The following post was written by Lincoln Neal, Equal Exchange worker-owner in our Portland, Oregon office.
The fight against climate change arrived in our Pacific NW backyard last week when 13 Greenpeace activists suspended themselves 100 feet over the Willamette River from the massive St. Johns Bridge in northwest Portland just four miles up St Helens Rd from our West Coast distribution center.
Their goal was to block the newly repaired Shell Oil icebreaker MSV Fennica from leaving the city and travelling to Alaska where it would be used for arctic oil drilling. With the help of a flotilla of kayaktavists, including workers from Equal Exchange, Greenpeace managed to hold the massive 380-foot, 8000-ton ship in check for nearly 40 hours.
On Thursday, July 30th Equal Exchange employees Jim Feldmann, Meghan Huebner, Casey Enns and myself loaded a delivery van with 8 cases of trail mix, 20 cases of cashew bars and a couple of gallons of iced tea. The St. Johns Bridge had been closed; and there was no public access to the demonstration from our side of the river. So what would normally be an easy 20-minute drive turned into an hour and a half stretch in slow moving traffic: we of course were glued to the live broadcast of the event.
Earlier in the day, unbelievably, the Fennica had been successfully turned back at the bridge. Since then, many more supporters were converging on the scene. We learned from the broadcast that one of the protesters had been lowered down and then removed from the bridge. No explanation was given, but that made four who had come down; leaving only nine activists dangling from the bridge.
The park follows the river for about a mile, two hundred feet below the bridge deck. When we arrived, hundreds of people were milling around on the grass and the small beach areas. Families, news people and energetic demonstrators were buzzed by a couple of small drones filming overhead. Just off the shore we saw about 50 kayaks, protected by wooden piles that poked a couple of feet above the water. We left our iced tea at a donations table and walked down to the floating dock beneath the bridge.
There, dozens of supporters were chanting encouragement to the kayactivists while also goading the coast guard and police vessels that harassed them. We handed out the trail mix and cashew bars like vendors at a sporting event calling out “Fair Trade! Organic! Snacks!” The dock was beyond capacity and was dipping into the water. Which was good. It was over 100 degrees in Portland that day. We wondered how the protesters hanging from the bridge were faring. We had already seen at least one exhausted, collapsed woman being attended to by paramedics.
After handing out the remaining snacks, we jumped down to the beach south of the dock. Meghan, Jim and Casey managed to secure kayaks and canoes and made their way out to the water. Moments later someone to the south started shouting that the Fennica was on the move. Shortly after, the giant icebreaker floated into view. Cops on jet skis were darting around the edge of the river intentionally spraying the kayakers and ramming them. Whenever anyone would resist, such as pushing them away with a paddle, a police boat would move in and try to drag the occupants from their craft.
The supporters on the dock began shouting at the police as the Fennica continued to move closer and closer to the bridge. All of a sudden a call went up and the kayakers dove toward the center of the river all at once. The coast guard and police were caught off guard by the chaotic scramble of small boats. The authorities recovered, however, and made a defensive wedge against the protesters, keeping the west side of the river open. With only nine activists now hanging from the bridge, enough room was created for the Fennica to safely pass beneath the St. Johns Bridge.
Read Meghan Huebner’s first hand account from one of the kayaks here tomorrow.