The Raging Grannies Show a Reporter from China What Free Speech Means in America

By Rainforest Action Network

The Change Chevron team recently went down to Lafayette, CA to congratulate Chevron CEO John Watson on his company’s induction into the Corporate Hall of Shame, and the Bay Area chapter of the Raging Grannies rolled with us. Granny Ruth filed this report about how the group of elderly activists was questioned by police while walking in a quiet California neighborhood.

Raging Grannies at Chevron CEO John Watson's house

Last week, President Obama used his summit with China’s President Hu Jintao to push the Chinese government on its human rights abuses. The funny thing is, on the very same day the two world leaders were meeting in Washington D.C., we Raging Grannies were exercising our right to free speech in California…with a journalist from China close at hand.

Our embedded reporter traveled with us from Palo Alto to Lafayette (with a stop in San Francisco to pick up some Rainforest Action Network activists) on a bio-diesel bus nicknamed “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” Priscilla is a bus shared by an activists’ cooperative based in Oregon. Da Yan, our reporter, hails from Xi’an Province and is learning about American democracy while doing a journalism internship in the US.

Our rag-tag group traveled across the San Francisco Bay to Lafayette, California, where Chevron CEO John Watson resides. The purpose: to exert public pressure on Mr. Watson to take responsibility for the billions of gallons of Chevron’s toxic oil waste polluting Ecuador’s rainforest and population. Our protest would be conducted in the time-honored way that Raging Grannies have demonstrated for the past 25 years: in song and accompanied by colorful street theater.

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We used the two-hour bus ride to talk with Da Yan about our Raging Granny style. We told her why we adorn ourselves in shawls, hats, aprons, and free speech buttons (one of which said, “Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History”). It’s in our American roots to honor and exercise our right to freedom of speech, we explained, but as older women we often find our opinions get ignored.  So we make a little fuss, use a lot of humor, and get the press to pay more attention than they might otherwise. Da Yan had to agree that the curious name “Raging Grannies” had intrigued her when she set out to cover our story.

We tentatively inquired about freedom of speech and freedom to assemble in China. Da Yan explained Chinese censorship when we talked about Facebook, and how that site had been shut down temporarily during a Uighur uprising. “You have to understand,” she said, “the Chinese government is cautious and careful. China has one-fifth of the world’s population. We can’t have people getting upset when there is too much talk about dissent on forums like Facebook. Anyway, it is back up now.”

We put the serious topic of comparative politics aside to rehearse two tunes we had prepared to perform in front of the CEO’s home. The Raging Grannies always sing our messages to familiar tunes. That is, familiar to us; one of our tunes was popular during World War I and though none of us was actually alive then, we are old enough to know the ditty “Mademoiselle from Armentières” pretty well. As the bus bumped along we sang lines from our parody and the busload of us burst into laughter.

Watson is a real big cheese,
HE don’t care
And his company’s a sleaze,
HE don’t care
Trash the land, leave a big mess
Residents in great distress
Hinky Dinky HE don’t care

Just to be very clear, Rainforest Action Network activists had prepared a flier to leave with neighbors summarizing our message: We want Chevron to take responsibility and clean up the mess from reckless oil drilling in Ecuador. The people and rainforest of Ecuador need Chevron to do the right thing!

Ten minutes before arriving at our destination it was time to discuss the plan of action. The bus would pull up a couple of hundred yards away from the CEO’s house and park safely on the side of the road. Grannies and friends would take a 20 minute walk (Grannies move slowly sometimes!) along the street where he lives. If we saw a neighbor or two, we’d tell them why we were there. We figured no one would answer at the CEO’s massive gate, and we’d sing our message into the call box, leave our message in a  “Corporate Hall of Shame Award” outside, and be on our way. We’d pass out a few fliers to neighboring houses, following all the rules established by the US Postal Service (no fliers in mailboxes; we left them on gates or convenient planters).

Someone must have gotten wind of our plan, as we had no sooner stepped off the bus and were still a good two football fields’ distance from the CEO’s home, when a policeman stopped our little troop of ladies in hats with a few friends. I hung back with our embedded reporter, sensing her tense up a little. The police officer approached us, saying he’d “had complaints” from neighbors. Taking him at his word, I explained to Da Yan, “Yes, we have freedom of speech, but apparently some people don’t like us in their neighborhood.” So, was it a freedom of assembly problem? Nope, we were pretty much just walking, had not even assembled at our destination yet.

We explained our undertaking (and our costumes) and the Lafayette policeman let us proceed but kept a close eye on us, driving the patrol car back and forth past the residence where we sang our tunes. We carefully positioned the giant award outside the gate and, being the polite Grannies we are, stepped ever so cautiously, so as not to trample any flowers.

As we headed back to Palo Alto in “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” we couldn’t help but wonder: What message will our visitor from China take home about freedom of speech in America?