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Deporting Free Speech

Climate Justice Activists Sent Packing
by Amit SrivastavaCorpWatch
June 16th, 2000

The following op-ed, written by CorpWatch staff person Amit Srivastava, appeared in the Toronto Star on June 16, 2000. Amit and Carwil James of Project Underground were denied entry into Canada by authorities.

Last week I tried to visit Canada. Flying in from the San Francisco area where I live, I was on my way to give a speech about human rights and the environment in Calgary. I didn't get past the immigration desk.

Instead of participating in the Counter Petroleum Congress--an activist event set up to shadow the World Petroleum Congress, a global oil industry gathering--my colleague Carwil James and I found ourselves detained, jailed and then handcuffed, shackled and transported in a four foot by four foot cage.

Officials also rifled through and scrutinized all of our possessions, making copies of my work documents, phone and address lists, handwritten notes and laptop computer files.

Our crime? Authorities told us that our very short records of misdemeanor arrests (Carwil has two, I have three) made us undesirable elements. My last arrest was nine years ago for engaging in non-violent civil disobedience in protest of the Persian Gulf War. Carwil was arrested last year while non-violently protesting the World Trade Organization in Seattle. Canada used this pretext to keep us out of the country.

Informally, immigration officials told us that they had been instructed to single out people like us coming to Calgary to speak out about the impacts of oil. Such expression was apparently a menace at a moment when Calgary was hosting some very important people--the leadership of the largest and most powerful transnational corporations in the world.

If I would have been allowed into Canada I would have given a speech pointing out that the oil industry is perhaps the world's single greatest climate culprit. Just five global corporations-- BP-Amoco, Exxon-Mobil, Shell, Texaco and Chevron--produce oil that contributes some ten percent of the world's carbon dioxide emissions--by far the major global warming gas. In fact, the emissions from the fuel they produce exceed the total of all greenhouse gasses coming from Central America, South America and Africa combined.

In the speech I never gave, I was ready to tell my audience that the petroleum industry is also continuing to relentlessly destroy the health and well being of local communities and ecosystems where profits from oil are to be found. Be it in the mangrove swamps of the Niger Delta, the far reaches of the Amazon basin, or the fragile environs of the Arctic, oil generates social and ecological havoc.

Finally, I would have argued that the non-violent protests being organized against the World Petroleum Congress in Calgary were part of a growing new movement for Climate Justice--one which links the local battles for human rights with the global effort to protect the world's climate. Such a new social movement is, in turn, part of the broader effort to challenge the brand of economic globalization that is set up to benefit these and other global corporations.

Instead I found myself being treated like a common criminal in part of what appears to have been a paranoid Canadian government effort to assert that Calgary was not to be another Seattle. Seemingly to prove this point, they sent us packing--making a mockery of the democratic principles they are purportedly upholding.

Unfortunately, what happened to us was no isolated incident. Rather it is part of an emerging pattern of harassment of activists protesting free trade and globalization. This trend is clearly characterized by various government initiatives to pre-empt protest.

We saw it in Washington DC prior to the April demonstrations against the World Bank and IMF. There police used a "fire hazard" technicality to raid the Convergence center and confiscate protest props such as banners and giant marionettes. As one witness to the events quipped, "they have kept Washington safe from puppets."

Apparently following in the footsteps of their U.S. cousins, Canadian officials in Windsor arrested and jailed U.S. activist David Solnit earlier this month after, that's right, he finished conducting a puppet making workshop. The charges against him were the same ones leveled at us--a misdemeanor conviction more than a decade ago--which made him a threat to Canada.

David was released after an immigration review board determined that the charges against him were wholly unfounded. But the action, together with the nine foot chain link fence set up to keep protestors far away from the Organization of American States meeting sent a chill into the Windsor air as the OAS delegates discussed democracy in Peru.

The end result of this repressive governmental behavior, be it in the United States, Canada or elsewhere is the stifling of free speech and free expression in the interest free trade. Their actions are proving our point. Institutions like the WTO, the World Bank, the OAS and the global oil corporations are antithetical to democracy. They need, and often use the police power of the state to protect their interests. We are accustomed to seeing this power crudely wielded in Burma or Nigeria. But it can also be deployed (usually in more subtle ways) in Washington D.C. and Calgary. It just comes as more of a surprise at home.

While I am back in the San Francisco area now, safe and sound, I have learned one lesson the hard way: With free trade, corporations move easily across borders, but people, especially those critical of corporate globalization, apparently cannot.

I take comfort in knowing that millions of people in Canada, the U.S. and the rest of the world will not be deterred in our efforts to pressure our governments to put human rights, labor rights, environmental justice and democracy above the corporate drive for profits.

Amit Srivastava is Climate Justice Coordinator for CorpWatch, monitors the social and environmental effects of globalization.