The Arctic 30: How Greenpeace Activists Risked All to Stop Oil Drilling in New Climate Battleground

The Arctic is now the center of one of the world’s great environmental battles. As temperatures rise in the region, the world’s largest oil companies are eyeing vast new untapped reserves once covered year-round by ice. Environmentalists are pushing back in an attempt to save the pristine Arctic and keep the oil underground. We look back at a 2013 protest that caught the world’s attention, when activists from Greenpeace attempted to board a Russian oil drilling rig owned by the Russian state oil company Gazprom. In total, 28 Greenpeace activists and two journalists were arrested and brought to Russia where they were charged with piracy and held for two months. They had faced up to 15 years in prison. They became known as the Arctic 30. We are joined by two guests: Peter Willcox, the captain of the Greenpeace ship involved in the action who spent two months in a Russian jail; and Ben Stewart, a longtime member of Greenpeace and author of the new book Don’t Trust, Don’t Fear, Don’t Beg: The Extraordinary Story of the Arctic 30.

TRANSCRIPT:

AARON MATÉ: We turn now to the Arctic, the center of one of the world’s great environmental battles. As temperatures rise, the world’s largest oil companies are eyeing vast new untapped reserves once covered year-round by ice. Environmentalists are pushing back in an attempt to save the pristine Arctic and keep the oil underground. Protesters in Seattle recently staged days of action against Royal Dutch Shell’s plan to resume oil exploration in the Arctic. Last month, the Obama administration gave conditional approval to Shell’s resumption of fossil fuel exploration in the Arctic. But today we look back at a 2013 protest that caught the world’s attention. That’s when activists from Greenpeace attempted to board a Russian oil drilling rig owned by the Russian state oil company Gazprom. What happened next is chronicled in the documentary Black Ice.

DIMA LITVINOV: We believe that your platform and the activities being carried out in preparation for drilling for oil in the Arctic Ocean represents a real immediate threat to the environment both here and globally.

FRANK HEWETSON: We started being chased everywhere we went, everywhere we tried to get a lineup. We only had a few minutes within which to get climbers up underneath that heavy platform. But there was a chase, and we were losing time rapidly.

SINI SAARELA: I managed to get a rope up and I started to climb up on it, but that just when I was attaching myself to the rope the Coast Guard boat came and started pushing our boat away.

FRANK HEWETSON: They realized we were going to continue, and we were going to try our hardest to get a climber onto that rig. And they had made a decision that was not going to happen. And they drew guns and pointed it straight in my face.

RADIO VOICE: — in our faces. Two guns pointed directly at our faces.

DENIS SINYAKOV: I used to be a war photographer in Reuters Agency France Press, and when I saw this aggressive soldiers, I knew the main point now is not only hanging the banner, but I had to take photos how they pointed the gun at the Greenpeace activists.

SINI SAARELA: It was such a bizarre thing to see a gun pointing at you, that I maybe couldn’t even take it seriously because it just felt so wrong. We were there during a peaceful protest. We were not threatening anyone or anything, and they come there with their guns.

AARON MATÉ: Two of the Greenpeace activists were detained aboard the Russian oil rig. A day later, Russian special forces raided the Arctic Sunrise. This is another excerpt from Black Ice.

DIMA LITVINOV I was sitting in the mess, I remember, I think we were just finishing up lunch when I heard a lot of screaming and running around in the corridors outside. People shouting, “helicopters coming, helicopters coming.” I went out on deck and from that moment on, I was in the middle of a James Bond movie.

PETER WILLCOX: Well, when the boarding happened, I was actually down on an exercise machine in the hold and a heard the engine stop, and about a minute later, some panic stricken crew member came running up and got, “oh, my God, they’re jumping out of a helicopter.” And I though, oh.

DIMA LITVINOV I went out on the heli-deck and I saw the first of this masked, camouflaged, heavily armed troopers, slide down the wire onto the deck of the Arctic Sunrise started shouting at us in Russian, telling us to “get down on the deck.” Guns were being pointed more or less in the direction of the people. I turn around and I ran for the bridge. As I was running up the steps, I saw Frank standing in front of the door, and I saw him being pulled back and thrown down to the ground by another trooper. I stopped in front of his body and then I felt a hand on my shoulder, pulling me back and shoving me forward, and I stumbled and fell onto Frank’s prone body.

AMY GOODMAN: In total, 28 Greenpeace activists and journalists were arrested and brought to Russia where they were charged with piracy and held for two months. They faced up to 15 years in prison. They became known as the Arctic 30. Today, we’re joined by two guests, Peter Willcox was the captain of the Greenpeace ship, the Arctic Sunrise. He spent two months in a Russian jail, legendary figure in the environmental world, was also captain of Greenpeace’s Rainbow Warrior, which was blown up by the French government. Two French secret service agents, 30 years ago, killing the photographer Fernando Pereira. Also with us, Ben Stewart, longtime member of Greenpeace, who led the first Greenpeace expedition to challenge Arctic oil drilling off the Greenland coast. He is author of a new book, Don’t Trust, Don’t Fear, Don’t Beg: The Extraordinary Story of the Arctic 30. He was a leading figure in the campaign to free the Arctic 30. So Peter Willcox, talk about what happened next. So we see what happens on the boat. Talk about what happens when you’re taken off to prison. How are you taken?

PETER WILLCOX: We arrived in Murmansk late one afternoon. We were met by a number of embassy officials and then we were told to —

AMY GOODMAN: How many different countries did the Greenpeace come from?

PETER WILLCOX: I think there were 18 different countries that we represented. I’m not sure if everybody’s counselor or official was there. Mine certainly was there from St. Petersburg, the US counselor.

AMY GOODMAN: From Florida.

PETER WILLCOX: I guess so. I can’t remember. But he was worried. I was —- at that point, I was like, look, we have been arrested, we’ve done this before -—

AMY GOODMAN: Meaning your counsel was from St. Petersburg, Russia.

PETER WILLCOX: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Ah.

PETER WILLCOX: Sorry.

AMY GOODMAN: But was the U.S. counsel.

PETER WILLCOX: Yeah, so it was the US counsel who was — the consulate is in St. Petersburg. The embassy is in Moscow. And they — as far as we were concerned, it was all business as usual. We had been arrested in Russia before. My first campaign there was a 1983. It’s all going to plan. Things didn’t start to get exciting until we got into the investigator’s office that evening, and they said, well, you’re not going back to the boat. You’re being arrested, you’re being sent to detention for two months. And we are charging you with piracy, which is 10 to 15 years. And that was a little disconcerting.

AMY GOODMAN: So you’re watching this, Ben. You are not in this action, but you’re the communications director. What are you thinking at this point? Where were you?

BEN STEWART: Well, I was in London and it’s the same as what Pete said, we thought this was a standard Greenpeace action. It’d been pretty good. There had been some good footage, there had been some media attention. The presumption was that those guys would get kicked out of the country and be telling their stories in a bar in Norway that evening. We got the news when Dennis, who is just on that film, went to court. And it was a shock to him. It was a shock to all of us. They were being charged with piracy. Minimum 10 years in a country where 99% of people that go to trial get found guilty. And suddenly, for us, this became a humanitarian crisis. We had 28 activists and two journalists there and we thought that we were going to lose them into Russia’s new Gulag system for the next 10 to 15 years.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, on the point of being in the Gulag system, can you talk about the conditions for the activists when they were in prison?

BEN STEWART: For the book, I interviewed about 16 or 17 of them when they got out. The truth is, that they didn’t have it as bad as many of the Russian prisoners. I think that Putin realized that if these guys were maltreated, it would be bad for Russia’s reputation. Some extraordinary things happened in jail. I spoke to Dima, who was on there, who told me how, effectively, the Arctic 30 were taken under the wing of some of the prisoners, some of the Mafia bosses, The Katlavia [sp] who controlled the place actually decided that the Arctic 30 had been the subject of a gross injustice by Putin, and so in a sense, they were kind of protected. They were given access to this extraordinary communication system in the jail, called the Doroga which translates as “the road,” which is a is a kind of physical prison Internet. Each evening the prisoners would get ropes out and string them up down, left and right outside their window and create a grid system and then they put socks on that rope and exchanged what they called e-mails, which were, they were messages like 423 Dima, how you doing, and it would go off. They would exchange sugar and cigarettes and all these kinds of things. And this Doroga was how the Mafia bosses dispensed justice and controlled the prison.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain, I mean, you describe this at the beginning of the book, the piping system within the jails, how it’s used to communicate.

BEN STEWART: It’s used as a prison telephone system. And Frank Hewetson, who again was in the film you showed there, told me how he was lying there one night and one of his cellmates called him off his bunk and Frank went down and the guy pulled off the u-bend from the toilet —

AMY GOODMAN: The u-bend in the pipe.

BEN STEWART: The u-bend. Put it to Frank’s ear and Frank heard his friend, Roman Dolgov, saying Frank, Frank, can you hear me? And they had a conversation. And realize that this is how the prisoners communicated with each other. And I think it shows, actually how important human contact is to people to survive. Lots of these guys in there had done very, very bad things on the outside, but they were human beings, and their way of living, was to communicate. It was as important as food and water to them.

PETER WILLCOX: Remember, too, Ben, that in the detention, you’re in isolated in your cell for 23 hours a day.

AMY GOODMAN: How many people were with you?

PETER WILLCOX: One, sometimes none. Some people had two cellmates. You are taken for an hour to a bigger cell to get to walk around and get a little exercise, supposedly. But, it really was isolation. I mean, you weren’t — there weren’t — there wasn’t — you didn’t eat with your other prisoners. You didn’t see your other prisoners. So the communication at night was a fundamental thing.

BEN STEWART: The women were kept in — there were eight women in the Arctic 30, they were kept in solitary confinement. And they worked out how to communicate by developing code. They would tap on a radiator pipe that went through all of their cells with a spoon. One tap meant a, two, b, three, c, and they showed me their notebooks when they got out of jail. And they were full of these conversations, each sentence about the length of a tweet, but it would take 20 minutes to tap it out. And by the end of it, they knew each other so well. They had only been with each other 11 or 12 days on the ship. But when they got out, they were so close because they knew everything about their families, boyfriends, merely by this code tapping away. And again, I think, in an era of instant communication with tweeting, it shows something important about the importance of communication by using that spoon on that radiator pipe.

AMY GOODMAN: So we’re going to go to break and then come back to the discussion about why you were doing, what you were doing, Peter and Ben, as the Communications Director. Again, Ben Stewart’s book, Don’t Trust, Don’t Fear, Don’t Beg: The Extraordinary Story of the Arctic 30. This is Democracy Now! Back with them in a minute.