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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Greenpeace at Mount Rushmore: Outrage? Patriotism? Bravery?

Congresswoman Stephanie Herseth-Sandlin dubs the Greenpeace protest at Mount Rushmore "outrageous."

Outrage? I'm having trouble getting there. Can we find grounds for outrage in any of the charges SHS levels at the protestors?
  • posed a security risk? To whom? What person did they threaten? What security hazard did they create? The protesters may have revealed a lapse in security, but even so, there was no risk to any Mount Rushmore visitor. They didn't bring any hazardous materials into the visitor center. They didn't threaten to push anyone off a cliff. This was a stunningly peaceful protest, worlds removed from the 9/11 doomsday scenarios we've spent big bucks to gird Mount Rushmore against.
  • harmed the "visitor experience"? Here I will grant that folks come to Mount Rushmore for relaxation, not ruckus. But was their experience ruined? Folks who got pictures and videos lucked into a little bit of news and history. They caught images that they could share with KELO and the papers. They have visual souvenirs that will make their home albums and YouTube videos stand out out from the millions of normal tourist snaps of the impressive monument. Years from now, Wednesday morning's tourists will still have vivid memories of their visit to South Dakota.
  • wasted taxpayer dollars at the monument? I could be wrong, but didn't this stunt happen during normal work hours? Isn't this the sort of thing we pay rangers to handle?
A few weeks ago, I suggested that the Tea Party rucki scheduled for July 4th were ill-timed. For me, the Fourth of July is the best holiday of the year, a patriotic time when we can put aside our partisan differences and poolicy disagreements and celebrate our common heritage and freedom. If I can see the Fourth of July as a sacred time ("sacred" in the sense of civic religion), I can accept that others could view Mount Rushmore as a similarly sacred place, where we should agree to set aside our differences and celebrate our shared freedoms, achievements, and aspirations.

But if someone chooses to violate the sacred times or spaces of civic religion with political dissent, do they commit an outrage? I found the July 4 Tea Parties bothersome, but not outrageous. And there were a lot more Tea Partiers shouting about socialism than there were skinny hippies unfurling a banner challenging the President to be a true leader (that's an important part of the message that Dr. Newquist astutely observes).

I would suggest that if this year's Tea Parties—and the original—were patriotic, then so was Wednesday's Mount Rushmore protest. The Greenpeacers are every bit as committed to their principles as the fellas in Boston Harbor, willing to break the law to get their message across. In the case of the guy at the bottom of the banner, that patriotism meant being willing to let a 65-foot banner take him for a parachute ride on the side of a mountain... and hang on to complete the mission.

Is it a crime? Sure. But an outrage? The four big fellas on the mountain might have thought otherwise.

p.s.: The Greenpeace activists do deserve credit for well-executed political theater. These weren't drunken anarchist goons out to smash windows. They were highly organized, well-trained climbers who took care not to do damage that could distract from their message.

[Update 07:40 CDT: Sibby says I lied and reminds me that the protesters "intentionally damaged part of the memorial's security system." My apologies, Sibby, for missing that line. But I'm not lying. Whatever the damage (smashed movement sensor? blacked-out lenses on cameras? snipped fences?), the protesters clearly took pains not to do damage to the memorial itself, the work of art that everyone sees.]

Symbolically, Mount Rushmore may have been the best place in the world to carry off this specific protest action. The activists ventured into the heart of the conservative West (I can't help thinking some of the Greenpeacers would rather have been back in the big city) to stand up for what here is a very unpopular position. They juxtaposed a gray image of President Obama next to the most famous stone representations of American Presidents, a setting that echoed exactly what their banner said: we memorialize Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln for brave leadership, not political craft.

To top it off, they achieved instant global attention, in a way no chanting in the streets of New York or Paris can. Not a bad day's work.

pp.s.: And don't forget the perspective from the last owners of Mount Rushmore: South Dakota Oglala Sioux Melvin Martin expresses "heartfelt admiration for this brave act."

Roster of those arrested and charged for the stunt:
  • Noah Mace, 21, Chapel Hill, NC
  • Mary Sweeters, 27, Chicago
  • Basil Tsimoyianis, 22, Westport, CT
  • Madeline Gardner, 27, Minneapolis
  • Matthew Leonard, 30, San Francisco
  • Brian Jenkins, 25, Helena, MT
  • Simran McKenna, 25, San Francisco
  • Jessica Miller, 31, Flushing, NY
  • Cy Wagoner, 32, San Francisco
  • Joseph Smyth, 27, Albuquerque, NM
  • Hope Kaye, 23, San Francisco

And here they are in cuffs:

Among the comments: "Hang 'em high!" and "Go back to Russia!" Har har. But what bothers me most: "Shut up!" Not exactly appropriate comments in the Shrine to Democracy.

Update 2009.07.10 11:02 CDT: Meanwhile, debris leftover from the July 3 fireworks display is still harming the Mount Rushmore visitor experience and incurring "huge expense." Trash on the trails! Fire danger! Where's the outrage?!

Update 2009.07.11 07:10 CDT: See Matt Leonard, member of the Rushmore 12, discussing the protest (they hiked in through the woods!) and the climate change bill ("so watered down by industry interests that it’s really lost its basis in science") on Democracy Now!


  1. In my opinion, these Greenpeace activists merely made themselves look crazy.

  2. Maybe we should thank them for exposing our ultra lax security at this prized national terrorist target. 11 people, unchecked, could have killed hundreds if they had different motives. Multiple firings should happen.

  3. No crazier than a bunch of guys putting on Indian feathers, breaking into boats, and tossing tea chests overboard (hmmm... our American revolution had its genesis in actual destruction of property).

    And Rod, I'm still unclear how what Greenpeace did shows that terrorists could have killed hundreds of people. They didn't break into the visitor center and start swinging nunchuks; it appears they went backcountry, hid out behind the mountain, and then scaled the faces, where the only people they could rough up were the rangers who came to arrest them (and there were no fisticuffs, as far as I know). If I'm a terrorist looking to kill people, I'm not looking to sneak onto the mountain; I'm looking to sneak suicide bombs into the visitor center, and this security breach does not appear to be a test of whatever security measures are in place to prevent that threat.

  4. I think this demonstration was very effective and carried out with dignity.

  5. Last I checked, when the Black Hills was controlled by the Native Americans, Mount Rushmore was a rock, and would still be a rock if it were under Native American control, and this event would have never happened. And I would not be sitting here responding to an obviously left-wing blogger. I am a taxpayer, and I do not appreciate the government spending my money to handle situations like this. They have better things to do.

  6. Hang on, Steve: I'm a bit confused. It sounds like you're saying we all would have been better off if the federal government hadn't spent all that money on (a) guns and horses to seize this land from the Native Americans, (b) the grants that made Gutzon Borglum's grand sculpture possible, or (c) park rangers. Just leave the Black Hills in the possession of the Native Americans, and Greenpeace would have to stage their protests on some other popular landmark?

  7. If the activists really want to make an impression, they should visit the Taj Mahal and the Great Wall of China.


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