October 12, 2011
(From the Yes Men’s acceptance speech for the Art of Activism award given them at RAN’s annual fundraising dinner.)
It’s nice to be here among the 1%. And it’s really nice to know that even the 1% has a 99%.
One year ago, Ginger Cassady from RAN contacted us with some amazing news: RAN had been leaked the files for Chevron’s upcoming multimillion-dollar rebranding campaign, which featured slogans like “Oil companies should get real… We agree!”
Ginger thought RAN could do better; we agreed. And shortly afterwards, we all started working on a much-improved version of Chevron’s campaign. Ours would have slogans like “Oil companies should clean up their messes” and “Oil companies should stop endangering life,” and would feature images of Chevron’s massive destruction in Ecuador.
Two days later, we suddenly found out that Chevron’s campaign was going to launch in just 12 hours. Thanks to the incredible team from RAN and AmazonWatch, we finished our version in just under 8. We launched it just ahead of Chevron’s-—and totally ruined their launch. (To see just how much we ruined it, do a google image search today on “Chevron we agree.”)
There are three lessons we’ve learned from this experience.
The first lesson is that we can laugh, and that funny actions have a real role in activist struggles today.
We knew this, of course, in part from talking with Serbian revolutionaries who told us that funny actions were critical in their struggle to overthrow Milosevic, and that the Egyptian activists’ primary tool in bringing Mubarak down wasn’t Twitter, but rather humor.
Here in the US, our own sudden revolution is a bit more complicated than Serbia’s or Egypt’s—it’s not just a single tyrant we’re bringing down, but, as with segregation, a whole unjust system we’re changing. At the very least, our “we agree” campaign meant that millions of people learned of one more grisly symptom of this system, the same one greed run amok, and of the system the folks in the Occupy movement have set out to change forever.
The second lesson we learned, much more important than that one, was that victory is possible.
Today, the perseverance of Chevron’s victims, together with the longstanding assistance of RAN and AmazonWatch, is paying off. Chevron was recently ordered to pay $18 billion to clean up their mess in Ecuador, and all their appeals are failing. Chevron’s assets will be seized, and there’s not much Chevron can do to stop it.
Even getting this far is a really huge victory, and it shows—concretely, clearly, unambiguously—that a different world is possible, and that when the 99% decide something, the 1% can’t do squat about it. We can vanquish Chevron, and we can vanquish the whole system of corruption that’s holding democracy captive.
But the most important lesson we’ve learned from RAN’s Chevron campaign show corporations are vulnerable, and what actually works against them.
What works isn’t trying to change corporations. What works isn’t trying to appeal to their shareholders, or trying to inflict “brand damage.” What works certainly isn’t trying to appeal to the decency of people within corporations.
What works is what RAN and AmazonWatch, together with Chevron’s victims, have done: kicking them in the proverbial balls. (And corporations are male, I’m afraid.)
Chevron hasn’t agreed to anything, and they never will. Nor will the companies involved in the Tar Sands. Nor will the banks or any other part of the democracy-kidnapping system called Wall Street.
The only thing that can work to make corporations serve us, instead of the other way around, is real action—legal, legislative, and political.
Street action also works. Is it a coincidence that Obama is finally starting, now that America is being occupied, to act in some small ways as we elected him to? I don’t think it is, any more than it’s a coincidence that Chevron is now going to have to pony up billions.
That’s an incredibly important lesson, and we’ll always be grateful for it.