On August 6th, 2012 at approximately 6:30 p.m., an explosion occurred at the Chevron petroleum refinery in the city of Richmond, California. The resulting fire burned for several hours, releasing a plume of black smoke over the area, until it was finally contained over four hours later. The toxic cloud was visible for miles; between 11,000 and 15,000 people were treated for respiratory problems and other illnesses. The incident was caused by the ignition of diesel that was leaking from a pipe on a crude distillation unit.
Nearly one year later, on Saturday, August 3rd, over 1,200 people (possibly 2,800 according to a police estimate) marched from the Richmond Station of the Bay Area Rapid Transit system to the Chevron refinery. Upon reaching the refinery’s large, gated entrance, protected by a line of police officers, the protesters gathered around a stage and listened to the event organizers and a panel of invited guest speakers. The speeches were completed, and an announcement was made to prepare for the planned, civil disobedience action: a crossing of the refinery’s property line by protesters willing to defy police directives, and subsequent arrests. By the end of the protest, 209 people had been arrested on suspicion of trespassing, cited, and released. One person was arrested on suspicion of assault for punching a protester.
Those are the facts – summarized and simplified – of the recent protest. Here is my opinion, based on what I experienced.
The protest was a textbook demonstration of controlled opposition, only this event’s restraint was not secretly steered by some sinister, corporate insider who managed to infiltrate our peaceful green ranks. This was a self-inflicted dose of futility! The rally that began the morning, the march to the refinery, and the time spent at their entrance likely caused no disruption in Chevron’s operations. In fact, Chevron released a statement in response to the protest, reflecting just how unshaken they were by the entire exercise: “Chevron respects the rights of individuals to express their viewpoints in a nonviolent manner.” Thanks.
In my mind, I began criticizing the protest’s effectiveness early as we marched the streets of Richmond. While recently living in Ecuador (a country with a massive Chevron problem!), I wrote in a CounterPunch article that I might never return to the United States because the people screwing everything up (see Chevron again, among many others) were simply not listening to us. All the protests and occupations do not seem to work, and yet here I was again, holding my banner high and half-heartedly participating in timeworn chants. Would this protest be any different?
My inner doubt continued as the speakers took the stage. One of the organizers invited anybody with a Chevron customer card to approach the stage and cut their plastic up. Not a bad idea. About four people partook in that mini-divestment. Later the Mayor of Richmond, Gayle McLaughlin, spoke contemptuously of Chevron’s track record in her city, and that her government has initiated a lawsuit against the corporation. Good! Then a speaker mentioned how our protest was part of a larger movement, including groups in Canada that were busy occupying Chevron gas stations across their country. For the first time, my real voice erupted for hundreds of people to hear: “That’s what we should be doing!”
The speakers concluded and we moved towards the guarded gate to support those who would be arrested. I continued shouting like crazy but only at the riot-gear cops, who looked ridiculous in their nightmare ninja-turtle costumes. It’s a good thing Kevlar can stop a gently-tossed sunflower because that’s what we, the enemy, were packing! After I had unloaded enough jokes about storm troopers and Darth Vader giving them the day off, some guys around me found their voices too. The group yelled out repeatedly “Arrest Chevron!” and I hung back, joining the chorus. Hey, you don’t want to stick out too much; any one of these Robocops is liable to short-circuit and start a Taser tickle fight.
However, after a few rounds of group shouts, my doubtful feelings from earlier returned. I fell silent. Questions and criticisms swirled about in my head. Will this cause Chevron to even flinch? Shouldn’t we at least be at the gas stations, educating and dissuading their potential customers? We’re out in the middle of nowhere! If there are 2,000 people here, we could easily have teams of 100 protesting at 20 locations! Arrest who? It’s Saturday! There probably aren’t any high-ranking employees in the offices to arrest! We’re yelling at stone-faced storm troopers posed in front of an empty parking lot! We aren’t even protesting on a weekday, which might make it slightly harder or embarrassing for the employees to arrive! Why are we cheering each individual arrest? These old ladies look absolutely delighted to be fitted for their new plastic, zip-tie bracelets! Does an arrest mean anything if there is no resistance, if it is a planned and posed for, like a photo-op with Santa?
I turned away from the gate to walk around the entire scene. Towards the back there were about five kids wearing all white outfits, splashing themselves with a dark liquid and pretending to be suffering its ill effects. Nearly everyone’s attention was focused forward on the gate, the media was absent at the moment, and the refinery is far removed from any casual, passerby attention. Who is your little spectacle meant for, each other? What’s the point? One of the kids started playing his guitar and they all began to dance around and sing. A famous Malcolm X quote immediately came to mind: “This is part of what’s wrong with you – you do too much singing! Today it’s time to stop singing and start swinging!” He said this after having lightly mocked the overuse of the song “We Shall Overcome” which, incidentally, was among the hits heard from Saturday’s protesters.
Now, I do not call for violence in this instance. I interpret “swinging” to mean effective action, as opposed to “singing,” which I take to mean repetitive actions proven to be ineffectual. If the people at the Chevron Richmond Refinery consider their event a form of swinging, then in my opinion the protest was at best a swing and a miss, and at worst just more of the same old singing, and a self-imposed form of controlled opposition.
To my fellow CounterPunchers and protesters from Saturday’s event who don’t like my critique, I say this: Go ahead and take it personally. I sure did when three people at the rally gave me dirty looks and disapproving remarks for yelling aggressively at the cops. We will not always agree. Wouldn’t it be boring to visit the same website every day knowing that each article will simply affirm all of our progressive beliefs? So take the criticism and reconsider what our typical protest format actually accomplishes.
Finally, I salute Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin for her legal action against Chevron, and I commend the event organizers for their time and energy. Thank you very much. Despite my harsh assessment of the protest, I’ll probably see you at the next one. I can’t seem to stay away.
James Madden has written three articles for Counterpunch. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org