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A warehouse of protest wonders

In an industrial section of San Francisco, Greenpeace stores the props that go along with its brand of theatrical activism, like a two-man airship and 70 purple umbrellas.

December 06, 2011|By Maria L. La Ganga, Los Angeles Times

Others, like the tuna industry, fight back. Tuna producers have launched a website that professes to separate fact from fiction about the future of tuna and debunk "Greenpeace's extreme rhetoric."

The chief executives of Chicken of the Sea, Bumble Bee Foods and StarKist Co. penned a Wall Street Journal op-ed this fall with the headline, "Greenpeace vs. the Tuna Sandwich," which charged that the environmental group's campaign "isn't about science. It's about fundraising."

Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for the National Fisheries Institute, said the tuna industry "is not simply targeted by Greenpeace, we are bullied and harassed by Greenpeace. People hear about bright foam costumes and silly blimps, but they don't often hear about the threatening phone calls and harassment of workers."

Two big foam fish hang limply on the warehouse wall, veterans of a Greenpeace campaign to get Trader Joe's to improve its "seafood sustainability policies." Both began life as orange roughy costumes, worn by protesters who leafleted stores. One has since been painted blue (think bluefin tuna) and moved on to other efforts, like targeting Costco and publicizing a documentary on overfishing.

When Greenpeace activists flocked to Park City, Utah, for the 2009 Sundance Film Festival premiere of "The End of the Line," one of them "skied down a mountain wearing a bluefin tuna costume," Turner said. "It's quite a funny video. He didn't actually fall over, but he couldn't see much."

Costumes — stored in the warehouse in brown boxes marked "dinosaurs," "trees" "hazard suits" and "face masks" — are useful, Turner said, "for lightening the tone" when Greenpeace activists descend on companies' headquarters. Humor is better at capturing attention than "big placards saying 'No' to stuff all the time," he said.

Michael Gene Sullivan, resident playwright for the San Francisco Mime Troupe, said laughter is key to a successful protest movement because it's the best way to make sure any kind of political message gets heard.

"If people just feel bad about stuff, they'll shut it out," Sullivan said. The long-time practitioner of theatrical protest said Greenpeace has succeeded at projecting a very particular image: "They're not the grim weirdos in someone's basement. They're fun people striving to make the world a better place for us all."

And some apparently are willing to go to great heights to do so.

Greenpeace activists scaled Big Ben on the first anniversary of the Iraq war and strung up a weapons of mass destruction banner that declared, "Time for the Truth." They also climbed Rio de Janeiro's towering Christ the Redeemer statue and hung a banner — written in both Portuguese and English — warning that "The Future of the Planet is in Your Hands." Brandenburg Gate got similar treatment during a nuclear power summit.

For a G8 meeting in L'Aquila, Italy, in 2009, Greenpeace climbers rappelled down the side of Mt. Rushmore and hung a 65-by-35-foot banner beside Abraham Lincoln's face. It bore a message for President Obama: "America honors leaders, not politicians: Stop global warming."

Eleven activists later were convicted on a single charge of "climbing Mt. Rushmore," Kaye said.

And the banner? It's still in federal custody, freeing up a little space in a Greenpeace warehouse.

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