Resisting Shell: Another WTO for Seattle?

By Knute Berger
Crosscut archive image.
By Knute Berger

A “Festival of Resistance” is planned for mid-May as kayaking environmental activists and others promise to meet the arrival of Shell’s Arctic oil rig on Elliott Bay with extended protests. There will be civil disobedience, rallies (protest puppets are being made as we speak) and a blockade to get the city’s — indeed the world’s — attention to climate change and drilling in the ecologically sensitive far north.

The May 16-18 Festival itself is sounding eerily reminiscent of a certain week in Seattle in late November, 1999 when the World Trade Organization convened — or attempt to — in Seattle. That resulted in the so-called Battle of Seattle, a whiff of tear gas sniffed ‘round the world.

One commonality: Both events were brought to you by commissioners of the Port of Seattle. The agreement by a majority on the Port Commission to host the Shell rig had its origins in a process that was secretive, designed to avoid public input and at odds with many Seattleites’ green values.

The process by which WTO came to town was also steered by then-Port commissioner Pat Davis who, along with other business insiders, saw it as an economic and publicity boon. She later told the Seattle Times, “We were in the middle of boom times; everyone said, ‘Sure, why not, Seattle is a Pacific Northwest gateway. We will put Seattle on the map.’ and we did.”

Just not in the way she expected. It is boom times again, and again Seattle is becoming ground zero for protest that highlights the city’s split personality. Seattle was a trade center, so Davis thought the World Trade Organization would be unambiguously welcomed — like Cheney’s prediction of flowers in Iraq. But Davis neglected to count on the other side of the Seattle coin: We were, and are, a center of labor unions, environmental and human rights activists. Trade ’N Protest R Us.

The night before the main WTO demonstrations when 50,000 people hit the streets, filmmaker Michael Moore spoke to a rally in KeyArena and asked about the organizers who brought the trade group to lefty Seattle: “What were they thinking?”

Seattle is a maritime center and gateway to Alaska: why not host Shell? Seattle was built on resource extraction, timber, gold, oil. We were once the biggest coal port on the West Coast. We contributed mightily to the Alaska pipeline and enjoyed its economic fruits. The name of the massive oil rig reflects a blend of those modern and historic roots: Transocean Polar Pioneer. Yes, the name seems to say, we’re not drilling for oil, we’re pioneering the last frontier.

We’re a city struggling to turn that history — that way of life — around, especially as it relates to the further exploitation of the Arctic that could damage other Northwest industries and contribute to global damage of the climate and oceans. I talked to a source who works with both greens and the Port who says the Shell deal was the stupidest thing the Port has done in a long while. From a PR perspective, it’s been a disaster, one that will be made even worse if there are any problems in the far north: “If there’s a spill, oil will be all over the hands of the Port.”

Groups like Greenpeace find it difficult to stage actions in remote locations like the Chukchi Sea: bad weather, often-hostile locals, it’s hard to get to and far from the media. By hosting Shell’s rig, the Port has put the protesters on a photogenic, well-lighted national media stage with a largely sympathetic hometown crowd at their backs. “They’ve brought the fight to the Lower 48,” says my source.

Also like WTO, the protesters seem to be pretty clear, via the Internet and social media, about what they’re going to do — escorting the rig in, blocking its way out. Such tactics will be highly visible on the bay, also dangerous in cold waters with huge vessels that cannot slow or maneuver quickly.

The Coast Guard has said it would set up a First Amendment Zone for protesters, but it would be surprising if that tactic contained much of the planned actions. There’s too much shoreline and water to patrol; if the weather’s good, they’ll have a small armada out there.

Some have scoffed at the idea of protesting kayaktivists —Port Commissioner Bill Bryant made light of it to a suburban crowd. They laughed at costumed Sea Turtles too, before WTO. Hopefully, the Shell protests won’t become a fiasco made worse by rock-throwers or overzealous law enforcement. But it could shape up as an impact event that will again raise the question, “What were they thinking?”


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.