Like many other Portlanders who don’t have air conditioning, I was on Wednesday morning this week trying to catch a bit of shut-eye during the few final cool hours before the arrival of another nasty heatwave. I did not, especially in just that moment, need any reminder about the reality of climate change; we have been sweating through it all summer here in Portland.
Normally, she peeks in, about 8 a.m., to awaken and draw me out gently from beneath the shady protection of an eye mask, but on Wednesday morning, well before 7 a.m., Marlene threw open the bedroom door with shocking urgency. “There are people hanging from the bridge!” she said.
Given my experience in crisis work, my mind instantly went to suicide, specifically to the terrible public suicides-by-hanging that occurred in the late 1990s on the Steel Bridge downtown during the afternoon commute. The idea of such a spectacle marring the beautiful St. Johns Bridge sickened me; suicides normally jump from it, not hang themselves, and I mumbled as much to Marlene as I got up from bed.
“Oh, no, they’re not dead,” she corrected me. “They are all very much alive. It’s a protest. They’re trying to block a boat from going out to sea. I was making my coffee this morning, and I saw something hanging from the bridge, and I wondered what it was, so I went down there to look. You see…?” She lead me to the kitchen window.
Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I tried to focus. In the bright morning sun, I could see what looked like weights and balls of fabric hanging from ropes attached to the steel trusses below the main span of the bridge, which clears the Willamette River by an average of 205 feet, or 20 stories high, just 15 feet shy of the Golden Gate. I grabbed my binoculars, which I tend to keep handy, and took a closer look. Dangling below the bridge were 13 people in total. Without hesitation, I changed my clothes, threw on a hat, grabbed the dog and walked down to the floating dock in Cathedral Park a few blocks away.
Helicopters were buzzing overhead, and there amongst the first news reporters showing up, I listened to a kayaker involved in the protest explain what was happening. An arctic icebreaker leased by Shell Oil Company had a few days prior arrived in Portland for dry dock repairs after suffering a gash to its hull. It was scheduled to depart Wednesday morning on a return trip to the Arctic, where it is being used for undersea oil exploration.
“We have already seen the recent reports of how the ice caps are melting at a faster rate than previously believed,” the kayaker said. “This sort of oil drilling is only going to hasten that. It is also a threat to indigenous people and to their food supply. An oil spill in the Arctic would be an epic disaster, because it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to clean up. We are trying to stop the ship from going out to sea, or at least delay it so there’s less time before the weather conditions become too harsh for them to continue with this foolishness. Obviously, the ideal outcome would be to get Shell Oil to give up its fascination with the Arctic and leave it alone.”
Yes, I knew, the latter would be ideal. But unlikely.
I looked up at the protestors hanging from the bridge. They all bore yellow signs with red lettering, Shell’s corporate colors. Some were easier to read than others, but two things kept popping out clearly: “#sHellNO” and Greenpeace.
The latter made me realize we were in for a show. Greenpeace, whatever you may think of the organization, is infamous for its risk-taking theatrics. Here were 13 people hanging from a bridge at least 125 feet above the water. “How will this stop the boat?” I asked.
The kayaker explained that all the protestors were connected by a through-line tied in such a way that the fate of one would become the fate of all. “If the cops try to raise one of them up to the bridge, the others will drop,” he said. Their plan, then, was to create a conundrum: To pull any of them up to let the ship pass beneath would put the other 12 into peril, further blocking the ship.
“It’s going to be really hot up there,” I said. “How will they manage that?”
Each, he said, was wearing protective gear, and there were support people on the surface of the bridge who could lower supplies. “They can probably last a few days up there,” he suggested.
Wednesday is one of my regular days off from work. On this day, my friend Justine was due for a visit; we would head to the river for a swim, and planned to cross the bridge to get there. I noticed it was closed to traffic. I commute across the bridge several days a week, by both car and bus, and I wondered just then how much this environmental action was going to inconvenience me.
Yes, sadly, that was one of my first reactions: This is going to get in my way. I looked up once more at the protestors dangling there, people literally at the ends of their ropes, and shook my head in shame for my selfishness.
Returning home, I began to fix breakfast, first washing my hands. Standing at the sink, I watched the protestors begin unfurling long red and golden banners that quickly caught in the southerly breeze, pointing in the direction from which the icebreaker would eventually come.
Despite the breeze, the day was heating up, the sun beating down on the protestors. I’d seen sheriff’s deputies on Sea-Doos spinning circles around the kayakers, but I figured climate change itself might be the true undoing of the protest. Suspended in mid-air in the growing heat, the protestors must have regarded the river below as a dreamy oasis just out of reach.
I wanted a glass of water, and as I turned the tap to cold and let the gradually cooling water wash over my hands, a self-conscious feeling crept over me: I take this water for granted; I let the lukewarm flush unused down the drain, waiting for the luxury of cool, clean tap water, a refreshing drink.
And wasn’t that part of the point the protestors were making? We take our environment for granted, and we plunder it. The climate is changing not because of one icebreaker bound for the Arctic, but rather because of the accumulated actions of each of us.
I shut off the tap, grabbed a glass bottle, filled it with lukewarm water and put it in the refrigerator, living with the awareness that even though I may purchase and re-use glass as much as possible, both the bottles and my refrigerator are part of that accumulated carbon footprint. My actions may pale in comparison to the heavy footfall of Industry, of factories belching carbon dioxide directly into the air, of concentrated herds of cattle farting clouds of methane into the sky and urinating copious toxins into the groundwater. But I am nevertheless part of the problem.
A reporter on the dock put it to one kayaker directly: “I can’t help noticing your kayak is made of plastic, consequently of petroleum. Isn’t a bit hypocritical to protest oil drilling when you’re in a plastic boat?” The kayaker calmly replied, “Try protesting Big Oil in any fashion without using plastic or petroleum products. It’s impossible; they’re ubiquitous.”
Later, after Justine and I had gone down to the dock so she could witness the event, we drove across the St. Johns Bridge. At each point where a climber had anchored their ropes, a support person or two stood exposed in the sweltering sun. I honked my horn at several of them as I passed, and we waved in encouragement and support.
Then Justine and I looked at each other, both of us feeling more than a little self-conscious. “I guess,” I said to her a bit sheepishly, “it’s pretty hypocritical to honk my horn in support of an oil blockade while driving an oil-dependent combustion engine.”
She nodded in agreement and then asked, “But what should we do? Should we make some kind of assault on the pilings below the bridge and try to join them? Seeing this makes me want to help out, but I don’t know how. These people hanging below the bridge have dedicated their lives to stuff like this; I would probably lose my job for it.”
Later, when we made our return trip across the bridge, I continued to honk anyway. Even if I am to be a hypocrite, I want to be a supportive one.
On Wednesday evening, Marlene, some friends and I joined hundreds of curious onlookers, fellow protestors, kayactivists, police, media and people who otherwise found it too hot to stay home, down at Cathedral Park. Marlene, who has among other things made her living from photography, dedicated herself to documenting the event. (These are all her photos in this blog post; something in my online software is making them appear soft, so click on the images to get a sharper view.)
As with many others who witnessed this in person, we could not help remarking on how beautifully scenic, how artful, it all was — that Greenpeace had landed upon one of its best photo-ops yet, the stunning St. Johns Bridge with Forest Park as a backdrop. The sinking sun illuminated the banners with a rich light that seemed to evoke feelings of awe and hopefulness. The crowd was celebratory; there was a feeling of festivity, a happening underway.
The protesters were relaxing in their bivouacs; the day was finally cooling off. But the heat still present so late in the evening was a continuing reminder of why this was all happening in the first place: The situation with climate change is getting desperate; our response is too sluggish; our actions continue to be damaging; our culture remains largely unconscious of its role in sealing its own fate. We will fall like ancient Rome did — but worse.
I understood then: This protest was never really about stopping the ship. It was a foregone conclusion that the icebreaker Fennica would leave port and set sail one day. And if not the Fennica, Shell Oil would simply rent another ship and continue its dastardly work in the Arctic.
In reality, the protest was for the rest of us. A wake-up call, a dramatic demand for action, a means of engaging a populace who are otherwise sleep-walking down our carbon foot-paths. Down on the dock, I ran into Matthew, an outspoken artist-activist from my dance community, who had just emerged from a solidarity swim in the Willamette, a risky deed given the old superfund sites just upstream. “What does it say about our day and age,” he asked, “that people actually have to dangle themselves from a bridge as human shields just to call attention to drilling for oil in the Arctic, the last pristine place on the planet?”
Over a total of about 30 hours or so, I would watch this patient, non-violent drama gradually unfold just outside my kitchen window, with many more moments of self-awareness. In fact, because the whole drama was visible from the balcony and half the windows in our home, there was no avoiding it. Suddenly, every action I took, from running the dryer an extra round to get the towels dry to eating a Coconut Bliss salted caramel ice cream bar, with its coconut products transported to Portland from distant farms across the planet, came with questions about their environmental worthiness, their reliance on oil, their role in climate change.
Guilt is a natural byproduct of such thinking. I didn’t simmer in it, but I certainly felt it.
Early on Thursday morning, when the Fennica made her first attempt to pass under the bridge, Marlene and I trotted down to the river to witness it. The sight of the massive icebreaker, with its tall radio and radar towers high enough to snag the climbers’ through-line, gave me the chills. When I saw the climbers had all left their bivouacs and dropped down below them, I shuddered: the fragility and relative smallness of a human being is no match for an icebreaker. It sickened me to think how it might end.
Organizers had effectively used social media to warn people about the boat’s approach, and even in the early morning, dozens upon dozens of people were arriving to stand witness. A huge cheer erupted when the Fennica turned around and headed back upriver.
Around 12:30, I left for work, driving once again across the St. Johns Bridge. In heat more intense than it had been the day before, the support people who had managed to remain atop the bridge were wilting. Some lie still and lethargic on the exposed concrete sidewalk, using protest signs to create small pockets of shade. Heat exhaustion or stroke was a real threat, and I fought through my hypocrisy — driving with the air-conditioning on! — to offer honks of support once more.
Quietly, I sent prayers skyward for their safety, for their ability to endure. And for myself, in my air-conditioned car, to find ways to reduce my dependence on petroleum, including mustering the will to make hard choices. For there were, right outside my kitchen window and along side the road I drive to work, withering in the brutal sun, so many brave people willing to make hard choices just to bring my attention — and yours — to the need to do so.
I was in session with clients that afternoon, while the drama of the Fennica came to its conclusion with tactical officers rappelling off the bridge to cut a hole in the through-line and arrest some of the protestors. To a number, my clients were Millennials and all were processing sadness and anxiety about the abundance of loss, grief and betrayal they experience both individually and culturally, coupled with death anxiety and despair for the future. It is hard for them to conceive of a future better than the present.
At the very hour the protestors found their complex rope system being dismantled, themselves hanging at odd angles above the river while the Fennica slipped through the opening cut by police, I was talking with a client about hope. Specifically, we talked about how maintaining hope for a better future or for a return to a nostalgic past can be detrimental when it prevents us from accepting the situation as it is. It’s often only when we’ve done so, when we abandon hope, that we can begin making choices that reflect the reality of the situation.
That night, as sun was setting over the bridge, by then evacuated of its colorful banners and precariously dangling protestors, I walked the dog down to the park. Organizers and volunteers were cleaning up debris left behind by the hundreds upon hundreds of people who made it down to the river in time to see the dramatic climax.
I was catching the hung-over, spilt-beer-and-ashtrays denouement, with many of the hangers-on being dedicated environmentalists, and I took some time to talk with several of them. I asked what they thought had been accomplished by the protest. Many admitted they weren’t sure, that they felt simply delaying the ship by two days had been worth the effort. Others said Greenpeace likely learned from the flaws in their rope system and might do better stopping ships in the future. They focused on how much awareness had been raised, how they had been spurred to read and learn more about the concerns with Arctic drilling, how the event had gotten national and international media coverage.
But to a one, they also all said: Shell is going to do whatever it wants, without regard for the environment, and we expect to see no benefit from this, only harm. A certain helplessness filled the air when they talked about this.
In the end, the mission to stop the Fennica proved futile. But from my view, through the kitchen window and down on the ground, the #sHellNO Greenpeace protest was a stellar example of how to balance hope with reality.
By making something beautiful, artful, non-violent and harming no property, Greenpeace engaged and galvanized a community with the poetic resonance of their protest, infusing the event with a message of hope. When law enforcement ensured the ship its right-of-way on the river, the protestors literally dangling in the wind, reality shot an arrow straight through the heart of that hope. Witnesses were forced to reckon with the size, wealth and political power of Industry, to face our relative smallness, to realize we must abandon hope that, among other things, the corporations will somehow police themselves and be responsible stewards of the environment.
For 40 fleeting hours, long-suffered by the protestors in their hot aeries, the air was crackling with possibility, the sense that we CAN do SOMETHING. More importantly, we need to. Only the political and economic pressure of regular human beings willing to make daring changes to our own lifestyles — and among other things, boycott Shell Oil unless and until they leave the Arctic — will result in the changes necessary to save future generations from the misery of climate change.
I could see it all from my kitchen window, Greenpeace, and I got the message. I will do my part. Thank you, and namaste….
Tamara Webb, LPC, LMHC, is a psychotherapist and writer in Portland, Oregon. Contact her at email@example.com.