I felt my heart in my mouth and my adrenaline pumping. The tug boat lines became taught. They started coming directly at us, pushing forward and breaking the calm standoff. Fellow kayaktivists and I swallowed our fear and held the line as the behemoth Polar Pioneer came towards us.
"Backbone gave me to the tools, community, and support I needed to spring into action."
Our nemesis towered above, a now world-wide symbol of corporate greed and recklessness. Offensively and brazenly named the Polar Pioneer. As if history could forget the centuries of suffering, the genocide of peoples and their culture, or the domination, exploitation, and destruction of lands, waters, and skies that once sustained life. It is of course through the barrels of their guns and the laws they wield as weapons that “pioneers” wearing battle armor and business suits attempt to colonize the globe, native peoples and our spirits. Somehow this tragic affront to everything we hold as sacred has become legitimatized, legalized, and divorced from moral inquisition.
Defiantly for 2 and a half hours, from pre-dawn darkness, through a gorgeous peach, then pink and red sunrise, my friends risked arrest, giving only inches at a time to hold it at bay. We were barely specks in comparison to the monstrosity looming above. We dodged hooks swooping down at us as police boats escorted the foreign oil corporation through Duwamish waters. We made them pay in time and speed as they yanked one paddler after another out our boats. Throughout the ordeal our spirits were buoyed by song and chants:
“We are the rising of the tide,
We are the shifting of the ground,
We are the seeds taking root
To bring the fortress down!”
"Backbone is the reason I got involved with the protest against Shell’s Arctic drilling plans. It was exactly what I needed to emerge from a ten year hiatus in my activism"
“Rise, Cascadia, rise!
Protect our waters and skies!
Salmon, orca, cedar and fir,
Rise, Cascadia, Rise!”
Just mere weeks before I couldn’t have imagined myself staring down this behemoth. I was really involved in protests against the Bush administration’s Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Feb 15 (2003) was the biggest worldwide demonstration against war that the planet had ever seen. But the war happened. We all felt pretty defeated. Feeling the system so broken and I so ineffectual, my activism went into hibernation. Backbone is the reason I got involved with the protest against Shell’s Arctic drilling plans. It was exactly what I needed to emerge from a ten year hiatus in my activism.
I heard about Shell’s plan and a kayaktivist training program. There was a sliding-fee scale so anybody could afford it. They were ready to train anyone – no prior experience needed – just sign up and come on out. “We’ll teach you what you need to know. “ So I did. They offered, and I just went for it.
"I am so thrilled to be collaborating with people committed to creating a brighter future." - Kayaktivist Margo Polley
I was born in the beautiful Pacific Northwest so I welcomed any opportunity to be out in it and the Salish Sea. I’d had very little kayak experience, but there I was, learning paddle strokes, how to rescue people, how to raft up, raise banners and learning new chants and songs. Paddling back to Alki Kayaks that first evening, watching the setting sun with 30 people who were out there trying to save the earth — it was a magical and spiritual moment. I knew I had found the right group of people, people I wanted to be with, to work with.
I took another training, and after that, they asked me if I wanted to be a kayaktivist trainer, and I thought, “My gosh, I've only been in a kayak like 6 times in my life!” But it was okay, they helped me learn the training protocols, and all of a sudden, I was co-training twice a week! I think I helped train about 200 kayaktivists, and it was great. Building capacity, building the movement. Being out on the water. Meeting great people.
"Those weeks of training together buoyed our courage to take action."
We did beautiful actions like the nighttime Luminary Flotilla. Of course it was gorgeous, the art, the lights, the rap artists, the native flute and drumming. But it was also meant to strengthen our skills and capacity – how to paddle at night, how to stay together, increase our situational awareness and understand the challenges of communication over water. It was so fulfilling to experience this beautiful connection of colorful, creative, wonderful art, and people committed to creating a brighter future for the world.
As I got more involved with organizing, I realized this movement looked different. It was big, bold, and incredibly diverse – a coalition of Native American tribes and Canoe Families, Seattle Rising Tide, 350 Seattle, Got Green, Bayan, Greenpeace, the Raging Grannies. It was young, old, people of color, people representing the Global South, highlighting issues of climate justice. It included many people willing to put themselves on the line, exercise non-violent direct action, willing to be arrested, to show the urgency of these issues and the seriousness and power of this movement. For me this was the right level of commitment, the right level of activity, the broad diversity of people.
Because of you and so many kindred spirits taking action at every level, Shell bowed to People Power.
Throughout the sHellNo effort there was an invitation for everyone to participate and share whatever gift they had to offer. You could be a kayaktivist trainer, or like my friend, the spreadsheet genius wizard who helped to set up the loaner kayak check out tracking system, deciphering which one is arrestable, which one isn’t. She was great and it totally delighted me to see her jump into what ended up being such a crucial role. Another friend loved hauling her sewing machine to the art builds making flags and banners. Yet another friend said there was no way she’d ever get in a kayak but she was happy to stay on land and hold a banner. There was a role for everybody to play in this wild, creative, bold, diverse and strong movement that Backbone was working to build, and is really making another world possible.
Those weeks of training together buoyed our courage to take action. As the Polar Pioneer was escorted through the waters of Elliot Bay many, including the amazing Lummi canoe skippered by the late friend Justin who tried to keep pace. When it was really over, and the arctic drilling fleet traveled to successive lines of resistance, there was a scattering of boats two miles long. We didn’t move. We couldn’t move. It was overwhelming. In our hearts we embraced the teaching we had received Inupiat elder George Edwardson who had come to Seattle and Duwamish land to share the concerns and solidarity of his people of the Arctic. We held with sorrow his words about their way of life being already threatened by climate chaos and who ought not suffer through the all-but-inevitable oil spills. In our thoughts we held the Global South. Those who bare no blame for the climate crisis and have so few resources with which to defend themselves but suffer most from its onslaught.
All spring and summer Shell faced stiff resistance anywhere they went. So many of you took action from ports all along Shell’s destructive path and in your communities, wielding prayers, paddles, banners, tweets, donations, and acts of solidarity. Beyond our local actions, people the world over like you took a stand. When Shell announced they were abandoning drilling in the Arctic I was ecstatic. Now we have earned this monumental victory. Though they dodged prosecution for the facilitated assignation of the Ogoni people that resisted them, because of you and so many kindred spirits taking action at every level, Shell bowed to People Power.
"Help me show the urgency of these issues and the seriousness and power of this movement."
Now is not the time to rest. We must seize the energy of this victory and muster renewed vigor to take action in our own communities’. We must confront the injustice and inequity of ANY systems and infrastructure that elevates hollow profit over stewardship of a sustainable biosphere and the health and dignity of our communities. You don’t have to look hard to find a place to dig in. After-all it’s system change we are working for now.
I hope you’ll join me in the next leg of our journey as we share hard-won lessons learned and victorious strategies and tactics from people powered resistance and resilience the country over. There are so many others out there like me who are waiting for the call to action. We’re ready to skill up and join the ranks of people like you striving for a better way forward. It’s by locking arms in this fight together that we find meaning, connection, hope, and just maybe, the path towards the world we long for in our hearts.
Backbone gave me to the tools, comradery, and support I needed to spring into action. With your support we have a lot more victories coming our way.
If you have already given to Backbone this Holiday Season, I want to say THANK YOU! If not, I hope you will contribute to the Backbone Campaign by joining the Lumbar Club today. We all need to deepen our investment in this crucial work by contributing a little bit every month be it $5, 15, 30, 50 or 200 - whatever is meaningful to each of us. By doing so, together we give Backbone the resources they need to help us all build the world we yearn for.
PS - If you prefer to send your tax-deductible end of year gift by check - mail it to Backbone Campaign at PO BOX 278, Vashon, WA 98070. As they say, "Forward Together!" ~ MP