The Real Waste Behind the Phony Anti-Chevron Protesters

The mystery of the fake anti-Chevron protest continues to thicken. As I reported last week, the oil company’s May 28 annual shareholder meeting in Midland, Tex., drew an environmental demonstration populated by phony participants who were paid $85 each to wave signs and shout slogans.

“It seemed very staged,” Maria Garay told me Monday. A Brooklyn (N.Y.)-based public relations executive, Garay helped promote the event but said she had nothing to do with the fake demonstrators. She doesn’t know who they were or who paid them. “There was a tall guy with platinum blond hair who was telling them what to chant and where to stand,” Garay said.

Normally, the identity of the platinum blond guy—and, for that matter, this entire bizarre episode—might seem like a minor embarrassment to serious opponents of pollution. It’s more important, though, because it’s emblematic of the dishonesty that has come to permeate a two-decade-long activist campaign focused on oil contamination in Ecuador.

Now the mini-fiasco in Midland has Garay and other self-styled advocates for the poor and oppressed in the Ecuadorian rain forest pointing fingers at each other. The sideshow distracts from real ecological damage done over the years—by both U.S. oil drillers and their Ecuadorian counterparts. A brief recap from my previous dispatch about the antics at Chevron’s annual meeting:

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. …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[s] 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.”

When I called Gilbert in Los Angeles, she didn’t dispute the authenticity of the recruiting e-mail and she confirmed she had been in Midland filming the action. She denied that she had organized the demonstration, wouldn’t say on whose behalf she’d done the filming, and professed ignorance as to who’d paid the “extras.” Gilbert hasn’t returned follow-up calls or e-mail.

Karen Hinton, the public relations person for Steven Donziger, the lead plaintiffs’ lawyer in a massive lawsuit against Chevron, said their legal team hadn’t paid the demonstrators. Donziger won a $19 billion judgment against Chevron in Ecuador in 2011. But in March, U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan ruled in New York that Donziger’s victory was based on fabricated evidence, bribery, and extortion—findings that Donziger has denied and appealed. Hinton suggested I contact MCSquared, a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based public relations firm that had promoted the Midland protest and has done work for the Republic of Ecuador, which backs the lawsuit against Chevron.

MCSquared is Maria Garay’s firm. She and a colleague, Jean Paul Borja, were also in Midland for the protest and pumped out multiple press releases about it. They said their role was limited to assisting two indigenous tribe members who traveled from Ecuador to Midland. The tribe members weren’t paid, Garay said. One of them,  Humberto Piaguaje, is heavily involved in the Donziger lawsuit, but Garay said she’s never met Donziger or Hinton. Amazon Watch, a San Francisco-based group that has organized other anti-Chevron protests in cooperation with Donziger and Hinton, likewise said via e-mail it didn’t have anything to do with the Midland caper.

Garay directed me to an interesting post by Lindsay Abrams, an assistant editor at Salon who writes about sustainability. Abrams interviewed some of the Midland protesters who would provide only their first names and who identified themselves with yet another group, Toxic Effect, whose members she said “mostly hail from South American nations.” According to Abrams, Toxic Effect ran a paid “brandjacking” campaign on Twitter to coincide with the Chevron annual meeting.

On its own website, Toxic Effect confirmed that it created the hashtag #AskChevron in hopes that Twitter users would assume that the company itself sponsored the campaign (which it did not). The elaborate psy-ops gambit apparently worked. Many Twitter users replied to #AskChevron with venomous condemnations of the company. #AskChevron was tweeted more than 9,000 times.

There’s a further connection between the Midland rent-a-protesters and #AskChevron. DFLA Films urged potential hires to visit the Facebook page for “Chevroff.” (get it? Instead of Chevron.) The Chevroff page prominently features links to #AskChevron, including an image of Michelle Obama manipulated to make it look as if the First Lady is holding a sign that says, “#AskChevron about environmental disaster.” The photo—like #AskChevron and the Midland protest—is a trick.

I don’t know the identity of the platinum blond guy, whether he paid the extras, or which of these groups he’s with, if any. In the end, that doesn’t matter very much. What does matter is that an awful lot of people are investing time, energy, and money in empty theatrics that aren’t getting even a puddle of rogue oil cleaned up. By playing deceitful games—in court, on the street, and online—supposed activists are undercutting the credibility of the cause they profess to represent.

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