Tree Spiker: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the Life of a Radical Environmental Activist

From Tree Spiker by Mike Roselle. Copyright © 2009 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.

Greenpeace Confronts the Mahogany Pirates

With a snow-white beard and hair, Marco Kaltofen looks older than his thirty-eight years. Energetic, almost manic, this morning Marco is in no real hurry. He is driving in the rental truck in front of me as we careen down Pico Boulevard in sunny downtown Santa Monica. It's 1986. We are going to a birthday party. We are each joined by two other people in the cabs of our vehicles. We are all wearing haz-mat suits, complete with respirators. Both of the flatbed trucks are filled with black fifty-five-gallon drums containing toxic waste we had daringly raided from the famous Stringfellow Acid Pits the night before. Each drum has a white skull and crossbones stenciled on it. When we arrive, the Occidental Oil party is well under way.

We approach the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium, and just as we had suspected, the security guards and police are out in force. Marco had introduced himself to Occidental security the morning before, and I had given him my card with the title Greenpeace Chief of Security, in case he needed to reach us for any reason. Marco informed them that we would be delivering a birthday present for Armand Hammer, the CEO of Occidental, for this occasion, which coincided with Oxy's annual stockholders meeting. Not knowing what else to say, the cops just warned us, "We will be waiting for you."

And they were. We spotted them just as we turned left at the corner of Main Street. At the entrance to the parking lot, there were several cops, security guards, and Oxy company men, all wearing suits and uniforms, holding radios, and waiting. They saw us and started talking on their radios. More cops rushed toward the steel gate of the large parking lot in front of the auditorium, which was closed. Still more cops were gathered at the entrance to the building. They watched as we approached.

The parking lot is separated from the main building by a large lawn, which continues to the street and runs alongside the main concert hall. Besides a few palm trees, a few park benches, and a utility pole, there is nothing between us and the entrance. Up ahead on the right is the driveway with the gate and the cops, but Marco veers sharply right, jumps the curb between the palm tree and a park bench, and proceeds to crush a KEEP OFF THE GRASS sign. I have no choice but to follow.

The cops knew they'd been had. Environmentalists didn't drive on the grass. Yet here we were, barreling across the lawn, closing in on the bank of glass doors that formed the only entrance to the auditorium.

Rallying, they rushed toward Marco's truck and managed to get in front. Marco didn't stop. He dropped the transmission into neutral and gunned the engine. As Marco's truck pushed forward, the cops moved, walking backwards. Yelling and gesturing with their hands, they continued in this fruitless effort until we had driven under the chevron-shaped front canopy and parked the trucks a few feet from a long bank of glass doors. Soon we were surrounded.

Quickly, without paying the cops any attention, we dismounted from the cabs of the trucks. Our job now was to unload the drums and set up police tape around the scene. This would prove impossible and unnecessary. A cop gently touched Marco and he fell to the ground. We all quickly joined him and sat together in front of the lead truck. We were all duly arrested. Action over!

But it wasn't over. The rental trucks had a safety feature that would set the emergency brakes if you removed the key from the ignition. The keys had mysteriously disappeared. The tow truck couldn't budge the rigs. We had rented the vehicles on the other side of Los Angeles, and now calls were going out for spare keys.

"What's in those drums?" the head cop asked.

"Just some leachate from the Stringfellow Acid Pits," Marco responded earnestly. "It's a birthday present for Mr. Hammer, and I believe it belongs to him. We are just returning it to its rightful owner."

A Los Angeles County haz-mat team was called in, wearing identical Tyvek suits, and dutifully took our place at the action. We were carted off to the Santa Monica Jail. The haz-mat crew remained at the auditorium for the remainder of the meeting. The leachate in the barrels was not toxic. Leachate in this case refers to rainwater from the surrounding hills that had been diverted away from the pits into a steel tank.

Oxy had scheduled a big press conference for that day, announcing the acquisition of Hooker Chemical, the company responsible for Love Canal. Mr. Hammer disappeared quickly out the back door of the auditorium to dodge the media, which were now asking him all the wrong questions versus the softballs he had expected. He did not get any cake and ice cream. The story would appear on the front page of the business section of the Los Angeles Times. So would the photo of us with the toxic waste.

This was my first action with Greenpeace, but it would not be my last. For the next twenty years, I would be working with the "firm" on various projects around the world. During that time, I watched Greenpeace grow from a small organization with a lot of members and money into a much larger organization with over a thousand employees. Then, in 1990, I watched the U.S. office shrink as it lost staff, members, and money. Today it is still a large organization with considerable resources at its disposal, but one that has undergone tremendous change.

With its sailing ships and daring feats on the high seas, Greenpeace has become the largest, best known, and most successful conservation group on Earth. Starting with the 1972 voyage of the Phyllis Cormack to stop a nuclear bomb test in Amchitka, Alaska, the Greenpeace story is perhaps the most exciting and heroic of all stories in the history of the modern-day conservation movement. It can also be a difficult story to understand. Facts, myths, and symbols are viewed from many angles by all the individuals who were involved. Even its founders disagree over key elements of the story, and much of it remains undocumented.

Greenpeace's media strategies and campaigns are taught in mass communication classes. Greenpeace forever changed the communications field with their skillful use of dramatic footage from daring actions in exotic locations. Greenpeace was also a pioneer in the field of fundraising and membership development. The organization transformed a small office in Vancouver into an international network of thirty separate but aligned offices spanning the globe. All of this resulted in a political pressure group with enormous power to move public opinion and force both governments and the largest multinational corporations to take action.

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