Last Thursday six women climbed the outside of the Shard as part of a Greenpeace campaign to save the Arctic.
By the afternoon of the 11th July in central London, crowds had gathered and there were so many police about that initially some thought there had been a bomb scare. Those who had caught on were looking up, peering behind hand-visors up the glinting, impossibly glassy body of the Shard, and at the six black dots on its side.
Greenpeace had released a statement that morning, that six protesters would be scaling the colossal building, the tallest in western Europe, to hang some artwork and fly a flag in the name of the Greenpeace Arctic campaign, which is trying to stop oil giants from exploiting the northern hemisphere’s fragile mass of ice. The team had attached cameras to their helmets, and the entire climb was being live-streamed to an audience of thousands. Through social media, those on the ground quickly became aware of what was going on, and suits began peering out of windows as café punters spilt coffees into saucers. Meanwhile, the team clinging to the building hundreds of meters up in the direct sun had little idea of the number of eyes on them.
“I was putting tweets out but I had no idea if there were 10 people watching or 10 million,” Ali Garrigan, one of the two UK team members told Planet Ivy, when we caught up with her a few days later.
The action certainly garnered attention – covered live on the BBC and prompting many articles in the national press, but what was it like to actually be up there? “Once you’re above 30 meters, I don’t think I could figure out how high I was, I just thought ‘everything looks quite small now’,” says Ali, 27, nonchalantly.
With all the press, there was bound to be a mixed reaction to the feat. And unfortunately the inevitable sticking point after London had stop spinning, was that the group was entirely female. There were some typically sexist responses, like that of The Telegraph’s Toby Young who reckoned Greenpeace were “implicitly accepting that women are the weaker sex.”
“It’s really disappointing but I think what’s come out in the media far more for me are the really positive reactions, challenging this macho front that activism has,” says Ali. “It’s been really positive with this one that women have been put at the forefront of actions and taking a leading role in this stuff. So I think the sexist reactions we got were expected in some sense. But I think I’ve very much just turned a blind eye to them.”
The women were bought together on the basis that they all had experience in sport and industrial climbing, and a passion for the cause. Enough passion to climb a 1010-foot glass building.
“A few of us were contacted to say do you want to do this? And six of us were up for it so we got together and the team kind of formed from there. From the earliest moment they said, ‘this is the idea you can pull out of at any time’, because it was obviously a pretty crazy and tall order,” says Ali. “I’m not sure if they contacted guys as well but I know that once it became obvious that we could do it as a group of women, we were all really really up for it… So many climbing actions get done by a group of guys, and it just seems so macho and so inaccessible… We wanted to put a clear statement out that we recognise that we’ve got a certain level of privilege; we’re able bodied, we’ve learned to climb and we’ve got these skills. We wanted to put it forward in the sense of whatever you can do for the campaign, do it.”
The Shard looms over Shell and BP’s headquarters like a modern, steely tower of Mordor. It’s modelled on a shard of ice and its centrality makes it unavoidable. But why didn’t the activists target Shell directly? “We wanted to do the Shard because it’s not associated with one company – it shows it’s a wider problem. While Shell is one of the targets of this campaign there are others involved in it,” says Ali.
Nick Clegg has complained that the campaigners could have gotten their point across in another way, but taking direct action with such a dramatic stunt has certainly grabbed attention, and as Ali says, time is running out. “It was time for a really big strong action because the situation with the Arctic, we’re really reaching a crunch point with it. This was the summer that it really needed to get out there… and get massive public support behind it.”
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After reaching the top, the team were arrested on suspicion of aggravated trespass and have to wait until August to find out if they’ll be charged. “In this case I think it’s going to be really difficult to construct a defence [if we're charged] but that’s something we’re all really aware of and prepared for before.” Ali hopes public support will stop the judgement from being too heavy-handed, but it’s Greenpeace’s method to be transparent about its actions.
“You do what you’re going to do, you hold your hands up and say ‘yeah, I was there, I shut down that petrol station’ or whatever you did and you stand there and you’re accountable for it. And it works in favour of Greenpeace a lot of the time because the public can really relate to that, they don’t just tar you with the mindless criminal brush or anything like that.”
The climb had been well rehearsed. “It was meticulously planned – it has to be with those things because there are so many things that can go wrong, and you need to be safe.” The scariest part was in fact the night leading up, and the Oceans Eleven-style mission to the Shard in the morning.
“It was astonishing because we’d spent I guess two months practising the climbing and planning all of that and a different team organised the rest, they just said ‘we will deliver you to the bottom of the building you don’t have to worry about that’.”
The day before the group were taken to a secret location outside of London where a van was waiting for them. They were told, “go and have a look inside the van”, where a hole had been cut and ladders had been fitted with rope pulleys so they could be extended eight meters high through the roof, to enable the van to sit with its bonnet against a wall and the team to climb up and onto the building’s roof.
“It was like being in the A team.” Ali told us.
The team flew a flag from the top of the Shard, but it was too windy to unveil their artwork. However, the climb itself was an inspiring work of performance art in itself. This protest really does seem to have the perfect balance: it was so crazy even those who might have dismissed it can’t help but be struck by the daring of it, which has got people talking. The team put themselves through it all for something they felt strongly about, and the least we can do is have a look at what they are fighting for.
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