Two Unitarian Universalists were among thirteen Greenpeace USA volunteers who dangled from a bridge in Portland, Oregon, last month, blocking a Shell Oil ship for 40 hours in a dramatic climate justice protest reported on live TV and media around the world. Two support personnel for the protest, which ended when law enforcement gave those hanging from the bridge the choice to descend or be forced down, also are UUs.
In the early morning of July 30, the Greenpeace activists suspended themselves from the St. Johns Bridge 100 feet over the Willamette River to stop the icebreaker MSV Fennica from leaving dry dock in Portland and heading to Alaska for exploratory drilling in the Arctic Ocean. The action, #ShellNoPDX , then drew scores of “kayaktivists” in kayaks and canoes into the river and hundreds of supporters on the riverside. It included an initial victory for the protestors when the ship headed toward the bridge but turned around 300 yards from the activists, who were suspended by ropes and pulleys and flew long red or yellow banners.
Although the Fennica eventually got through, Greenpeace and the activists consider their efforts a success. As a result of the delay and other #ShellNo protests, including in Seattle, Shell may not have time to do much exploratory drilling before it must shut down for the winter when the ice closes over.
“That is far, far below their projections and actually not enough for them to make any statements to their shareholders as to how much oil they think is in the arctic, so they won’t have a successful survey this season. That’s pretty amazing from a direct impact point,” said Elizabeth Mount, a seminarian at Meadville Lombard Theological School, a UU-identity seminary in Chicago, one of those suspended from the bridge for 40 hours.
Psera Newman, a lifelong UU and member of the UU Church of Lexington, Kentucky, was an “anchor” on top of the bridge assisting another of the climbers. She and Mount met in jail in 2012 after being arrested in North Carolina on a protest against mountaintop coal removal. “I think being raised Unitarian has impacted my entire perspective on life,” said Newman, including her environmental activism. “Through that, you learn the value of protecting the earth, and the interdependent web of all existence.”
Two others on the Greenpeace team in Portland—another climber and another support person—identified themselves as UUs to Mount when they saw Mount wearing a t-shirt with a UU logo, Mount said. In a video series Greenpeace posted about the protest, Mount, who is on the steering committee of UU Young Adults for Climate Justice, identifies as a UU seminarian and explains that UU values inform Mount’s activism.
It is notable that four of the volunteers involved in the Portland action are UUs, Mount said. “Something [Unitarian Universalism is] doing makes people feel they have personal responsibility to act to make a better world,” Mount said. “That’s a disproportionate number compared to the size denomination we are, so we’re doing something right.”
Mount, who grew up in the First Unitarian Society of Denver, has been trained by Greenpeace in safe climbing techniques. Mount said the protestors and their support teams arrived at the bridge at about 1:30 a.m. on July 30 and quickly set up their equipment before jumping over the side and descending to a point where they set up their hammocks and banners.
“That was first time I got to stop and look around. You could see all the little kayaks down in water, all with kayak lights. It was like seeing the stars reflected down below except you knew every one of those little star points was a person supporting this action,” said Mount, who tweeted the experience at @chalice_chica. “It was amazing.”
Later that morning, there was a dramatic showdown when Fennica began to approach the climbers, who then descended as planned to the level of the top of the ship’s antennae rig so that it couldn’t pass without running into them. When the Fennica turned around, cheers erupted from the protestors and their supporters. “It was pretty amazing, with the kayakers and us climbers, with a pretty unified cheer when we actually saw they were turning around completely,” said Mount.
Although Shell Oil got an injunction against the Greenpeace protest, Greenpeace was willing to pay the daily fine and the activists were willing to stay in place for at least several more days, Mount said. However, law enforcement cut the lines between the activists and then gave Mount and two others—who were suspended above the deepest part of the river—the option of descending by their own equipment or being forced down. Mount descended onto a Coast Guard ship, was handcuffed, and received a citation. None of the Greenpeace activists was arrested, Mount said, although media reports said two other persons were arrested.
The protest drew enormous media attention around the world. Mount noted that presidential candidate Bernie Sanders talked about it, as did MSNBC host Rachel Maddow. “I don’t know that there would be that high-profile a conversation if not for this action,” Mount said. “I don’t think we’ll ever get every single thing we ask for when we do a direct action, but when we move into that courageous space and try to do what we think would be the best thing, we get something. It moves the dial, and it’s worth it.”