Tens of thousands of protestors took to the streets of New York City this week to protest the systemic funding of fossil fuels. As they marched in declaration of the climate emergency and in demand of oil and gas divestment, one unconventional character made a regular appearance — the orca whale.
Teddy Ogborn, a member of the Planet Over Profit (POP) activist group that has proliferated the mammal’s image, told Hyperallergic that the idea emerged this spring. The group was ramping up actions and looking for a visual means to encapsulate what Ogborn described as young people’s despair over capitalism-driven climate destruction.
Meanwhile, orca whales were making headlines for sinking yachts in the Mediterranean. The attacks prompted proclamations that the sea creatures were “orcanizing” to fight back against the humans that destroyed their habitats.
This summer, POP and New York Communities for Change staged a series of actions in the Hamptons, which POP brought to a wide audience of young viewers through careful documentation on TikTok. Those protests centered locales including a golf course and restaurant and featured activists dressed as killer whales. Last week, the group picketed — with multiple members dressed in orca costumes — outside the Video Music Awards in Nashville in protest of private jets.
“Online, people really latched onto that as a symbol of nature defending itself,” said Ogborn. “We figured that would be a really great thing to incorporate into our imagery and our messaging — to bring these orcas onto land with us.”
The group brought the sea creature’s image to the recent Climate Week demonstrations in New York as well. The string of actions, including a September 15 protest at the Museum of Modern Art in which 16 people were arrested, corresponded with the United Nations Climate Summit (which President Joe Biden did not attend). In separate instances this week, one POP protestor was arrested while wearing a full-body orca costume, and another while wearing a killer whale hat.
“These orcas have started fighting back against the one percent and have started teaching each other how to do it — basically organizing and creating solidarity across these pods of orcas,” Elliot Richardson, the protestor arrested in costume, told Hyperallergic.
Richardson was detained on Monday, September 18, when she was one of a number of protestors blocking the doors to the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in Lower Manhattan to denounce fossil-fuel financing. Ogborn said 148 people were arrested in total.
Richardson was handed an orca costume when she arrived at the action. “I frantically shimmied into it. I couldn’t really see what was going on,” Richardson said, noting that the toothy top section covered her face.
She met the other activists at the bank’s doors. “We were linking arms, but I didn’t have any free hands,” said Richardson, who was among the first to be arrested.
“[The police] struggled to find my hands a little bit when they were putting handcuffs on me,” she added, referring to the physical constraints of the outfit.
The activist was taken to 1 Police Plaza (the New York Police Department headquarters) in costume and said the long line of other protestors waiting to be processed started cheering. She was released a few hours later with a court summons.
“Many people within this movement recognize that so-called law enforcement is there to protect property, to protect the state, to protect corporate interests,” Ogborn said of Richardson’s arrest. “We’re sort of completing this narrative arc, or adding an interesting note to it, by having an orca move from destroying yachts of rich people to now being on land being arrested by cops,” Ogborn said.
During the rainy hours-long arrest process, Richardson said the orca costume was a consistent source of comfort during a “brutal experience.”
“The action has a pretty heavy topic — our world is being destroyed,” the activist explained. “I think it was a source of joy and levity and brought some fun into the movement, which I think is such an important part of getting people to stay engaged.”
Richardson also spoke to POP’s consistent tactic of staging disruptions at locations frequented by the ultra-wealthy, including spots in the Hamptons and Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
“We’re making it unpleasant to be a climate criminal in a way that hasn’t necessarily been true before,” she said.