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A Day of Tears: Report from the “sHell No!” Action in Portland

As has been well-documented, Royal Dutch Shell has plans to drill for oil in the Arctic, despite their knowledge that such extraction will exacerbate Climate Change (see here, here or here). President Obama has given these plans his blessing, as could be expected of a politician beholden to the extraction industries. In order to commit such an ecocidal act, Shell has to transport many different resources to the area by ship, and activists have attempted to slow the process by blocking, if only temporarily, a couple of these key transports. In Seattle, kayakers delayed the departure of a Shell oil rig in June.

In Portland, the Fennica, a Shell ship carrying a key piece of equipment that is needed on site before drilling can legally begin, docked for repairs about ten days ago, giving local activists some time to put together a response. Another kayak blockade was quickly planned, and to the surprise of most locals, Greenpeace pulled a surprise action a little after 3:00 a.m., early on the morning of July 29th. Thirteen people with climbing equipment lowered themselves off the St. John’s Bridge, downriver from the Fennica, and positioned themselves in harnesses about a third of the way down, with ropes strung between themselves. This simple, even elegant, set-up made passage of the Fennica impossible without injuring the climbers. They were provisioned with enough food and water to stay there for days.

This bold action quickly caught the attention of the media, as Greenpeace actions are designed to do. The bright yellow and red banners floated from the climb lines, juxtaposed against the austere Gothic shapes of the St. John’s Bridge, made for very aesthetic photography. The Fennica itself made a brief appearance that day, making a move toward the bridge, but then returned to dock. It was presumed that this was done so they would have the legal basis to claim they were blocked. Sure enough, it was announced shortly after that, at Shell’s behest, a judge had issued an injunction against Greenpeace for the actions of the climbers, with the threat of fines compounded hourly as long as it continued.

Excitement for the blockade, both in the water and off of the bridge, was fueled by social media, and people started heading for Cathedral Park, which is located at the east end of the bridge and has a boat ramp. This park was already the location that has been chosen for the kayak blockade, so the two actions took place together.

I headed to the park with some friends on the 30th, at which point the climbers had been hanging for well over 24 hours. The heat was oppressive – hitting an almost unheard of 105° F – as if to illustrate the effects of Climate Change.

The first tears of the day for me were tears of joy. What a beautiful sight the climbers made, so small, yet so brave. I had not witnessed a direct action of this kind in many years and had forgotten how it swells the heart. People doing something out-of-the-ordinary, something disobedient, something selfless, in the face of oppressive forces. I find such actions inspirational and have supported them in many ways over the years.

We made the rounds of the park, visiting a friend who was one of the local organizers to get the latest news, checking in at the booth so my companion could sign up for kayak training, and taking a few pictures of the scene. Dozens of kayaks were in the water at any given time, crewed by people of all ages, plus a few rowboats, powerboats, and one guy on a paddle-board. Over a hundred people stood on a dock that extended out in to the water near one of the bridge’s piers, their collective weight pushed it so low that water lapped over the edges. On the shore, Food Not Bombs served food and activists distributed literature and sought signatures. For the first couple hours we were there, there was a lull in the action, as the powers-that-be planned their response.

The first strike fell when police boats cruised out to announce over loudspeaker that the climbers were breaking the law and needed to come down. None of the climbers moved, of course. They also told the kayakers to move back a hundred yards, but they held their ground (water?).

The second strike, a few minutes later, was aimed solely at the kayakers, who were taking advantage of the bridge’s shadow to both block the Fennica’s passage and beat the heat. Police and sheriffs on several boats and a couple jet skis now informed them that the river was closed by order of the port and that they needed to paddle to shore. If any of them did this right away, I didn’t see it, and instead, law enforcement had to literally herd them, which took some time. As soon as they pushed them back in one place, they came back out in another. Eventually, and after a few arrests of kayakers by the Coast Guard (who were the only ones with jurisdiction in the river), the protesters with paddles were grouped to one side, and the channel was clear for the ship at water-level.

This still left the climbers, but apparently the heat took its toll on them. Three eventually let themselves down to the water on their lines, which made a gap in the blockade.

Before too long the Fennica appeared, escorted by the Coast Guard and law enforcement. A couple dozen kayakers made a last ditch effort to get in the way, but were unsuccessful. Slowly, the large vessel moved under the bridge, through the gap in the climbers. When it had cleared them, its engines revved up and it picked up speed, leaving behind the last few kayakers.

This when the second tears of the day came into my eyes. My friend and I had been watching from a shady spot on the shore, away from the crowds, and I heard her sobbing softly. We sat there for a few minutes, unable to move, and I felt sadness flowing through me, for a number of reasons. First, that the the ship was successfully on its way to the Arctic. Secondly, that all the effort by so many people had delayed it for only 40-odd hours, a drop in the bucket. Thirdly, that so few others seemed to share my sadness. And fourthly, that I live in a culture where I know that many people were leaving that day with a sense of self-congratulations, as if a victory had been won, when in actuality it was yet another battle lost in a war defined by defeat.

I was also sad for another reason. Ten years ago, I would have rushed home to process photos, write up a synopsis, and post a story to Portland Indymedia. Back then, before ubiquitous cell-phone cameras and social media, Indymedia served a special role with its unique “open publishing,” which empowered people to share their stories from the streets. Then, the Indymedia editors (of which I was one) would pull all these contributions together into a coherent narrative that included multiple points of view and offered a far more complete picture than the he-said/she-said simplifications of the corporate media, and without their pro-power bias.

Nowadays, the corporate media still does their thing, bowing and scraping before the ruling class and denigrating any form of resistance (even when — if not especially when — their coverage is “not too bad”) but the multi-faceted “other side” can no longer be found in one place. Hunting and pecking through hundreds of superficial Facebook posts and thousands of vacuous tweets leads to confusion, not clarity. The summaries put up by the activist groups themselves are not enough; they are all “rah rah us” and lack serious analysis of tactics or ends. Indymedia was independent of them, too, and provided that forum, alongside the event reportage.

So for that moment on the shore, watching the climbers descend on their lines, I missed Indymedia. I can put this story on my blog, or on Facebook, or maybe get it published on an alternative news site. But it would be improved by sharing company with other stories from the day. I can still post it to Portland Indymedia, but its day has passed; it has lost its relevancy through disuse. Social media provides a much more effective ego-boost for people’s narcissistic urges, and that draw is far stronger than collectivity. I dare say that collectivity is more out of fashion now than at any time in the history of the U.S.A., just when we need it most. By current indications, it will continue to worsen.

As my companion and I walked back along the shore, looking for a friend who had ridden with us to see if she wanted a lift back, one of the descended climbers was arriving on the beach in a rowboat. Someone greeted him with a big hug and a congratulations. Without saying anything or asking, I could tell that my companion and I felt the same way: we both wanted to stop and thank him, so we waited until the first person moved on and approached him ourselves. One after the other, he gave us both big hugs and said, “I love you,” and he was heartfelt and sincere. Speaking of the crowds on the shore, he said, “I couldn’t have done it without you all. Thank you.”

So the third tears of the day were tears of love. I did, and do, truly appreciate what he and the other twelve climbers did. It took courage. It was real. There was nothing virtual about it. They literally put their lives on the line to fight ecocide. The ultimate failure of the action does not detract from their personal efforts.

Will I live to see a day when the number people who are that courageous is high enough that our collective action makes a real difference? I don’t know. But I would love to experience the tears of victory.

Kollibri terre Sonnenblume is a writer living on the West Coast of the U.S.A. More of Kollibri’s writing and photos can be found at Macska Moksha Press

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