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The International Labor Defense: What it Was and Why the Environmental Movement Needs its Own

by Kwaku Aurelien

The Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 60s began in earnest with the Brown v. Board Supreme Court decision, but had already been kickstarted by the Scottsboro Boys trial of the 1930s. In 1931, nine Black teenage boys were falsely accused of raping two White women on a freight train near Scottsboro, Alabama. Defending the boys in a court of law were William L. Patterson and Samuel Leibowitz, Black and Romanian, respectively, and both members of the International Labor Defense (ILD), the legal arm of the Communist Party USA. Its general objective was defending members of organized labor, political prisoners, and immigrants, among others. To this end, they utilized a program of mass defense constituting public demonstrations, rallies, and speaking tours that served to expose the class character of the seemingly class and race-neutral American legal system and to pressure said legal system into granting justice to its defendants. Through publicizing its defense of the Scottsboro Boys and various Black prisoners in the 1930s, the ILD opened the eyes of the world to just how virulent racism was in American society. Protests and demonstrations in response to Scottsboro occurred all over the world. The former case was twice appealed to the Supreme Court, which ruled that Black people had to be included on juries per the Sixth Amendment. In 1946, the ILD merged with the National Federation of Constitutional Liberties (NFCL) to form what was known as the Civil Rights Congress (CRC). Unfortunately, the CRC dissolved in 1956, due to the Subversive Activities Control Board (SACB) labeling it a Communist front group in keeping with its investigation of potential Communist infiltration during the Red Scare, and external pressure from the United States Congress and courts. However, in the 22 years the ILD was an independent organization, it accomplished a great deal, evidenced by not only the Scottsboro case, but also by winning an acquittal for Georgi Dimitrov, Vasil Tanev, and Blagoy Popov, all indicted by the Nazi government for allegedly setting the Reichstag parliamentary building on fire.

Seeing as this is a platform for environmental justice, you may be wondering: How is the history of the International Labor Defense relevant to the modern environmental movement? A thorough analysis of the reigning global capitalist system that the ILD fundamentally opposed will demonstrate that it is based on unfettered competition and private accumulation of capital, including even the Earth’s resources as evidenced by the far-right Bolsonaro government in Brazil pushing to open the Amazon rainforest to commercial development, or the U.S. Forest Service rolling back the Roadless Rule in the Tongass National Forest in Alaska to allow for a new wave of clearcutting and logging. It is not profitable for the ruling class to invest in green energy and technologies; doing so would cause a conflict of interest with the market system. Globally, this is substantiated by the fact that nations’ investment in renewable energy resources has caused much price volatility in the market, leading to increased costs in supplying basic energy. Domestically, it is provable as individual states are seeing renewables closed off entirely from the U.S. electricity sector. This past Tuesday alone, CNN released a rather damning report. They have found that the largest fossil-fuel producing countries constituting the Global North, rather than using their power and prestige to lead the world through this impending crisis, are instead funneling taxpayer money into polluting industries and leading the world one step closer to catastrophe. Here in the United States, we are witnessing the resurgence of the conservative legal movement, and moreover, the way in which it has risen to oppose the environmental movement. This was observed clearly when numerous distinguished law firms — including Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, Latham & Watkins, Norton Rose Fulbright, Troutman Pepper, and Vinson & Elkinsprovided financial assistance and litigated on behalf of the Dakota Access Pipeline, the very existence of which is an infamous affront to Indigenous rights and sovereignty. The fossil fuel industry is building a legal arm of its own with which it can use to defend itself against any accountability. For further proof, you need look no further than the case of Steven Donziger.

Donziger is an American lawyer who traveled to Ecuador in 1993 shortly after he completed law school. There, he was taken aback by what he had seen:

“It was like looking at an apocalyptic scene. There was oil on the roads. People were living in abject poverty. They had no shoes. They would get oil on their feet when they walked along the roads. The oil pollution had permeated every aspect of daily life. It was in the food supply. It was in the water supply. It was in the air. The average person there would get exposed multiple times a day to very harmful, cancer-causing toxins, with foreseeable results.” - Steven Donziger

The environmental disaster Donziger had observed was caused by Texaco, which began operating in the Lago Agrio oil field in Sucumbíos, Ecuador in the 1960s. They introduced crude oil and other elements into the environment, poisoning the Indigenous inhabitants of the area.

”They drilled hundreds of wells. They created thousands of open-air, unlined toxic waste pits when they dumped the heavy metals and toxins that came up from the ground when they drilled. They ran pipes from the pits into rivers and streams that local people relied on for their drinking water, their fishing and their sustenance. They poisoned this pristine ecosystem, in which lived five Indigenous peoples, as well as a lot of other non-Indigenous rural communities. There was a mass industrial poisoning.”- Steven Donziger

In 2001, Chevron bought Texaco. Around that time, Donziger and others began collaborating with Ecuadorian lawyers. They moved to sue Chevron and in a stunning turn of events, won the case. In 2011, the Lago Agrio court ordered Chevron to pay $18 billion in damages. The figure was then reduced to $9.5 billion. Still, however, the ruling was significant for what it represented—a court holding a Global North multinational corporation accountable for its exploitation of the people and degradation of the environment in the Global South. After the Ecuadorian Supreme Court upheld the ruling against Chevron, the corporation simply moved its assets out of Ecuador and into the U.S. And just like that, the Ecuadorian plaintiffs couldn’t collect on the damages. To this day, Chevron hasn’t paid a penny of its $9.5 billion in damages, leaving the Ecuadorian plaintiffs without the money nor the wherewithal to clean up the oil spills and waste—let alone treat the people’s resulting illnesses. This terrible situation is only compounded by the fact that Donziger is now under house arrest with his law license suspended sans a hearing. The responsible party: New York District Court Judge Lewis A. Kaplan, who called Chevron “a company of considerable importance to our economy.” Kaplan was able to exercise his power by something that had never before been done; he levied criminal contempt charges against Donziger when prosecutors proved unwilling. Assigned by Kaplan to oversee the case was Loretta Preska, then a member of the advisory board for the conservative, libertarian, pro-big business Federalist Society. Preska and the Federalist Society have a noted history of ruling on behalf of big energy conglomerates, most notably dismissing a lawsuit by eight states against five companies owning 174 fossil-fuel burning plants between them. Also worth noting is the fact that Chevron was represented by the law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher during this case. Aside from its lobbying on behalf of Dakota Access, this particular film notably used a “kill step” to accuse its opposition of fraud and falsify evidence on behalf of the Dole Food Company in Nicaragua against banana plantation workers. In the case of Donziger and the Ecuadorian land defenders, it used the same tactic on behalf of Chevron, filing a SLAPP lawsuit against them; that stands for Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation. Such a lawsuit is designed specifically to intimidate and exhaust opponents until they go into silence.

This is what Donziger refers to as the “corporate capture” of the U.S. legal system: “How is it that a private law firm that represents a major oil company gets to lock me up on behalf of the government? There is not a single example of this happening in the history of our country” (Donziger). The corporate capture likely occurred many, many decades prior to this case; a 2014 Princeton study ascertained that the U.S. is not a democracy even by liberal standards and is in fact an oligarchy; but it is precisely for that reason that the contemporary environmental movement needs a legal organization with a mass defense program akin to that of the ILD. Donziger was an easy target for Chevron for the reason that he was visible. But an army of Donzigers on the other hand would be extremely difficult to disrupt. That, coupled with an army of ordinary, working-class people organizing in defense, would be next to impossible to disrupt. However, legal defense is not enough. It is the two-pronged approach of having lawyers in the courtroom and mass action on the outside that needs to be replicated, because what is to stop Chevron, Shell, or any other corporation from having carte blanche to break the law and do whatever they want if not mass action? What is to curb the illusion that the legal system acts without bias if not mass action? An organization of environmental, energy, food, agricultural, land use, and human rights lawyers with the science on their side and with the backing of a politically educated citizenry that exercises its power would pose a direct threat to the conservative and corporate legal movements. An organization which centers environmentalism in BIPOC liberation struggles in the United States and worldwide would turn the attention of the masses of BIPOC to the existential threat of environmental racism. As far as how the ILD model fits into the environmental context, the means by which it used to recruit ordinary people into their mass defense program have to be rearranged. This means that activists have to change the way in which they disseminate information. The ILD canvassed houses. They used leaflets, pamphlets, and community meetings to inform and enlist people. In the digital age, the new environmental mass defense organization must be savvy with social media and networking. It must open itself to young people, who are becoming increasingly progressive in their thinking and have to bear the brunt of the climate crisis now and in the years to come. Moreover, it has to have an investigative journalism branch, designed to report news on the ground, news you would not normally see on television.

The ILD knew that the law and the courts exist to protect the property interests of the ruling class. But they also knew that within the law lies political machinery that when manipulated by the masses can force the government’s hands at the local, state, and national levels into enforcing the words that are clearly spelled out on paper. It is through these means that a sincere climate revolution is feasible today. The innumerable international treaties and accords that have been drawn up in the halls of the U.N. have up to now not been implemented or enforced even in the United States precisely because no pressure has been put on governing bodies by the masses of the governed. If the average American knew the power they truly possess vis-à-vis working-class solidarity and organization, Donald Trump would not have been able to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement. Per Princeton University professor Imani Perry, “Singular leadership cannot do what only community can do.” If the average global citizen knew the power of agitating as a community, these agreements would be truly binding and not fluid as they are now. Historian Howard Zinn once said, “Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.” The ILD acted according to this ethos, epitomizing participatory, grassroots democracy.

Today, it is absolutely imperative to note the internationalist ethos of the ILD as we live in a globalized world. The reason Texaco was able to do what it did in Ecuador is because it was given permission to do so by the pro-West military government of then-president Guillermo Rodríguez. The reason Michigan governor Rick Snyder allowed the Flint water crisis to occur is because Black Americans are a colonized people within their own country. The struggle of Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOCs) here in the United States with regards to environmental racism is interconnected with the global struggles of racialized peoples everywhere. Therefore, any sincere program tackling climate change must be internationalist given that climate change is a global issue that will adversely affect racialized peoples both globally and domestically.


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About the Author:

Kwaku Aurelien is a junior at the University of Connecticut majoring in English with the intention of going into law school and subsequently becoming a practicing environmental lawyer fighting on behalf of oppressed and marginalized peoples in the United States and throughout the world. To this end, he is often reading and watching the news to heighten his awareness. He seeks the delicate balance between human rights activism and law. It is a hard path, but he has the utmost confidence he can pull it off. Be sure to follow Kwaku on his social media pages:

Twitter - @The_Earthquake3

Instagram - @quake_aurelien


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