The beautifully effective #ShellNo blockade is a model for disruptive protest

In case you missed it, Greenpeace activists in Portland, Oregon put on a master-class in disruptive protest over the past few days. Intent on blocking a Shell icebreaker, the MSV Fennica, from travelling down the Willamette River to the Pacific Ocean and on to the Arctic to take part in deepwater oil drilling, thirteen brave souls rappelled off of a bridge and blocked its path.

Greenpeace being Greenpeace, there was a lot of fanfare and bright colours and loud bragging in the media – and good on them, because this was a very well-executed operation.

The blockade was a step above the typical Greenpeace banner-drop (though hopefully it won’t lead to the serious felony charges that were absurdly laid in that particular case). The beauty of it was that it was an attention-drawing conversation piece which actually directly addressed the issue it was protesting.

The Fennica was delayed for over forty hours from embarking for the Arctic. Shell’s work can’t legally begin until it’s arrived. Effectively, Greenpeace took away two days from Shell’s extremely narrow Arctic drilling season while drawing attention to the reckless profiteering the company is engaging in.

After all, there is an emerging scientific consensus that Arctic oil should be considered “unburnable” and should be left alone. Even the US Department of the Interior concludes that there’s a 75% chance of a major spill if drilling gets underway in the Arctic. And not only are efforts to drill in pristine Arctic waters problematic, it turns out they’re also unpopular:

Conflict transformation scholar Tom Hastings described the #ShellNo protest in Portland as follows: “So many Portlanders turned out over two days. Yes, they brought down the airborne activists and cleared the kayakivists out of the way and bullied their oil rig through. But they lost, big time, in the view of Portlanders. I saw entire families just out to support for hours on end. So many kids! And spirits were so good, so sweet, so positive. Big oil lost; they just don’t know it yet.”

Shell looked pretty bad, for instance, when they got an injunction in an Alaska court fining Greenpeace $2500/hour, with the threat of escalating fines up to $10 000/hour. With the amount of attention this protest drew, Greenpeace should easily be able to cover the costs through new donations from people whose imaginations were captured by the disruption.

That’s the other aspect of this action which was so effective – it was so damn inspirational. Let’s let some folks who were there talk about it:

KRISTINA FLORES: This morning was quite the adventure. It felt really, really great to watch the Fennica turn around and go back to port. That was just a really great, great sign that we are winning, that we are strong, and when the people come together, we can win. And we will win…

ANNIE LEONARD: Well, yesterday was an absolutely incredible day, a display of people power. Throughout the day, the crowds just kept growing, as you said. There were hundreds of kayakers going in shifts, filling the river so that if the boat tried to leave, there would be both lines of defense—the aerial barricade and then the people…

Then, around 3:00 in the afternoon, the police came out to the bridge and began to escort the anchors off. The anchors were the people that each climber had on the bridge to ensure their safety, who stayed there 24/7. They took them away, gave them very minor citations and released them. Then they started to force the climbers down. And in an incredible display of just absolute chaos, the police and the Coast Guard came, forced the climbers down and began to take them all away. And they only opened up—didn’t take all of them; they opened up an opening large enough for the Shell ship to come through. The ship started to come, and dozens and dozens of kayakers came and threw themselves in front of the ship. People jumped out of their kayaks to try to stop them. People were on inflatable pool toys. And it was absolute chaos. The Coast Guard ran over one of the kayakers. I mean, it was absolute mayhem.

The Coast Guard managed to pull all the kayakers away, one by one, in a very dangerous situation, clearing just enough space for the Shell vessel to squeak through. It came so close to the remaining climbers that were there, squeaked through. People on the shore literally started crying. It was just heartbreaking to watch this thing go through, because we know the climate implications. It squeaked through, and then it headed out to sea to go up to the Arctic and start the drilling process…

The people on the bridge were Greenpeace. The people on the ground and in the water, which really grew to hundreds and hundreds of people, were not Greenpeace. They were Mosquito Fleet, 350, Rising Tide, and then just everyday citizens that were unaffiliated. People just came down by the scores to just fill the crowd. People were driving across the bridge, dropping off food and water for the climbers. We got emails of support from all around the world. There were a couple of news channels that were live doing this. I got messages from Argentina and Turkey, where people said that all around their offices and homes they were gathered around the TV watching this. I have never, in my 30 years of work as an environmental activist, seen this level of support coming in from locally and all around the world. [my bold]

In many ways, this is the oil industry’s worst nightmare – here’s a low-tech model for climate change protest that powerfully symbolic, disruptive to business, and inspirational to folks around the world. The images of law enforcement physically restraining people to allow an oil company ship to leave port are powerful and revealing, and certainly don’t do the industry any favours PR-wise.

Oil extraction, and especially deep-sea drilling, is incredibly dependent on lots and lots of equipment and personnel, and it’s a relatively small deal to temporarily block their movement. A multitude of such small delays would severely impact the ability of oil companies to drill in deep water, and would help create the political climate to reverse their approval to drill. Indeed, US presidential candidate Bernie Sanders expressed his support for the protestors on Twitter, which immediately led for calls for frontrunner Hillary Clinton to clarify her position on the issue.

The ripple effects from this simple and powerful action are massive and ongoing. Activists addressing a variety of issues can learn a lot from this beautiful blockade.

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