The AID chapter at Indiana University, Bloomington, IN added another leaf to their Bhopal campaign by organizing a protest against Dow Corning, which was present at a career fair the IU campus on Thursday, November 2nd, 2006. Over 30 volunteers from AID, enthused by their recent hosting of the Students for Bhopal conference at Bloomington, wielded banners outside the career fair and distributed flyers to students entering the venue. A steady stream of protestors visited the Dow Corning representatives at their table and questioned the negligence of their company. A concerted PR campaign before, during, and after the protest ensured that the protest was covered by the Campus newspaper as well as the city newspaper through press releases, press reports, and letters to the editors. This helped spread the message that “Students need to make an Informed Choice” when applying for jobs. All that the Dow people could do was utter feeble responses that they were not part of Dow. Yeah right! Just 50% Dow, but 100% death!
The moment we got to know about the arrival of Dow Corning at the Life Sciences Career fair hosted by the University, it was natural to think that we should use this opportunity to organize a protest to help spread the awareness about “the dark side of DOW” amongst the students at IU. There was a two fold agenda drawn up in order to make an organized show of resistance against the company that was the perpetrator of the death of thousands on December 3, 1984. The main goal was to help enable IU students to make an “informed choice” on their career by getting to know the whole story about a company, and the second one was to ask the University to set a standard for the kind of companies that they allow on campus for such events in future. After all, setting the bar high on the companies invited to a career fair raises the standard of the University itself and in turn helps the students who invest their future on the makings of such companies.
The preparations for the protest began 10 days before the fair and were masked in secrecy to surprise Dow and avoid preemptive interference by University officials. We used an AID sponsored Diwali Potluck to spread the word on the protest and started collecting pledges from students that “I wont work for Dow”. We also collected resumes from students marked with the pledge not to work for Dow, with the intent of handing them over to Dow. This would send a symbolic message that Dow came to get resumes of students interested in working for them, but instead got many more resumes of students who would NOT work for them. We also started digging up information about Dow Corning, which was a joint venture of Dow and had its own set of issues, such as the Breast Implant litigation in the early 1990’s. We also collected information on IU/departmental policies on on-campus recruitment and networked with other student groups like the Indian Students Association, No Sweat, and Graduate Student Groups. One of the best things we did was the PR campaign where we put the knowledge gained from Media Training Workshop at the SfB Conference to work. We prepared press releases and press kits with background information, called up reporters and went in person to talk to editors, sent reminders to them to make sure they turned up and brought photographers, and prepared juicy sound bites for them. All of these ensured that the protest turn out to be a great success!
The Big Day
The night before the protest, several volunteers went chalking and flyering all around the career fair venue. We drew outlines of dead bodies and named them after real victims of the Bhopal disaster. We also added quotes like “Don’t work for Dirty Dow” and “Dow = Death”. We wanted to make sure anyone even close to the venue would not miss the protest.
Talking to the press
The career fair was between 10 AM and 2AM at the IU Auditorium, and by 9:45 there were more than 10 people holding up banners and posters taking their positions. We were mildly disappointed (though not surprised) that flyers within 30 feet of the venue had been removed/washed out by the career fair organizers, but those further away had survived. The posters we held were graphic and based on a parody of Dow’s Human Element campaign. There were volunteers who were distributing flyers with pictures of Dow’s atrocities around the world (Bhopal, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Africa, and USA). We found these to be more effective in grabbing people’s attention than written material – pictures do speak more than words. These graphic evidence would remain glued to the memory of any passerby who would cringe at the thought of associating himself/herself with Dow in the future. Protestors braving the cold and the wind kindled the curiosity of students visiting the fair and only a few avoided us. The volunteers told them of the reason for the protest and how could make a difference through signing a pledge and talking to the Dow representatives inside!! Signatures for the “I won’t work for DOW” pledge form started pouring in!!
The protesters were not allowed into the venue though it was open to all IU Students. We were politely warned to keep a 30 feet distance from the venue and a couple of cop cars were on standby just to get the message across to us. A few of us, in the guise of seeking a job (we were, after all, IU Students), took the responsibility of walking in and speaking to the Dow Corning representatives on what they thought about Dow’s handling of Bhopal and on the protest being staged outside. They outright denied any association with Dow Chemical, claiming that Dow was just a share holder (a 50% share holder!) in their company, and acted surprised that we were protesting against a company that was not even present at the Career Fair. Well, that did not fool many. Looks like owning 50% of the company’s shares is not much of an association!!
Signing the pledge not to work for Dow
Most students who went in or came out of the fair stopped at the Showalter Fountain to talk with us and many signed the pledge form not to work for a company that indulges in such “inhuman activities”. Over 100 people have taken the pledge and that is about 25% of all people who were at the career fair! We even had a bunch of middle schools students visit the fountain and all of them got Bhopal flyers 🙂
We had several members from other student groups also join us through the day and it was a wonderful exercise in coalition building. We had several reporters coming in at different points in the protest, talking to protestors, with the Dow Corning representative, and taking pictures. The campus newspaper, Indiana Daily Student, and the city newspaper, Herald Times, carried the campaign report the next day on their 2nd page. The much desired goal of creating awareness among the students to create an “informed decision” was achieved! In a nutshell, you could not have asked for a better first campaign!
Inspired by Armstrong’s words, I would call this a giant leap for the Bloomington chapter, who was/is still a newbie to the world of protesting and showing resent against a giant corporation! All these would not have been possible without the humungous efforts of many a people, both on and off stage, who are recognized at the bottom. Thanks to each and every one of them. Every small effort was counted and seen, and each of us are proud to have made an attempt to make these people accountable for a horrendous deed committed 22 years ago, whose wounds are still afresh among the affected!
The Aftermath & Post-mortem
The PR campaign did not stop with the reports. We made sure we followed up with the reporters and sent letters to the editor rebutting the claims of the Dow Corning representatives that they were independent of Dow. Two of these letters were published in the campus newspaper. The 200 graphic flyers that we printed we all used up by the end of the protest! That showed us not to under-estimate the effectiveness of our efforts.
While we managed to retort to Dow Corning’s claims that they were not part of Dow, we did not expect such a defense from them, though in hindsight, it seems obvious. We should have pre-empted them from giving such a justification by having posters about it or having facts like Dow has 4 board members in Dow Corning’s board of directors. This would have made the press report more in our favor, instead of having to use letters to the editor to fill the gaps.
It is not clear if our efforts at secrecy were worth it. While we did have over 30 protestors in all, we could have get more if we’d actively used mailing lists to publicize the protest. Dow Corning had a surprise for sure, but they may have had the surprise even if we’re publicized the protest more. We may have just been a bit paranoid.
Dow has got the message, loud and clear, that students at IU will not stand by as people continue to shrivel and die at Bhopal — without clean water, without medical care, without livelihood, without justice!
This is just the beginning. Several other groups have expressed support to kick out dirty companies like Dow from the IU campus. As we take this movement forward, each one of our voices will count!