Civil Rights, Environmental Justice, Indigenous Rights, Practitioners / Professionals / Professors, Public Lands, Racial Justice

Whiteness Closes Ranks – A lawyer incarcerated for defending indigenous rights

Michael Chambrelli

Fordham Environmental Law Review Online Editor, 2021-2022, Fordham Law ’22

Whiteness as a concept is unstable. “White” people who challenge elite corporate interests, risk being stripped of their white social privilege. At its core it is meant to further the interests of the white capital-holding elite. Therefore, whiteness can be easily removed if it is used to help BIPOC revolt against white power and institutions. Once you challenge the upper-class establishment’s view of the world or disrupt their bottom line your privilege is stripped away. That is the story of Steven Donziger. A white man crucified by his profession for doing what was right: standing up against corporate greed and exploitation of indigenous peoples and the environment.

Donziger’s background is not much different than the attorneys and judges that locked him away. Like much of the high achieving legal profession, Donziger attended a top ranked private college and subsequently attended Harvard Law School after some time as a journalist. Before Donziger brought the case that would strip his privilege, he served as a public defender. Donziger had always been in the “in-group” of white privilege but operated on the edges of what was acceptable. Then in 1993, Donziger lost that status when he helped 30,000 native Ecuadorians bring a class-action lawsuit against an oil giant that posed far to great a threat to the white establishment elite’s bottom line.  

On October 27, 2021, Steven Donziger began his six-month prison sentence – institutional punishment for harming a corporation’s bottom-line. As of that date, Donziger had spent 813 days under pretrial detention house arrest for refusing to turn over his laptop and cellphone to a private law firm hired to serve as the prosecution. Donziger was convicted on six counts of criminal contempt, a misdemeanor that typically carries a penalty of no more than 90 days in July 2021. Donziger’s detention was the longest pretrial detention of its kind. After his six-month prison stint Donziger will have spent nearly 1000 days under federal detention.

All for the crime of winning a small sum for indigenous peoples against corporate interests and the white capital elite. In 2010 the Ecuadorian Supreme Court ordered Chevron pay an $18 billion to the indigenous Ecuadorians – about $1.13 for every gallon of oil dumped – though the courts later dwindled the settlement to $9.5 million. The establishment’s harsh punishment of one attorney – a person in a profession that traditionally works at the behest of white capital owners – for working as a race and class traitor who meaningfully fought against corporate interests at a large scale is a deterrent to other attorneys who may follow Donziger’s example. It is to remind lawyers whose interests they ultimately serve and that their place amongst whiteness can be stripped away at any time.

Since this historic win for indigenous rights, Chevron has leveraged their power in the court system to ensure that Donziger suffered for his slight against the establishment. One of the reasons this case is so extraordinary is Judge Preska – a Fordham Law alumna – appointed a private law firm with strong connections to Chevron to prosecute Donziger after federal prosecutors declined to bring charges. The powerful capital owners at Chevron and their hired guns have attacked Donziger’s credibility as a professional and the nature of the win itself. Their obvious target was the American lawyer who enabled the Ecuadorian plaintiffs to win their lawsuit.

No other attorney charged with Donziger’s crime have spent more than 90 days in pretrial detention. A Federal Appellate Court also rejected Donziger’s request for bail pending his appeal. An unusual move by the court where the defendant does not pose a flight risk – he just spent 813 days confined to his home – and has no prior criminal history. It is especially unusual when Amnesty International and the United Nation’s Working Group on Arbitrary detention have called for Donziger’s immediate release. Throughout the matter, public figures – including 29 Nobel laureates – have called Chevron and the court’s actions “judicial harassment.” Some have called these actions an example of a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP). Despite the calls for release by advocates and the overall critiques of the matter in general, the court required Donziger to report to prison just twenty-four hours after his sentencing – a clear deviation from a process that normally takes some time to assess which prison is best suited for the guilty.

The justice system’s treatment of Donziger is not coincidental. It is the natural reaction of white capital holding elite when someone perceived as their own challenges their power. It does well to remember that white capital owner will not go down without a fight. They will use the power they have to maintain their position. Those who would see right in the world must stand in solidarity with Steven Donziger and follow his example. Challenge the corporate interests of the white capital owning elite, stand in solidarity with BIPOC people and stand tall in the inevitable battle before you.