Hands down White boy! Privilege and oil spills in New Orleans

11 Mar 2014 james
A civil rights picketer in Canal Street, New Orleans. From the Marion James Porter Collection

“I came to realise that I needed “Hey-White-Boy-don’t-keep-putting-your-hand-up-training”. Yotam Marom, who came to the attention of the US media in 2011 through his role in the early days of Occupy Wall Street, is explaining his views on how to be a ‘leader’ in a ‘leaderless organisation’. He’s a young White man from Hoboken, New Jersey. “We need to develop a different kind of leadership. One in which groups lead rather than leaders lead. And this is a model in which it has to be possible to hold any ‘leader’ accountable.” Yotam, along with Jordan Howard and Raj Patel, is speaking as part of a plenary session entitled Let a thousand leaders bloom. It is an exploration of issues in the social movement that has been receiving wider recognition in the wake of Occupy, a movement being built upon the philosophies of confronting power & privilege and anti-oppression work. The panel is part of the Environmental Grantmakers Association 2013 Fall Retreat.

Much of the language being used around the session is distinctly American  and seems a little alien to me. The description of the event in the program, explains that the organisers want attendees to gain ‘a better understanding of the many on-ramps to leadership within social movements’. But the driving force of the thinking that is being articulated is abundantly clear. It is a philosophy that underpins Environmental Justice.

In America, this philosophy draws inspiration from the US Civil Rights and Black Power movements, the American Indian Movement and indigenous mobilisations, and women’s liberation struggles. It is a way of imagining built on the experience of People of Colour and women. It is constructed on the deep conviction that all these people should be enabled to realise their power. That those who for five centuries have held power by virtue of such things as gender, class and skin colour, should have this privilege challenged. It is, perhaps in part, a confrontation of the myth of the righteousness of the Pilgrim Fathers, an unmasking of the moment when the English men who established Jamestown began to wage war on the Powhattan and purchase enslaved West Africans.

The Environmental Justice movement has evolved since the 1970’s. Its growth has been catalysed by key battles particularly where poor working class neighbourhoods and communities of color have been polluted by toxic industries. The long struggle around Love Canal in city of Niagara Falls is an iconic example, as are the campaigns of T.E.J.A.S around the refineries of Manchester in Houston, and the battles in Richmond and at Curtis Bay in Baltimore. The principles of Environmental Justice are that this way of thinking should apply not only to the wider society, but crucially to the very groups, the social movements, that are working to change that wider society. As Jordan, a 21 year old Black woman from Los Angeles, says from the podium: “We have got to embody the values of the world we want to win.”

Watching the speakers on the stage from my seat in the audience I know that this is a challenge to my own position, my own identity. For I am a 50 year-old White, heterosexual man, English, physically able, who was raised and educated in the culture of the British ruling class. Listening to the back and forth of the question and answers, I’m forcefully reminded of the fact that the world that I partly operate in, the world of environmental and human rights organisations in England, is one in which similarly privileged White men are over represented. Perhaps this the reason why the demands made by such organisations have been so timid and their gains so modest? Perhaps the radical change that is necessary has been held back by the cultural continuity, and occasionally collusion, between those organisations and the powerful institutions they set out to challenge? On the podium is Raj Patel, a Berkeley academic whose words remind me of the work there is to do: “We need a forum in which the powerful can concede power. A structure where the powerful can lose, and understand that it is okay to lose a battle. Surely that is the essence of democratic accountability?”

This inspirational event is not without its ironies. The hall in which it is held is at the centre of the Ritz Carlton in New Orleans. A luxury hotel housed in what was once the gargantuan Maison Blanche department store. Like all the stores on Canal Street it was White-owned and had segregated facilities – for example, Blacks could buy goods but not eat at the lunch counters. From September 1960 there were sit-ins and pickets by Civil Rights activists demonstrating against segregation, followed by arrests and sentences. Crowds of angry White people taunted, abused and attacked the demonstrators, beating them, scalding them with hot coffee, and throwing acid on them.

Despite the words that are being said from the podium, and the fact that we are in the heart of a 70% Black and Hispanic city, among the large audience in room there are very few People of Colour. However, as is so often, I’m struck by how different this country seems from my own. I cannot imagine that a gathering of Foundations of similar power and wealth in England would programme such a debate challenging its own power base at the central plenary of a conference. There is so much that I can learn from this culture of America.

Five minutes walk from the Ritz Carlton, just down Canal Street, is another hulk of a building also constructed during the boom years of New Orleans, just before the First World War. It is the John Minor Wisdom U.S. Court of Appeals, the location of US Federal District Court. As we sit in our conference session, behind that courthouse façade of Neo-Classical pillars, Judge Carl. J. Barbier, a 69 year-old White man from New Orleans, is presiding over the trial of BP.

Protesters outside the courthouse on the first day of the BP trial
Protesters outside the courthouse on the first day of the BP trial

It is the second day of the Second Phase of the long set of trials arising from the Deepwater Horizon disaster. BP is represented by Mike Brock, a White man in his fifties from Covington & Burling in Washington DC. He stands in the court facing the legal team hired by the State of Louisiana, the State of Alabama, and two US oil corporations, Halliburton and Transocean. Speaking on behalf of these assorted bodies is Brian Barr, a White attorney in his forties from Pensacola, Florida. He works for the firm Levin Panatonia that has several decades of experience in fighting pollution cases against companies such as Conoco. And Pensacola was hit hard by Deepwater – within weeks of the rig exploding oil was washing up on its beaches and its tourism industry was already devastated.

Barr pronounces that the accused repeatedly lied to the US authorities and declares: “BP should not have used the Gulf of Mexico as its own private laboratory.” He says these words in reference to the oil company’s technological trial-and-error approach of trying to halt the crude gushing from the rocks of the Macondo prospect a mile beneath the surface of the sea. But it would have been equally apposite if he’d been refering to a wider laboratory experiment, one carried out not only on the ecology of the Gulf, but also on the health of the communities along the coast, and indeed the world’s climate.

On 22nd April 2010, it became clear that the well that had been drilled by the Deepwater Horizon rig at Macondo was spewing oil into the sea. Only hours earlier the rig itself had exploded, killing 11 workers and injuring a further 17. Within days BP, under pressure from the US Coast Guard over the ever-growing slick, authorised the use of a chemical dispersant called Corexit. This substance was sprayed from planes directly onto the crude lying at the surface of the Gulf, with the aim of breaking up the slick and making the oil sink from view. However Corexit was, and is, banned in the UK and Sweden as it is understood to pose a toxic threat to human health. But the company was determined to try and remove the visual blight of the oil, images of which were constantly being shown in the international media. It was these images that were fueling the political dynamic in Washington and driving down the company’s share price on Wall Street.

Throughout the summer of 2010 footage of the slick was repeatedly intercut by interviews with Tony Hayward, CEO of BP. Hayward became synonymous with the company, a figure of hate across wide swathes of America. He made repeated public relations blunders, with infamous lines to camera such as “There’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do, I’d like my life back.” A 53 year-old White man, he came across as the epitome of English arrogance. The Chairman of BP, Carl-Henric Svanberg, seemed to portray a similar air of haughtiness and lack of concern for the communities of the Gulf when he refered to them as “the small people” in a TV interview.

In February 2013, long after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, Hayward came before the court in New Orleans in Phase One of the civil trial. He appeared to Judge Barbier and the teams of lawyers from the comfortable distance of a video testimony recorded in June 2011. Bob Cunningham, a 65 year-old White lawyer from Mobile, Alabama representing private plaintiffs in the case, had confronted Hayward about his comments in numerous speeches and interviews regarding the need to cut costs. Cunningham had relentlessly pushed Hayward until he admitted that he’d publicly stated: “A culture of an organisation is shaped by the leaders in it. People do what leaders do. That’s been proven time and time again.” During the three and a half years since the disaster, Hayward, who retired from his position as CEO, has done well for himself. On leaving the company in 2010 his settlement pension was reported as being worth $17 million. He is now CEO of Genel Energy and has received a number of accolades, such as honorary titles from the University of Birmingham and Robert Gordon University.

If Hayward has walked away from the disaster relatively unscathed, then so too has another man from England. Lord John Browne of Madingley was aged 65 and no longer CEO of BP when Deepwater exploded. According to the book Spills and Spin – The Inside Story of BP it is increasingly understood by those close to the industry that he put in place the changes in corporate practice that ultimately led to that disaster. On ascending to the position of CEO in 1995, Browne began focusing the company on the return generated on the capital it employed and the growth of its dividend payments to shareholders. In order to realise this ambition he led the way on a number of aggressive acquisitions, such as Amoco and Arco, and pursued a ruthless campaign of cutting running costs. These cuts meant laying off large numbers of workers and ceasing to invest in safety measures, but this did not lessen his reputation: he was Management Today’s Most Admired Leader between 1999 and 2002. He oversaw a shift in corporate culture that led to the explosion at the Texas City refinery in March 2005, killing 15 and injuring nearly 500, and ultimately the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon. It was a culture that Hayward continued to drive through the company’s practices.

But Browne, has not, and will not, appear in the New Orleans courthouse. Rather he remains feted as part of the British Establishment and in international business circles. He is Director of Riverstone Holdings and Cuadrilla Resources who have started fracking in England, Chairman of Trustees of the Tate, a member of the House of Lords and was employed by the UK government to undertake a Higher Education Review.

Brenda Robichaux & Whitney Dardar

The day after the event at the Ritz Carlton, and as the court case rumbles on, Anna and Mika, my colleagues from Platform, go to visit Brenda Robichaux, former principal chief of the United Houma Nation, the indigenous people who live amongst the bays and the bayous south of New Orleans. Brenda took them to Golden Meadow to meet her father, Whitney Dardar. An oyster fisherman for most of his life, Whitney’s livelihood was devastated by Deepwater Horizon. He hasn’t been oystering since the spill for he thinks the seafood is not safe, and doesn’t want to sell something he doesn’t trust. BP’s compensation is measly and fails to cover the losses. When his friends complained, the company resisted making payments for a long time, but then at the start of the school year, when they were in desperate need of cash and would accept less than they were owed, BP suddenly offered settlements. Many fisherfolk have lost their health as well as their income. Brenda’s husband, Dr Mike Robichaux, had set up a clinic to treat toxic exposure, and was overwhelmed with patients, many of them suffering from the impact of Corexit. Despite the widespread anger, the Louisiana government had done little to defend the rights of frontline communities like the Houma Nation. Both Brenda and Whitney feel that the politicians are in hock to the oil companies.

In recent decades, there have been increasing attempts to hold leaders of states personally liable for major violations of human rights by their governments.  Senior personnel of Republika Srpska and Serbia were brought to trial and sentenced on the basis of being individually responsible for the acts of their states. While political leaders do often escape accountability, the same principles do not even exist in the corporate realm. Chief Executives acquire all the benefits of leadership, but they take on only some of the responsibilities. A number of individuals took the decisions in BP that led to the Deepwater disaster, but it is the company that is on trial. The individuals are protected by the legal ‘personhood’ of the corporation. Hayward does not even have to physically appear at the courthouse, and as BP receives heavy fines, it is the company that pays and not the individuals. The current cost of the disaster is estimated at $42 billion. Raising the money to pay  this bill will impact on the capital of the shareholders and possibly the employment of the current staff. It will have little impact on the wealth of those executives who were responsible for the disaster. Furthermore, none of these men will go to jail for their part in what has been called the ‘largest environmental disaster in US history’.

Of course if individuals were held responsible in this way then such a precedent would operate as a powerful disincentive to future executives agreeing to equally high-risk practices. As the shareholders carry part of the burden of paying the bill for the disaster, they could push for a change of practice. Yet there’s a cultural continuity between BP senior staff and those that control the capital that owns the company, those who manage the investments of the major institutions who hold shares in BP. Particular so because of Nominee system, which concentrates shareholder power in the hands of remarkably few asset managers. In addition these managers want the company to out-perform the profitability of rival corporations such as ExxonMobil or Shell, and such out-performance encourages the executives of BP to take risks. There is a circle of powerful vested interests.

As Raj Patel said: “We need a forum in which the powerful can concede power. Surely that is the essence of democratic accountability?” How is this to come about? Perhaps it will come through the empowering those who have been most personally impacted by the disaster? None of the executives, none of the asset managers, none of the lawyers or the judge would fall within that group. None of them are like the patients of Dr Mike debilitated by exposure to Corexit, or colleagues of Witney who lost the basis of their culture with the fishing industry. There is a flawed structure of accountability. For sure the company of BP may have to expend $42 billion on the aftermath of the disaster, but its executives do not have face the working class neighbourhoods and communities of color that suffered as a result of their actions. Those neighbourhoods remain impacted and their voices remain almost unheard.

Perhaps there will come a time when communities such as these will directly hold accountable the individuals who’ve impacted upon them so devastatingly? Achieving such a situation in which the principles of Environmental Justice are truly applied will require the same calm courage and perseverance exhibited by those who defeated segregation in stores such as Maison Blanche.


Over September and October, three Platform staff traveled across North America to promote The Oil Road as well as learn from colleagues and friends there. This is the most recent blog by James Marriott from that trip, but you can also read:

•                How James travelled across the ocean by container ship and studied the history of mining and struggle in Virginia

•                How Anna was inspired by the stories of Richmond, California standing up to Chevron’s power

•                How they briefed investors on Shell and the Arctic in New York

•                How James was inspired by tales of refineries and resistance in Houston

•                How they learned more about the Battle over Line 9 in Canada

•                How James explored his partner’s ancestor’s mining and migration from Wales to Pennsylvania

•                How James was inspired by bioregional activism in the Chesapeake watershed

And both of them appeared on Democracy Now! to talk pipelines, money and democracy



Focus Areas