PORTLAND—Just after sunrise yesterday, the Fennica made a break for it. An icebreaker and supply vessel leased by Royal Dutch Shell for Arctic oil drilling, the Fennica had limped to Portland, Oregon, days earlier for repairs after being damaged near the Aleutian Islands. It was sailing down the Willamette River, along an industrial stretch of Northeast Portland, toward the open seas when the Coast Guard turned it around before it could pass under St. Johns Bridge.
Twenty-six hours earlier, thirteen activists with Greenpeace USA rappelled off the steel suspension bridge that sits 205 feet above the river to block the ship’s passage. Shell’s exploratory drilling in the Arctic’s Chukchi Sea is limited without the Fennica, which carries critical equipment and is designed to push ice floes out of the way of Shell’s rigs. But at this moment it could not get by the Greenpeace activists trailing red and yellow banners as they dangled like spiders from their lines in the dawn light.
Nicholas Caleb, 31, a Portland activist with the Climate Action Coalition, watched from the shore as the Fennica inched toward the bridge, flanked by a handful of Coast Guard vessels. Dozens of kayaks, canoes, and small motorboats launched from shore to make passage even more difficult. “There was elation when we realized the ship was turning around,” Caleb says. “Everyone started celebrating.”
The victory energized many in “Blockadia,” referring to the people-powered resistance gumming up the transport of oil, gas, and coal through the Pacific Northwest. The celebration spread to social media with photos and videos of the action, talk of history, and praise for the heroism of the bridge sitters.
The activists had upped the stakes from an action on July 25, when more than a hundred “kayaktivists” took to the water in a symbolic blockade of the Fennica as it sat in drydock. And they followed on the sterns of kayakers who tried to prevent a Shell drilling rig from leaving Puget Sound in June.
But in forcing the Fennica to turn around, Greenpeace changed the game. By noon, people were streaming in to join the hundreds gathered in Cathedral Park, which sits beneath St. John’s Bridge. It was an inchoate occupation with sites for food, social media, and trainings. Scores of people watched from land, yelling support to those on the water and in the air. On the bridge, police halted pedestrian traffic, but some support teams lingered with gallon water jugs to resupply the bridge sitters on a day that saw record temperatures of up to 106 degrees in the region.
On the shoreline, a few dozen people gathered in two circles. One group, ranging from college students to retirees, listened to Bill Moyer, co-founder and executive director of the activist group the Backbone Campaign, describe how to use the kayaks to block the Coast Guard vessels. The other group was a rescue team learning how to retrieve anyone who capsized.