Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.
‘BP, BP, BP must go! Justicia para México!’
Last night this bilingual song echoed through the British Museum’s mighty Great Court, bouncing off the gleaming marble and reaching hundreds of ears. It was the museum’s Day of the Dead festival and revellers had crowded in on a Friday evening to have their faces painted, marvel at the gigantic art installations, watch a programme of performances and knock back tequila cocktails.
Photo: Diana More
The problem was, the event was sponsored by BP and the Mexican government. So a large posse of protesters had crashed the party, in quite some style.
Theatrical protest group BP or not BP?, of which I’m a member, was approached a few weeks ago by the London-Mexico Solidarity group, to see if we would like to join forces. They were concerned that the Mexican government is on an international charm offensive, touting its economy to foreign investors and multinationals, while state repression and human rights abuses remain rampant. Tens of thousands of people have been killed or “disappeared” for standing up to government corruption and corporate greed.
One of the Mexican government’s most controversial recent acts is the privatisation of its oil and gas sector. Controlled by state-owned oil company Pemex until very recently, Mexico’s untapped fossil fuel reserves are thought to include 107.5 billion barrels of oil — as much as the proven reserves of Kuwait – and the world’s 6th largest reserves of shale gas.
BP wants access, particularly to new deepwater leases in the Gulf of Mexico which will be up for grabs in spring next year. Clearly undeterred by its record fines following the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon spill, BP is using its sponsorship of the British Museum to cosy up to the Mexican government, and prepare the ground for its drilling bids to be accepted. After all, while the US imposed the biggest punitive fines in corporate history, the communities and ecosystems along Mexico’s Gulf Coast that were also poisoned by BP’s record-breaking spill have gone uncompensated and ignored.
Our group have been performing ‘guerrilla theatre’ interventions in the British Museum since 2012, in protest at their oily sponsor. So we met with London-Mexico Solidarity, and together decided to gatecrash the museum’s party, with the aim of exposing the true faces of BP and the Mexican government.
Last night’s performance began in front of the museum’s Sainsbury wing, as around 50 Latin American and UK activists created a ‘living shrine’. Holding up photos of murdered environmentalists, missing students, grieving parents, oil-choked wildlife and areas in Mexico threatened by fossil fuel extraction, we immediately gathered a crowd.
Then five zombie-esque ‘BP executives’ stalked in to push the living shrine into the shadows, all sinister face-paint and sharpened fangs. Their boisterous new best friend, the Mexican president, soon entered the scene, to slap BP’s backs while they stuffed his pockets with their oily money. His increasingly aggressive attempts to silence the protesters may have just been theatre, but the reality of the violence in Mexico that he was mirroring was clear for everyone to see.
Ultimately, the living won out over the deadly in our agit-prop tableau. Now we decided it was time to take the stage – a large cordoned-off area in front of the museum’s circular Reading Room.
Security were determined that we weren’t going to invade their performance space, but a group of us made it through. As the audience saw the banners saying ‘BP: world’s biggest corporate criminal’ and ‘Ayotzinapa’ (a reference to the 43 Mexican students who were kidnapped last year and are still missing) they broke into spontaneous applause and cheering.
It was an electric moment, very emotional for many of our Mexican comrades. Someone shouted ‘BP go home!’ and the crowd took up the chant. For a while that was all that could be heard.The communities and ecosystems along Mexico’s Gulf Coast that were poisoned by BP’s record-breaking oil spill have gone uncompensated and ignored
In the end, in the face of such support from the audience, the British Museum security team decided to give us an official slot in the schedule when they would turn off all amplified sound and let us perform next to the stage. We made the most of the opportunity.
Over the evening we gave out a thousand flyers and spoke to hundreds of people. The response was overwhelming. While one or two had a grumble about us spoiling their Day of the Dead party by reminding them of the dead, the vast majority were on-board. Even the official dancers who followed our stage invasion tried to display our banner during their performance (but were sadly prevented by museum security).
I hope the British Museum was taking note. Museum-goers do not like to see unethical sponsors’ logos all over their beloved culture. The global movement to divest from fossil fuel companies is gathering pace, and the campaign for ‘cultural divestment’ – dropping oily arts sponsors – is one of its fastest-growing wings, with campaigns in the UK, Norway, Australia and the US.
In the next few months, the British Museum will decide whether to renew its five-year sponsorship deal with BP. Although looming cuts to arts funding are deeply worrying, they make it more important than ever that funding decisions are guided by an ethical policy.
In return for only 0.8% of its annual income, the British Museum is giving BP a priceless platform from which to project itself as caring, responsible and cultured. In reality it is greedy, destructive and ruthless. It has lobbied against climate action more energetically than any other company in Europe. It has colluded with oppressive regimes from Mexico to Azerbaijan to Colombia. It plans to frack and drill the climate beyond the point of no return. Does the British Museum really think this is an appropriate partner to still be branding its exhibitions in 2020?
Our group will continue invading oil-sponsored spaces and using creativity and performance to undermine these cosy elite relationships. Meanwhile the oil industry is under attack from multiple other angles – from the blockadia movement against new pipelines, to the global campaign to kick Shell out of the Arctic, to the low oil prices that are making fracking and tar sands uneconomical.
As renewables surge and more and more struggles against fossil fuel extraction, human rights abuses and environmental racism find common ground in the run-up to the Paris climate talks, we could be on the cusp of a dramatic shift away from the age of oil. The British Museum needs to decide which side of history it wants to be on.
Jess Worth is a member of BP or not BP? To get involved in future performances, email info[at]bp-or-not-bp[dot]org
Nick Dowson looks at the new wave of co-ops and community groups where people are building their own truly affordable homes
Hsiao-Hung Pai meets people affected by the fire, and finds sadness and suffering mixed with a continuing wariness of the official investigations
Chris Williamson MP, winner of the election's tightest marginal, Derby North, and recently reappointed shadow minister for fire services, talks to Ashish Ghadiali about Jeremy Corbyn, the housing crisis and winning from the left
The Corbyn-supporting group is preparing for another election at any moment, writes Adam Peggs – and now has the potential to create powerful training initiatives, union links and party reform efforts
’We believe in you. We are with you. We will never forget.’ Grenfell solidarity sweeps East London in mass banner drops from housing estates
Michael Calderbank profiles Jeremy Corbyn's new supporters in parliament
The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) continues to witness devastating political violence, but the world refuses to act. Ishiaba Kasonga and Serge Egola Angbakodolo ask why?
When fire safety has become a privilege for the rich, it’s time to stop austerity and fund emergency mass works to raise standards immediately, writes Jane Shallice
The election result has irreversibly changed political discourse in the UK, writes James Fox
Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole
Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part
Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper
Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s
Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach
Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.
Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite
Power to the renters: Turning the tide on our broken housing system
Heather Kennedy, from the Renters Power Project, argues it’s time to reject Thatcher’s dream of a 'property-owning democracy' and build renters' power instead
Your vote can help Corbyn supporters win these vital Labour Party positions
Left candidate Seema Chandwani speaks to Red Pepper ahead of ballot papers going out to all members for a crucial Labour committee
Join the Rolling Resistance to the frackers
Al Wilson invites you to take part in a month of anti-fracking action in Lancashire with Reclaim the Power
The Grenfell public inquiry must listen to the residents who have been ignored for so long
Councils handed housing over to obscure, unaccountable organisations, writes Anna Minton – now we must hear the voices they silenced
India: Modi’s ‘development model’ is built on violence and theft from the poorest
Development in India is at the expense of minorities and the poor, writes Gargi Battacharya
North Korea is just the start of potentially deadly tensions between the US and China
US-China relations have taken on a disturbing new dimension under Donald Trump, writes Dorothy Guerrero
The feminist army leading the fight against ISIS
Dilar Dirik salutes militant women-organised democracy in action in Rojava
France: The colonial republic
The roots of France’s ascendant racism lie as deep as the origins of the French republic itself, argues Yasser Louati
This is why it’s an important time to support Caroline Lucas
A vital voice of dissent in Parliament: Caroline Lucas explains why she is asking for your help
PLP committee elections: it seems like most Labour backbenchers still haven’t learned their lesson
Corbyn is riding high in the polls - so he can face down the secret malcontents among Labour MPs, writes Michael Calderbank
Going from a top BBC job to Tory spin chief should be banned – it’s that simple
This revolving door between the 'impartial' broadcaster and the Conservatives stinks, writes Louis Mendee – we need a different media
I read Gavin Barwell’s ‘marginal seat’ book and it was incredibly awkward
Gavin Barwell was mocked for writing a book called How to Win a Marginal Seat, then losing his. But what does the book itself reveal about Theresa May’s new top adviser? Matt Thompson reads it so you don’t have to
We can defeat this weak Tory government on the pay cap
With the government in chaos, this is our chance to lift the pay cap for everyone, writes Mark Serwotka, general secretary of public service workers’ union PCS
Corbyn supporters surge in Labour’s internal elections
A big rise in left nominations from constituency Labour parties suggests Corbynites are getting better organised, reports Michael Calderbank
Undercover policing – the need for a public inquiry for Scotland
Tilly Gifford, who exposed police efforts to recruit her as a paid informer, calls for the inquiry into undercover policing to extend to Scotland
Becoming a better ally: how to understand intersectionality
Intersectionality can provide the basis of our solidarity in this new age of empire, writes Peninah Wangari-Jones
The myth of the ‘white working class’ stops us seeing the working class as it really is
The right imagines a socially conservative working class while the left pines for the days of mass workplaces. Neither represent today's reality, argues Gargi Bhattacharyya
The government played the public for fools, and lost
The High Court has ruled that the government cannot veto local council investment decisions. This is a victory for local democracy and the BDS movement, and shows what can happen when we stand together, writes War on Want’s Ross Hemingway.
An ‘obscure’ party? I’m amazed at how little people in Britain know about the DUP
After the Tories' deal with the Democratic Unionists, Denis Burke asks why people in Britain weren't a bit more curious about Northern Ireland before now
The Tories’ deal with the DUP is outright bribery – but this government won’t last
Theresa May’s £1.5 billion bung to the DUP is the last nail in the coffin of the austerity myth, writes Louis Mendee
Brexit, Corbyn and beyond
Clarity of analysis can help the left avoid practical traps, argues Paul O'Connell
Paul Mason vs Progress: ‘Decide whether you want to be part of this party’ – full report
Broadcaster and Corbyn supporter Paul Mason tells the Blairites' annual conference some home truths
Contagion: how the crisis spread
Following on from his essay, How Empire Struck Back, Walden Bello speaks to TNI's Nick Buxton about how the financial crisis spread from the USA to Europe