Diane Wilson is a feisty, 61-year-old former shrimp boat captain who was recently arrested at a U.S. Senate hearing for allegedly smearing herself with oil and repeatedly shouting at Tony Hayward, the former CEO of BP, as he spoke to lawmakers.
In a YouTube video, police officers wrestle Wilson to the floor as she shouts at Hayward: “You should be charged with a crime.” Soon after, she was forcibly escorted out of the U.S. Senate Energy and Commerce Committee, and it was Wilson who was charged – with two crimes: unlawful conduct and resisting arrest.
“I got stopped six times by the cops,” Wilson said of the D.C. protest. “I was bound and determined I was getting in there. We went down at ten the night before and just waited until seven in the morning. We got in, and I had smuggled a small tube of what looked like black oil, and I swiped it over my face.”
Though she was released from jail recently, Wilson, an activist with CODEPINK Women for Peace, a feminist peace and social justice group, may have to go back in the clink after all. On Aug. 20, she will go before a jury that will decide whether she should face up to two years in federal prison.
While Wilson may serve time for a protest stunt, no one at BP, she pointed out, has been charged with criminal conduct for spilling millions of gallons of oil into the gulf.
Wilson, however, is used to such ironies as a 20-year veteran political and environmental activist. She wrote an account of her exploits in an autobiography recently published by Vermont publisher Chelsea Green, “An Unreasonable Woman – a True Story of Shrimpers, Politicos, Polluters and the Fight for Seadrift, Texas.”
“We were sent a manuscript from a mutual friend,” said Margo Baldwin, publisher at Chelsea Green. “We read it and loved it. She’s a true character. She’s an inspiration. She’s completely self-taught in terms of everything she’s done.”
Wilson grew up in Seadrift, Texas, a town of about 1,500, and started fishing the bays off the Gulf Coast when she was eight years old. She was a shrimp boat captain by the time she was 24.
What Wilson did, Erin Brokovitch style — before she became the protest poster child for the Gulf oil spill — was take on big chemical companies.
Her initial adversary was Formosa Plastics. She wanted the company to stop dumping toxic chemicals into the Gulf of Mexico. “They were discharging up to 7 million gallons of toxic waste into the gulf. I was furious. The EPA said, we know it. We were No. 1 in the nation (for pollution), and that blew my mind.”
Texas and Louisiana are frequently listed as the most toxic states in the nation according to Kenny Ausubel, an environmentalist and founder of Bioneers, in the forward to “An Unreasonable Woman.”
Texas gave Formosa $200 million in subsidies, and when the corporation announced its plans for a $1.3 billion expansion of a plant that manufactured the raw materials for PVC, it got the customary red-carpet treatment for creating jobs in an economically depressed region, he said.
“All that changed when Diane learned of an EPA report that rated Diane’s little Calhoun County (population 15,000) as the most toxic in the nation,” Ausubel wrote.
Wilson, who had a high school education, taught herself how to file successful legal briefs and to decipher technical EPA reports. Her knowledge of Formosa became so intimate that the company’s lawyers routinely called her for information about the operation. In 1989, she set up a meeting in the town hall so people could talk about what the chemical plants were doing to the bays.
“All I did in the beginning was call a meeting,” she said. “I had the bank president, the mayor, senators, aides; they all said, Diane, don’t do this. Be a good citizen. I was floored. I was amazed they were saying this. I’m extremely congenial, I really am, and they were like, no, don’t do this.”
Eventually, after exhausting other means, she resorted to nonviolent civil disobedience, which led to a daring showdown on Lavaca Bay. She said she was threatened, and people said crazy things. “They said I was a spy hired by Louisiana. They said awful stuff. I had no money, no support, five kids — I was just trying to shrimp.” She became a pariah in her town and nearly drowned when her boat was sabotaged.
In the 20 years that have followed, she’s remained a political activist, a line of work that isn’t exactly remunerative—she made about $12,000 last year.
You might call her an accidental activist since she’s the first to say that she had no particular plan in mind. She was simply curious. And angry. “I’m just thinking about raising some hell,” she said. “I do not know what I hope to gain. I’m not a planner; I’m moved from the heart.
Over the years, she’s been arrested repeatedly, conducted hunger strikes, chained herself to chemical towers and protested with a child in one hand and a fistful of documents in another.
“I’ve never had a plan,” she said. “I was just outraged when they started destroying the bay. There’s just all these sweetheart deals in Texas. I didn’t know how I was going to do it. I started doing hunger strikes. You don’t make an impact in Texas without being outrageous.”
In late May, Wilson decided to protest the Deepwater Horizon oil spill by calling for supporters to appear at BP headquarters in Houston and protest naked. She took her inspiration from Nigerian women who took over an oil rig by threatening to strip.
Wilson is convinced that her activism draws attention to important issues.
“I think people have lost faith in their ability to make a difference, but we’re all capable of making a difference,” Wilson said.
“I believe at some time in everyone’s lifetime they will receive a piece of information and what they do what that information determines the rest of their lives,” Wilson said. “No excuses are allowed – that they don’t have the money. Or they don’t have an organization already up and running on the ground to support the issue. Or no one will help and the town doesn’t like it and you have no one to babysit the kids. No excuses. Either you don’t or you do, and sometimes all that doing requires is picking up a phone and calling a meeting. Then trusting that life or the universe or Gaia will step in and your life will become a fantastic roller coaster ride. That’s what happened to me.”