tiny trees nearer to the curb. The cement part where officer McDonald walks belongs to the Houston Center Mall, home to fine businesses such as the Twisted Fork. Since we are here for the public business of protest, we are interfering with traffic on the Mall’s side of things. Hearing all this, I move my feet to the brick inlay to stand among the tiny trees. In the next two hours of course the mischievous saints of the Black Bloc are going to turn officer McDonald’s sense of order inside out.
In the gathering crowd of 150 there are activists from Houston, Dallas, Austin, and elsewhere. They are predominantly white with a fair sampling of gender and age. CodePink protesters step into the zone with a pall bearer’s shuffle, following little black coffins. At the head of the procession a reader with a complete list of Americans killed in Iraq says each name out loud. A couple of marchers follow in pink veils with lists of names drooping down on all sides. Behind them more pink-clad marchers wear sashes with words like Change, Peace, Justice, and Accountability. Some carry parasols that say things like: Halliburton Making a Killing.
Scott hands out whistles. A tight circle of drummers hit their beat. In the brick canyon of Lamar Street, between the Four Seasons Hotel and the Mall, sounds of living hope echo into a shrill and rhythmic carnival swirl. On the Mall’s slice of the sidewalk I read an inscription that has been carved into stone, attributed to William Toby Alexander 1988: “and our laughter would drift away like smoke over brush like whisper; like nothing even.” The life of our noise echoes only momentarily, but it echoes deeply. Inside the annual meeting of Halliburton stockholders at the Four Seasons Hotel, CodePink activist Medea Benjamin can hear us. Out here a cop reaches down to pat the neck of his blonde-maned horse as if to say it’s only noise. It is 8:47 a.m.
Some workers this morning are smiling at the human concoction of sound and sight as they step quickly toward work or stand at ease during smoke breaks. Most wear poker faces. A few frown. And I think there is one lone counter-protester dressed in red t-shirt with makeshift Halliburton emblems who seems to be genuinely cheering for the company. Then again, maybe he is intending to mimic the cheerleader attitude so important to the imperial lifestyle. A second inscription on the Mall’s side of the sidewalk, engraved in stone, cites the Galveston Daily News of 1865: “We are glad to see so much activity and bustle in our streets and among our merchants.” For the past 140 years, the empire has been paying off.
There is plenty to look at if you’re sucking a cigarette on Lamar Street. On this side of Austin Street, Dick Cheney is hanging out in a creepy looking trench coat. When he flashes open the coat an oil derrick falls into place which he happily thrusts back and forth. On the other side of Austin Street, Dick Cheney is dressed in a creepy looking business suit holding up buckets of cash that he just milked from a ten-foot-tall cow named Iraq. That scene too is framed inside a low row of metal bars.
Dick Cheney is a very happy fellow today, whether he’s flashing his derrick or reaching for a pink udder. This is how things look in the early hour of the protest. The cow is still standing and has not yet had its wire mesh neck ruptured by mounted police. Reports that the cow attacked police have been greatly exaggerated. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The mood at this point is hopeful. Someone is shooting bubbles into the air. And the irony of police attacking Cheney’s cash cow is a complication we haven’t yet been challenged to consider.
Inside the Four Seasons Hotel, activists are making noise and getting arrested. As Pumpkin tells the story at Houston IndyMedia, she and three others holler chants from a stairway at the lobby while protesters who stayed there overnight made some noise from inside the restaurant. Pumpkin was able to walk out the front door, but eight others were handcuffed, taken out back and herded into a jail bus.
A video of Texas activist Diane Wilson shows her being escorted to the bus along with Herb Rothschild, both of them dressed in their Four Seasons disguises. “Diane we’re with you!” shouts a woman as the plexiglass visor of a horse swings in and out of view. In the recently released book “Stop the Next War Now” Wilson’s chapter explains how she developed her anti-war attitude as a homefront medic during the Viet Nam war. In order to prevent another “lost generation of boys” Wilson helped to disrupt the House Armed Services testimony of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in Sept. 2002. Right after that, she spent Thanksgiving Day in a Washington D.C. jail for protesting the “use of force” resolution at the White House gate. And soon after that she visited Iraq where she found people who were “open and curious and generous.”
Along with Wilson and Rothschild, Houston IndyMedia identifies six others who were arrested inside. The one pictured face down on the pavement is Elle Shenker. Speaking later via cell phone on the internet-streaming To-Hell-With-Halliburton-Radio, Elle complains that pain compliance tactics were used on her. I wonder if the cop outweighed her by much more than two to one. With her are David Graeve, Katie Heim, Jonathan Kresha, Kendle Greenlee (sic), and Maureen Haver.
At a pre-protest teach-in Tuesday evening, Maureen Haver represented local activists from the Houston Global Awareness Collective who are lead organizers of the day. She spoke about anti-war activism that has been brewing since the Oct. 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and why a group of Houston activists have come to focus on Halliburton.
Halliburton points of intersection is what Haver calls the logic of analysis that connects the huge corporation to various liberation struggles. Interested in the environment? Then check out what Pratap Chaterjee and friends say in their alternative annual report about Halliburton’s invention of hydraulic fracturing, busting cracks deep into rock formations underfoot to release oil for pumping. In Alabama, Colorado, and New Mexico, people notice right away that Halliburton fracs affect water. “Stories of explosive levels of methane in homes, numerous wells simultaneously going dry, and gobs of black substances smelling of petroleum coming out of taps fed by drinking water wells were not uncommon in these regions,” says the report. Would these effects follow from the frac operations if Halliburton used plain water as its pressure fluid instead of a mixture of gasoline, napalm, crude oil, and sand?
Or is racism your top issue? Then look at how Halliburton operates in the over-exploited countries of Nigeria, Iran, Libya, and Brazil. See who is being lured from Houston into Halliburton recruiting campaigns for dangerous warzone labor.
Or how about labor rights and class struggle? “Even Halliburton’s rank-and-file workers in Iraq are now up in arms,” say Chatterjee and friends. “Most of them [the ones from the USA] are lured to the country based on rumors of salaries ranging from $80,000 to $120,000 annually. What the company often fails to mention is that their employees are contracted to a Cayman Islands subsidiary of Halliburton named Service Employees International and paid less than $16 an hour [much less than that if they come from Asia.] In order to earn the high salaries, they must work 12 hours a day, seven days a week, under extremely harsh working and living conditions.” For example, as we will see below, Halliburton truck drivers may be asked to steer a convoy of fuel tanks right through a raging battle to a destination that for the time being has no use for the fuel anyway.
Finally, says Haver, why not also offer the tax dollar issue? Couldn’t the $7.1 billion dollars of taxpayer money paid to Halliburton in Iraq be better used for schools, health care, or anti-poverty at home? None of the issues are mutually exclusive. And we haven’t yet touched the issue of peace.
In a telling quote reported by the Houston Chronicle, Halliburton CEO Dave Lesar said after the stockholder meeting that the company may be cooling on the reconstruction contracts in Iraq. Lesar’s comment follows an April statement that the general contracting subsidiary of Halliburton — KBR (Kellogg, Brown and Root) — “continues to make progress on resolving issues with our customer related to our work in Iraq, resulting in a settlement of the Dining Facilities matters.” In other words, all is not well. Medea Benjamin told protesters in her debrief after the stockholder meeting that the KBR division may be sold off this year because of poor profit performance and accumulating liabilities associated with the work in Iraq. By all accounts there is no serious rebuilding taking place in Iraq anyway.
“That rebuilding contract, however, won’t affect Halliburton’s larger contract to provide meals, shelter, and other support to the troops,” reports the Houston Chronicle. Which means that the warmaking power of the USA military will continue to be aided and abetted by Halliburton war services.
More than one bystander looking at Wednesday’s protest wondered what Halliburton had to do with the war in Iraq. A general impression seemed to concede that Halliburton had been drawn into the war, but people wondered how Halliburton’s exit could possibly affect anything. Wouldn’t the military just go on without it?
In answer to a final question at Tuesday night’s teach-in, Pratap Chatterjee pointed to Viet Nam. Military strategists during that war had to face political opposition from a growing peace movement in the USA (just as they now face growing opposition to the war in Iraq). And they had to face a well-organized resistance movement (just as the resistance movement in Iraq seems to be gaining strength). But in Viet Nam, the military also had to disperse its troop force into support services such as meals, housing, laundry, and transport. In Iraq, Halliburton does much of that work, and it doesn’t even have to rely on American workers. Chatterjee for example was able to speak to Indian employees of Halliburton when he visited Iraq operations. Medea Benjamin cites a figure of some 47,000 Halliburton employees in Iraq, most of them paid in Third-World wages.
According to anecdotal evidence gathered by Chatterjee in conversation with Indian workers, not only does Halliburton draw upon over-exploited workers from India and elsewhere, but the company also takes possession of worker passports, preventing their free exit from the jobsite.
Dick Cheney’s role in this new imperial system of shock and awe is more than symbolically confirmed by his dual paychecks. According to Chatterjee, Cheney gets about $200,000 per year from the USA government for his work as Vice President and a roughly equal amount from Halliburton in consideration of his work for the company.
The sinister appearance of Cheney’s dual income deepens in the light of a recent analysis by Nile Media editor Ahmed Amr. Amr makes the plausible argument that a strategic ‘military’ motivation for the war on Iraq comes from USA recognition in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, that retaining military bases in Saudi Arabia was no longer a tenable risk. Those bases after all were cited by Osama Bin Laden as his chief motive for attack. Should the USA simply abandon its hard-won foothold in the Persian Gulf region? Or could the USA simply move its theater of prime interest from Saudi Arabia to Iraq?
If we think along lines suggested by Amr, then we notice that it was Dick Cheney who first negotiated the military bases in Saudi Arabia, and Dick Cheney’s company Halliburton that secured the prime contract to build 14 “enduring” bases in Iraq. So what does Halliburton have to do with the war in Iraq? Is it not in fact the lynchpin of the Cheney legacy to leave “enduring” footprints of USA military bases in the oil-rich gulf region? To remove Halliburton’s support services and base building from Iraq would seriously disable not only the USA warmaking capacity, but its most likely ‘military’ motive. Halliburton out of Iraq is the strategic and logistical basis for USA military withdrawal and therefore the basis of demanding a peaceful approach to USA foreign policy in the region. So Halliburton out of Iraq was the top demand of Wednesday’s protesters, whether the media reported that fact or not.
As protesters are being placed on a jail bus behind the Four Seasons Hotel and I’m scrawling quotes engraved into the sidewalk of the Houston Center Mall, Austin activist Debbie Russell hands me an emergency press release that announces the inside actions and arrests. This is a very well organized event. I place the press release into my red press kit folder and look back down Lamar Street. Where have all the Black Bloc gone? As if in answer to my question, five horses peel off from the Lamar Street force and ride NorthEast along Caroline Street. Of course, I follow them.
The breakaway mounted patrol is circling behind the Houston Center Mall, now heading SouthEast along McKinney Street between the mall and Chevron Tower. On the next block is Halliburton Company Headquarters, 1401 McKinney St. And standing in front of Halliburton Headquarters are a half dozen cops in full riot gear prepared to do battle. Beyond them, at the SouthEast corner of La Branch and McKinney a clump of Black Bloc activists can be seen behind a clump of horses. I get the impression that contact is closeup between horses and protesters as I close the distance.
Across McKinney Street from Halliburton Headquarters is a lush park with lots of trees, shade, bushes, and grass. As I step into the park I see commotion along La Branch Street to my right. A thicket of hedges is vibrating. Crashing through comes a skinny and nearly shirtless activist. He runs in front of me, through the park, back toward Chevron Tower. He is really fast. I stand as still as I can, counting seven horses that race past me. With my eyes returning to the runner, I miss an event captured on video as one cop falls backward off his horse, apparently to my right. When I focus back on the park in front of me, another cop is tromping through a thicket of bushes with his long night stick, apparently thinking the runner never came out the other side. After a little while, he gives this up, remounts and rides away with his partner.
Do you know what the ground feels like under your feet when seven horses gallop past? It doesn’t sound much different than the soundtrack on cowboy movies. I wonder briefly if the movies also might help me anticipate the sounds of war in Iraq?
Most of the Black Bloc moves North along La Branch, circling around Halliburton Headquarters from the opposite side of the street, but a few cross over to walk on the Halliburton side. A cop warns them to get back with the larger group, and I pause at his command. But a woman snaps back, “Hold on cowboy, we’re just walkin’ here.” The cop watches their backs move quickly down the sidewalk. After a few seconds’ pause I follow. As the horse cops ride down La Branch Street with the Black Bloc I notice sweat breaking through the back of one uniform.
As activists from the main group cross La Branch to head NorthWest on Walker Street, the number 18 bus comes and goes in the opposite direction. Then turning South on Austin Street, the Black Bloc continues its march around Halliburton Headquarters. Near the intersection of McKinney and Austin, a few folks are hanging out and watching the action. Says one as I pass by, “Now’s the time to rob a bank!” People are enjoying themselves. In no way does the Black Bloc group present itself as threatening to these bystanders. But they are taking the horse cops on quite a ride.
The marchers speed SouthWest down Austin Street, dismantling a few steel cages as they pass through the intersection at Lamar. Now they are circling the Four Seasons, and they take a break in the surprisingly dark shade across Dallas Street from the backend of the hotel, near a wall that’s painted for Josephine’s Italian Retreat. Nice place to stop. As folks are cooling off, I take a head count. There are about 30 protesters here. Somebody calls for a press kit for Reuters. Out it comes from a nearby knapsack, going straight into the hands of a guy standing behind me. He takes out his notebook and asks some questions as I move to the other end of the shade. At Houston IndyMedia, correspondent Jack posts his encounter:
I saw a Reuter’s reporter, who I met last year at the 2004 H. Protest. I asked him did you get in to the meeting? He said no, but that there was a funny article in the Hou Chronicle this morning complaining about reporters being blocked from attending the Shareholders meeting, only 5 got in. I said, to the Reuters reporter, when you guys gonna do something about this media lockout crap? He said, it weren’t much news happening today anyway. I said, people were arrested. He said, people are arrested all the time. I asked him, why don’t you go do your fucking news job!
Jack doesn’t report how Reuters replied. A couple of press coordinators complain a little about the lack of television cameras on the scene. “What’s wrong with Houston?” With folks cooled down a little, the march resumes its clockwise path around the Four Seasons, NorthEast along Caroline, and back to the 1300 block of Lamar. By this point I notice that the cops are not sitting so straight in the saddle. Heads and shoulders are beginning to droop. While we enjoyed the nice shade on Dallas Street, the cops on horses had been facing full sun. “Name a horse that wants to be a pig,” shouts someone. Makes we wonder if any of these horses have names.
Back at the Lamar Street homebase, Austin activist Debbie Russell is leaning over a barrier haranguing one of the mounted cops about some of their rough treatment during the march. Horses have been used to butt into crowds. Although I was never close enough to see first hand, there were a couple of times that the accusation seemed plausible from a distance, once at La Branch and McKinney. Another time at Dallas Street. “Y’all are the ones with guns!” says Russell. And the cop replies, “That’s the way life is.”
Noise and festivities start up again. “The people united will never be defeated!” Miss Accountability strolls along the boulevard looking for something while Miss Justice blows her whistle. A protester in wheel chair calmly shoots video, with his back to the mounted cavalry of Twisted Fork Canyon. Overhead, between the second floor levels of the Four Seasons Hotel and Houston Center Mall, a covered walkover is filling up with rubberneckers. Most are smiling down at the colorful activity. One guy presses his middle finger to the glass, answered immediately by at least two middle fingers from below.
Inside the Houston Center Mall, a clock near the Chevron Texas Credit Union marks 9:50 am, not quite time for the mall to wake up. The second floor food court is nearly empty, only one person in the whole place, a badly disguised undercover cop no doubt, sipping from her Wendy’s cup near the stairs. She must have spent an hour teasing her hair the way it sticks out ridiculously in all directions, trying to look like a bum civilian. The balconies have been cleared and locked. This is a little puzzling to me later since videos of the parking garage action below show people standing on this balcony.
Security people in business suits are holding a chat near the East escalators that run from the second to third floors. Small clusters of Halliburton stockholders make their way North through the mall, accompanied by security guards who look very much like Boy Scouts. I have trouble finding the SouthSide walkover so I step onto the NorthSide crossover above McKinney and catch a small march making its way clockwise around the mall. “They’re finally doing some work!” says a passing worker. “Go HPD.” The marchers and their mounted escort make the corner at Austin Street and disappear. I go back to the find the SouthSide crossover.
From my perch over Lamar Street I can see things are not going well up at the Austin Street intersection. Horses are agitated and billy clubs are out. In surreal juxtaposition to the intensifying conflict, a guy with a great big shovel is scooping manure from the street into a little cart driven by a woman.
Coming down Austin Street toward Lamar I can see somebody being dragged along by his t-shirt in the grip of a mounted cop. And right there is the television camera getting the shot. Not that I’ve seen the shot on television, but the shot was definitely in the frame up close. Shortly after that, two guys are led down Lamar toward Caroline Street in handcuffs. They make the perp walk passing below me. Protesters chant, “Let him go!” One perp is dressed in red cap and yellow shirt. The other still wears his long black hair in a pony tail, but a bandana has been taken from his face. These arrests are the aftermath of the garage stampede, which turns out to be the action highlight of the day.
Just around the corner from Lamar on Austin Street is a garage entrance, and that’s where marchers stopped (the same ones who had just passed along McKinney?) They were ordered to move and then horses were used to push them out of the way into a small but thick crowd. As the video shows, while cops pushed with horses from one side of the group, horses moved in to block escape from the other side as officers angrily pursued a man in a green shirt who left the sidewalk briefly to say, “Calm down officers.” But the officers at the back of the crowd did not calm down. Instead, they took the bait. With effortless horsemanship one cop spun around in a driveway behind the little crowd and jerked at the shoulder of a video cameraman who was taping the horses charging from the front. Right after that, the tape we’re watching spirals into confusion as this cameraman too is jerked around. From this sequence of videotape, it looks to me like the person I earlier saw dragged by t-shirt may have been the cameraman for IndyMedia who caught the backend antics of two horse cops on tape.
In the sun and stress of the morning, cops finally broke into rage. How a horse got through that tight-packed crowd is difficult to imagine, but you can see how one horse from the front of the little crowd comes crashing between two horses at the rear. After preliminary skirmishes up and down Houston Center, the Black Bloc has forced the hand of these frontline enforcers of the status quo, and the naked muscle of the system has fallen like Hunter Thompson’s shithammer for everyone to see. This is what it comes to when hooves meet concrete in the hands of power. No way is this off message. It is power gone senseless in the name of total control. And the saints of mischief have drawn it out in the open for all who have not lost their ability to see.
“David Solnit, an anonymous male, James Foley, Baku, David Martinez, Andy Peterson, Rolando Maya, Chris McMullen were arrested outside,” reports Houston IndyMedia. “Baku and David Martinez, both out of town indymedia videographers, were arrested while shooting video. David was dragged by his neck by a cop while trying to go to the sidewalk as instructed. There have been many class B misdemeanors, but it is possible some will be charged with assault.”
Later after things calm down quite a bit, Debbie Russell is at it again, speaking to a suited police commander about the cops mistakes. “There is always an avenue of exit,” the suit assures her. “Not this time,” answers Russell. Indeed, protesters captured the crucial evidence on tape. Everywhere I turn, the event looks very well organized. The cops have been outmaneuvered today.
Back to the live action that I can see from my perch over Lamar, police squeeze their horses through steel barricades across Austin Street into the milking cage of Dick Cheney’s cash cow. As a few horses try to maneuver the tight spaces between cow and steel, the cow starts shaking and moving. Then the cow goes down. Dick Cheney’s cash cow is toppled by Houston police. From my vantage high above Lamar Street I see the cow’s pink belly. A skycam for Eyewitness News captures the carcass from the air. Who wouldn’t laugh at a sight like that?
Megaphones crank up on Lamar Street: “What do we want? Halliburton out of Iraq! When do we want it? Now?” The message of the protesters couldn’t be made any clearer. A few onlookers gather at the walkover. “Who are those pink people?” they ask each other. “What the hell is going on? I guess some people don’t have anything better to do. Evidently they don’t work.” And then some big man starts harassing a smartly dressed woman. “What are you doing here anyway?” He takes neither her first nor second answer as sufficient. Goddam bosses. Don’t they ever let up? Down on Lamar Street, Black Bloc Anarchists are dancing, Pratap Chatterjee is answering a reporter’s questions. An ambulance has pulled up to treat the foot of a woman or two stepped on by cop horses. And the cop horses themselves start wandering back to their starting positions. What a day they’ve been put through. If only Emma Goldman could be here now.
Messengers and Media
Back outside the Eyewitness chopper hovers nearly high as the sun. “Let’s show them what the future really looks like!” I recall a morning speaker saying. Now, we can only hope. CodePinkers do their death march down Austin Street to where Medea Benjamin with microphone tells protesters that a Halliburton shareholders meeting is a caricature.
“I’ve been to lots of these meetings for Coca-Cola, Nike, and other big corporations,” says Benjamin. “There are usually hundreds of people in the room and business goes on for hours. This morning at the Halliburton shareholders meeting there were, I counted them, 62 people and the meeting was over by 9:20.”
Sometime that morning, one Halliburton shareholder mistook an Austin activist with a tape recorder for a major media reporter and offered herself for an interview. The resulting tape was played later that afternoon on To Hell With Halliburton Radio streamed over the internet from the IndyMedia center.
“Politically I don’t think that that war should have ever been started,” said the shareholder who identified herself as a retired pensioner who now has time for things like shareholder meetings. The activist asked her if she felt like she had any power in the company.
“Yes I have a vote,” answered the woman carefully. “But whether I have power to do anything I have to admit the last two meetings I’ve been to I’ve been a very small cog, very, very small and no I don’t feel like I have sway. That’s kind of a disappointment.” By this point in the interview, the activist reports that the woman’s eyes are beginning to tear up. “The feeling I get is you’re up against a very big bureaucracy,” continues the woman. “They can make you feel a little stupid.” And then she laughs a long nervous, shrill laugh, high pitched almost melodic. It is the laugh of the Halliburton shareholder confronting her own despair. The protest message is cutting through the crap of her illusions, speaking to her covered up feelings of Halliburton’s humiliation. To capture this poignant breakdown one only had to be standing there with a tape recorder ready.
At the shareholders meeting Benjamin posed fifteen questions such as how much money does the company pay to Dick Cheney and how many Halliburton employees have been killed in Iraq. To each question she was given the same answer: “we’ll have to get back with you on that.” But Benjamin is hopeful that protest pressure is contributing to Halliburton’s reasons for divesting itself of Kellogg Brown and Root and the mess it has made of rebuilding efforts in Iraq.
Next up to the mike is Houston activist Charles Rubio a resident of the plush Woodlands suburb just to the North. “We need more visuals,” says Rubio to the colorful crowd. “We need photos of the harms and injuries to the people of Iraq and to the soldiers. We need actors dressed as victims of the violence of war.” Like millions of Americans, Rubio’s neighbors live in “la-la lands” of arrogant ignorance and delusional comforts where media managers would rather whip up horrors of downtown protesters than provoke serious thinking on issues that protesters are protesting. With the live action over, Rubio is thinking how the message of the day will play.
To the base audience of Pacifica listeners who already support CodePink, Black Bloc, and the Houston Global Awareness Collective, the day will likely go down as a great success. The numbers were not impressive, but the actions were tightly organized and defiant. IndyMedia was red hot with its distribution of stories, pictures, videos, and streaming audio. Even the Associated Press carried a fair story by business writer Kristen Hays along with a dramatic color photo by Michael Stravato of cops in one of their worst moments of the day.
The Houston Chronicle pitched in some nicely framed feature photos by veteran photographer Steve Ueckert. The news copy posted at the Chronicle website Wednesday afternoon was pure lapdog, nowhere near even the fairness of the AP. The Chronicle lead paragraph reported that protesters “danced and screamed” which is top news anywhere I suppose. A May 19 update re-posts that dead lead over a slightly improved news content. There we learn for instance that severance pay for the CEO has now been capped at three times his annual salary and that stockholders turned back a resolution requiring directors to be elected by majority vote. So much for the Reuters claim that there weren’t much news in there. As for cop horses — sez the updated Chronicle story and I quote — they “performed as trained by circling with their back feet, sometimes knocking protesters out of the way with their haunches.” They say it like they were watching. But if they were watching, where’s the rest of their report?
Houston Chronicle business pages did a better job delivering critical views than did the news reporters, a bad yet fitting sign of the times. Business columnist Loren Steffey mocked Halliburton’s invitation to wait outside the meeting and interview the CEO when he exited from a meeting that couldn’t be covered. But who will mock the Chronicle for running first to the CEO for its coverage of what happened outdoors in the Houston streets while the shareholders and CEO were safely locked away?
On the other hand, Houston IndyMedia organized a feisty array of activist media coverage with pictures and videos thoroughly embedded in the day’s activity. To Hell with Halliburton Radio was a nice kick in the shins to the silence of the corporate media. But like some of the horses on Wednesday, corporate media tend to dress in shinguards anyway.
Shinguards or not, corporate media also ignored material presented at Tuesday night’s teach-in at the Art Car Museum on South Heights Boulevard. With both Medea Benjamin and Pratap Chatterjee speaking, there was much to be learned from cutting edge activists of our day. Although the corporate media were offered these stories at a press conference on Monday, it is not until Thursday’s revised update that the Chronicle mentions Ray Stannard briefly at the end of a story about the protest. But who is Mr. Stannard and why does he bring a room of activists to dead quiet? And why did his story not appear the day before the protest as offered? In order to understand the activist approach to Halliburton, we should take a path that runs right through Ray Stannard’s life.
Ballad of Ray Stannard
Ray Stannard of El Paso was one of 19 Halliburton truck drivers who on April 9, 2004 followed military orders to drive a fuel convoy right into the middle of a battle between Iraq insurgents and the First Cavalry Division. Seated Tuesday evening in a green checked shirt with his hair combed back, Stannard tells his story to a crowd of about 70 activists. Nobody in the room dares to say it, but there should really be more people here. Tomorrow morning in this city of 2 million people there will be a long-announced protest against Halliburton. We prepare ourselves quietly for small numbers in the streets.
“I’ll just start when I get into country,” says Stannard. His speech is compact, quiet, and plain. I wonder if he knows about Ray Stannard Baker the great muckracking writer of 100 years ago. At any rate, Stannard took a job with Halliburton last year to drive trucks in Iraq. Although he planned to work for a year, he came home after three weeks with “a broken arm and messed up leg.” Back home in Texas he found a doctor who would work on him several months before Halliburton offered to cover the expenses. But to begin at the beginning:
Stannard got into Kuwait on March 24 where he was “well treated.” The corps of TCNs (Third Country Nationals, neither American nor Kuwaiti) employed by Halliburton provided food and laundry until they went on a brief strike. Halliburton had reportedly paid their Third-World wages to a subcontractor that had not passed the money along. Meanwhile, the company gave Stannard a little class on safety: wear steel toed boots, keep your distance, here’s how you make left turns and right turns in the trucks.
Stannard soon caught a flight to sprawling Camp Anaconda north of Baghdad. You may have heard about the car bomb that hit the place just before he arrived there. “Kaboom,” recalls Stannard, “the whole chow line rocked.”
As far as training goes, Stannard was supposed to go on four convoy missions before he started driving, but they shortened it to one. He drove for the Marines transporting and dowloading fuel for their operations in Western Iraq and Falluja. Drivers had to watch out for IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices) or homemade bombs that could be detonated via cell phone. On the return trip of his first mission, he drove. Bricks and rocks would hit the truck. Kids would shoot things with slingshots. They didn’t do harm, but they startled the hell out of you.
Things were starting to heat up. The Mahdi Army had just begun to retaliate. Sniper fire now accompanied IEDs. Every morning there was a briefing. One morning they told the convoy to take another route. They took a wrong turn and ended up moving through one little town bumper to bumper. Not a good situation for USA fuel trucks to be in. But it was a little Catholic town. So they had no problems there.
On April 8, Stannard drove his fifth mission and it went perfectly. Overnight things changed. They would usually eat chow and stay overnight near the military camp, but at 11pm Halliburton pulled the drivers out — they said for “accountability” — and put them away from the main camp. Next day there were IEDs at the gate. A flatbed convoy had been hit real bad that afternoon. One driver had been hit with an RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade).
April 9 the convoy was supposed to roll again with fuel to usual destinations in Western Iraq or Falluja. But it was Holy Day and the Mahdi Army was out in force. Stannard felt sure they would call off the mission. In military terms, it was the worst of times. The route was rated Code Black which meant don’t go. He went to chow that morning thinking about a day off. But someone changed the code from Black to Amber, someone changed the route to Baghdad airport, and at the very last minute someone brought in an Army guy from another unit to draw them a map in the sand.
According to a May 2 report by Army Times reporter Joseph R. Chenelly, nothing went right that morning: “A battalion tasked with tracking dangerous conditions on supply routes was so mixed up that its soldiers were reporting two different threat levels and its Web site a third for the route the convoy took.” And when a communications specialist attempted to send an “oops don’t go there” message via email, he sent it actually to himself. By the time he discovered the error, it was too late for Stannard’s convoy which was now headed down a road known as “IED alley” into the middle of a battle already underway. And when a second convoy got to Baghdad airport later that day by another route, the fuel it carried was not even needed right away.
Because of these errors that have been admitted by the Army and because of the senseless nature of the mission, Stannard’s attorney is sitting nearby tonight. I read at a website somewhere that Stannard should have known Iraq was life-threatening work. But he did get recruited before the Mahdi Army began its retaliations and he was sent in as part of a policy innovation for the military-industrial empire: let’s place civilians into war zones for so-called non-combat duty. It does cut down on training costs and medical expenses. If Stannard should have known anything about his risks in Iraq, then Halliburton should have known first. And if Halliburton knew this was in fact the risk of the work in question, then the giant global corporation should have said to the military, “not with our employees you don’t.”
But as one questioner at Tuesday night’s teach-in asks: on what basis can a capitalist culture demand anything ethical from its corporations? Won’t people rather say things like leave Halliburton alone, they’re just a company trying to make a buck? And isn’t that the most important thing to be doing in a capitalist culture? Instead of fretting about Halliburton’s ethics shouldn’t we all get real jobs with real bosses and such? Jean-Paul Sartre says somewhere that capitalism everywhere produces its own gravediggers. But then again, Sartre never worked in Houston. Whose graves do Halliburton workers dig these days if not their own? As Sartre assures us, we do choose our dead.
As Stannard remembers the day, the convoy was already taking a lot of fire and he was already starting to get worried before they passed Abu Ghraib prison. “You remember the prison don’t you?” he asks the audience. A timeline prepared by the Colorado Campaign for Middle East Peace reminds us that on April 9, 2004, Abu Ghraib prison was not yet a household word. The Pentagon knew well enough what had been going on there, but not yet the world. Convoy leader Thomas Hamill who was taken hostage later that day recalls that the last week of his captivity was made much worse when the prison scandal hit the air.
Just past the prison the highway met an overpass. Down from that overpass came the unfurling flags, and the resistance “hit us with everything they had.” The convoy driver who radioed that his truck was breaking down was not yet aware that his gas tank had been shot up. The military commander of the convoy was hit. The “old hippie” Bill Bradley said he was hit, too. His body was not found for another nine months.
“There was nothing you could do,” says Stannard quietly. “My soldier was firing. Hell we didn’t even know where we were going.” In an effort to avoid gunfire, drivers headed right toward houses where the gunfire was coming from. Stannard’s shotgun escort was one of only six supplied to the 19 truckers that day says the Army Times report, “despite an order issued by the 13th Corps Support Command early that morning that said every convoy needed at a minimum one soldier per two KBR trucks.” There were eight military vehicles riding along with the convoy. Of 27 vehicles total, only 7 would make it home.
A truck up ahead tried to make a ramp off the highway but rolled upside down instead. At this point Stannard unbuckled his seatbelt thinking he’d rather be thrown around in the truck than burned to death when it blew. “I think we have a chance,” he said to “his soldier” Jarob Walsh just before an RPG knocked the truck on its side. Later outside the truck, with a broken arm and messed up leg, Stannard remembers the only thing he could do was crawl. “It took the skin right off my elbows.” The soldier Stannard calls “my soldier” tells his story to the Army Times from Walter Reed hospital where he is still recovering this year.
Somehow Stannard was one of ten men who managed to get into a Humvee. Eventually the First Cav sent in some combat vehicles to rescue the stranded men. Five drivers, five soldiers, two of them dying. “I felt bad for Goodrich,” recalls Stannard as he thinks about one of the dying men. Posthumously, Pfc Gregory Goodrich was awarded several medals for his bravery that day. An old college friend of Goodrich wrote on the internet that he considered Goodrich to be “a modern-day Thoreau” who dressed like an English teacher and loved to read Joseph Campbell. In a peace economy could America have found something better for Private Goodrich to do? What a godawful waste.
And finally Stannard recalls that Tom Johnson “was fixing to go to his daughter’s graduation” had he not been killed that day. Daughter April Johnson is suing Halliburton for her father’s death. Hers is the first of several lawsuits alleging “that Halliburton/KBR deployed its civilian truck drivers into a hostile active war zone despite knowledge from intelligence sources that there existed a substantial certainty the civilian drivers, moving in U.S. military vehicles, would be ambushed by Iraqi insurgents and killed or seriously injured.”
Attorney Vincent Howard says that his California based law firm has received several calls from Halliburton employees contributing their own stories of corruption, fraud, and mismanagement. He says that Halliburton is certainly entitled under law to pursue profit, but that doesn’t mean it can proceed with impunity. Even in a capitalistic culture, there are laws that are supposed to regulate the marketplace.
“What Halliburton has been engaging in is fraudulent recruitment practices,” explains Howard. They get workers to go to Iraq so they can profit from contracts to provide unarmed military services. They promise that their workers will be kept safe by well-armed military escorts, yet they allow their unarmed workers to drive in underprotected convoys along roads that are well known to be dangerous. Are these rebuilding missions? No. Workers are told they will be providing “support services” but they are combat workers in combat zones.
“We have no idea how much the military relies on Halliburton,” says Howard. And the Halliburton Company will only understand their grave errors after they are hit with huge punitive damages and made to pay all the expenses of workers for their pain, suffering, and hardship.
In other words, what really matters to the imperial masters of USA corporations is the sacredness of their bottom lines. It’s their value system that closes shareholder meetings to the public and directs the power of the state to take sides with the status quo at Houston Center. It is the value system that the saints of mischief are here to disrupt. “Who owns this sidewalk?” Police who internalize their roles as protectors of profit also choose their dead in advance. Yet it is not impossible to imagine laws that would require police to protect free access to the centers of corporate power and stand guard over a Halliburton CEO while he is made to listen to something besides the bottom line. It is not impossible to imagine a smartly dressed woman turning to her jerkass boss and saying fukoff or I’ll call the police.
By the way, says Stannard, “I always wondered where the rebuilding was. I never saw any of that.”
The deaths that Ray Stannard experienced on April 9 are deaths that can be humanized in Houston. And they are deaths recognizable for their uselessness. Nothing was at stake. The fuel was not even needed. Yet for that day’s services Halliburton no doubt got paid. At the time, those deaths and hostages (there are still two people missing) served a kind of propaganda purpose as the USA geared up for its unexpected troubles with the Mahdi Army. It was a precious fuel convoy after all and civilians had been harmed, hard working folks like convoy leader Thomas Hamill, the Southern Baptist from Mississippi. To Hamill’s credit however, he came home and laid low.
So much depends on the little symbolic choices we make as we choose our live meanings from our dead ones. In the particular motions of Black Bloc bodies up and down the streets of Houston, a different kind of meaning is in the making against hardened reflexes of state power that reach down from corporate penthouses into the holsters of cops on horses. “Tell me if you have the nerve, who do you protect and serve,” shouts a lone protester on Austin Street. He looks nervously around at his fellow demonstrators. “Oh well.”
It’s all about the memes, explains Vermont activist Doyle Canning at Tuesday night’s teach-in as someone shouts, “What’s a meme?” If you look at mind and culture as built-up systems then memes are the building blocks. Just as every brick at Twisted Fork Canyon plays a part in the structure of that space, memes are stackable and unstackable. At the advent of the USA led war on terrorism, right wing think tanks emphasized a need for meme management. No doubt our cultural habits are being stacked and unstacked by the little things that get repeated or left out in the common motions of our daily lives.
For example, in the meme structure of the Houston Chronicle, protesters scream, but they scream nothing in particular. CEOs speak, but they speak in well crafted sentences about carefully considered strategies. By the Chronicle we are taught that it is easy to make sense of one side, not even worth the trouble to make sense of the other. In stories that fail to observe protest actions, that refuse to listen to blue ribbon activists, the Chronicle recycles for us status quo memes that come ready built, no stacking on your part required.
Down among the Black Bloc and the CodePink however, unstacking the memes of Houston counts for real labor. To denounce Halliburton in the heart of Houston Center is to open up space for people to chose again the order of meanings to build. To Hell with Halliburton! Houston, aren’t we capable of doing so much better? If you were working for the world, is this the company you would create?
In the closely fought battles between anarchists and cops we find memes stacked and unstacked before our eyes. “Whose streets?” In the meme structure delivered to your doorstep by the city daily, cop horses make superb use of their bodies when they push people around with their butts. Meanwhile, if protesters try to move anything at all down at Houston Center, of course that’s a downright crime. See how the protesters move their own bodies and minds? See how they dance? Why Houston, would you rather see people pushed around?
I have read many accounts of Black Bloc activity but this week finally I got to watch a state-of-the-art performance up close. Not close as possible perhaps, but close enough to see the living intelligence of the action, the principle of free space exercised under circumstances that can turn quite deadly in the flash of a loaded temper. And yes of course there was civil disobedience, the practice of deliberately breaking a law in order to draw down the powers of state, the better to expose them in full daylight.
To be sure this was no Birmingham style march, but the general logic of the thing was the same. We disrupt this world order to bring you news that a better world is possible. Or better yet, we make witness to the intolerable order that has been stacked into the patterns of your brick canyon walls. On a sunny day in Houston Center, let the plainest principles of liberation shine.
In the everyday meme structure of Houston Center, colossal global power is resurrected with each new sunrise, each passing bus, each smoke break, each car payment, as the streets inhale and exhale the people, moving them from the fresh air of the suburbs into the capillaries of enormous corporate bodies. In and out, back and forth. A stunning and sublime system. Yet it is undeniable that these giant structures are toxic, rude, and imposing. I know it, you know it. Ever more deaths of folly.
GREG MOSES is editor of the Texas Civil Rights Review and author of Revolution of Conscience: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Philosophy of Nonviolence. His chapter on civil rights under Clinton and Bush appears in Dime’s Worth of Difference, edited by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org