How Steven Donziger Became the Boomer Hero of the Millennial Left

P.J. McCormick / Rolling Stone
How Steven Donziger Became the Boomer Hero of the Millennial Left Attorney Steven Donziger speaks to his supporters as he arrives at Daniel Patrick Moynihan United States Courthouse in New York. (photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

He fought big oil and was prosecuted by the state — and his brand of climate change activism and all-around outrage is just what the young left was looking for

In a room full of beards and beanies, DSA types, leftist podcasters, and Dimes Square affiliates, Steven Donziger — tall, striking, and 60 — stood out from the younger crowd. On a Wednesday night at Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s trendy Baby’s All Right, known for hosting indie upstarts like Porches and Wet Leg, one could be forgiven for thinking Donziger, dressed in a shirt and blazer, was somebody’s chaperone. But the former environmental justice lawyer — just released from almost a thousand days of house arrest and confinement for his role in a 9.5-billion-dollar suit against Chevron — was the young crowd’s guest of honor, speaking on a panel alongside activists and indie acts. “It’s been exhilarating, at every level” says Donziger of his appearance at Baby’s, a block party in his honor days before, and freedom in general. “I was on indefinite house arrest. I was two years and two months without a trial. I didn’t know when the trial would come. To have that lifted is a great thrill.”

Though many of the supporters in the room probably weren’t born when Mr. Donziger first filed suit against Chevron, it’s not difficult to see why young leftists are flocking to his case. The particulars of his story — a crusade for environmental justice, the near-unstoppable will of the fossil fuel industry, the wielding of the U.S. criminal justice system by a multinational conglomerate — are all pet issues for the reform-minded left. In the past month alone, he’s attracted endorsements and interviews by the likes of Will Menaker, one of the hosts of the Brooklyn-based Chapo Trap House, and Amazon Labor Union organizer Chris Smalls. This exposure has further helped expose a younger, internet-literate left to Donziger’s story, turning him into an icon of environmental activism, and a martyr of corporate sabotage.

Donziger’s story began in the early 1990s, shortly after he graduated from Harvard Law School, when he was contacted by the Amazon Defense Coalition. The government-recognized legal defense team and environmental outreach program was asking for aid in prosecuting Chevron on behalf of 30,000 Ecuadorians, including five Amazonian tribes, affected by the corporation’s drilling operations. Drilling in the Lago Agrio oil fields — overseen by Texaco, before the company was bought by Chevron — dates as far back as the 1970s, and has wreaked environmental havoc for decades. A 1993 suit filed in part by Donziger alleged that Texaco knowingly dumped 17 million gallons of crude oil in the Ecuadorian rainforest, leaving in its wake a 1,700 square mile area of devastation akin to an “Amazon Chernobyl.”

Chevron denied wrongdoing, blaming the contamination on PetroEcuador, the country’s national oil company and a former partner of Texaco’s, and — arguing that Texaco had conducted a $40 million cleanup that the Ecuadorian government had deemed sufficient — pushed to move the trial from New York, where the suit was filed, to Ecuador, which does not use juries in judicial proceedings. But in 2011, after decades of work, the Ecuadorian courts ordered Chevron to pay out $9.5 billion to the people of Ecuador.

Shortly after the ruling, Chevron reportedly moved their assets out of Ecuador, and launched a counter-litigation campaign against Donziger, filing a RICO charge against him in 2011. In 2014, after a civil case hinging on a witness coached over 50 times by Chevron, Donziger was found guilty in a bench trial of racketeering, extortion, wire fraud, money laundering, obstruction of justice, and witness tampering by federal judge Lewis Kaplan, in the Southern District court of New York. Among other findings, Judge Kaplan found that Donziger and his associates had ghostwritten an environmental report that had been used as a crucial piece of evidence and had bribed a judge. Following the civil suit, Kaplan drew up criminal contempt charges against Donziger, for his refusal to turn over his electronics, and appointed a private firm with ties to Chevron to prosecute, ultimately resulting in Donzgier’s disbarment, home confinement, and a brief stint in prison.

Chevron, for their part, continue to deny responsibility for the underlying environmental allegations and refer to Donziger as an “unscrupulous con man.” When reached for comment, a spokesperson for the corporation, a lawyer for Gibson, Dunne, and Crutcher, reiterates the company stance: ““U.S. courts and an international arbitration tribunal in The Hague have ruled the Ecuador judgment against Chevron was the product of fraud, bribery, and extortion by Steven Donziger and others. Today, Mr. Donziger is an adjudicated racketeer convicted of criminal contempt who was disbarred for ‘egregious professional misconduct’ in the Ecuador case. He was fired by his Ecuador clients years ago for refusing to disclose how he spent tens of millions of dollars raised in their name.”

Donziger alleges that Chevron’s influence extends to the courts and beyond, into the realm of media, where Donziger has long lamented that his story isn’t getting the coverage it deserves.

“Chevron has representatives that exert significant influence over the corporate media. There’s no other way to put it,” Donziger says. While recently coverage has been picking up, Donziger says he firmly believes that “entities that depend on ad revenue from the fossil fuel industry are ignoring the story.”

But years of outreach seems to have paid off in grassroots support for Donziger. In addition to independent media, including podcasters like Menaker, who Donziger credits for getting eyes on his story when the national news wouldn’t, an open-door policy at Donziger’s home also boosted his profile. Since the beginning of his house arrest, Donziger’s handsome, bookcase-lined Upper West Side apartment has served as a meeting place and staging ground for conversations and collaborations with activists, politicians, journalists, and celebrities, with many posted on social media and dated to Donziger’s number of days in confinement. Day 67: Manari Ushigua, shaman of the Sápara nation of the Amazon. Day 640: Sting. And later into his stay: Marianne Williamson, Lucy Lawless, Adam Met of pop act AJR.

If Donziger’s take-all-comers approach earned him arguably as much attention with environmental-justice-minded celebrities as it did with human rights lawyers, it also cannily caught the attention of organizers like Chris Smalls, introduced to Donziger through a mutual friend, who saw similarities in their struggles. “He came over for dinner, and I learned a lot by taking to him” says Donziger, “We found that we had a lot in common in terms of our respective campaigns against these mega corporations disrespecting workers…and indigenous peoples. So we ended up staying in touch.”

Though Donziger strikes a modest note, it’s evident through his social media and his own admissions that his role as spokesperson for environmental justice, and against corporate overreach, was carefully cultivated. “If people choose to see me as a positive example, or as something that inspires them to do this very important climate justice work, I’m more than happy to play that role,” says Donziger. “I love speaking to young people, and I always take the time to try to share these experiences so people know what the work is about and how important it is.”

Blake Ortiz-Goldberg, of hyper-pop act Blaketheman1000, who helped organize the event at Baby’s, was introduced to Donziger through a journalist friend, was also welcomed to Donziger’s apartment. “I went over and brought a bluetooth speaker and played some of my music for him,” says Ortiz-Goldberg. Enthusiastic, and trying to expand his outreach to younger city residents, Donziger invited Ortiz-Goldberg to play at his release party, which, at Ortiz-Goldberg’s suggestion, became the night at Baby’s.

Menaker, who also appeared at Baby’ All Right, considers stories like Donziger’s cautionary tales and exemplary victories all at once. “They’re object lessons in inspiring people to challenge real power, but also object lessons in what can happen to you if you do that of you defy real power in this country.” Nevertheless, Menaker still sees Dozinger as a beacon of hope for the environmental justice movement. Though there are precious few examples of individuals fighting against mega corporations “allowed to rack up a W,” in Menaker’s words, Donziger, at least for now, can count himself as one of them.

“[Chevron’s] strategy is to crush the lawyer,” said Donziger. “The problem they have with me is that it didn’t work. I kept going.”

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