WASHINGTON, DC—More than 1,000 majority shareholders and executive officers from the nation's largest oil companies gathered in the National Mall and marched to Capitol Hill Monday in a mass demonstration for petrochemical corporations' rights and, according to several of those who attended, "to let our voices be heard at last."
"We're American citizens, and we demand to be part of the national dialogue," said John S. Watson, vice president of international exploration and production for Chevron Corporation, the world's second-largest oil company. "Many people in our industry think nobody in Washington cares about us, and that our opinions don't matter. We're here today to change that."
Guest speakers, including folk-singing lobbyist Anne Novotny, international drilling-rights activist Bill Marshall, and several Saudi princes, focused on the need to extend subsidies to offshore drilling efforts, grant tax breaks for the construction of new refineries, and stop oppressive environmental regulation.
But the real message of the protest was more personal: To demonstrators, the oil industry is unappreciated and even persecuted by large segments of the public who only want them for the gasoline they sell. Protesters hoisted signs reflecting this sentiment, bearing such slogans as "Enough Is Enough," "Power To The Petroleum-Producing People," "Texaco-American Pride," and "I'm Pro-Oil And I Vote."
"Politicians are supposed to work for everyone," said Red Cavaney, president of the American Petroleum Institute. "For years, they've pretended like we didn't even exist. But today, with this many people from the oil industry right here in our nation's capital, we're sending an undeniably strong message."
Oil executives traveled from as far as Irving, TX to attend the event. Some, such as Exxon Mobil chairman and CEO Rex W. Tillerson, said they were missing important board meetings and sacrificing as much as three days of vacation time just to be among their fellow oilmen.
"You can't ignore us any longer, America," a flag-draped Tillerson said. "Get used to us, because we refuse to stand in silence. From now on, the power brokers in Washington will sit up and listen."
The march, which took place just after lunchtime, was limited to a strict route, and was closely monitored by hundreds of DC police in riot gear. Authorities reported no arrests or instances of violence, even after a tense moment when some protesters chanting "Members of the board will not be ignored!" passed a security barricade and crossed Pennsylvania Avenue.
"Today is the day my American oil comrades and I stand together as one and announce that this is our country, too," said BP Global's chief financial officer, Byron Grote, who oversaw British Petroleum's acquisition of ARCO, SOHIO, Amoco, and Vastar in 2000. "None of us in international oil production are looking for special treatment. We just want a fair shake. That's what democracy is all about."
Organizers applauded the peaceful protest as a "positive first step in governmental–petrochemical coalition-building." But the systemic marginalization of one minority group—in this case, Big Oil CEOs—by those in power can make it difficult to get past feelings of bitterness and resentment, said corporate-disenfranchisement expert Jonathan Foner.
"They feel like they've just been shouting into the wilderness," Foner said. "So today, many of them were hoping that if they spoke loudly and clearly enough through their bullhorns into the wilderness, those in power would listen to them."
ConocoPhillips CEO J.J. Mulva was scheduled to deliver a speech about civil disobedience, but called it off at the last minute due to unspecified medical complications. His brother, Exxon Mobil controller P.T. Mulva, said "heartbreak" is what kept the older sibling at home.
"The oil business is a labor of love for our family, and J.J.'s been fighting for our rights for years," Mulva said. "When he heard that the marchers would not be permitted to pass the White House due to security issues, it was more than he could take. That really broke his spirit."
President Bush, vacationing at his Crawford, TX ranch, released a statement Tuesday morning expressing his respect for the protesters' right to free speech, saying America "tolerates diverse viewpoints."
"The people have a right to protest in this country, but my administration is not going to be intimidated by the opinions of an outspoken few," Bush said.