Political Matters – May 2022

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By Mordecai Specktor

George Morrison postage stamps
April 22 was the First Day of Issue for U.S. postage stamps honoring the accomplished Oijbwe artist George Morrison (1919-2000). Many readers likely have seen Morrison’s beautiful wood collages that evoke the landscapes around Lake Superior. The U.S. commemorative stamps feature five of Morrison’s colorful, abstract paintings of northern landscapes.

There was an affecting ceremony held at Grand Portage Lodge and Casino, which included Morrison’s widow, Hazel Belvo; tribal officials; museum curators; and U.S. Postal Service officials. Morrison was a member of the Grand Portage Band.

I recall seeing Morrison on one occasion: the opening night of the 1980 Foot in the Door show at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. This participatory art exhibition, which takes place every 10 years, is open to all comers; the only rule is that an artwork must fit through a one-foot by one-foot wooden frame. My submission, in red crayon on paper, declared “FREE LEONARD PELTIER,” with some brief explanation about the imprisoned AIM activist.

I attended the opening wearing a large button with the same message that I wrote on my artwork, and at one point I was standing near Morrison, who seemed interested in the young white man bearing the political message. That’s my brush with artistic greatness.
You can watch the George Morrison Forever Stamp ceremony from Grand Portage on YouTube at: bit.ly/morrison-stamp.

Environmental lawyer freed
The situation for Indigenous tribes in South America today resembles the state of repression experienced by Native people in North America in the 19th century. Regimes in Brazil and other nations work on behalf of multinational corporations to clear tribal lands and plunder oil and mineral resources. Those who protest against the corporate ravagers do so are great personal risk. Massacres of Indigenous activists are not a rare occurrence.

And North American activists also can face severe consequences for their work on behalf of tribes in the global south. Such is the bizarre case of environmental lawyer Steven Donziger, who successfully sued Chevron for polluting tribal lands of 30,000 Indigenous people in Ecuador’s Amazon region. Over many years, Chevron dumped 16 billion gallons of oil on tribal ancestral lands; and, in 2011, Ecuador’s Supreme Court ordered the oil giant to pay $18 billion (later reduced to $9.5 billion) in a landmark ruling to hold corporate polluters to account. (The original lawsuit was against Texaco, which was purchased by Chevron in 2000. The case dragged on for 18 years.)

However, as Amy Goodman pointed out in a recent episode of the radio show Democracy Now!, “Chevron refused to pay or clean up the land. Instead, it launched a legal attack on the ruling, targeting Steven Donziger.”

In a case that defies the common understanding of legal justice, Chevron went after Donziger in the U.S. courts, eventually getting him disbarred and confined to house arrest for 993 days. On April 25, the lawyer was finally released from house arrest.

“Chevron tried to use me as what I would say is a weapon of mass distraction, so people wouldn’t focus on the environmental crimes they committed in Ecuador,” Donziger told Goodman and co-host Juan González. “This goes way beyond me, because, ultimately, if we allow this type of private corporate prosecution – I was prosecuted, by the way, not by the U.S. government, which rejected the charges against me that were filed by a federal judge, who then appointed a private law firm that had Chevron as a client. And that was my prosecutor, which explains this extraordinary length of detention for a misdemeanor. You know, I was in detention 993 days for a misdemeanor crime. I assert my innocence, but even if I were guilty, the maximum sentence is 180 days. So why was I in for 993 days?”

Donziger explained that “there were a lot of irregularities here that we plan to challenge and try to correct. But, ultimately, this was really about a corporate capture, I believe, of an element of our federal judiciary in retaliation for my work. And that’s a playbook that I think the industry – the fossil fuel industry, that is – plans to continue to use against lawyers and activists who are a little too successful” in their work on behalf of the victims of environmental despoliation.

The Donziger saga also was covered at length on the tech website Gizmodo. You can read the article at: bit.ly/gizmodo-donziger.

In an interview with Gizmodo, Donziger commented: “I am exhilarated to be able to live fully again, extremely excited to be able to make the normal choices people in a free society get to make. I’m also stunned that I just spent two years and seven months of my life in detention in retaliation for my work in the climate justice field.”