Seattle, WA (TFC) – It’s being referred to as the “paddle in Seattle,” in reference to the 1999 WTO protests. It’s gained almost immediate mainstream news coverage. What began as kayak flotillas around Shell’s Polar Pioneer exploratory oil drilling platform have now converged into occupations of the Port of Seattle’s terminal 5, which was recently leased out as a base of operations for the drilling fleet. Do these protests have what it takes to actually change anything?
I decided to join the latest protest, aimed at terminal 5, to see first hand how much steam this movement had. Just the comparison to the Battle in Seattle merited a visit – I mean shit, that had like 40,000 people, black blocs, and a heavy emphasis on molotovs. Unsurprisingly, there was a small legion of law enforcement, many equipped with bulletproof vests and all armed with matching Volcanic bikes. They’d obviously made the same connection I had, and came amply prepared for a small scale riot.
Marching down the main road, I was surprised by the attendance. Looking behind me on the turnpike we’d occupied, matching flags and banners stretched back as far as I could see. The police seemed to herd us along, blocking traffic well ahead of us and preventing us from breaking off from the march’s main direction. It became clear pretty quickly that they were going to establish the exact parameters of this protest. Given this behavior, it was difficult to establish exactly how much we had “shut down” – any area we potentially blocked was cordoned off three blocks back by the police and routed through detours. A safe comparison in terms of disruption would probably be some light road work.
The crowd was a spectrum of groups, the common thread being an established interest in preventing an ecological disaster from being subsidized and supported by the state in exchange for short term financial gains. The communists were there. So were some singing activist grannies. There were several groups giving out prepared food and drinks, a wide array of musical performances, and kids of many ages getting sunblock applied by their parents. A giant colorful parachute was present. Frankly, it had kind of a party vibe.
The true conductors of the experience, the Seattle police, put up the same net of control that the region has become used to. At the kayak flotillas, anyone too close would be dragged into a police boat – protesters concluded “ehh, 100 feet is pretty close to an oil rig any way.” Monday, surrounded from all sides by a gang in black and white, we were restricted to exclusively non-productive protest, the most superficial of all protests. Its existence isn’t truly to disrupt, but to “inspire conversation,” and maybe get some good press for the councilmembers who show up and march right there with us after handing us their re-election flyer. I’m not saying we should’ve burned the oil rig down, but was this message really amplified by the dance party?
Maybe the strongarm law enforcement presence is just a department whose relevance and necessity has been sharply declining for the last 10 years, struggling to demonstrate their functionality in a growing culture of contempt for the police. It obviously was a light day for crime, given that at least a quarter of the entire SPD’s 1,300 officers were present.
I’m excited that people are getting out and doing some direct action when they bear witness to what they consider an impermissible assault on our ecological systems, but at the same time there’s this deep concern that a superficial protest can only accomplish superficial change. What’s our legitimate next step, besides closing off a gate for a day? Electing someone into office who hates oil rigs? Banning oil drilling in the arctic? Some elements of the group blamed Shell. Others blamed all capitalism. A few consider that, of the five commissioners who decided to lease out terminal 5 to Foss Maritime, three have taken in thousands towards campaign contributions from the oil industry and another is just the previous governor’s daughter who literally passed a resolution to increase her own salary as commissioner from $6,000 to more than $42,000 the day she was put in office.
Going down this line of clean-handed protest, I realistically see our best case scenario as being the election of some perfectly ethical, reasonable politician (it’s so simple!) and turning the 5-0 pass vote into a 4-1 pass vote. If the direct purpose of these protests is to disrupt this drilling plan, it needs to be directly disrupted. If the direct purpose of these protests is to get people talking about solving this issue, then the ideal outcome could only be people talking about solving the issue. This movement can be an engine of change. It has the vitality, it has the purpose, and it’s on the world stage. But without clearly defining where this problem was created and how to pragmatically confront it, we’re all just gonna be left dancing to arctic conservation rap artists, talking about changing the world.