Spirit in the Sky

How Greenpeace's high-wire protesters captured the world's attention—and how Portland gently let them down.

Ruddy Turnstone never found out who called the cops.

It was a quarter past 2 in the morning on July 29, and the 30-year-old Greenpeace organizer from South Florida stood 205 feet above the Willamette River, aside the emerald-painted steel trusses of the St. Johns Bridge.

"It was a little disorienting," Turnstone says. "I couldn't see the water, and it was so dark out."

Two weeks earlier, Greenpeace was presented with a unique opportunity in its five-year battle to interfere with Shell Oil's drilling in the Arctic Ocean. That opportunity: A Finnish icebreaking boat, the MSV Fennica, had torn a hole in its hull, and a Portland ship-repair company was going to fix it.

The Fennica had arrived July 25 at the dry dock of Portland's Vigor Industrial. When it was ready to leave, the 381-foot icebreaker would head north on the Willamette River, passing under three bridges to get to the Pacific Ocean and back to the Chukchi Sea. If Greenpeace could block one of those bridges, it could keep Shell's contracted ship out of the Arctic. 

According to conversations with three Greenpeace organizers, the world's most visible environmental organization summoned a team of 26 activists—including 13 who volunteered to rappel off the bridge and hang there as long as they could.

But now, with minutes to go before the activists began their descent from the deck of Portland's most beautiful bridge, Turnstone could see police cars arriving at the east end of the St. Johns Bridge.

Too late.

Turnstone and the others were already over the railing.

Above Turnstone, a cloudless night twinkled with stars. Below, the lights of kayaks in the water looked like a reflection of the Milky Way. Police flashlights shone along the bridge.

She took a breath, and plunged into darkness.

She dropped 100 feet. For the next 39 hours, Turnstone and the others dangled in midair—and Portland was held in suspense.

The rest of the world watched as well. It was audacious, simple and a photo op of optimal proportions. Unfurling red and yellow banners, the activists looked like an art installation. By refusing to budge from the sky, they made it impossible for the Finnish icebreaker to leave.

The protest also stretched taut the contradictions within Portland. This remains an industrial river city, one where thousands of jobs depend on the marine commerce that hums up and down the Willamette. It is also a place with a pulsing environmental conscience, and hundreds of activists eager to take a local stand to save a warming planet.

The standoff at the St. Johns Bridge pressed those two identities face to face—and forced Gov. Kate Brown and Mayor Charlie Hales to pick a side.

Within two days, the impasse was over, and all sides could claim victory. Shell got the boat to the Arctic, a mere 12 hours after its scheduled departure. Greenpeace and its local allies gained national attention for their cause. And local officials ended the protest quickly, without a significant injury and with just two arrests.

The resolution was so pacific that some observers wondered if it had been orchestrated from the start.

In fact, the players barely talked to each other. Shell and Greenpeace took their grievances to a federal court in Alaska. Neither side had a single phone conversation with Oregon's elected officials. Brown and Hales were somewhat confused who was in charge, and ultimately deferred to the U.S. Coast Guard for an endgame. Greenpeace never even coordinated its movements with hometown activists, and left quickly: The organization removed most of its aerial team from Portland within 24 hours of leaving the bridge.

Despite the TV helicopters, drone cameras and real-time tweets, few of the people who took part in the bridge battle knew the full scope of its strategy. It took days for them to piece together the full story of what everyone saw in open air.

The Fennica wasn't a stranger to Portland when it arrived July 25 with a 3-foot gash in its hull.

The ship—with a gym, sauna, saloon and room for a 26-member crew—came to Portland twice before to undergo repairs at Vigor Industrial's Swan Island shipyard.

Ships like the Fennica work in the harshest conditions on the planet, are built to perform the most lunch-bucket of duties, and thus are often in need of work.

The designation of the Fennica as an "icebreaker" is actually a nautical class: It means the boat has "no limitations for repeated ramming." It is, in the literal sense, a reamer.

Vigor is a $400-million-a-year shipbuilding and repair company based in Portland that occupies a shipyard that opened in 1941 to supply Allied troops during World War II. More than 70 years later, it continues to play a big but often unnoticed role in Portland's economy, providing family-wage jobs and benefits to 1,000 employees at Swan Island, plus an additional 1,600 elsewhere.

Vigor offered the Fennica the closest available dry dock, a sort of hydraulic lift used to work on boats larger than a football field. The repair itself was relatively straightforward, akin to patching a hole in your jeans. In this case, though, the patch was a 1-ton sheet of steel.

Portlander Frank Foti, CEO of Vigor, managed to stay out of the media fray. While he gets a good amount of business from defense and resource-extraction industries, he is also a healthy contributor to Democratic politicians, including Hales.

Contacted by WW, Foti says he agrees with Greenpeace that the U.S. needs more alternative fuels.

"It would be a shame if, as we do that, we close the door to being able to do work on conventional energy," Foti says. "It's still how most of us get around."

The Fennica had tore its hull en route to the Chukchi Sea, an icebound sea off the coast of Alaska, where it was carrying drilling equipment for Shell Oil Company.

Arctic drilling has been contentious for decades. The infamous Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989 consisted of crude from the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge: The incident became a national symbol of environmental ruin.

But melting ice has recently revealed oil fields off Alaska's northwest coast, areas once thought impossible to reach. And no company has been more aggressive in drilling in this remote part of the world than Shell.

President Barack Obama gave Shell permits to drill there in 2012. It was a disaster. A rig, called Kulluk, crashed into the coast during a winter storm.

Shell again received permission this spring from the Obama administration to drill six more wells, as long as it used an important piece of equipment: a capping stack, used to stop oil flowing from a blown well.

That stack was on board the Fennica.

When Shell sets out to drill oil, Greenpeace activists are often close behind.

The international organization is known for its highly visible, nonviolent and sometimes illegal tactics, with targets like nuclear weapons, global warming and general ecological scarring. Rainbow warriors, as they are sometimes called, have broken into government buildings, strung banners from the sides of ships—and hung themselves from bridges. In 2011, eight people were suspended from Chicago's Pulaski Bridge to stop a coal barge from passing.

But Greenpeace has a particular passion for battling Shell's Arctic oil endeavors. In April, activists actually boarded a ship, Blue Marlin, while it was sailing from Malaysia to Seattle. Shell went to federal court: Greenpeace was ordered to stay at least 300 feet away from its boats.

In June, Greenpeace joined a flotilla of "kayaktivists" in Seattle who shook their oars at Shell's oil rig, the Polar Pioneer. The kayakers, led by Seattle activist group Backbone Campaign, tried to block its exit from the Port of Seattle on June 15. They lasted two hours.

Jessica Moskovitz, communications director for the Oregon Environmental Council, says many environmental groups want to thwart drilling in the Arctic, but Greenpeace has the training and audacity to make people take notice. 

"I'm sure our theory of change is much more incremental and collaborative, but you need galvanizing moments, too," Moskovitz says. "You need moments that focus everybody's attention, and that's what Greenpeace does."

Portland officials had no idea Greenpeace's protest was coming. Also clueless: local activists.

That's not to say Portland greenies were going to let the Fennica come and go without difficulty—they, too, had a plan.

On July 27, Connor DeVane read on Facebook that Portland kayakers were going to try to repeat the Seattle flotilla in the Willamette.

The 23-year-old avid hiker immediately decided to join. Biking from his home in North Portland, he arrived at Cathedral Park in St. Johns at noon Tuesday, July 28.

A local environmental group called 350 PDX had organized the effort with Backbone Campaign and Portland Rising Tide, and they believed the icebreaker was scheduled to depart the next morning. So DeVane and many others stayed in the park all night, intending to get their boats in the water before dawn.

"I drank a disgusting amount of coffee," he says with a smile.

As 3 am approached, DeVane and the other kayakers began to launch.

Suddenly, everyone's attention was drawn upward to the St Johns Bridge looming over the park. At the eastern edge of the central span, a new light had joined the row of streetlamps on the deck.

"What is that?" kayakers yelled.

Then a dozen more lights appeared, stretching across the span of the bridge.

It was a total surprise.

"The kayaktivist group had no idea that Greenpeace was going to drop from this bridge up until that moment," says Maya Jarrad, an organizer for 350 PDX. "It was just astonishment."

Local activists were delighted.

"We paddled out there and were yelling up to them, showing our support, and they were yelling support back at us," DeVane says.

More than 100 feet in the air, Elizabeth Mount couldn't see anything beyond the glow of her lamp.

Mount didn't know she was going to be dangling from the bridge until five days before it happened. Born and raised in Denver, she worked with Greenpeace in Colorado, training climbers and participating in direct-action protests.

When Mount got the call about the Fennica on July 24, she didn't hesitate. Five days later, she arrived at the St. Johns Bridge in a van.

For the next 39 hours, Mount lived in the sky under the bridge. She relied on a team of another 13 people on the bridge—known as "anchor supports"—to lower her water, supplies and food. (One of them, Steve Nichols, was from Portland.) At one point, they lowered her a burrito. She otherwise subsisted on vegan jerky, Clif Bars, apples and oranges.

She could move around in her perch enough that when she needed to relieve herself, she did so into a bag, and sent it up a rope to her anchor support.

Mount kept busy with safety checks, talking to her anchor support and the other climbers on radios, and taking short naps. She never got around to releasing her flag.

Rachael Thompson of Tallahassee, Fla., was one of the anchor supports on the bridge. She expected to be arrested for trespassing within the first hour. Instead, Portland police backed off, and Thompson used ropes to lower trail mix, sunscreen and water to the climbers below.

"Everyone needed different things at different times," Thompson says. "I slept a lot."

Meanwhile, a fascinated crowd began gathering in Cathedral Park. By sunset July 29, the park felt like a street fair, with 350 PDX recruiting new kayakers in the parking lot, and parents bringing their children to witness civil disobedience from the floating dock.

Shortly after dawn on July 30—more than 24 hours into the blockade—the Fennica emerged from Vigor's shipyard and approached the bridge, stopping about 2,000 feet away.

"We were in battle," Turnstone recalls. As the ship edged toward the line of dangling activists, she said she knew it couldn't go through because they were hanging so low. Regardless, she held her breath. Then the ship turned.

As it headed back to port, she threw both arms up, reveling in their victory.

"It was one of the happiest moments of my life," Turnstone says. "It was surreal."

In fact, the Fennica hadn't seriously tried to leave.

When the Fennica headed down the Willamette at dawn July 30, it was a feint—a brief trip chiefly made to collect ammunition for Shell's federal court fight with Greenpeace, according to several government officials monitoring the standoff.

Less than an hour after the Fennica turned around, Shell's lawyers filed motions in U.S. District Court in Anchorage, Alaska, declaring Greenpeace had violated an April court order not to interfere with Shell's drilling fleet.

At 10:48 am, U.S. District Judge Sharon L. Gleason ruled Greenpeace in contempt of court, and ordered the activists to pay Shell $2,500 for every hour they hung from the bridge.

Those fines—which Gleason said would spike to $10,000 an hour by the morning of Aug. 2—were big enough to make Greenpeace shiver. Perhaps more importantly, the judge's ruling signaled to state and local officials that the Greenpeace activists were on the wrong side of the law.

"The court order did confirm for us there's a responsibility to free up the bridge," says Brian Shipley, Gov. Brown's chief of staff. "It put a finer point on the fact we needed to do something."

At that moment, Brown and Hales had already supported the removal of the Greenpeace activists from the bridge.

The two leaders talked by phone the night of July 29. People familiar with the call tell WW that Brown and Hales mostly tried to figure out who was in charge. They concluded it was the Coast Guard.

Brown and Hales were both stuck in an awkward position. They both face re-election next year, and crave the support of environmentalists.

Brown's honeymoon with the environmental lobby hit the skids in June, when she unsuccessfully tried to bargain away a low-carbon fuel standard in exchange for a statewide hike in the gas tax. Both the mayor and the governor also needed to demonstrate that Portland was open for business. Hales especially felt pressure after his May about-face to block the propane pipeline proposed by Canadian company Pembina.

Yet staffers in Brown's and Hales' offices say they never seriously considered letting the protesters stay in the air indefinitely.

"Despite our own personal feelings, the ship had legally done nothing wrong, and was someone else's private property," says Josh Alpert, Hales' chief of staff. "Because the protesters had done a tremendous job of getting their message out, the next step was to return the property to its owner. Using the law as our guide was the only option."

Hales had another worry: The longer the Greenpeace activists stayed in the sky, the greater the chance that protesters gathering in Cathedral Park would put down roots and attract new allies. Sources tell WW the mayor wanted to avoid a repeat of Occupy Portland, which took over two downtown parks for 39 days in 2011.

As Greenpeace's and Shell's lawyers argued over the phone with the federal judge in Anchorage on July 30, Hales arrived at the U.S. Coast Guard "Station Portland" on Swan Island—a building that became the war room for law-enforcement efforts to get the activists down.

Hales was met by Brown's top staffers. (The governor had just boarded a plane to travel to Washington, D.C., for a previously scheduled visit with Oregon's congressional delegation.)

Inside the station, Coast Guard brass walked state and city officials through a plan to lower the dangling activists to the water.

Local officials were dubious. They worried aloud about worst-case scenarios. What if the activists refused to come down? What if they fought with police in midair? What if that struggle caused a protester to plunge out of the sky? What if the crowd on the shore started to riot?

The mayor's and the governor's staffs left the station a few minutes before noon having signed off on a plan: A Portland Police Bureau "rope rescue team" would first ask the Greenpeace activists to voluntarily come down to boats waiting below. If the protesters refused, the cops would transfer them to ropes held by law enforcement, and lower them against their will. They would remove enough activists to let the Fennica through that day.

At 1:32 pm, U.S. Coast Guard Capt. Daniel Travers set the plan into motion with an email to the governor's office.

"As discussed," Travers wrote, "I request Oregon Department of Transportation and Oregon State Police cooperation and support to close the St. Johns Bridge and assist with enforcement of federal and state law violations by the rappellers and potential non-compliant kayaktivists/other protesters. Please advise if you need anything else from me. Thanks greatly for your support!"

Thirteen minutes later, Shipley gave the go-ahead.

Law enforcement began the extraction a few minutes before 3 pm. Deputy city attorney David Woboril—who was working his final week before retirement—called down to the dangling activists.

Mount says it wasn't clear what officials wanted. "There was just a man in cargo pants yelling down at me," she says.

Then two Portland police officers descended on harnesses, supported by Portland Fire & Rescue.

"Good afternoon," they said. "It's time for you to come down now. If you don't do it voluntarily, I'll do it for you."

Once Mount realized that law enforcement was planning to attach her to ropes they controlled and cut her lines, she made a deal with them. "For my own safety, I negotiated with them," she says. "I was able to descend on my own."

She dropped onto a Multnomah County sheriff's boat and was detained by the U.S. Coast Guard. Mount and two other climbers were handcuffed, returned to land, and placed in police custody.

"We were cited and released, which was not our expectation, actually," Mount says, laughing. "We were prepped for much worse."

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard herded kayakers toward the east bank of the river, away from the shipping channel.

Then at 5:15 pm, the Fennica began moving toward the bridge.

The atmosphere in the park changed immediately. Kayakers began launching in rapid succession, desperately paddling out toward the main channel. "We had plans for formations, but we didn't have time," DeVane says.

One man inflated a pool toy shaped like a shark, then rode it into the current. Another rolled a giant log down the beach and began pushing it out into the river. The ends of two park docks began to sink below the waterline, pushed down by the weight of the crowd trying to get closer to the scene.

As the Fennica approached the bridge, a dozen sheriff's patrol and Coast Guard boats maneuvered through the flotilla, snatching at kayakers with poles.

Several kayakers found themselves capsized—including DeVane. He had only moments to react before a private security boat bumped his kayak, tipping it sideways and allowing water to rush in. A few seconds later, he was in the river.

A police boat picked him up after a few minutes, and he watched from there as the Fennica passed under the bridge amid a chorus of boos from the crowd on the shore.

"I was disappointed," DeVane says. "I felt like I'd been rendered useless."

The Fennica cleared the St. Johns Bridge at 5:55 pm. Five minutes later, Shell began its oil-drilling operations at its site in the Chukchi Sea.

Within days, the 39 hours at the St. Johns Bridge had already begun to recede into memory.

In Portland, the Willamette River became the site of another conflict: The Coast Guard shut down a Red Bull-sponsored homemade flying machine contest called the Flugtag after complaints by cruise boat the Portland Spirit.

In London, Greenpeace moved on to its next action. On Aug. 2, it sent a string orchestra to play a "Requiem for the Arctic" outside Shell offices.

"Rappelling from the bridge is a walk in the park," Greenpeace USA director Annie Leonard told The Guardian, "compared to the risks we'll face if we continue the climate-change trajectory we're on now."

Hales traveled to the White House, where both he and a kayaktivist asked Obama to halt Arctic drilling.

And the aerial protesters described their brief stay in Portland as a memorable trip.

"We had overwhelming support from the crowd," Turnstone recalls. "People were yelling up to us, calling us heroes. It was wonderful for us.” 

This story was reported by Claire Holley, Anthony Macuk, Hart Hornor, Aaron Mesh and Beth Slovic.

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