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Houston Global Awareness Campaign

By: 
RoB Block
Date Published: 
March 01, 2006
    The city of Houston is notorious for oil companies, sprawl, the Bush family, and war profiteers. But Houston has also seen the rise of direct action-based movements that have brought the fights against imperialism and corporate globalization to its streets.

One campaign that has gained national and international attention is the campaign against the Halliburton Corporation. Headquartered in downtown Houston, Halliburton and its multiple subsidiaries—most notably KBR (formerly Kellogg, Brown and Root)—has dozens of facilities in the city and hundreds across the globe. The corporation has been a lightning rod for dissent with its no-bid contracts with the US military in Iraq.

Halliburton is a prime target for social justice struggles on a number of levels—most obviously because of its former CEO, Vice President Dick Cheney. Before Halliburton, as Secretary of Defense under Bush Senior’s administration, Cheney pioneered the process of privatizing military services and handing day-to-day logistical operations to private corporations. During his reign as Halliburton CEO from 1992 to 2000, the corporation’s government contracts began to multiply, most notably as a military service provider securing two billion dollars in contracts to manage military bases in Southern Europe during the NATO invasion of Yugoslavia. The corporation’s overspending ran in the neighborhood of tens of millions of dollars. In September of 2002—months before the Iraq War—Halliburton was already preparing for the US invasion by setting up camps in Kuwait and securing millions of dollars in no-bid, cost-plus contracts for providing military services and “reconstruction” work.

Protesting Halliburton unites struggles against corporate power and privatization with anti-imperialism and peace movements. The group that started developing this analysis and began the campaign against Halliburton was the Houston Global Awareness Collective (HGAC).HGAC grew out of the global justice movement as a group doing education and mobilization around free trade agreements. In early 2003, during the lead up to the war in Iraq, HGAC began weekly vigils at the Houston headquarters of KBR in an effort to make connections between the impending war and the local institutions that supported it. The vigils at KBR drew moderate-sized crowds by Houston standards as they exposed Houston’s complicity in the war machine.

When the US began bombing Iraq there was a flurry of anti-war activity. But by fall, HGAC had become focused on organizing against CAFTA negotiations being held in Houston, and did not set its sights on Halliburton again until we discovered that the corporation’s 2004 shareholders meeting was to take place in Houston.

Shareholders meeting

In early 2004, HGAC began organizing protests against the annual Halliburton shareholders meeting to be held at the Four Seasons Hotel. The preparations for the protests closely resembled other mass mobilizations of the global justice movement: trainings in non-violent direct action, guerilla media, teach-ins, speakers, and films. Primarily organized by anti-authoritarians, the protests were endorsed locally by organizations like the Young Democrats and the International Socialist Organization, and were supported nationally from groups like Global Exchange.

On May 19, 500 people assembled in Root Park (the R in KBR) and held a brief rally and march with puppets, the Free Radicals Marching Band, and hundreds of pig snouts. The day was a remarkable success in terms of direct action tactics. An affinity group blocked the driveway to the Four Seasons Hotel, CodePink dropped a banner out of a hotel room, and five activists locked themselves to a banister inside—making a ruckus and the front page of the business section.

The weeks following this protest were filled with national and international press coverage and a sense of accomplishment. Yet there was not an organizing process for how to harness the groundswell of energy. After internal discussions between HGAC organizers, we settled on making October 2004 Halliburton Awareness Month or HAM.
The organizing model for HAM was similar to model for the shareholders meeting: a month of speaking and film events culminating in a big protest at the end of October, days before the presidential elections. The events were modestly attended and by the end of the month many of us were worn out. The protest at the end of HAM went smoothly with around 100 protesters parading through downtown at rush hour with giant Bush, Cheney, and corporate profiteering pig puppets. Yet as HAM came to a close, we were all ready to take a break.

Following the post-election depression and a busy spring, we found ourselves organizing for a mobilization against the 2005 Halliburton shareholders meeting slated for May 18th. The planning was identical to the year prior save two notable exceptions. First, we did more regional outreach and communication. The protests and autonomous direct action were initiated by both HGAC and the Austin Spokescouncil, an anti-authoritarian group, and were therefore attended by many from outside of Houston—Austin, Fort Worth, San Antonio, and Louisiana.HGAC also began to conduct “counter-recruitment” by attending the bi-weekly job fairs held by KBR, and distributing literature to prospective workers about the risks of working in Iraq and the lies told to workers regarding to pay, accommodations, and safety.

The protest on the day of the shareholders meeting was smaller than the year before, but was made up of more people willing to take risks such as moving police barricades and blocking traffic. By the end of the day, sixteen people had been arrested for civil disobedience—eight inside the hotel and eight outside. Once again, the protest received national and international press coverage.

Following the mobilization, there was a groundswell of support from the community, including a benefit at which more than a thousand dollars was raised for bail. Even though the numbers were smaller and the repression greater, we felt it was a successful day of action. But many of us were growing concerned about the direction and strategy of the campaign.

Notable impact

In the months following the 2005 shareholders meeting, HGAC began a period of introspection and tried to establish a more transparent and democratic structure that didn’t rely so much on the work of single individuals. HGAC also held a townhall-style meeting for the wider radical community that explained the tactics of autonomous direct action and alternative media, but did not lay out ways for individuals and other groups to get involved, or offer insights on how to sustain a campaign against Halliburton outside of mass mobilizations. As summer came to an end, so did the counter-recruitment actions and regular meetings.

Problems confronting the campaign seem to be common among movements coming from anti-authoritarian politics and a certain degree of privilege: a focus on tactics such as direct action with not enough attention given to education and feedback from the broader progressive community. Also problematic was having an undefined base and membership—both inside HGAC and for the campaign as a whole—and an under-articulated long-term strategy that connected tactics to a vision.

While there are a number of things that need work and it is difficult find the time with the immensity of the problems we face in Houston, the Halliburton campaign has been a giant leap forward for radical movements this city. It has created a space for more radical tactics, and expanded the infrastructure and community that can teach the organizing skills crucial to world-class mobilizations.

The impact the campaign has had on Halliburton is also notable. Both shareholders protests produced drops in Halliburton stock price and drew considerable local attention to the policies and operations of a local institution making “a killing” off the war in Iraq. CEO David Lesar has even created a film instructing Halliburton employees on how to deal with people who might find their work disgusting. Most importantly, this campaign has made clear how transnational corporations help drive an imperialist US foreign policy. The Halliburton campaign will surely be resurrected and continue to confront the engines of destruction lurking in our communities.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

RoB Block was an organizer with HGAC and is currently the editor of The Alarm, a Houston-centric radical zine inspired by People’s Global Action. RoB is also a member of Houston Indymedia and Houston Anarchist Black Cross.