The High Ground | The Story Of The Crane-Climbing Activists Arrested For Opposing Donald Trump
"I’m more nervous on a climbing wall than I was on the crane"
Words by Anna Dimond
Zachary Riddle was scared. Sure, he’d climbed indoor rock walls before, and tried a couple of outdoor faces. But as one of the “blockers," chained to a crane platform about 100 feet up from a construction site near the White House in Washington D.C. in January, adrenaline took over.
“I wasn’t shaking, but I was definitely worried, because you never know what’s going to happen," he said. “Not just the height. It’s also highly emotional—someone could have been really mad that we were there, and it was my job to be prepared for that. That’s what was going through my head, ‘What am I going to say, and how am I going to handle it?’"
"The crane was about 300 feet and the protesters unfurled a 70-foot banner that read: 'RESIST.'"
Riddle, 37, was one of seven protesters who climbed a crane near the White House five days after President Donald Trump’s election to protest both his administration, and the actions it was taking. The crane itself was about 300 feet, and the protesters who summited it unfurled a 70-foot banner that read, in black writing on an orange background, “RESIST."
Karen Topakian, 62 and Board Chairman for Greenpeace USA, was chained to the crane on the platform above Riddle’s. It was from there that she recorded a Facebook Live video, in which she explained the group’s motives.
"It was a little chilly this morning when we arrived at the crane site," she said, “but it was a lot chillier in the Oval Office when President Trump decided to sign those executive orders reinstating the Keystone pipeline, reinstating the North Dakota pipeline, taking women's right to choose away from them, and we hear today he will be signing a landmark immigration law that will limit people of the Muslim faith from entering the country.
"I’m more nervous on a climbing wall than I was on the crane"
And yet, despite the physical feat that Topakian, Riddle, and the other five climbers undertook, none are professional athletes. In fact, for Topakian and Riddle, their climb involved not just speaking truth to power, but facing up to their lifelong fear of heights.
“Interestingly, I’m more nervous on a climbing wall than I was on the crane, even at lower heights," said Riddle. “I’m not sure why—maybe because a wall is different from climbing a ladder [which we were on].
“There’s a certain amount of courage, or strength, when you’re part of a group that’s doing something important and you have a small part of it to do. If you’re able to do it well, then other people can do their jobs well."
For at least three of the climbers, Riddle and Topakian included, their vertical experience had been focused less on scaling the great rock faces of the world, and more on learning how to climb urban features – known as industrial climbing – for socio-political purposes.
“We represented different ethnicities, ages, religious beliefs; we come from around this country," said Topakian. “We are everyday Americans, and no different from anyone else. We are not superheroes, we are not superhuman."
"We are everyday Americans, and no different from anyone else. We are not superheroes,"
Riddle, like the other climbers on the crane, has been through multiple Greenpeace trainings on non-violent, civil disobedience, as well as on industrial climbing and safety. Because of a pending court case, all of those who were arrested upon descent and imprisoned for a night in a Washington, D.C. jail, can’t speak to the specific details of their trainings and preparation.
Still, not all of their industrial climbing careers, so to speak, started with rocks, or protests.
“I’m a muralist — I learned to build and climb scaffolding to paint and create art," said Nancy Pili Hernandez, one of the “Resist" climbers. “I ride my bike every day, but I’m not really part of a rock climbing culture."
Along with her murals and activism, Hernandez works at a San Francisco non-profit that educates young people about the natural world. And while the Bay Area, located on California’s north west coast, has driving access to the Sierras, inside the city limits it’s less of a climber’s mecca than a commuter’s concrete jungle.
That setting however, combined with Hernandez’s socio-political DNA, is what shaped her specific approach to climbing. For her, the transition from summiting scaffolding to structures was “was a natural progression, to make art visible to project messages that are of social importance.
“The vertical world and visual space have become dominated by corporations looking down upon us, and individual space has been commoditised and sold off to the highest bidder," she said. “In the past few years of activism, people have felt the need to escalate our tactics and our messages. …Rock climbers and industrial climbers are comfortable with going up and down really tall heights and more activists have been learning about these techniques. As we see repression and injustice escalating in front of us, it makes sense."
At least some of that learning happens at the Greenpeace-led camps, where attendees learn myriad tactics of non-violent protest, from the artistic to the physical and intellectual, such as how to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for government documents.
Hernandez has been attending training camps and clinics to hone her climbing skills for the past 15 years, ample time to both experience and embody protest.
“Every time we’re engaging in some sort of physical activity that teaches us to use our adrenaline and step out of our comfort zone, any sport that teaches us to be a team player, that is the emotion that is the exact opposite, the antidote, to how you feel [in the political realm]," she said. “What I experienced was being part of a team and using our physical bodies learning how to put our lives on the line to extend or escalate actions of civil disobedience.
“In this past election we’ve seen fear used as an immense tactic to move people," said Hernandez. “The tactics that are used to disperse us are fear and pain [such as tear gas and water cannons]. So the idea of learning how to do something that frightens you – like climbing up a crane, or a huge flagpole -- is a protest in itself by its very nature."
Indeed, the success of the “Resist" protest, whose footprint across social media, traditional media, and local interest, far exceeded the expectations of the organisation and the protesters, was rooted in that very thing. Inherent to the protest’s power was the height of it, and both the skill and the risk which that entailed. If the Women’s March on Washington was successful because of its sheer scale, fundamental to the “Resist" demonstration’s impact was its physicality and high stakes.
In a way that Marshall McLuhan anticipated, the climbers’ very presence, and insistence on transcending their own fears to relay their collective discontent, was a message in and of itself.
“The physicality that was required to do this draws people’s attention," said Topakian. “You stop for a moment."
“One of the many non-violent protest that can be used, is either to stop something—between the whale and harpoon, the seal and the seal-clubber, the number of people suspended from the bridge in Portland, Oregon —for a moment it stopped a bad thing. It didn’t stop it permanently, but it stopped it for a moment."
“This action wasn’t that—this action, in my mind, was a bearing witness, a Quaker concept, this action called attention. And we’re saying ‘resist.’ We’re saying, ‘We are resisting, and we’re saying, ‘resist for us.’"