Faux Activism: Recruiting Anti-Chevron Protesters for $85 a Head

Protesters demonstrate against Chevron in front of a U.S. courthouse in New York on Oct. 15, 2013 Photograph by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

In March, a federal judge in New York ruled that the 20-year-long legal campaign against Chevron over oil pollution in Ecuador was actually a bribe-fueled fraud. This week in Texas, anti-Chevron activists recruited phony paid protesters to picket the company’s annual shareholder meeting.

Some people apparently don’t learn from experience.

Several dozen demonstrators gathered outside the Permian Basin Petroleum Museum in Midland to condemn Chevron, which held its annual meeting on Wednesday at the historic site in the west Texas oil patch. Humberto Piaguaje, one of the indigenous Ecuadorian leaders involved in a massive lawsuit against the oil company, helped lead the sign-waving, slogan-chanting cohort. To fill out the ranks of the demonstration, a Los Angeles-based production company offered local residents $85 apiece to serve as what the firm described in a recruiting e-mail as “extras/background people.”

Julieta Gilbert, executive producer of DFLA Films, said in the e-mail that the company “need to get a group of people to help us document this event. … We will pay each one of them $85. They will be there for a couple of hours (8am to 12 pm). We need ethically [sic] diverse people.”

She obviously meant “ethnically diverse,” but the typo seems illuminating in a Freudian sense. In case anyone missed her point, Gilbert listed the following: “Caucasian, Hispanic, African American and Asian.” Native Americans and Pacific Islanders apparently needn’t have applied for the job.

Television station NewsWest 9 reported the faux protest on its website, noting that viewers “took to our Facebook page this morning saying they received e-mails bribing them with $85 to join this protest.” When I called Gilbert in Los Angeles, she said she “didn’t organize” the protest but only “helped with it.” She professed confusion as to who exactly had commissioned the event and whose idea it was to pay $85 a person for “extras.” She didn’t dispute the authenticity of the recruiting e-mail and she said she’d been in Texas for the May 28 protest and had just returned to California.

I next contacted Karen Hinton, the public-relations person for Steven Donziger, the lead plaintiffs’ lawyer in the lawsuit against Chevron and the mastermind of a long-running media crusade against the oil company. Donziger won a $19 billion judgment against Chevron in Ecuador in 2011. In March, U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan in New York ruled that Donziger’s victory was based on fabricated evidence, bribery, and extortion—findings that Donziger has denied and appealed. Of the Midland protest, Hinton said via e-mail: “We were not involved at all. Call MCSquared. They handled.”

MCSquared, based in Brooklyn, N.Y., bills itself as “a public relations firm with a team of multi-cultured, multi-generational, highly skilled professionals with more than 20 years of experience in cultural adaptation processes, cross-border business, large-scale and private/intimate event planning.” According to Hinton, MCSquared works for the Republic of Ecuador. The Ecuadorian government has publicly allied itself with Donziger and his clients in attacking Chevron and seeking to get the company to pay up on the (fraudulent) Ecuadorian judgment.

Ecuador has been sponsoring protests around the world against Chevron—events promoted by MCSquared. In her Texas recruiting e-mail, Gilbert said, “We have done many of these events all across the U.S. and abroad.” She directed recipients to a Facebook page called “Chevroffnow.” The Facebook page features prominently an image of Michelle Obama manipulated so that it appears as if she is holding a sign that reads, “#AskChevron about environmental disaster.”

I called Jean-Paul Borja, the contact person identified on a press release MCSquared posted online about the protest at the Chevron shareholders’ meeting in Midland. Borja did not return my call. The press release noted that signs at the demonstration “read, ‘Chevron, you can run but you can’t hide,’ alluding to the company’s decision to hold the annual meeting in Midland, a remote city located in the oil-rich region of the Permian Basin, instead of its San Ramon, Calif., headquarters, allegedly to avoid protesters.”

Or, it turned out, fake protesters.

Chevron spokesman Morgan Crinklaw told me that Chevron was not “hiding” in Midland. Periodically, he said, the company holds its meeting outside of San Ramon. It chose Midland this year because of the city’s historical significance to the oil industry.

So what to make of these developments? Litigation that evolves into racketeering. Protests populated by paid extras. Facebook palaver that resembles Soviet-era agitprop. Whatever one thinks of how the oil industry operates, none of this morally empty activism serves the interests of the poor people in the rain forest.

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