Meet the Rappers and 'Kayaktivists' Out to Stop Shell's Giant Oil Rig

Female musicians and Native activists recently led two days of protests against Shell's Arctic drilling plans

"Kayaktivists" and other protesters gathered in Seattle recently to fight Shell's Arctic drilling plans. Credit: Ron Wurzer

Katrina Pestaño is running the mic. "Hollow, my bones will carry, rebellion like the rain," her rap begins. Head raised, chest out, eyes squeezed tight, her momentum builds. "I am that ancient rhythm, the heat of the sun." She drops her face and opens her eyes to take in the crowd of protesters who gathered last weekend to block the road to Terminal 5 at the Port of Seattle. A broad smile takes over her face. "When all is said and done, I am the will to carry on!"

Behind Pestaño stands a giant blue puppet, the words "Stop Arctic Drilling" painted in red on its chest.

Pestaño, 31, has been an activist since college, but she was politicized by hip-hop while still a child in the Philippines. She arrived in Seattle in 2006 and began organizing a monthly hip-hop show for women performers called Indayog, which means "movement" or "rhythm" in her native Tagalog. Had you asked her then, she likely would have scoffed at the idea of breaking down her lyrics with – much less joining – a group of predominately white environmentalists opposing Arctic oil drilling.

Yet today, Pestaño is a leader here. She'd spent the earlier part of the day speaking in hushed tones and staccato sentences, body hunched as she strategized within a five-person tac (tactical) team, trying not to reveal intel to prying media or the dozens of police officers watching the group's every move. Her nerves apparent on her tightly clenched face, she'd said she was nervous about how the nonviolent direct action – several hundred people trying to disrupt business as usual for the world's largest oil company – would unfold. Because of the history of police violence against people of color, she was particularly concerned for the safety of the many youth of color she had personally encouraged to attend, including several fellow members of the Filipino organization BAYAN Pacific Northwest. 

Their target, Royal Dutch Shell's 400-foot-long, 300-foot-tall offshore oil rig, dubbed the Polar Pioneer, was just out of sight in Elliott Bay, behind the terminal building. In January, Seattleites learned Shell is planning to park the rig at their port for eight months of the year, when it isn't drilling for oil in Alaska's Chukchi Sea. Since then, a growing group of citizen-activists, elected officials and non-governmental organizations has been plotting ways to not only kick the rig out of the city, but also halt Shell's Arctic drilling plans altogether. 

Since March, much of that organizing has focused on planning two protests: Saturday's law-abiding "festival of resistance," involving a flotilla in the bay, and a civil disobedience action on Monday – a work day – to try and block access to the terminal for Shell employees. This would ideally impede Shell's tight schedule to take advantage of the summer drilling months in the Arctic. As 29-year-old Ahmed Gaya, an organizer with climate justice group Rising Tide Seattle, told the crowd, "Shell's got a small window to make this happen. We're here to close that window."

Though the Obama administration gave only a partial green light to the company's plans earlier this month (a few more permits are still required), Shell has moved forward with the assumption that the approval is all but a done deal. The drilling rig, which arrived in Seattle on May 14, is managed and operated by Transocean, one of the companies found guilty of negligence by a U.S. district court judge for its role in the April 2010 blowout of BP's Macondo oil well that caused the largest offshore drilling oil spill in history. The Polar Pioneer is certified to drill at ultra-deepwater depths of 25,000 feet, or nearly 7,000 feet deeper than the Deepwater Horizon was operating at the time of the BP disaster.

It was a wake-up call for many of the individuals here, and helped spur them to join the growing movement to keep fossil fuels in the ground – particularly after a U.N. panel warned in 2013 that doing so is critical to avert the worst of the climate crisis. So initiating new oil drilling now, especially in one of the most difficult places in the world to conduct such operations, makes little sense. Moreover, an offshore oil spill in the Arctic Circle could devastate the lives and livelihoods of Iňupiat, Saami and other Indigenous peoples dependent on a healthy Arctic ecosystem and the wildlife that live there – whales, polar bears, walrus, seals and hundreds of bird species.

During Saturday's action Rolling Stone reaches a jubilant Pestaño by phone as she sits on a boat in Elliott Bay bearing the banner "Shell Drilling Is Killing Us! Filipinos for Climate Justice." The vessel is part of the 500-person, brightly colored flotilla that includes several hundred "kayaktivists," all challenging the rig's presence. Chants of "Whose Water? Our Water!" ring out around the bay. Some 1,500 other activists join them on land.

Pestaño is effusive as weeks of careful planning unfold before her. She's witnessing something unique, in her experience: a predominately white crowd embracing the leadership of the several local and Alaskan Native communities who are leading the waterborne events from their traditional canoes and addressing the crowd from the two performance stages. The police presence is light, and even when the Native peoples lead an unexpected surge toward the Polar Pioneer – which seemed to violate the Coast Guard-enforced 100-yard buffer zone – there were no arrests or warnings

Monday's action is also led by Native communities and people of color, including Allison Akootchook Warden, a 42-year-old Iňupiaq rapper and multidisciplinary artist who performs both days. Warden lives in Anchorage, but, she tells me, "my people are from Kaktovick," a village on the Beaufort Sea in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, east of where Shell currently plans to drill – an area already affected by oil and gas development. For her, hip-hop opens a dialogue with white non-Natives. She often wears a polar bear hat while rapping, "becoming" the bear to challenge white environmentalists' tendency to prioritize the protection of animals over the needs of her people. Warden's rap ends with her "revealing" herself as a human living within the bear, illustrating the symbiotic relationship between her people and the animals – including whales and caribou – that have already been devastated by climate change and are further threatened by Shell's Arctic drilling plans. To care about the bear, she exhorts, one must also protect the human. 

Many other people of color share stories of personal loss caused by climate change that led them to fight Shell's Arctic drilling plans.

Twenty-two-year-old Sarra Tekola, a rapper and member of the group Got Green?, describes how the drought that led her father to leave Ethiopia 40 years ago is now, because of worsening climate change, affecting an increasing number of the world's most vulnerable communities, particularly people of color across Africa. "Climate denial is white class privilege," Tekola says. Elaborating on that point, she notes that individuals with the most resources, who tend to be white, are better equipped to avoid climate change's harshest effects, and thus they often ignore it.

Tekola is also an organizer with the climate group 350.org at the University of Washington, where she's a student. The same day she and a coalition of students succeeded in convincing the school to divest its endowment from coal, Shell's rig arrived in Seattle. "One campaign ended, and the next began," Tekola says with a shrug. 

Growing up on the Philippine island of Mindanao, Pestaño experienced first-hand the devastation caused by worsening typhoons. When she moved to Seattle, she started organizing with BAYAN Pacific Northwest, which since 2009 has provided financial relief to Filipinos affected by the storms. In 2012, Super Typhoon Bopha hit the island nation, including Mindanao, followed the next year by Super Typhoon Haiyan, the strongest cyclone to hit land in recorded history. It became increasingly clear to her that "it didn't matter how much money we were raising" for storm relief, because the storms were going to keep coming, at an accelerated rate. She felt it was time to "hold people accountable, especially corporations" and focus on addressing the underlying causes, not just the consequences, of climate change.

Yet, she was skeptical of the "white liberal hippy environmentalists" she saw in a movement that felt to her to be dominated by male sexism and heteronormativity.

She was inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement to bring more people of color into the direct action climate justice movement, under their own terms and leadership. 

When Rolling Stone arrives at her house at 5:30 Monday morning, Pestaño hasn't slept much. She'd stayed up until just a few hours earlier working on a DJ set to accompany the march later that day. But it turns out the music isn't necessary to inspire the crowd as it departs around 8 a.m., daring arrest by taking over several lanes of traffic, the bridges and roadways flanked by police. They march to Terminal 5, where the rig awaits.

The protest achieves its goal for the day: The main gates of Terminal 5 are completely shut down, and organizers report seeing workers turned away from other entrances. A spokesperson for the port confirms that Shell's business was disrupted; it sent fewer employees to work in anticipation of the protests, and they had only a "light day's work." (Shell did not respond to a request for comment.) In general, the police were non-confrontational, and they made no arrests. The two protests combined likely represent one of the largest offshore drilling protests to take place in the U.S. since the aftermath of the 1969 Santa Barbara offshore oil spill.

As the protesters march – Shell's rig looming to the left and police on either side – the mood grows increasingly festive and defiant. They vow to keep coming back until Shell is thrown off its timeline and is out of the Arctic. Warden raps, and others lead boisterous chants. Then Pestaño takes the mic again. This time, she spurs the crowd into joining her as she smiles, jumping in the air, fist pumping, for a Tagalog call and response.

"Mabu, mabu, mabu!" she yells.

"Hay, hay, hay!"

The words roughly translate to "give life," or "long life." 

After, she reveals what the chant means to her: "We are at the end of a long day, but still in unity. We will continue to resist and build this movement together."