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San Francisco Chronicle: Gas price protester dies while on hunger strike

Erin Allday, Chronicle Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Mehdi Shahbazi, the owner of several gas stations along the California coast who dedicated the last years of his life to fighting a passionate and at times eccentric battle in the name of consumer rights, has died.

Shahbazi had been on a hunger strike for more than four months to protest rising gas prices, and Shell Oil in particular. He died Nov. 14 at Stanford Medical Center, likely from complications related to the all-liquid diet and a pre-existing liver problem, said friends and family. He was 65.

“Everybody was worried about him. But we stood behind him, we stood as a family,” said his son, Saam Shahbazi. “He was passionate about his community. Wherever he lived, he tried to make it a better place. And he was always dedicated to his cause. He would go through with it all the way. He wasn’t a person to give up.”

Mehdi Shahbazi, an Iranian who moved to the United States about 25 years ago, operated eight different service stations during his career and had grown increasingly frustrated with the plight of his struggling customers as gas prices climbed.

“He saw that gas prices affect the nation in a big way, more than just the gas. As soon as gas prices go up, prices go up for every usable good,” his son said. “So the poor people he saw that were struggling, it wasn’t just gas, it was food, it was everything.

“He would work the night shift and see people come in that needed help, they needed somebody to stand up for them.”

Shahbazi first joined 44 other gas station owners in suing Exxon over gas prices. Later, on his own, he battled Shell, putting up signs at his station in Marina (Monterey County), challenging customers to take their own actions against the oil company. He started a Web site, PumpinMad.com, where he suggested ways for consumers to get involved.

Shell ordered him to take down the signs and eventually sued him, his family said. Shahbazi filed a lawsuit of his own, claiming the company was violating his freedom of speech. In October, he lost the gas station, the last one he’d owned.

He’d started his hunger strike earlier in June, and over the next few months made several demands of Shell, including a public apology from the company and spokesman and racecar driver Mario Andretti.

Meanwhile, his health deteriorated. In an interview in September, Shahbazi said he’d been told he didn’t have much longer to live, and he was hospitalized.

“He was just such an incredible human being, one of the most involved people I’ve ever met,” said Jeffrey Cohen, a longtime friend of Shahbazi. “The paradox is, was it stupid and crazy to do what he did? Maybe. But was he stupid and crazy? Absolutely not. The whole thing is a tragedy. I don’t think he wanted to die over this.”

This article appeared on page D – 6 of the San Francisco Chronicle

http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/11/20/BA80TFHKP.DTL

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