Bridges Not Walls: Inspiration From the Inside
An early cold-morning wake up call on the day of Trump's inauguration sent at 6:13am GMT on January 20, 2017 to 32 logistic communicators, photographers, coordinators, and activists on the WhatsApp group entitled "BNW London Action Leads". The scope of what was to unfurl within the next 2.5 hours could be deemed as massive and hard to accomplish. To me, it was quite logical.
I come from Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA and have lived in Europe for 2.5 years now. I am, by trade, a dancer with a BSc in Biology and an MA in Dance Performance.
Bridges Not Walls is the second global campaign I have participated in - NoDAPL being the first. Bridges Not Walls is the first global campaign I have helped to organize.
My involvement in Bridges Not Walls began at my first solidarity event for Sacred Stone Camp to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. That's when I met Gabriel - an American living in London who puts his off-time energy into divestment campaigns. After speaking with him both outside the US Embassy and Royal Bank of Scotland HQ, my eyes were opened to the world of activism. As I asked him about getting involved in campaigns, he casually mentioned the likes of 350.org amongst many other people and groups. I then went home to research.
Through 350.org, I found Fossil Free UK - a surefire way to get active in my community against the extraction of fossil fuels. Lo and behold, they had just issued a callout to join the Divest Parliament campaign team. Yes. I emailed email@example.com stating that I had no previous experience in divestment campaigns, but that I was ready to take direct action to influence our environment. In the email, I stated that I could help to organize and coordinate the work, but that I would be moving to Brussels on January 31st because my visa was expiring. I offered to work remotely.
Danni responded with a very clever email redirecting me to the present; this being that she didn't feel me being abroad would help the 8-month divestment campaign, but that there was a different campaign taking hold for a sooner date: January 20th.
Danni invited me to the first public meeting for Bridges Not Walls on December 7th. I attended by myself without knowing anyone simply to listen, to understand, to see if I could be of any use. Bridges Not Walls was introduced in a piggy-back manner by Danni, Martin, Leo, and Will S. They clearly had met, discussed, narrowed some ideas, but were hesitant on the action due to lack of diverse representation. This was my first real experience with activists and their/our conversations - raising hands with sparkling fingers to say "agree", having a speaking order queue, and calling out people on the spot regarding offense, terminology, and scene of address.
The room was alive.
There were various callouts for people experienced in messaging, communications (comms), social media, and process. I didn't feel equipped for any of those so decided to join the London Action team as it was the most "general" of the working groups.
[Working groups: sets of groups to tackle specific areas of a broader campaign.]
In our working group, we threw around possible ideas for our London Action.
What? Dropping banners from iconic bridges over the Thames
When? January 20th
How? How Many? Time of day? Where? Who? Which? Legals? Traffic? Materials? Colors?
Following working group time, a general consensus of "yes, we are going to do this" was made. Great. But who would actually do it?
Our conversations continued on Slack. I got plugged into the #London channel and began throwing out questions and ideas. The responses dwindled to static.
Hey Richard, it's Dalton here. Are you all set to go?
Yep. We are loading the boat now, about to take off.
Great. We're looking at an 8:30 drop from Tower. They are set in place and ready.
From our Bermondsey Street Hub, we could see a police helicopter hovering over Westminster, Waterloo, and Millennium bridge. Zoe, Max, Liam, Leo, Joe, Dan, and Jo loaded Gmail, Facebook, Twitter, Drop Box, Google Docs and Sheets and snacked a bit on bananas and tea.
Hey everyone, look what Paris just sent us.
At a separate table, Danni and I assembled a large spreadsheet ready to be filled in as tasks were completed - delivery of banners, bridge meet points accomplished, photographers in place, boat in place, banners in place, banners dropped. It felt like I was launching hundreds of balloons from the control room of a balloon festival. The energy was electric.
Our goal was to drop ten 3x25m banners from ten bridges over the Thames - a flagship action that would lead the forefront for decentralized actions occurring all over the world. I personally never doubted the making of all ten. Reality was soon to curb that.
I began researching materials and contacting people. Will S. gave me the email of an activist by the name of B. in Hebden Bridge who was offering to make us a 2x12m banner for the event. Our emails resulted in a wealth of knowledge regarding materials. Her experience of trying to pry a massive ripstop banner from the bottom of a bridge left me laughing with tears, but also weary and cautious. Through her recommendation, I met with Paul of Greenpeace. He offered knowledge of angles and structures, but felt disinclined to suggest actual materials. Through his recommendation, I met Luke of the Greenpeace warehouse. I laid out my plans that were formed by both B and Paul. Luke gave the ok with the advice that we should test the materials and ideas before we go to a grand scale (which we only partially did here...). We also set a date to recce the 10 bridges before we set forth making the banners - a requirement emphasized by Danni and Paul.
[recce: coming from the french "reconnaissance" meaning to examine and analyze; used in common British english, not in American]
Suddenly, we were all invested in an action that I didn't realize would resonate with the world. Before I knew it, we were on the path to hope.
After cycling around London for 6 hours with cold hands, each bridge was properly recce'd. Ten 3x25m banners was not an option as each bridge had different dimensions and obstacles. Fine, we can be flexible.
What would we do without Greenpeace? From Luke, came Rachel, head of GP actions, and her amazing team consisting of Veronica (V), Frank, the Hannahs, and Abby. Then there was Will M. of Oceans, Hannah M. of an anti-fracking campaign, and Rosie of Politics. One after the next after the next chipped in. The generosity these humans showed to this campaign that was extra and outside of their jobs was tremendous and inspiring. Working right next to Rachel, scooting my chair to V and setting a driving route that had to be changed three days later, talking with Frank about more banner logistics, calling companies and entering information regarding each bridge into countless spreadsheets all were so inspiring and engaging. Yes, data input was actually engaging.
I organized a banner making weekend at The Five Points Brewing Company Warehouse - a most generous offer of space by the owner, Ed Mason. My hope was that with 100 people, letter templates, and all materials provided, we could easily complete 10 various-sized banners. I didn't realize how big 25 meters (or 18 for some) actually was. I also didn't realize that the generous offer of designing each banner to scale by Hannah D. would require about 220 different sized letters. Templates were now of no use. We needed a projector and direct tracings onto the fabric. Luckily, Martin L., Hannah M., Will M, and other staffers took control of the tracing and completed before the weekend got under way. Life savers, indeed.
The weekend itself was intensely inspiring. Hannah M. coordinated the floor - setting people to cut, stick and stitch on massive letters, fill sandbags, roll out scaffolding net, and warm up with tea, a homemade lunch thanks to Mala and her team, and a motivation dance in the yard thanks to Will M. V ran legal briefings while the comms team continued to work on outreach, press, and social media briefings. We were fortunate to finish on Sunday with 7 almost-complete banners and a stipulation towards 1. finishing Millennium's banner, 2. using B's banner for Lambeth, and 3. dropping the Hungerford and Golden Jubilee Bridge altogether, which was to read "Protect Your Rights".
[Interesting how Trump's whitehouse.gov also wiped "Civil Liberties" from their Issues tab...rethinking on that soon.]
Sometimes there is not enough time to complete everything. We must make priority lists and sacrifices. Thank you V and GP for teaching me this.
The week leading up to January 20th saw the final stitches, ropes, packing, and a flag for the boat. Damn, we had nine massive banners each holding a specific message that was set to unite and engage one another; set to resist hate.
Each of the nine bridges had a lead who was in direct contact with the hub. Teams met as early as 6:20am to pick up materials and get everything sorted for the drops for 8:30am. Call after call, update after update, things were falling seamlessly into place. Each banner was successfully dropped with few minor hiccups and the boat was able to capture all. What was even more amazing is what we saw next.
As the images rolled in, they evidenced the troves of people who came out to every bridge - a joint feat by the outreach team and the individual bridge leads. Amazing. It was estimated that we had more than 1000 people standing collectively in London - not counting the 250+ actions across the world. One thing after another after another. The hub was buzzing and the team was working hard to push everything out. From BBC to CNN to SkyNews about 80 media outlets were covering us. Social Media was hot, and it felt like the world was watching.
I stood in the hub watching the comms team work - each set to a different task, collectively pushing images to the forefront of the world. I stood in awe. The work and dedication that they put in was enormous and inspiring - the most organized, professional, collective grassroots activist work I have ever seen. (Yes, I am very green, but am told they set the standard for organizing action.)
I didn't want to leave. The energy was vibrant.
There is hope for this world.
If you look on any social media feed of Bridges Not Walls, you will see the promotion of local, decentralized groups from around the world who took part in this symbolic action. You will see the London bridges placed amongst and throughout. In terms of hierarchy, there was as little as possible both in the organizing team and action promotion. Everyone had a job and it all supported the movement to build bridges between communities, different people and organizations. This way of working was key to the success of the movement.
Bridges Not Walls created/s a platform for conversation between marginalized groups, a coming together to tackle bigger issues. Coming from the London Action Team, I can say that from queer solidarity on Vauxhall to the acceptance of migrants on Westminster, to speeches about race and inequality on London Bridge, and to taking charge of our future on Millennium, we came together to send a strong message to the world:
We will fight for you and for the betterment of our human kind.
Bridges Not Walls would not have been possible without the hard work put in by the central team; without the ideas initiated by Will S.; without the realization made by the Greenpeace team; without the outreach by Chloe, Zoe, Max, Joe, and Liam; without the press driven by Leo and Dan; without Will Francombe's media coordination; and without the glue of the entire project - Danni and Martin. I have never said "killin' it" or "rockin' it" so many times in my life as I did during Bridges Not Walls. The surreality that I experienced was a simple reality in these people's lives. Their energy, their commitment, their strength, their work pushed me to keep going and never once question the legitimacy of our actions.
Thank you to everyone. You are so inspiring and I cannot wait to continue building relationships with you all.