A few things happen when you’re about to commit a crime. Time slows. Certain details are thrown into sharp contrast: the imprint of your breath slowly creeping up the inside of the windshield as you wait for the call; the silver glint of moonlight on the river; the tension in your abdomen that won’t slacken. Numbness starts to settle into the outer edges of your body as the seconds drag by. And then suddenly, without warning, time sprints ahead.
Two hours ago I was sitting in the Greenpeace office, listening to Oliver* deliver an emboldening call to action. He beat his drum and sang a song of his people, the Tsleil-Waututh nation. He spoke gravely and firmly: think of the youngest ones in your family. Images flashed in my mind of my nephew’s tiny fingers grasping at a blackberry in the backyard. We do this for them. We do this because we have to. We do this out of love, not fear.
And yet, despite the courage I felt in that moment, I could feel fear cracking my resolve. Not just fear, but straight up panic– I’m not cut out for jail, I don’t have the money to pay government fines… A heavy fog had rolled in and the fact that I couldn’t see more than fifteen feet in front of me only contributed to my already growing sense of unease. Why in hell was I about to strap myself into a kayak in the middle of the night and intentionally put myself in a position to be arrested?
Oh, right. Because of the impending climate catastrophe. Because the Patagonia, the huge tanker ship rolling into the Vancouver bay that morning, was loaded with the final shipment of pipe materials for the Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline project, spelling doom for indigenous nations such as the Tsleil-Waututh in Canada as well as the ecosystems and populations in the entire Puget Sound. Because we all die from the consequences of capitalistic abuses; in some places people die protesting them. Jail was a small price to pay.
Outside, the smell of oil was everywhere– the river stank of it, the trains spewed it out as they passed, and the fog seemed to weigh it down until there wasn’t a clear breath to be taken. Call time was 3am; intel on the Patagonia’s estimated arrival time claimed a tentative docking window of around 6am. The group of roughly twenty kayakers would begin their two mile journey down the Columbia river at 4am to meet up with a group of climbers who would climb down the dock’s ladders and chain themselves there. Together, we would form a blockade that would prevent the ship from unloading. Suddenly it was 2:50, and I was scrambling into my armor for the night: a diaper, wetsuit, rain jacket, hat, and leather gloves. The dread I felt started to ferment into a grim anger.
My kayak slid silently into the water. The oil stink sat in the back of my throat, dead and heavy. We crawled along the water’s edge, keeping near the bank, and occasionally giant monoliths would emerge from the mist: a bridge pile; a crane base. Machinery groaned and creaked, the sound ricocheting off the surprisingly calm water. Time stretched indeterminately in front of us, hovering somewhere beyond the fog line, out of sight. The grey air masked our slow descent.
As we approached the dock, I caught sight of the climbers. Their signs read: WE WON’T STOP UNTIL YOU DO. A long banner emblazoned with the words “STOP TRANS MOUNTAIN” hung between two dock posts. The navy air slowly turned to a frigid grey, and with it, our cover lifted. We weren’t alone anymore.
“Hey, what the fuck do you think you fuckers are doing?”
“Get out of the way, you dumb fucks!”
“You’re about to be squished by a thousand-ton tanker!”
Dock workers had arrived, pissed. Security personnel muttered into their walkie-talkies, and police lights flashed. The frenzy on land had begun.
I turned my boat away from the dock, squinting out into the mist. The grey water blurred into the grey air so seamlessly that only the tiny waves that rippled through the river could distinguish one from the other. All quiet on the waterfront. And then, piercing the dawn, came the first blast.
We heard it before we saw it. A deep bellowing horn rang out into the morning air with such force it caused the water to quiver. Ominous silence followed, peppered by the occasional taunt from the dock workers. Again, the horn blasted. The stench of oil seemed to intensify, and suddenly I could feel the ache of it seeping into my fingers. After roughly thirty minutes of intermittent guttural outbursts, the Patagonia emerged from the mist.
Kayakers rushed into the space between the ship and the dock as the horn roared out again in staunch protest. The police broadcasted from the dock: “We now declare this an unlawful assembly. Any who do not disperse in five minutes will be subject to arrest.” I glanced nervously at another kayaker, but we both knew their jurisdiction was limited to dry land– only the coast guard could take us out. A cheer rose up from our ranks as the Patagonia, stranded in the channel, began lowering its anchor– the ship was blocked! But only for a moment. Eventually the crew redirected the ship to another dock, and our kayaks followed. The police frenzy escalated, and some of our people were arrested. For all of the effort expended planning, organizing, and executing this action, for all of the physical and mental exhaustion, the Patagonia still docked. We made the news– we made a statement– but those pipeline materials were still eventually delivered…
I want to emphasize the necessity of actions like this. Our goal wasn’t to stop the shipment, but to make noise. It’s important that we engage in civil disobedience and make our voices loud, sending a clear message to the establishment that we are watching and we see their abuses. And we need more people to join us. But I would be lying if I said it was all empowering– there are many moments in activism where the bleakness sets in, where we wonder if we’re doing anything at all, if it will matter in the end. The story we follow through history is one of countless battles, some won and some lost, but the war drags on. There’s limited glory to be had in this work; it’s exhausting, demoralizing, and difficult much of the time. But with that, there is no work more worth doing– and not just because of survival.
I came off the water with aching bones, blue fingers from the polluted river water that had soaked into my skin, and a mixed sense of loss and victory. Looking into the eyes of the other kayakers, whom I barely knew, I felt a deep love. We had just done something intense; we were wet, cold, tired, strained… but triumphant. Supported. We were received by dozens of others who came with food, dry clothes, and open homes for us to rest. Those taken to jail had an entire team already working to free them and deal with the law. What I saw was an immense network of folks who shared one belief: we do this out of love, not fear.
In fighting together, we encounter an inexplicable essence of humanity that goes beyond comradeship or solidarity; it’s the essential truth of our existence. We live for each other. To protect and to serve and to love and to share. Regardless of the forces that rip us apart, be they capitalism or politics or inequality, there is a fundamental desire for community that gives real purpose to our survival instincts. Although there are concrete goals that we hope to achieve in this fight, there is the abstract sense that even if we fall short of those goals, perhaps the real victories are in the chance to experience that rawness of heart. To truly take care of each other, friend and stranger alike. To fight for our lives, together. And so out of the blood blooms the rose.