The Carnival Against Oil Wars and Climate Chaos: a celebratory siege of BP’s Oil Festival Hall


Every year since 1998 or so, BP has carried out a one-day-only privatisation of the Peoples’ Palace, better known as the Royal Festival Hall, in order to hold its Annual General Meeting.

Accompanying this panto in the past have been the occasional shareholder resolution requesting that BP divest from Tibet or commit to a stronger renewables policy. And there have been small theatrical protests such as the Colombia Solidarity Campaign attending the meeting in paramilitary uniforms.

The intention in 2003 was to up the ante a bit and to give people a chance to express their disgust at the way Big Oil is profiting from war, climate change and the ruthless exploitation of workers, affected communities and ecosystems. And it was an attempt to convert that anger into a more positive, celebratory vision of the future, partly through the use of renewably-powered sound systems.

In the build-up, almost 40,000 leaflets heavily critical of BP were distributed, citing its disastrous record in Alaska, Colombia, the North Sea, West Papua – wherever it operates, in fact - and inciting people to get involved with the campaign to prevent its current extremely vulnerable flagship project, the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan (BTC) pipeline.

Another aspect of the outreach work leading up to the Carnival was the ‘Deconstructing BP’ Tour, which dropped in on London, Norwich, Brighton, Bristol and Nottingham with a combination of videos, speakers (mostly from the excellent Colombia Solidarity Campaign) and discussions, all in venues decorated for the night with photographs of the proposed route of the BTC pipeline and draped in multi-coloured anti-BP and climate chaos banners.

On the day, many of the necessary pieces of the jigsaw fell into place pretty much as hoped: we were noisy, defiant, joyous and bedecked in colour; the heavy security culture that bedevils BP’s refining activities in the global south was imported to the RFH for one day, seriously upsetting the behatted Ascot-like atmosphere that some shareholders seemed to expect; 3000 copies of a spoof annual report were printed and very well received; press coverage was strong and comparatively positive; BP boss Lord Browne was energetically heckled before said heckler was rewarded for exercising his right to free speech by being energetically removed by security; the Alternative General Meeting held on the South Bank (video - real media file) was passionate, informative and often hysterically funny; and stinky smells appeared in various parts of the building, (triggering an absurd police over-reaction as they called in a Porton Down-trained chemical warfare specialist to investigate the offending odour).

The lower-than-expected turnout, while not succeeding in shutting down the meeting, certainly rattled BP, who had put serious time, energy and money into their security operation. It seems unlikely that the RFH will want to endure the same sort of situation next year, with the whole building pretty much closed off to the public, which would force BP will have to look around for another building to brand for the day. (Speaking of branding, BP had even stuck huge plastic graphics of grass onto the windows on one side, presumably to protect their shareholders from the alarming sight of the great unwashed massed beneath them.)

The effectiveness of the spoof report was demonstrated in press reports such as this from the Independent newspaper: ‘Inside the hall, some ordinary shareholders mistakenly quoted from the fake annual report, which boasted that BP was "reaping the rewards from the latest in a long line of oil wars", believing it to be real.’ So the fact that media coverage of the event led with the on-the-backfoot assertion by BP Chairman Peter Sutherland that ‘BP will not muscle in on post-war Iraq’ was triggered by a heavily satirical spoof report. The sight of many of the police men and women of Metropolitan Petroleum – as they were dubbed for the day – chuckling as they read the spoof can hardly fill board members with cheer as they look back on the day. Perhaps BP boss Lord Browne of Madingley – or ‘Lord Browne of Beyond’, as he is dubbed in the spoof report – can take some comfort from the knowledge that shareholders scarcely batted a false eyelash at his 2002 salary of £3,307,000.

Even though it revealed conflict-inflated profits of £26 million per day for the first three months of 2003, spring wasn’t a very good season for the BP brand or for Big Oil itself. Public perceptions of the industry’s collusion in the Iraq war and subsequent profitable peace were underlined by the Carnival Against Oil Wars and Climate Chaos, by Nigerian oilworkers occupying offshore rigs in protest at working conditions, and media-fuelled talk of May Day protesters’ targetting oil as well as arms companies.

The Carnival showed that even a comparatively small number of creative and determinedly off-brand people can have a real impact on one of the world’s largest and most greenwashed companies. With our help, this will be the decade when positive public perceptions of Big Oil go up in smoke.

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