Yesterday morning I put on my big sun hat and went up to St. John’s to watch the Greenpeace protest. It was with an equal blend of civic duty and curiosity. I brought a big jug of ice water and finished my morning coffee there as I marveled at the people’s pluck. All of this was going down — fittingly — in front of the Water Pollution Control Laboratory.
From where I sat on the bank it was impossible to really see the climbers, though variation in their set up was apparent. Some clearly had platforms, much to my relief (the scant coverage I had glanced at led one to believe they were just free-floating up there, dangling bodily in space).
Luke Strandquist, a Greenpeace activist interviewed by our local CBS affiliate (from his cell phone, whilst dangling from the bridge,) indicated everyone involved was an experienced climber. Some of them had hammocks, some had platforms and some were just on chairs.
I’m not entirely sure how their resupply-ing was accomplished — I know they themselves had supplies in their gear, but there was also talk on Twitter of their being resupplied in some mysterious capacity. Which is a good thing, because while you can compact calories to a certain extent, water is very heavy, and goes very quickly on a hot day like that.
From afar of course, they just looked like beautiful flags, flapping silently in the wind. Hues nicely contrasting with the pale green of the bridge, yet catching the light to offset the dark underside of the bridge, forest park, and the petroleum industry. Honestly during this quiet morning it felt not like a protest but like a Jean-Claude and Cristo installation, all silky fabric reacting to the wind. Mimicking the hypnotic movement of the water.
I was particularly interested in the network of safety cables (and, of course, the big boat-deterring cable). All support cables were attached to the underside of the bridge, so removal from the upper deck was impossible. (You couldn’t just “cut them down”, as many counter-protesters frothily demanded). I watched the climbers raise this cable many times to accommodate tugboats and barges, lowering it again once the boats passed under. All watercraft gave a toot of their horn — either in solidarity or merely indicating they wished to pass by. Of course by and large the dangling protesters were far too high up to interfere with most water traffic — there was only one boat they wanted to stop, and it was too tall to pass below.
I was there morning to late afternoon — arriving after the boat had been turned around the first time, and leaving just before the police really started to exert force to make way for the boat’s eventual departure. The bridge was still open, and traffic was relatively light on highway 30 opposite, and every so often a car or truck would blare its horn as it passed overhead. The people on shore would cheer and clap. The kayakers would whoop in salute.
Kayak numbers varied wildly while I was there. Visitor numbers varied wildly as well. It was a relatively quiet time down at the bridge. Every so often a chant would start from somewhere, and it would ring out weakly over the water, and then die out.
If anything it really brought home the drudgery that can be holding out. Waiting for the inevitable.
I was only there for five hours, and of course got to leave once I felt uncomfortable — when my water ran out and my shade disappeared. The protesters held out for just about forty hours, in direct sunlight, during the hottest day Portland has seen this year.
That’s in the shade, mind you.
It is, of course, futile to attempt to stop something so vast as a federally sanctioned multinational oil conglomerate with thirteen brave mountaineers, but I don’t think that was the point of this protest. Delaying the ship was, of course, intensely gratifying — and it was incredible to see the sort of ferocity that people express themselves out here. But the larger point was to get attention for the cause, and to once again call upon that most effective symbolism for environmental destruction — the human wall.
It was with a feeling of inevitability that, just in time for the prime time news block (so cynical!) Portland Police closed the St. John’s bridge to all traffic and successfully removed two protestors — lowering them like spiders into the waiting arms of the coastguard flotilla.
These two had dangled above the deepest part of the channel, and their removal cleared a tiny space for Fennica to squeeze under. It was at this point that the kayakers redoubled their efforts, launching into the river faster than the coastguard motorboats could arrest them. I know at least three personally who were in boats, out there in the fray, and countless others watching live from shore, or from the floating fishing docks out in the water.
The rest of Portland watched from home — both via live footage from our local television stations and via Twitter, in my case following both the #shellno hashtag and the unofficial PDX police scanner.
Fennica was escorted out to the Columbia river with what looked like 11 coast guard boats. One for each of the remaining Greenpeace activists.
Later, on Facebook, I saw something posted by Travis Wittwer, a scoutmaster with the 55th Cascadia Scout Group . It was getting passed around on Twitter, and is something I relate to very strongly:
Took my sons to St. Johns bridge to witness the #shellno protest. I wanted my sons to see of what people are capable.
On way there, I briefed them on the situation and the sides. They had emotional opinions, but are neither educated enough in this area, nor mature from years of experience to make a decision that is sustainable. I suggested that they go and witness and watch. They did not need to come to an opinion on the protest.
I wanted them to see the people. Think about how much planning and personal conviction is needed. And to be in awe of people.
While there, we would find a spot and sit and just watch and listen. Sometimes nothing seem to happen, and that is good–I want my sons to experience the pause and length of what the activists are doing. To hear it relayed or to see a photo is not the same as to be there, watching the banners wave in the wind, wondering what is going through the minds of the men and women hanging from the bridge, in the water, or lending support.
I wanted my sons to see a polite and peaceful protest that displays passion for an idea, a belief. This is something different than blasting a hole in the ship.