The fleet of kayaks moves deliberately through waters on Seattle’s Elliot Bay. Gliding past ferries, freighters and oversized seals camped out on buoys, the kayakers paddle with intention. They’re headed to the terminal where the Port of Seattle has offered Shell’s Arctic drilling rigs a homeport for berthing and maintenance. While the kayak fleet practices for seaborne protests, one of Shell’s rigs, the 400-foot-high Polar Pioneer, is headed to Seattle after a monthlong journey from Singapore and a two-week stopover in Port Angeles on Washington State’s Olympic Coast.
The delay is giving protesters on land and sea time to prepare. “Are we ready to deploy?” The shout-out is heard across the flotilla, as kayaks come together to form a kind of raft. Paddles are positioned horizontally across bows. Hands grip adjacent kayaks and the fleet comes into direct line formation.
Slowly, a 12-foot-long banner is passed from one kayak to another. The fleet’s organizer on this day, Eric Ross with the Backbone Campaign, one of several organizations behind mass direct action planned for May 16 to 18, checks to see if the banner is ready to be unfurled. Other organizations behind the protests include 350Seattle.org and Rising Tide Seattle.
The group gives him a collective thumbs up. Rope is disengaged from a carabiner and the banner is held upright revealing a simple message: “ShellNo.org.” High fives are exchanged and the fleet breaks into song about protecting all of Cascadia, the coastal region from Alaska to California. Echoing an older tune, they sing new lyrics. “Rise, Cascadia, rise. Protect our waters and skies. Rise, Cascadia, rise. Salmon and orca, cedar and fir. Rise, Cascadia, rise. Crows and otters, sons and daughters. Rise, Cascadia, rise.”
If the medium is the message, then fleets of kayaks, civil disobedience and months of preparation, including daily art builds to make banners and props, are a medium rising up against the world’s second-largest oil and gas company, Royal Dutch Shell. Not to mention, say protesters, against the Port of Seattle’s decision to facilitate Shell’s plans to drill in the Arctic in early summer.
Shaking a paddle at Shell may seem inconsequential when leases are signed and drilling permits issued. Just days ahead of the weekend’s planned protests, the Obama administration gave Shell conditional approval to allow drilling for oil off the Alaska coast this summer. It’s a blow to protesters and a win for the petroleum industry.
But it’s not inconsequential for those committed to “shining a spotlight on Arctic drilling and climate change, once and for all,” as the Backbone Campaign’s Ross puts it. “At the same time, we’re standing up for what we love.” Or in this case, rafting up.
“One of the things we’re working against is the overarching sense of powerlessness people feel,” Ross says. “People see, and in some cases experience, the consequences of climate change – sea level rise, hurricanes, droughts and warming, acidic oceans all over the world. With Shell’s Arctic drilling rigs headed to Seattle, we have a unique opportunity to rise up and do something about it.”
One of the kayak fleets preparing to rise up against Shell – an estimated 900 people have trained over the last month – has a little history in the region. Nicknamed the “mosquito fleet” for fleets used at various times in US naval history, this one earlier helped defeat Glacier Northwest’s gravel mining plans on Maury Island, southwest of Seattle. “We were out there along with scores of others,” Ross says, “preventing the construction from taking place. We’re going to do the same thing with Shell and put our bodies on the line to prevent the drastic consequences of drilling in the Arctic.”
As the fleet of kayaks returns to shore after training, another fleet teams up and prepares to learn the moves. Protesters won’t disclose exact logistics, but they may try to surround the massive Polar Pioneer while it’s in transit or when it’s docked in the Port of Seattle. “You always need to be prepared in the Puget Sound,” cautions safety guide Amanda Lee with Alki Kayak Tours. “Waters are cold here. If you fall in, there’s a potential for hypothermia after 15 to 20 minutes.”
But no one in the group, ages ranging from 14 to 77, seems phased. Instead, they discuss plans to secure more kayaks and vessels of all kinds to bear witness when Shell’s Polar Pioneer arrives in Puget Sound waters.
Head north from Elliot Bay across town to Fremont, a Seattle neighborhood locals with hubris call the “center of the universe,” and you’ll find a place called the “Powerhouse.” This is where banners and props for mass direct action and civil disobedience are under construction. The cave-like structure, once the boiler room for an elementary school, is strewn with streamers of fabric, masks and giant puppets. In the 1980s, the “Powerhouse” became the space for art builds for May Day and summer solstice parades. A few years ago, it became a place where props were made for protests against the Northwest becoming a fossil fuel export zone for coal and oil.
Today, skeleton masks with the “ShellNo” logo are being cut and painted by hand. An image of the oil rig on its way to Seattle shows oil rising from the top of the Space Needle. Lisa Marcus with 350Seattle.org, one of the lead art build organizers, laughs at the juxtaposition. “Like what? This isn’t right.” Then she adds, “That’s what happens if we store those rigs here. We are actually taking part in this. We can no longer say that’s somewhere else and we don’t have to pay attention. We’re involved now.”
The words for another banner are being tied to deer fencing. “Act on climate today. It’s our turn to lead.” And “Seattle loves the Arctic.” The letters were made from building wrap and painted white. Asked why she’s on her knees on cold cement twisting letters onto fencing, another woman named Lisa quips, “the Arctic is far more valuable than the oil underneath it. Personally, I’d take one polar bear and trade it for 10 Shell executives.”
Marcus says the art build against Shell and the Port lease are first about saying “no” to Arctic drilling and fossil fuel extraction. But the project is also about saying “yes, to what we love here”: Puget Sound saltwater and estuary rich deltas, resident orca pods and salmon, despite their endangered status. “We have to say no to things that are destructive in order to protect what we love.”
The US Coast Guard held briefings with some environmental groups preparing to engage in direct action to establish “safety zones” and “designated areas” for protests. Dana Warr, Coast Guard spokesperson, says “mutual agreement” was reached that a 500-yard distance would be maintained when vessels are in transit and 100 yards when the vessels are moored or anchored. “We respect everyone’s First Amendment right to protest,” says Warr, “but we also need to ensure safety on the water.”
At least one protest leader, however, says no agreement was reached because most of the groups planning direct action didn’t attend the Coast Guard briefing.
Earlier this week, Port of Seattle Commissioners passed a resolution asking Shell and local marine transport company Foss Maritime to delay the lease while the Port challenges a city ruling aimed at keeping the rigs out. The week before, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray announced that the city had determined Shell’s plans to bring its Arctic drilling rigs to the port require a new permit, creating a potential legal snag.
Shell spokesperson Curtis Smith said in an email, “Rig movement will commence in the days to come.”
For more information on “creative, people-powered resistance to Shell and the climate crisis” planned for May 16 to 18, visit ShellNo.org.
This article was revised from an article originally published by Crosscut.com on April 15, 2015.