Free Steven Donziger

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Since the 1970s, oil companies have been knowingly destroying the environment. Corporations like Exxon-Mobil, Royal Dutch Shell, Aramco, Chevron and Texaco have played some of the biggest parts in this. Texaco and Chevron, which merged in 2001, are the specific companies I will be discussing, but they’re all complicit. 

The crimes of these two companies can be traced all the way back to the 1930s, when Texaco CEO Torkild Rieber helped General Francisco Franco in his fascist takeover of Spain. We can also go to Nigeria from the ‘60s to the ‘90s, when oil was discovered in the Niger River Delta, and oil companies supported a series of military dictatorships in order to access the oil. One of the worst crimes took place in late May and early June 1998, when indigenous Ogoni activists occupied the Parabe Oil Platform in the Niger Delta to protest Chevron’s corruption and exploitation of their land. The Nigerian Navy and Secret Police (MOPOL) shot and killed two of those activists. There is evidence that MOPOL traveled on Chevron-leased helicopters. Chevron has also been responsible for massive oil spills in Angola in 2002 and 2015 and Brazil in 2011, and got in trouble last month for flaring smoke, fire and gas in Richmond, California. US cities like Richmond, which are diverse and have a disproportionately high Black community relative to the national demographics, are more likely to have a Chevron refinery in their city.  

The most relevant example of Chevron’s crimes for this article has to do with Ecuador. From 1964 to 1992, Texaco, acquired by Chevron, dumped 16 billion gallons of oil into the Ecuadorian Amazon Rainforest, which is not only one of the most important rainforests in the world, but also where a large percentage of Ecuador’s indigenous population lives. In 1993, attorney Steven Donziger took up the case and went after Texaco in court over destruction that has been described as “Amazon’s Chernobyl.” Donziger also described lakes filled with oil and roads covered in oil. When Chevron merged with Texaco in 2001, Chevron officially replaced Texaco as the defendant, and fought Donziger and the Ecuadorian people in courts for decades, but in 2011, the Supreme Court of Ecuador ruled against Chevron and demanded they pay reparations of $9 billion. Donziger led the team that won this court case. Chevron refused to pay up, alleging fraud on behalf of Donziger. If you speed and refuse to pay your $120 speeding ticket, you go to jail. If you’re a multinational corporation and you’re fined $9 billion, and you refuse to pay, what might happen to you? Let’s find out.  

In 2014, Chevron sued Donziger and he was ordered to turn over his phone and computer. He refused to do so. He was charged with contempt of court, and, since the public courts declined to take up the case, Judge Lewis Kaplan, a judge accused multiple times of pro-corporate bias, appointed a private law firm with ties to Chevron, Seward & Kissel LLP, to prosecute the case. He also appointed Judge Loretta Preska, another conservative judge with ties to Chevron and the Federalist Society and a long history of pro-corporate rulings, to preside over the case. Donziger was ordered under house arrest for about two years, a wildly unprecedented sentence for a contempt of court violation. Judge Preska has on multiple occasions refused to be cordial and listen to Donziger during the proceedings, even reading a newspaper as Donziger spoke at one point. Donziger was finally let out of house arrest and sentenced to two months in jail at the end of October. 

Donziger has been prosecuted by what I think is inarguably a kangaroo court: an evil corporation and two corrupt judges were more than happy to throw the rule of law, and future generations under the bus to serve a corporation that’s been knowingly and willfully destroying our only home to make a quick buck. Preska and Kaplan, not Donziger, should be found in contempt of court and should be spending 60 days in jail. The message seems clear: bow down to the corporate overlords or your life will be ruined. They liked the fact that they could get away with whatever they wanted in poorer countries like Angola and Ecuador, probably banking on the fact that most Americans likely had no idea what Angola or Ecuador are. When they actually faced consequences, a term I’m using lightly since 9 billion dollars is about half a year of Chevron profits, they were undoubtedly furious.  

Members of Congress have stood by Donziger, such as Rashida Tlaib of Detroit, Cori Bush of St. Louis, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York City. Rep. Jim McGovern of Massachussetts has been to Ecuador and corroborated Donziger’s accusations against the company. 

Donziger did the right thing and paid dearly for it, but the takeaway shouldn’t be that we shouldn’t try. When we, the people, stand up to the system, the system fights back, but it doesn’t mean we aren’t winning. Don’t let this sentence be a roadblock in the fight for environmental justice. Donziger has shown a willingness to sacrifice his own personal safety and comfort for people he’d never met before. Or, to channel my inner Bernie Sanders (and his call to action at his rally in Queens two years ago), Steve Donziger fought for people he didn’t know. If everyone resolved to be more like Steve Donziger, the world would be a better place. It still can be.