Tiger Tussle

ExxonMobil gets rough when activists dressed as tigers infiltrate the company's Irving HQ

Oh, they were sneaky. They split into several squads for the raid. Their mission: Infiltrate the headquarters of a $213-billion-company—ExxonMobil—number two on the Fortune 500. Their odds for success had to be poor. After all, they had targeted the corporation with the largest private collection of oil and gas reserves in the world. It is also the largest oil refiner and the biggest producer of natural gas. ExxonMobil provides security for highly combustible facilities all over the planet, many under constant threat of terrorist attack. Its forested 100-acre H.Q. in tony Las Colinas in suburban Dallas shields the brain center of a massive corporate enterprise. One imagines an impenetrable stronghold to protect 400 employees, including ExxonMobil’s long-time Chairman and Chief Executive Lee Raymond—a man who reportedly can arrange meetings with Prime Minister Tony Blair or White House mastermind Karl Rove just by picking up the phone.

The attack was quick and brazen, mixing new tactics with old. It had been planned for the day before ExxonMobil’s annual shareholder meeting scheduled to be held at the Dallas symphony hall. The plotters sprang into action shortly before 8 a.m. on Tuesday, May 27, 2003. Eight of the interlopers, most dressed in suits, had the audacity to drive a limousine—slowly—past an untroubled security checkpoint and through the front gate, according to the British newspaper The Guardian. Fortunately for ExxonMobil, these were not terrorists in suits, but Greenpeace activists trying to make a political point. They walked into the lobby and began to hand out leaflets to arriving workers highlighting ExxonMobil’s lead role in global climate change.

Amongst the folks clad in business attire were two activists dressed as tigers—not fierce tigers mind you, but the happy cartoon ones that both ExxonMobil and Kellogg have fought in court to claim as a trademark.

That’s when it began to get strange.

While the group in the lobby handed out literature, another Greenpeace team chained itself to the gates that surround the compound. In all, there were 34 people who took part that day who were arrested. A team of three activists dressed as tigers used a ladder to climb to the roof of the main building, accompanied by a videographer. Once on top, the tigers began to play catch with a balloon globe. It took two ladder trucks from the Irving Fire Department to apprehend the frolicking tigers. When police officers finally got on the roof, the activists peacefully gave up, an Irving police department spokesman told reporters. Having made their point, the tigers removed their cheerfully goofy masks, lay face down, and submitted to handcuffing.

A number of the Greenpeace direct-action crew that day had come from other countries, primarily European ones. But they were now in Texas, and about to experience Lone Star justice. In the lobby, the tiger situation turned serious. A 67-year-old security guard named Jim Yoakum tried to show a costumed activist who was boss. What transpired in the ensuing tiger tussle, and throughout ExxonMobil’s headquarters that May morning is currently the subject of a civil lawsuit against Greenpeace, and, sources say, the incident is under consideration by the Dallas District Attorney for serious criminal charges as well.

The Texas litigation is part of a legal onslaught against Greenpeace that could have significant consequences for the future of peaceful protest in the United States. The Irving cases come on the heels of an unprecedented Bush Justice Department prosecution of Greenpeace. Attorney General John Ashcroft dusted off a federal maritime statute not used in more than a century to prosecute the organization for a 2002 incident during which two activists armed with a banner boarded a ship off the coast of Miami to protest illegal logging.

Justice officials deny the Miami case is a political prosecution. A corporate spokesman for ExxonMobil said the company refuses to discuss ongoing litigation. “We are just not commenting, period,” said Tom Cirigliano, ExxonMobil spokesman. Phone calls to the Dallas DA’s office were not returned. But these three separate but simultaneous prosecutions against Greenpeace—the Miami indictment, possible felony charges by the Dallas DA, and the civil suit brought by ExxonMobil—illuminate a curious pattern, particularly in light of ExxonMobil’s role as one of the GOP’s most generous corporate patrons. Is there a government-industry conspiracy to clamp down on peaceful protests of the Bush administration’s pro-corporate policies?

“There doesn’t need to be a direct connection,” believes John Pasacantando, GreenpeaceUSA’s executive director. “[There] is a mood in the country by a handful of elites that they do not want dissent and Greenpeace appears to be target A-1.”

In February 2004, a well-respected senior analyst in the U.S. Defense Department shared the contents of his report on climate change with a few media outlets. One of them, Fortune magazine—not exactly an organ of environmental alarmism—dubbed its story “The Pentagon’s Weather Nightmare,” and subtitled it, “The Climate could change radically, and fast. That would be the mother of all national security issues.” The story detailed a theory of a global tipping point involving a warming-induced change in ocean currents and weather patterns. Once triggered, it could result in generations of natural disasters, even an eventual ice age. Increased pressure on the U.S. southern border and the escalation of war throughout the world were two of the resulting security threats discussed in the report. The first irrefutable signs of such drastic climate changes might appear as early as 2020.

That it took a power like the Pentagon to inject a little reality into the Bush administration’s head-in-the-sand approach to global warming can likely be credited in no small part to ExxonMobil. Greenpeace charges the Texas-based multinational—heir to Rockefeller’s Standard Oil—with doing the most of any company to block real action on halting global warming. Taking into account the corporation’s longevity and its industry dominance, the environmental group Friends of the Earth recently tagged ExxonMobil with causing 4.7 percent to 5.3 percent of the world’s industrial carbon dioxide emissions from 1882 to 2002. But it is ExxonMobil’s aggressive and sustained campaign to influence the U.S. government’s efforts to reverse warming trends that may well earn it special condemnation from future generations.

Since at least the late 1980s, the oil industry has funded and promoted science and public relations to downplay or deny global climate change. Industry has provided a cover for compliant politicians and helped minimize public outcry. But after almost 20 years, there are few major oil companies that aren’t bowing to reality and at least making a feint in the direction of concern. For example, both Shell and British Petroleum have made token investments in renewable energy development. But ExxonMobil is still not willing to admit that the science exists to prove conclusively climate change is underway nor will the company concede that the carbon dioxide from its products is largely responsible. Even as the world oil supply declines, ExxonMobil seemingly refuses to consider altering its business plan. The company’s position on renewable energy can be characterized as bottom-line oriented and the planet be damned. “In our view, current [sic]renewable technologies do not offer near-term promise for profitable investment relative to attractive opportunities that we see in our core business. Therefore, we have chosen not to pursue investments in renewable energy options,” reads a 2004 ExxonMobil report.

Exxon has long been an industry leader in the promotion of pseudo-science on climate, Greenpeace charges. The group notes that in 1997, BP left an industry-sponsored front group called the Global Climate Coalition (GCC), whose efforts had helped to muddy the debate on global warming. By the end of 2000, Ford, Texaco, and General Motors had pulled out of the group. ExxonMobil didn’t leave the GCC until two years later. By the time it departed, ExxonMobil had helped drive a stake into the Kyoto Protocol, the global treaty that mandated greenhouse gas reductions by 2012.

In March 2001, Bush withdrew from the Kyoto treaty signed by the Clinton administration. The U.S. is responsible for as much as 25 percent of greenhouse gases, according to government scientists. The government’s refusal to participate in the treaty leaves a gaping hole in the planetary response to global warming. While it’s unclear exactly what dollar amount the Bush administration’s actions—from the Kyoto withdrawal to weakened emissions regulations to the promise of new access to oil fields in Iraq—will add to ExxonMobil’s bottom line, it is safe to say the sum will dwarf the $1.2 million in donations the company gave the GOP in the 2000 election cycle.

In an administration dominated by Big Oil, the company and the White House sing from the same hymnal. One Greenpeace report notes that immediately after the U.S. ended its participation in the Kyoto treaty, ExxonMobil took out advertisements describing the accord as “fundamentally flawed” and “fatally politicized.” Two months later, Bush publicly blasted the Kyoto

treaty as “fatally flawed in fundamental ways.”

It’s the magic of the Internet that anyone with a computer with access to the World Wide Web can view at least part of the Great ExxonMobil Tiger Tussle. Hosted on the GreenpeaceUSA website (http://www.dontbuyexxonmobil.org/posting/1055350222) is a video with about 10 seconds of remarkable footage from within the lobby on that May day in Irving. ExxonMobil security cameras also caught the ensuing events and a two-page affidavit by Jim Yoakum—the elderly security guard who scuffled with the tiger—rounds out the picture of what occurred.

Once the tigers got into the ExxonMobil foyer they started running through the headquarters, jumping, making whooping noises, and prancing as guards tried in vain to usher them out. Yoakum hurried to the rescue of a female supervisor, Mary Metz, whom he believed was struggling with a solitary and uncooperative tiger near the exit.

“I went to assist Ms. Metz and attempted to escort this individual from the premises,” testified Yoakum. “This individual resisted and struggled with me and caused bruising, cuts, and bleeding to my left hand.”

The alleged injuries to a senior citizen, occurring as they did during an alleged criminal conspiracy, could, in the hands of an exceptionally creative prosecutor, bring about a charge of felony riot against Greenpeace. Lawyers for the activist organization believe ExxonMobil is presently trying to get Dallas County DA Bill Hill to press such serious charges against the group.

In the video, Yoakum, a heavyset man, is seen with his arms around the neck of a costumed activist, whose tail flaps as he is bounced about by the stocky security guard. The tiger appears to be trying to keep a non-confrontational posture, with his arms down. “The guard has him by the throat and the tiger is not touching him,” observes Robert Renneker, who is representing Greenpeace in the civil case that came out of that day. “How can there be assault, at least by the tiger?”

It’s almost a year since the Irving incident and still Dallas DA Hill has yet to formalize his charges. “Normally these cases are handled as misdemeanor criminal trespasses,” says Christy Williams, a Dallas lawyer who is representing GreenpeaceUSA in the criminal matter. “There isn’t any extra looking at it. It just goes through the process like any other normal case.”

But when it comes to Greenpeace, criminal prosecutions as of late are far from normal. In the Miami prosecution, the U.S. attorney persuaded a grand jury to indict Greenpeace in the first-ever successful criminal prosecution of an entire activist organization for its protest methods. This is a distinction that not even the Ku Klux Klan or Operation Rescue has earned. “What is remarkable is that we are making history here,” says Greenpeace’s Pasacantando. “Throughout American history people have done this kind of nonviolent, peaceful dissent.”

The Miami charges came 15 months after the April 12, 2002, incident, when two Greenpeace activists boarded the 965-foot APL Jade as it was about three miles off the Miami coastline. Activists alleged that the ship carried 70 tons of Amazon mahogany and that Bush is not doing enough to prevent logging of such hardwoods. The protest follows a deliberate strategy to make Bush accountable for his administration’s policies. (Shortly after his inauguration, the group put up a banner near the president’s ranch in Crawford that labeled him the “toxic Texan.”)

In Miami, the activists wore shirts that proclaimed themselves the “Greenpeace illegal forest crime unit.” They carried a banner reading “President Bush, Stop illegal logging.” Rather than slap Greenpeace with standard misdemeanor charges, Ashcroft’s Justice Department decided to indict them under an 1873 law designed to prevent brothel owners from boarding ships in harbor to entice sailors to visit their prostitutes on shore. The law had only been used twice—both occasions in the 19th century. A New York judge who examined the statute the year it was enacted dubbed its language “inartistic and obscure,” according to press accounts.

But the penalties that could be levied against Greenpeace if a judge does not dismiss the indictment are very real. Conviction could result in five years of probation for the organization with conditions like forbidding Greenpeace from performing civil disobedience, stripping the organization of its nonprofit tax status, and allowing the government to review its finances, operations, and membership. The Miami indictment has unleashed a slew of negative criticism against the Bush administration from editorial pages, black civil rights veterans, and even former Vice President Al Gore, a frequent target of Greenpeace while in office.

A trial has tentatively been set for May. As the Observer went to press, a district judge was examining three motions by Greenpeace: to dismiss the case outright, to allow the activist organization to perform discovery on the Justice Department to determine whether the case is selective prosecution, and to mandate a jury trial for the organization since the offense, while petty, carries serious consequences.

In the Irving case, Greenpeace’s Pasacantando says the group went out of its way to perform its action in the same nonviolent style it has cultivated for 33 years. “As the rules are laid down to us from Gandhi and King, it is completely non-violent. It is not only non-violent, it’s not even aggressive-looking,” he says. “When you’ve got people dressed in tiger costumes dancing around on the roof of a building that tells you something about how we want the employees to see this. We want the employees to both realize the damage their company is doing to the earth through global warming and through fighting solutions to global warming, but we don’t want anybody to feel threatened.”

Clearly, someone with authority within ExxonMobil feels plenty threatened.

ourt filings by ExxonMobil against Greenpeace arising out of the Irving action paint the activist organization as a dangerous menace to the company. The documents mainly detail the actions of a high-profile campaign Greenpeace has run for several years against the company’s Eur
pean affiliate Esso, to alert consu
ers to ExxonMobil’s role in global warming. In the United States, until the assault on the headquarters, Greenpeace’s civil disobedience against ExxonMobil had been limited to one incident apiece in New York City and Los Angeles, where activists chained themselves to gas pumps at service stations in 2002. Despite the lack of much protest activity by Greenpeace against the company in this country, a Texas court agreed that the organization presented a danger to ExxonMobil and granted its request for a temporary restraining order against civil disobedience targeting the company—nationwide.

A Greenpeace lawyer appealed the case to the Fifth District, arguing in part that the Texas court had no authority to grant such an order outside of Texas. The Court of Appeals for the Fifth District of Texas in Dallas denied the appeal. Greenpeace lawyers now have the options of filing a motion for rehearing from the court of appeals and petitioning the Texas Supreme Court for review.

Greenpeace’s Dallas lawyer in the civil matter, Robert Renneker, believes ExxonMobil’s actions against the activists are motivated by a desire to prevent Greenpeace from calling the company out on its conduct. “I think it’s the embarrassment of having their corporate headquarters violated in such a low-tech fashion and trying to stifle the argument without addressing the argument are the two reasons,” he says.

But ExxonMobil is going against traditions that form part of the core of the United States. “It started before the revolution on the docks of Boston when people dressed as Indians broke the law by throwing tea overboard,” Renneker notes.

And while Greenpeace’s Pasacantando says the group’s focus is environmental, it will defend its civil rights if need be. “We haven’t begun to fight yet in Texas,” says Pasacantando. “We’ve been kind of hoping that Exxon would see the error of its ways and realize they are on the wrong side of history and American traditions.”

But Pasacantando says Greenpeace won’t back off if ExxonMobil continues. “We are fully prepared to show the people of Texas and the United States that ExxonMobil is behaving irresponsibly here both in terms of its treatment of global warming and also in terms of its treatment of free speech.”

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Published at 12:00 am CST