Chanting, raging arguments which escalated to scuffles, and shareholders carried out sideways by security – BP's 2011 annual general meeting, held in London yesterday, broke corporate conventions.
The company's first meeting with shareholders since last year's Deepwater Horizon catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, which killed 11 workers and caused the worst oil spill in history, saw its executives face questions over their own basic competence and high pay, as well as the company's safety and environmental records.
In an unusual shareholder rebellion, there was a sizeable protest vote against the pay deals handed to the company's top bosses. Seven per cent of BP investors voted against the re-appointment of the company's unpopular chairman, Carl-Henric Svanberg, and 25 per cent voted against the re-election of Sir Bill Castell, the non-executive director who heads BP's safety committee. Eleven per cent voted against the remuneration report.
Many of the protesters had bought shares in BP hoping to get into the meeting. One such, a fourth-generation Texan fisherwoman called Diane Wilson, who disrupted a US Senate hearing with the former BP chief executive Tony Hayward last year, was arrested for a breach of the peace after she poured an oil-like substance over herself and refused to leave the entrance to the Excel Centre in east London.
While being removed by police, Ms Wilson, 62, said that the only way to stop the kind of accident that had happened in the Gulf of Mexico was to make corporate officers responsible and bring manslaughter charges against Mr Hayward. "I have travelled all the way over from the Gulf Coast and I just wanted to talk those responsible for destroying my community," she said, holding back tears.
"My community is dead. We've worked five generations there and now we've got a dead community. I'm angry, I've been angry a long time."
A separate group of activists wearing T-shirts that spelled out "No Tar Sands" tried to form a human shield in front of the stage during an argument between indigenous groups and the board of directors over the extraction of oil in the Canadian tar-sands. Critics say the oil source is far more polluting than conventional oil. The group were dragged out of the hall by security guards, while pleading with the company's shareholders to "Vote No" to BP's annual report.
Speaking outside the meeting, Tracy Kuhns, a Louisiana shrimp fisherwoman, said she was angry and embarrassed at having been "treated like a criminal" and turned away from the meeting, which she planned to attend as a proxy shareholder. She said BP had damaged her community, its businesses, the environment and people's health through the spill and the chemicals used to disperse the oil, and was not paying for what it had done.
BP's chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg, said he realised there were people with "strong emotions" in attendance, but he had every right to refuse access to those who posed a threat to security. He listened to Antonia Juhasz – director of the San Franciscan human rights group Global Exchange and representative of the residents of the Gulf – as she read a message from Keith Jones, the father of one of the men who died on the rig.
Mr Jones said BP could have prevented the blowout if it had spent more money and time making its rigs safe. His statement ended: "You were rolling the dice on behalf of my son's life and you lost."
BP's chief executive Bob Dudley stressed the company's swift clear-up of the spill, adding that BP had set up a multibillion-dollar trust fund to pay for damages and had overhauled its approach to risk management.
A thorn in BP's side
Diane Wilson, a shrimp fisherwoman from Texas, is a tenacious protester whose favourite trick is to smear herself with a syrup that is designed to look like oil. She made the long trip to London with three other Gulf Coast residents, but they were refused entry to yesterday's BP meeting.
She used her oil tactic in the US twice last year, once at a meeting of the Senate energy committee, where she stood up and poured a jar of the substance over herself, and again while Tony Hayward, who was then chief executive of the oil giant, gave evidence to a congressional committee.
She shouted at him: "You need to be charged with a crime."
Register for free to continue reading
Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism
By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists
Already have an account? sign in
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies