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How the ‘Paddle in Seattle’ plans to beat Shell — a conversation with kayak-tivist John Sellers

Kayak-tivists gathered in Elliott Bay on Saturday, May 16, where the Polar Pioneer drilling rig is docked. (Flickr / Backbone Campaign)

Kayak-tivists gathered in Elliott Bay on Saturday, May 16, where the Polar Pioneer drilling rig is docked. (Flickr / Backbone Campaign)

Seattle has become a hub of anti-extraction activism. Protests began on May 14, when Royal Dutch Shell — bucking city residents and officials — docked its Polar Pioneer off the Emerald City coast. The towering 400-by-355-foot oil rig is en route to the Arctic, where it is scheduled to begin drilling operations this summer. The largest demonstration yet happened May 16, as hundreds of “kayak-tivists” swarmed Seattle’s Terminal 5, where the Polar Pioneer is docked. Since then, protests against the rig have been ongoing, and show few signs of letting up.

This week, I spoke with Puget Sound resident John Sellers, a global justice movement veteran and father of two, who has been active in the Shell No coalition, leading up to the water-born protests in Seattle’s Elliott Bay. Sellers, a former Greenpeace activist, is a co-founder, long-time executive director and now board president of the Ruckus Society. He currently serves as director of the Other 98 Percent.

How did the Shell No coalition form? What is it doing?

The Shell No Coalition formed a couple of months ago in response to the fact that different political solutions, legal solutions, weren’t happening. It didn’t look like the [Seattle] Port Commission was going to capitulate and stop Shell from coming in. Seattle, in general, has had a strong climate movement, especially around climate action and direct action; 350 Seattle and Rising Tide have been very strong in creating powerful actions to stop coal trains, oil trains and tar sands oil from coming into the refineries around here. So, thankfully, we started out with a really well-developed climate justice movement. Then, it was really helpful to have an NGO like Greenpeace that gets action and gets climate justice at a DNA level be here and be willing to work. They’re working in coalition with the other big NGOs on the legal side of it, but they’ve also been willing to throw down with the direct action movement.

There’ve been some incredible pictures coming out of Seattle this week of what’s being called the Mosquito Fleet. What is it?

Six years ago, a bunch of my friends and I used this Mosquito Fleet tactic to protect our island, Vashon Island, from a mining company that was constructing an industrial dock for giant gravel barges in the middle of a marine sanctuary that’s a critical habitat for Orca in the wintertime. We decided that we were going to stop that mine from taking over our island, and we did. We used the kayaks to paddle under the pile-drivers that were building this great big industrial pier, and we shut them down for several days in the middle of the winter. They were shut down again by the different fish spawning windows, and we ultimately won that fight and defeated that mine. Fast-forward six years later, and it became clear that Shell was going to bring its massive, towering oil rig into Elliott Bay. It just seemed like the perfect time to re-launch the Mosquito Fleet because there are so many paddlers out here in the Pacific Northwest that care. And that’s what we did.

How has it gone having indigenous groups, larger NGOs and others all working together within the coalition?

It’s been fantastic so far. There have been some bumps and misunderstandings, but — in general — it’s been fantastic. There’s been a real willingness between the insurrectionary left and the institutional left to work together.

Most of the coverage of the protests against the Polar Pioneer has featured the Mosquito Fleet going out in kayaks. What does the legal strategy you mentioned look like?

[The legal strategy] is putting challenges to the definition of the cargo terminal, and whether these oil rigs constitute cargo vessels, when they clearly do not. It’s mounting a challenge to whether they did the proper environmental impact assessments, which they clearly did not. There are a whole bunch of legal problems to this, but honestly, I really didn’t want a legal solution to this. I wanted a people-powered solution, because the legal solution to this, at the end of the day, sends Shell’s rig somewhere else, where they can legally do it. That’s the problem: It’s legal to go up to the Arctic and extract from the Arctic and put the Arctic at risk. It’s all legal — the Obama administration just codified it in law again. So, I wasn’t really that interested in the legal solution to this. I wanted the rig in town, in Elliott Bay at Terminal 5, where we could get to them and build power around them and to, ultimately, get to a point where many of those people would decide that they want to stop the rig from leaving, when it attempts to leave. I wanted to build power, not a death-by-a-thousand-cuts legal solution to this that would ultimately just send them to another harbor that would want them there.

Do you think there’s a way for a direct action strategy and a legal strategy to work in tandem?

Of course! We are working in tandem. We were filling the port commission meetings where the legal challenges were happening. We were doing actions there. We’ve been working hand-in-glove with the groups that are challenging them legally. There’s definitely an opportunity to work together; we have an inside-outside strategy that we’re executing.

What happened last weekend?

We had, I think, 500 boats out on the water, and 2,000 people on land. There were eight Coast Salish canoe families leading a flotilla into the mouth of the Duwamish [River] where the Polar Pioneer is docked, and swarming it. We had an incredible Native American jam session on the People’s Platform where dozens of mostly native speakers spoke to the crowd on the shore.

It was an unbelievably powerful event. I saw lots of people crying out on the water, just super inspired and moved by everything that was going on. It was really a quite magical day.

What is the People’s Platform?

It’s a 40-by-100 foot maritime construction barge that we have outfitted with three 9,000-watt solar rays. It’s called the People’s Platform, but it is also known as the Solar Pioneer. We took a barge, a 4,000 square foot industrial barge that you would see around a lot of harbors, and we have been transforming it. It’s quite literally a platform for the people, to elevate the voice of the people in this debate. We know that there are millions of people who are concerned with both the health and well-being of the Arctic Ocean, as one of the last, truly untouched places on Earth. There are also people equally as concerned, or even more concerned, with the state of our climate, and the climate catastrophe that is unfolding right now. So, we wanted to create a vehicle to elevate those voices — to give those voices a mechanism to be heard. The People’s Platform has a really nice stage with a super booming PA system, so that political speakers can speak and experts can tell us about Shell’s irresponsible operations all over the world. We’ve had poets, we’ve had singers, we’ve had bands and artists performing, and we’re going to be hosting all kinds of cultural and political events from there.

At night, we use our solar power to unleash a really awesome light show. We have a great big movie screen — a 700 square foot movie screen — that we’ve rigged on the People’s Platform, and a 12,000 lumen digital projector. Last night we showed the documentary “Sweet Crude,” about Shell’s operations in Nigeria in the Niger River Delta. On May 19, we’re going to be showing “This is What Democracy Looks Like,” the documentary about the WTO uprising here in 1999. I think we’re going to be showing “Gasland” and probably have a live conversation with Josh Fox over Skype. We’ve got a really great program. We’ve got selfies that folks all over the Earth have taken with personal messages to Shell. We’ll probably try to do a Twitter storm one night to get people all over the world interacting with our screen, and generally giving Shell hell here at night, right where they live.

What is the importance of this fight in Seattle to a national, or even international, climate justice movement?

We’re just trying to do our part. I hope that we’re doing something interesting and special, and effective. We’re inviting folks from any kind of community along the coastline to start their own Mosquito Fleet. They don’t need to call it the Mosquito Fleet, but we think that people everywhere who live along the shoreline should be paddling out and paddling the oil companies out of the seven seas, where they don’t belong. Maybe we’re developing some interesting new tactics that people can use and find effective, and we hope that we are. We’re just trying to do our part to stop the Pacific Northwest and the Puget Sound from becoming a giant, dirty carbon export corridor for the rest of the world. We have so much dirty carbon coming through the Puget Sound, and it’s not consistent with the way people feel about clean energy and dirty carbon here. It doesn’t match up with the values that the people of the Puget Sound have, and so we want to connect people’s values with action that they can take to make a difference.

I’ve heard this called the “Paddle in Seattle.” I’m wondering, too, what you see as the connection between Shell No and the alter-globalization movement in Seattle in 1999.

In 1999 we were following the leadership of the Zapatistas. The alter-globalization movement really started in Chiapas, and I was pretty involved with the WTO protests. I was doing it as honoring the leadership of Subcomandante Marcos and the amazing stand that the Zapatistas had taken against globalization. As far as the “Paddle in Seattle” goes, it’s a fun name! It’s an iconic moment in time out here. It’s a celebrated moment in time. People have a lot of pride about standing up to multinational corporate globalization, and shutting down one of the most powerful business meetings of all time. We wanted to honor that, and also use it as a way to make people laugh and get people excited about something new, something interesting, something original happening on the water.

What’s next?

There’s a tremendous amount of excitement in the newly-formed “kayak-tivist” community. I think a lot of kayak-tivists were really lit up by the “Paddle in Seattle.” I know that a number of them are considering whether they’ll paddle out again, when Shell attempts to leave, in an effort to stop them.

What’s the timeline on that?

We have no idea when they’re going to leave. We know that the drill window is short, so they’ve got to get up there before that window opens and be ready. Every day that we can stall them is a good day.