East Timor, Phillips Petroleum, & Norman, Oklahoma
During the height of the massacres in East Timor, Phillips Petroleum paid the Indonesian government $2.9 million in royalties for oil that had been taken out of East Timor. That scandal was not uncovered by any "investigative" reporter in mass media, but by Todd Walker, a student at the U of Oklahoma (OU). The payments had been made in such a way that not even the leaders of the East Timor independence forces knew about them before the information was provided to them directly by the Student Action Network of Norman, Oklahoma! At this date, even after the payments have been given wider exposure through Amy Goodman's Democracy Now program on Pacifica, it is not clear if the funds constituted a quarterly, semi-annual, or annual payment. The East Timorese are now pressing for more details on such payments and hope to recover some of the past payments as well as making certain new payments go to them and not Indonesia.
The backstory to my report of this payment scandal is that this fall I have been a Visiting Professor in Film at OU. Upon my arrival at the campus, I was surprised to find ongoing activity on the problems in East Timor. There was continuous agitation in the form of demonstrations, vigils, handouts, fund raising for relief, fasts, guest speakers, and information tables. The hard core of participants ran from twenty to forty, but their activities reached the entire student body with a number of front-page stories in the official college paper and ongoing analytical articles in Undercurrents, a dissident student publication.
Aside from exposing the atrocities of the Indonesian government, the students have taken on Phillips Petroleum, an Oklahoma-based company that likes to have a consumer friendly face. As fate would have it, OU President David Boren, a former senator and governor, is a member of Phillips' Board of Directors. The students have repeatedly pressed Boren to take leadership in altering Phillips Petroleum's de facto support of the Indonesian government. Their confrontation grew testy when Boren stated that Phillips had never paid one penny to Indonesia, a response the Student Action Network soon proved off by nearly three million dollars. The group's current position is that Phillips owes reparations to the new East Timor entity. To further put pressure on Phillips, they are now working with local environmental groups in a proposed march on Phillips' Bartlesville headquarters.
I had wondered if a foreign student from East Timor might have played a role in creating the group or perhaps some l960s-spawned "red diaper" babies, but such was not the case. A group of students of a generally leftist but variegated mood of thought had simply come together at a time when the East Timor issue began to emerge. The involvement of Phillips and Boren seems to have been the key stimulus to action. In due course a connection was made with the East Timor Action Network but the major source of ongoing information is Pacifica's WBAI which is accessed in Norman through the Internet.
I was extremely curious about personal motivation. Kalyn Morris who carried out a seven day fast that included five days of water-only had a strong spiritual dimension to her protest. But she was extremely pragmatic in responding to students with roots in Bartlesville, explaining that she was not seeking to deprive their parents of work but to stop the physical and economic exploitation of the East Timorese people. The wide range of perspectives of the activists was brought home to me one night as I conducted interviews in a cafe near the university. An OU freshman active in the committee expressed his intellectual outrage that in a class about the Cuban missile crisis the teacher had thought it sufficient to look only at writings from people who had been in the Kennedy administration. An artist discussed his unease about the recent controversy involving the Brooklyn Museum of Art. He was not at all upset by the use of excrement in some of the work as it is a common element in African art, but he was not happy with the exploitation of dead animals. A third student spoke of his allegiance to the Communist Party and why he felt such an organization was necessary to lead social change. Two young Native American women at a nearby table teased him about wanting to save the world, obviously not about to join the effort but far from hostile.
Such activists have no illusions about what they can expect from their 24,000 fellow students. They do not foresee a local mass movement. East Timor is too far away for that. Nonetheless, the Student Action Network has found widespread empathy for what they are doing and has put East Timor into the consciousness of the entire campus. They intend to keep the pressure on their university president and on Phillips Petroleum. Todd Walker summarizes their belief that small scale as their actions may be they are making a difference at both a local and a global level. Just their research on Phillips has proven extremely useful to the East Timorese. Another student expressed much of the spirit of the group when he said he hoped that one day when East Timor had become a prosperous and vibrant democracy that they would know that in far-off Norman, Oklahoma someone had cared enough to speak out in their behalf.
I am not certain any "lessons" can be learned from the Norman experience. I think we leftists are a little hung up about that, often indulging wishful thinking. I find it positive that the activists here are doing what they are doing because they feel the connections between the local corporate giant, the university where they study, the mass media that misinforms, and a faraway island in the Pacific. From such local seedlings may indeed emerge the mass movement so desperately needed to make the new century an era of hope. But to paraphrase Bertolt Brecht, the sense in Norman seems to be that it's enough that today we made it bit harder for the bad guys to prevail.
Dan Georgakas is co-author of Detroit: I Do Mind Dying and teaches courses in foreign affairs at New York University.