For decades, Diane Wilson—a fourth-generation shrimper from Seadrift, Texas, a town roughly in the center of Texas’ Gulf coast—has been fighting to clean up the messes of the oil and petrochemical industries. First it was the chemicals pumped into a local bay by a plastics factory, then the Dow Chemical Company’s refusal to compensate the victims of the Bhopal disaster, then the Bush Administration’s decision to invade Iraq in what she believes was a war for oil.
Many protests and hunger strikes later, that plastics factory signed a zero discharge agreement. The anti-war group that Wilson helped found, Code Pink, has become a prominent national voice for peace. So it’s no wonder that Wilson is someone who believes in the power of protest—or that, when millions of gallons of oil started gushing into the waters she’d trolled since childhood, her anger turned into action.
That action has made national headlines and gotten Wilson dragged out of more than one Congressional hearing. On August 20, she’ll find out if it will land her in jail for two years. But for Wilson, who’s fond of saying that she’s “nobody particular,” there’s nothing exceptional or complicated about what she’s doing. “There comes a time,” she wrote, “when the home needs protecting and the line needs drawing and anybody that dares cross it acts at their own peril.”
Brooke Jarvis: People around the world have been horrified by this catastrophe. What has it been like for you and your neighbors in Seadrift?
Diane Wilson: It was almost like seeing your own death. You cannot imagine it, but it appears to be happening. I think many people thought they really might see the end of the whole Gulf, just filling up like a river of oil, just wiping out everything. People are very, very upset about it. They don’t know what to do, because what is there to do? They can't leave. Down here you are the 4th, 5th generation fishing or shrimping the same waters. You have a sense of place, and your identity is the place. I've been down here through I can't tell you how many hurricanes, and people don't leave even when they know a storm’s coming.
Brooke: The big news this week is the cap on the BP oil pipe. When the oil spill is finally stopped, are you worried that it will be forgotten—that there will be a feeling that the problem is solved and we can return to business as usual?
Diane: I worry a lot about that. I've been involved in environmental struggles on the Gulf Coast for 20 years, and I’ve seen how quickly we can forget. I was involved in the Bhopal struggle, which is basically about the problem of forgetting—after 25 years and 20,000 deaths, it’s not solved but it’s not in the news, either. And in Alaska, it’s been 20 years since the Exxon Valdez, and they only ever recovered 8 percent of the oil.
I know how fickle media is. I've been trying to get stories out about oil for 20 years. I've talked with agencies, I've talked with politicians, and wouldn’t get any response. I started to feel like maybe there was something the matter with me, maybe what I was horrified about wasn't so awful, so at times I really questioned myself. Then when we had this awful spill, suddenly almost those very same agencies and people were acting like it horrified them and they were immediately going to take action.
I know how the spotlight will change how people react, and I know how easily it goes away. We get bored very easily. I’m afraid that with even the littlest excuse, we will want to move on—people feel relieved to move away from this unpleasantness and from thinking about the big changes we need in this country. A lot of people would rather it just go away.
Brooke: What actions have you taken since the spill began, to keep the spotlight on?
Diane: People have a shield that protects them from bad news. It just kind of slides off, so you have to be very creative to break through. So one of our actions was inspired by women in Nigeria, who protested pollution from oil companies by taking off their clothes. I was amazed how much they accomplished nonviolently by pushing the comfort zone. So we went to BP’s control center in Houston, nude, and demanded “the naked truth” about oil. A lot of people said, "Oh no, you can't do something like that in Houston. It’s the Bible Belt; the media will not come.” But they did, and the protest got a lot of press. We also had people come dressed as fishermen, as mermaids, as BP workers. A fisherman in Sargent, Texas brought probably 100 pounds of dead fish and a pile of shrimp nets. We poured fake oil over everybody.
Later I decided to go to Washington, D.C., because that’s where the hearings were happening. I got some Karo syrup, the syrup they make pecan pies with in Texas, and security let me in with this half a gallon of goo labeled “oil” on the side. I waited for Sen. Lisa Murkowski, from Alaska, to start talking. She should know the cost of an oil spill, from the Exxon Valdez; she should know the value of fishermen and wilderness. Yet she was the senator who was blocking the vote to lift the liability cap for BP. So I just stood up and started yelling. I said that I was from the Gulf and we are sick and tired of being dumped on. I poured oil all over myself. At one point they were going to charge me for assault for getting syrup on the guard. They said it was the messiest protest they had ever had.
Video of Tony Hayward's Testimony
Then I heard that [BP CEO] Tony Hayward was going to testify. By this time I had Capitol cops following me everywhere, asking to see what was in my bag. I got to the Capitol at 10 o’clock the night before, and waited all night. They only let five people in—they were very, very nervous about anything happening. They wouldn’t let in any signs or anything that looked like it might be used in a demonstration, but they didn’t find the tube of paint I had in my pocket. When no one was looking I smeared it on my hands and face, and then I started yelling at Tony—I kept calling him Tony—that he ought to go to jail.
So I was arrested in one week on two different charges of unlawful conduct and resisting arrest. I’ve had to go to court twice already. At this point I'm probably looking at about 2 years.
Brooke: If you end up going to jail, will it be worth it?
Diane: Oh, yes. I've been to jail before. I did an action regarding Bhopal: I scaled a chemical tower and breached security and trespassed—I got 180 days in jail.
With these BP actions I had no idea what I would accomplish, but I felt I had to do something. I felt so much anger and rage about what was going on, especially because they were lying about it. Somehow Tony Hayward represented everything that I felt was being killed out there on the bay. Everybody calls this an accident, but it was inevitable—you take that kind of risk, and it will eventually come down to this.
Brooke: Realistically, what can we change by getting mad?
Diane: We can’t just be mad about this one spill. It’s part of a bigger problem, so we have to demand that there be bigger changes. That push is going to have to come from the people, from the grassroots.
Because I've been doing this for so long, I know that it sometimes takes very drastic and awful situations to change things. These times are critical windows when we can get things done—the only time when agencies and politicians and people are alarmed enough that we can move things.
Take offshore drilling. If all we have is a temporary ban, companies will be just waiting to start again when the six months are up. If that happens, what on Earth will we have learned from this monstrous problem?
We also have to make a decision about the type of energy we are using. It's not whether we are going to move away from oil, because we eventually will, but whether we’ll do it when we can make a smooth transition or when we’re forced to, which will be chaos. We don’t have the luxury of time.
And we have to do something about the power of corporations. They make their money using the resources of the whole planet, but they don’t get punished when they put it at risk. I think that people need to go to jail for this. We have to send a very clear message that you cannot take these kinds of risks without consequences.
We also have to change how we regulate corporations. Right now lots of them only self-report, and agencies don’t have budgets to check their reports or for enforcement.
Brooke: You’ve also been pushing to eliminate the cap on BP’s liability. Why is that so important?
Diane: It's flat out crazy, when you are making $90 million dollars a day, to say that $75 million is the most you should be made to pay in liability. Lisa Murkowski said we need that low limit because otherwise smaller, mom-and-pop oil companies couldn’t drill in the Gulf. What mom-and-pop oil companies? She should be worried about mom-and-pop shrimpers.
If you are not forced to pay big time for your mistakes then you don't value them. It gives the idea that you can take all kinds of chances and all kinds of shortcuts. I guarantee you that this planet cannot afford it. This is a finite planet and we are acting like its infinite.
Brooke: What would you say to people who are upset about the spill but don’t know what to do about it?
Diane: We are going to have to learn to not be so well behaved. We are going to have to move from our hearts. I have always believed that at some time in our lives, we will come across some information that just hits us, and what we do with that bit of information will determine the rest of our lives.
There are no excuses. If you look at the social changes that have been made in this country and all around the world, it is the people who seemed least able to make changes who did. We just forget that we have that kind of potential.
- YES! Magazine articles about the BP oil spill.
Photographer Kris Krug's powerful images from the Gulf of Mexico.
How to beat denial and rescue the planet.