University of Vermont

University Communications

Rappelling Lincoln's Head: Grad Arrested in Rushmore Protest

Release Date: 07-21-2009

Author: Joshua E. Brown
Phone: 802/656-3039 Fax: (802) 656-3203

Protest and Mount Rushmore

"When you have the best climate scientists in the world all on the same page now, laying out a road map and stressing the urgency for action, it's a shame that we're sitting here doing nothing," says recent grad and Greenpeace activist Basil Tsimoyianis, who helped unfurl this banner on July 8 at Mount Rushmore. The goal of the demonstration: urge President Obama to act on campaign promises to confront climate change.

On the morning of July 8, Basil Tsimoyianis '09 and ten other Greenpeace activists stood near Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota. At the base of the narrow staircase that leads to the path above the gigantic sculpture of four revered U.S. presidents, they stopped. Six people chained themselves across the entrance, blocking the way.

Five others, including Tsimoyianis, continued up, laden with ropes and a 65-foot-long banner that showed a black-and-white image of Barack Obama overwritten, "America Honors Leaders, Not Politicians. Stop Global Warming."

Their illegal mission: drape the banner down the carved cliff, momentarily installing a fifth face on the wall, cast in fabric. Their goal: draw the world's attention to the complaint of Greenpeace and several other environmental groups that President Obama is not living up to his campaign promises to confront climate change.

Tsimoyianis is no stranger to public controversy. Last year, he was the leader of a student group on campus that placed toilets outside the Davis Center and waged a year-long campaign of "direct actions," he calls them, to protest UVM's purchase of toilet paper from Kimberly-Clark. The students contended that the company uses rapacious forestry techniques to make paper from old-growth forests. In September of 2008, UVM dropped Kimberly-Clark as its supplier and signed a new contract to purchase "green certified" toilet paper and paper towels.

UVM Today reached Tsimoyianis several days after he had been released from a jail cell in Rapid City, S.D. He was working in the Greenpeace equipment room in Landover, Md., and preparing for his October trial on federal trespassing charges. I wanted to ask him about his role in the protest and hear what it was like to dangle in the stony gaze of Abraham Lincoln, as the wind begins to blow hard.

UVM TODAY: When you got to the top, was anyone there?

TSIMOYIANIS: Nobody, so we simply skirted around to the heads. The most challenging part was that we brought a lot of rock climbing gear because we weren't sure if there were going to be bolts.

None of us had ever been to the top of Mount Rushmore, so we had no idea how long it would take to set up. The blockade team was there to buy us time and to greet whoever was coming up to let them know that this was a nonviolent protest and that we weren't there to damage the monument.

The National Park Service had a safety line across the top already so we able to go off the bolts they already had up. We had the ropes ready in less than five minutes. Everyone was ready to go in fifteen minutes. If there was no wind, I'm sure we could have had the banner dropped extremely fast.

But an updraft began to hit the mountain. Once we began to rappel over the edge and pull out the banner, the wind caught and opened the banner too early.

I watched this on a YouTube video. Are you visible in this footage?

Yeah, I'm on the top left in the white helmet.

One guy on the bottom of the banner seemed to be getting really blown around.

He got picked up like a paraglider. The banner is sailing material.

As they were pushing the banner out, it popped the tape that was supposed to hold it in place until the climbers were ready to unroll it and it became like a sail. That's when I stopped taking pictures and rappelled down to help.

Where were you rappelling?

Right over Lincoln's forehead.

It's surreal. When you're rappelling down, the spaces are so large that you don't even realize that you're on the president's forehead. It's like any other rock face, except that it's blown. But then you look down and catch some huge feature, like the nose or the eye — or when you look to the left you suddenly see Teddy Roosevelt!

How long did it take to finally get it deployed?

I guess it was about a half-hour full-on battle with everyone doing what they could. Greenpeace was running it live online.

At one point, the banner completely shifted to the right and we had to move it to the left. There was this sense of urgency in the radio communications that this might not work. It was the key moment. We had done so much work. It would be awful if it didn't happen. We worked really fast, but it was weirdly calm.

How long did you wait until park staff arrived?

We got done just in time. They probably got there within 5 or 10 minutes.

What was that interaction like?

Some of them didn't say too much, but there was one ranger who was really angry. Everyone else acted professionally, but he was furious. He called us terrorists.

I wore an American flag on the back of my shirt that day and a few other people on the team did and at one point he just ripped them off our backs. That was the only time I got angry and said to him, "I'm an American too. We're all Americans." And he said, "Terrorists don't wear flags." I was like, "how is this terrorism at all?"

We dropped a banner over a rock with a message. It was peaceful. It was a direct demonstration that people were able to hear about.

Even though we got arrested and face criminal charges, we're willing to take the consequences for our actions. I feel like what we do is meant to benefit society and push us in the right direction.

I can see why the park rangers were angry; it's their park to protect. But I also spoke with one officer who said he was a Greenpeace supporter, even if he didn't always support our tactics.

Talk to me about your motives for doing this.

It's a really urgent time in our history, particularly in the U.S. A lot of people are tiptoeing around the issue of climate change.

Look at the Waxman-Markey bill. It's one of the first pieces of climate legislation we've had in this country and it's been completely watered down by industry interests without a basis in science. And where's Obama?

When you have the best climate scientists in the world all on the same page now, laying out a road map and stressing the urgency for action, it's a shame that we're sitting here doing nothing. We have the tools and knowledge. It's a question of whether we rise to the challenge.

I'm 22 years old. It's hard for me to phone Obama directly at the White House. But it's time to call Obama out to do what he promised.

This demonstration allowed me to use my climbing skills to do something directly on that.

Many would argue that Obama is working hard on climate change and it's the Congress and the fossil fuel industry that are the problem. Why attack Obama instead of them?

Congress could step it up too, but Obama is our president and leader and he needs to take a stronger stand. He also has the tools to take advantage of legislation that is already enacted right now, like the Clean Air Act.

On the campaign trail I supported Obama and he promised to be a leader on climate change and environment. Instead he has been playing it safe.

There is a tradition of non-violent protest in the U.S. that can be traced back through Martin Luther King and Henry Thoreau. How do you position the work that Greenpeace is doing in history?

Greenpeace, since 1971, has followed in that tradition, recognizing where strategic civil disobedience and non-violent direct action can achieve great things — as it has in the past. But I think it's different, too, though, because we're all part of ecological systems. We're not just fighting for ourselves or our group.

It seems like Greenpeace has professionalized this kind of protest, complete with logistics centers. Marches in Washington are now an industry with paid consultants. Have these kinds of protests lost their grassroots authority?

We are driven by the grassroots. These larger "professional" actions — as you put them — multiply that effort. The grassroots are there, even if we didn't do these big actions. They just draw attention to the issues and give energy to people on the ground and in field offices.

How did your mother react to all this?

She tells me, "When are you going to start staying on the ground?" But in the end, she was proud.

The fact that I did environmental campaign work at UVM helps. My parents don't see me as someone who goes to do this just for the jollies.