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Boulder activist returns from Portland Arctic-drilling protests with inspired vision for Colorado

Razz Gormley hasn’t been an activist for very long. But beginning with the 2012-13 anti-fracking campaigns in Boulder County and most recently hanging for 40 hours from the St. Johns Bridge in Portland, Oregon in an effort to stop the Fennica icebreaker from traveling to Shell drilling sites in the Arctic, activism is now a lifestyle for the Boulder local.

“I was what I would call a slacktivist. I was aware of all these issues, I posted them on my Facebook page, and I talked about them in my personal life, but that was it,” Gormley says.

Everything changed in October 2012 when Gormley attended a Boulder County Commissioners’ meeting where they discussed the possibility of lifting the fracking moratorium. “Everyone just had this look of helplessness and hopelessness,” Gormley says. “And it triggered something in me to where I could not just stand by and let this happen.” 

Later that year he met the folks at Frack Free Colorado, a non-profit actively fighting oil and gas development throughout the state. He has been working with the group ever since.

Gormley doesn’t consider himself an environmentalist per se, but rather an activist fighting oppression in any form. He works odd jobs to support his activism. “Regardless of what your issue is, they all meet at the same intersection…” he says. “It all comes from that same mindset that one life is not as valuable as another and that in ‘order to secure my benefit, I’m just going to trample all over you.’” 

And Gormley is sincere. A self-proclaimed “hugger,” his genuine passion for the issues he fights is obvious as his voice cracks with emotion talking about the state of the world we are leaving to the next generation. “No one is going to change this for us,” he explains. “The people have to come together and form a movement and demand change, create change ourselves. Because that’s the only way that change ever happens.”

Through his anti-fracking work in Colorado, Gormley quickly met other activists around the country fighting similar issues, which is how he became involved with Greenpeace, the organizer behind the bridge protest in Portland at the end of July.

The organization specifically recruited 13 activists from the “loose network of people from all over the country that have attended trainings and we know are technically skilled,” says Cassady Sharp, media officer for Greenpeace’s Arctic campaign.

When Greenpeace called, Gormley didn’t hesitate, despite the lack of available details. “I didn’t know exactly what I was doing, but I knew I would be climbing and kind of an idea of who it was involved in terms of the adversary,” he says. He was contacted on Wednesday, July 22 and by the following Monday he was in Portland.

“We had exactly enough time to fly out there, put our kits together, all the equipment we might need, run through some practice runs and then jump in the van and head to the site,” Gormley says. He was only able to sleep for about 20 minutes in the 24 hours leading up to the action in order to “cram” everything in.

Greenpeace began developing the plan after Shell announced on July 13 the Fennica was returning to Portland for repairs, Sharp says. The Fennica is critical to Shell’s operations in the Arctic, as it carries a capping stack, a piece of equipment used to seal off underwater wells in case of an emergency. But the icebreaker sustained major damage to its hull on July 3 as it headed to the drilling site in the Chukchi Sea from the Aleutian Islands.

The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management estimates 29 billion barrels of oil could exist in the Chukchi Sea and Shell began explorations in the area in 2012, although a range of operational and safety issues have perpetually delayed drilling. As a condition of the company’s permit authorized by President Obama on July 22, Shell is unable to drill into deeper oil reserves this summer until the capping stack onboard the Fennica arrives. Dangling from the St. Johns Bridge was “the most effective way that we saw to stop this ship” and further delay Arctic drilling, Gormley says.

“We’re already starting to see the effects of climate change, we’ve been living them,” Gormley continues. “And the current situation demanded this kind of action, and that’s why we did it. Not because we’re crazy or we’re radical or anything like that. But just because it’s a desperate situation.”

The Fennica arrived in Portland early in the morning of July 25, met by an “unwelcome party,” comprised of “kayaktivists” and other protestors, Sharp says. While work crews immediately began repairing the vessel, Greenpeace monitored public dispatch websites for the ship’s movements. When their researchers noticed a pilot boat dispatch request for 4 a.m. the morning of Wednesday, July 29, Greenpeace deployed their bridge team.

Gormley says he could hear the thousands of supporters already keeping vigil in Cathedral Park, cheering them on as they first moved onto the bridge. “They couldn’t tell what was going on at first, all they could see were headlamps bouncing around in the night,” he says. It was just before 3 a.m.

“We parked, got out of the vehicles, started to set up, and I saw flashing lights and heard tires screeching. It was that quick,” he continues, previously unaware that police and fire stations were located at the end of the bridge.

Fortunately for the activists, each of the 13 anchors were already setup so Gormley and the other climbers simply had to clip in, attach their equipment bags, hook up their rappel devices and drop their rope bags over the edge. “I’m just sitting there and thinking it can’t be this easy,” Gormley remembers. “So I ran through my safety check one more time, and I started to descend.”

Gormley says he had “a healthy sense of fear” as he dropped over the edge but remained confident in his abilities, training and gear. More than anything he was nervously excited — aware of the impact and very real consequences this action could have.

After rappelling a few feet, Gormley and the other activists stopped to clip into secondary anchors underneath the bridge, just in case any of the top anchors were tampered with. Then they continued to rappel before setting up camp 100 feet below the bridge and 100 feet above the Willamette River — just high enough to let smaller vessels pass but low enough to descend quickly and get in way of the Fennica. “We didn’t want to disrupt anything,” Gormley says. “Our goal was to stop that boat, not to jam up traffic.”

The climbers were also attached to each other by taglines, long stretches of rope draping between each person, in hopes of entangling vital antennae on top of the icebreaker if it tried to squeeze past them. 

“If they were to get tangled up in those ropes they would have had to turn around and probably would not have made it out to the Arctic this season,” Gormley says. “That’s what we were kind of banking on, and that’s what they were afraid of.”

After setting up their individual camps, Gormley and the other activists let out the now-iconic yellow banners with slogans such as “Save the Arctic” and “Last Chance President Obama” followed by the hashtag “Shellno.” In addition to spreading their message, the banners served as a sunshade for the activists as afternoon temperatures ranged from 101 to 103 degrees during the 40-hour protest. “Talk about climate change, you know, in Portland,” Gormley comments.

Next, they let out the bright yellow and red streamers before settling in to wait for any activity from the Fennica, all the while trying to make themselves comfortable. “If you’ve ever spent any amount of time in a climbing harness, there really is not a lot of ways to get yourself comfortable in there,” Gormley says.

He hardly slept the entire 40 hours, constantly aware of the river below him and trying to move as much as possible to prevent his blood from settling and causing additional safety risks. Plus, any time he was able to doze off, a booming horn from an approaching barge usually startled him awake.

But Gormley never felt alone as the crowd below continued to provide moral support, shouting their encouragement night and day. “It was unbelievable at three o’clock in the morning to be hanging there and hear people down in the park yelling, ‘We love you; you’re our heroes,’ all night long,” he says. “Just when you would think, no this is too hard, I have to go to the bathroom really bad, and I’m so tired, and I’m so sore, and my ribs are bruised from this harness and everything else, and I can’t sleep, somebody would come by and yell something.”

And although each hanging activist was equipped with plenty of food and water to stay under the bridge for days, other Greenpeace activists remained at the anchors, replenishing supplies, disposing of waste and interacting with law enforcement.

After the initial police officers inspected the anchors, determined they were safe and weren’t damaging public property, the support teams were pretty much left alone, Gormley says.

He didn’t interact personally with police officers during the entire campaign, but most of the interactions between Greenpeace activists and law enforcement “were pretty cordial,” Sharp says. “I think it was a mutual respect. We were there and had a job to do. And they were there and had a job to do, and we just kind of got out of each other’s way as long as we could.”

All that changed by mid-afternoon on the second day, July 30, however. “Honestly we really felt that they were prioritizing Shell over people’s safety during that last showdown,” Sharp says. Earlier that morning the icebreaker moved toward the bridge, but quickly returned to port, clearly unable to pass.

According to Gormley, the team from Portland Fire and Rescue used grappling hooks to try and pull the climbers up by the taglines — an action he considers “reckless.”

“We were on static systems, which are not designed to take those types of bouncing loads,” Gormley says. “That was the only time we were in danger was when we were being ‘rescued.’” 

After the support teams on the bridge called 911 and explained the dangers of the rescuers’ method, the bouncing stopped. Soon after, the taglines were cut altogether. “At this point it was clear their only mission was to get Shell through there,” Gormley says. By this time all the activists were exhausted and it was the hottest part of the day, “when we were all just lethargic and really feeling it,” Gormley says.

Then a police officer rappelled off the bridge, announcing the activists could either lower themselves, or have their ropes cut and be lowered. “That freaked some people out because any time you hear ‘cut your ropes’ when you’re relying on them,” Gormley says.

“A couple of our climbers hearing this and knowing what was coming elected to descend onto boats below them,” he continues. “One of our climbers did not engage them, made no contact when they attempted to contact him, so they cut his rope and lowered him down to the boat.”

With three climbers out of the way, the Fennica again began moving towards the bridge. Gormley and the remaining activists scrambled to reconnect their taglines by tossing the ropes in throw bags towards each other, hoping they would tangle midair. They even lowered ropes into the water, hoping a Greenpeace boat could tie them together and they could drag them back up before being stopped. Despite these last-ditch efforts, the Fennica was able to pass under St. Johns Bridge just before 6 p.m. surrounded by kayaktivists continuing to protest.

Gormley says watching the icebreaker pass under the bridge “was really heartbreaking,” and he laments the lost opportunity to further delay the ship’s departure. “If we had just a little more time, or a little more support we really could have kept that boat in port for another couple of days probably,” he says. “What if the supporters had gone onto the railroad bridge with Jonah Majure, or what if they had come to our bridge and prevented the cops from cutting our climbers down? There were easily a thousand people there. If they had joined into the action, we may still be there.”

Majure, part of Portland-based activist group Rising Tide, locked himself to a railroad bridge with a U-lock around his neck. Authorities had to cut him down, further delaying the Fennica before it reached St. Johns Bridge.

It was equally devastating, Gormley says, to see kids on the riverbank crying when he reached shore. “They had kind of identified the boat as the bad guy, so to speak, and us, all of the kayaktivists and the climbers, as the heroes. And they saw the heroes lose,” he says.

After the Fennica passed, Gormley rappelled towards a waiting canoe, while a nearby police boat backed off. “I was expecting cuffs and instead I lowered into a [group of ] kayaks, people gave me water and snacks, people brought me over to the shore and I got hugs and microphones,” Gormley says. He was never even approached by law enforcement, never asked for identification and received no form of citation or fine. “Once the boat got through, they seemed to lose all interest,” he says.

Only two activists were charged with misdemeanors, Sharp says, and a few others received civil citations.

But despite the Fennica’s return to the Arctic early last week, Gormley and Greenpeace consider their efforts in Portland a victory.

Sharp spoke of the quick and efficient level of collaboration between the Greenpeace action and local groups on the riverbank and in the water, delaying the Fennica’s departure for as long as they did and raising world-wide awareness of Arctic drilling.

“At some point all those people that were watching around the world realized that the collective will of a handful of people was more powerful than an 8,000-ton icebreaker,” Gormley adds. “We had ropes and our bodies and the kayaktivists down below, and we stopped them. They blinked. They turned around.”

Plus, the events in Portland have reinvigorated the activist community in Boulder and throughout Colorado, Gormley says, although he currently doesn’t have any plans for large-scale actions like the St. Johns Bridge campaign here in Colorado.

But this all could change in the near future. Up to this point, according to Gormley, citizenled political processes to thwart oil and gas development have worked. “People across the whole Front Range worked extremely hard to protect their communities from fracking,” he says. He references the success of voter-passed fracking bans in Lafayette and Longmont, as well as the moratoriums in Fort Collins, Boulder and Broomfield. However, with the exception of Boulder, all of these initiatives are being systematically challenged, overturned and appealed in Colorado courts.

“Now we’re having democracy subverted by corporations and by our elected officials and appointees like the COGCC,” Gormley continues. “So I can see how in the very near future it could start to come to this [non-violent community protest] in Colorado. Once we have no other recourse people are going to take to the streets to stop this because we have no other options. Because we have exhausted every other possibility.”

Frack Free Colorado and other activist partners have already sponsored two non-violent community defense trainings this year and plan on hosting more. Gormley says Greenpeace and other organizations also routinely offer training classes in Colorado.

He emphasizes the fundamental role training played in the success of the St. Johns Bridge action, especially considering the risk involved. “I think that it’s important to know how to interact with law enforcement in these situations, to not put yourself in any undue risk, what to say when you’re approached and how to get your message out properly,” he says. “I think that its important for people to engage in things like this, but I think that they need to know how to do it safely and responsibly.”

Gormley encourages people to contact Frack Free Colorado to get involved with their efforts around the state. “And it doesn’t have to be hanging off a bridge or jumping in front of a truck with your bicycle,” he says.

“Everyone wanted to take me out for a beer and pat me on the back after [Portland] and that’s not why I did this and that’s not what I care about,” Gormley concludes. “If you want to say thank you, then rise up and join us.”

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