Five Years Later, Direct Action Has Changed

On March 15, 2008, Direct Action To Stop The War (DASW) organized a rally and action at the Chevron Richmond Refinery to kickstart a series of nationwide protests to mark the fifth anniversary of the war in Iraq and expose Chevron’s links to war, global warming, and environmental racism. Operating under a public tactic of stopping all stolen Iraqi oil from entering or leaving the Chevron Refinery by boat, bike, and blockade, activists stopped all trucks from refueling at the refinery for half a day. This action reveals some of the changes within the direct action arm of the movement against the war in Iraq.

Although both activists and the media expressed positive surprise at the healthy turnout, the number of people on the streets in San Francisco and elsewhere was far lower than the numbers seen in 2003, when 500,000 people protested in New York City and 20,000 people (with 2,150 arrests) shut down San Francisco’s financial district. Interestingly, over the past five years, opposition to the war has moved from being a marginal to a mainstream sentiment. 

David Solnit, organizer with DASW and member of Courage To Resist, argues that comparisons of overall turnout are not an accurate reflection of our success or of the powerful shifts taking place in the anti-war movement. "For one, we’re at a different time in history," he says. The 2003 actions were built on a year-long campaign to stop the U.S. from invading Iraq; it was an historical moment. In contrast DASW took four months to organize 2008′s actions for what was essentially, and unfortunately, one of many anniversaries. Solnit also maintains that focusing on turnout at marches "ignores the thousands of people who are below the media’s radar belt, involved in sustained community campaigns against the institutions that are holding up the war, like military recruiting stations, shifting power relations, and creating a crisis for the military industrial complex…. In 2008, we need a different measuring stick." 

In contrast to 2003 DASW made a strategic decision to prioritize targets that were directly propping up the war in Iraq, such as military recruiting stations, corporations that profit from and provide services to the war, and media corporations that have a bias against the war. Understanding that sustained, ongoing campaigns are generally more effective than one-off mass actions, DASW also prioritized targets that were already subject to ongoing campaigns so activist energy  could be channeled into supporting existing struggles. 

Based on these principles, Chevron was an obvious target. According to the Department of Energy, the oil multinational’s Richmond facility refines around 1.1 million barrels of Iraqi oil a month. Chevron is also lobbying the U.S. government and the Iraqi parliament to pass the Iraqi oil law, which would allow for two-thirds of Iraq’s oil fields to be controlled by foreign companies, such as Chevron. 

The speaker list on March 15 revealed the breadth of the ongoing campaigns against Chevron. Intermingled with a variety of folk bands, rappers, and hip hop artists, we had the newly elected Green Party mayor of Richmond, Gail McLaughlin, and Henry Clark from West County Toxics Coalition. Jessica Tovar, from Communities for a Better Environment, criticized the Richmond refinery’s role in polluting local communities—increasing asthma, cancer, and death rates. The speakers called on the Richmond City Council to deny Chevron’s current request to expand. Amazon Watch and the Filipino American Coalition for Environmental Solidarity were among those criticizing Chevron’s polluting activities worldwide—from Ecuador to the Philippines to Nigeria to Burma. Nina Rizzo from Global Exchange exposed the link between Chevron and global warming. DASW organizers shared information about the ongoing campaigns against Chevron and encouraged anti-war activists to attend the Richmond City Council Planning Commission meeting to oppose Chevron’s proposal to expand the refinery. 

Highlighting the interconnectedness of various struggles is another strategy that has become more common within the anti-war movement. Last year for the first time there were two actions—one in Washington, DC in October, another at Chevron’s headquarters in San Ramon, California in March. Both actions linked "war and warming." Such a strategy has its benefits. By building alliances between movements and organizations around common interests it allows us to build the power we need to challenge the war. Solnit commented that: "Actions like this also make the impacts of the war more tangible. Instead of just talking about 4,000 dead soldiers, we’re also talking about the people in communities near the Chevron refinery who have cancer and asthma, we’re talking about corporations that are making billions from the war as our economy tanks." 

According to Jen Angel, a DASW organizer, countering apathy and keeping people involved in direct action during an election year needs to be a key focus for the anti-war movement. "When we articulate a compelling and effective strategy, then people will stay involved. When we don’t, people who are frustrated look to the Democratic Party who say, ‘We’ll make the changes for you, we’ll pull out of Iraq.’ But they won’t."

Unfortunately, there are many factors that work against people believing that direct action works. For instance, Chevron consistently claimed to the media that its operations were "not affected" by the protests. Mainstream media coverage also failed to mention up and coming actions that viewers and readers could participate in. A one-off action tends to look weak when it’s not couched within the contexts of a broader movement. Imagine the story: "Activists swarmed refinery for half a day then left with questionable impact on operations." Would you get involved in an action like that? 

A direct action blockading war oil profiteers in California—photo by Camilla Johnson

But the Chevron action was effective. The fondly-named DASW Yacht Club (some boats and a kayak) sailed around the refinery’s pier. They didn’t stop tankers from docking and employees still went to work, but no trucks entered the refinery (for a half day) to fuel as a result of DASW’s blockade. As trucks usually enter the refinery every three to five minutes, this was a success story that organizers need to make known. Perhaps one of the most powerful antidotes to apathy is being a part of powerful actions where people witness their collective power, be it through stopping oil trucks, filling highways with people, or generating enough political strength to control the action. 

"People have the power to stop the refinery any time we want to, to stop the processing of stolen Iraqi oil," Richmond resident and environmental justice activist, Dr. Henry Clark, told the San Jose Mercury News. This is true. Our generation of change makers has a lot of power. The protests in Seattle in 1999 in opposition to the World Trade Organization were a key ingredient in a larger effort by citizens in both the global north and south that has led to the WTO’s steady demise. People power against the war in Iraq will yield similar results. 


Jessica Bell is an organizer with Direct Action To Stop The War.