Backbone takes center stage in response to current affairs

On Saturday, the Backbone Campaign led an effort to create a human mural of an orca at Lisabeula Park, honoring the southern resident orca who carried her newborn calf for 17 days after it died earlier this month.

The Backbone’s orca mural came a week after the organization made headlines in the region and beyond for taking in the “Trump Baby,” a protest balloon depicting the president as an unruly infant wielding a cell phone. The group, which is headquartered on Vashon and works to advance progressive causes, is no stranger to methods of translating the current zeitgeist into calls for change. But on Saturday, the focus was on saving the orcas.

“Because of our inattention and willingness to put profit over community values, the salmon populations here are plummeting,” said Joseph Bogaard, executive director of Save Our Wild Salmon, to an audience of 100 or so lying on the sand in the shape of an orca. “And we’ve seen that reflected, of course, in the dramatic and heartbreaking decline of orca in the Salish Sea, the southern residents.”

Bogaard explained the importance of chinook salmon, which migrate from the Columbia River to the ocean and sustain the southern resident orcas along the coast. The salmon’s decline jeopardizes the already struggling whales, which face other adversities, such as pollution and loss of habitat. Bogaard also mentioned J-35, the 20-year-old orca named Tahlequah, who gave birth to the malnourished calf that soon died. Her actions, likened by some to a mourning procession, captured onlookers and epitomized the predicament of the southern residents. In the last three years, no other southern resident orca has been born alive.

“It’s heartbreaking, but what she did, something that no amount of our activity could do just by virtue of who she is and what she did and everyone who saw it — she’s created a moment, and she’s put on heartbreaking display exactly what’s happening with the orcas,” Bogaard said.

Islander Anne Moses, who took part in a similar mural led by the Backbone Campaign nearly a decade ago celebrating the defeat of Glacier Northwest’s plans to expand its gravel mine on Maury Island, was back again to join Saturday’s demonstration.

“I want to be part of the solution, part of getting the word out,” she said. “I think it’s important that we make a planet for all species, not just humans, so that’s why I want to be here.”

Her friend Joanne Jewell agreed. She said it was unimaginable that children today might grow up in a world without the orcas.

“It’s so tragic, what’s happening,” she said. “That could happen.”

Jewell was encouraged by the crowd that attended, dismayed by the situation as she was, but equally motivated to help spread awareness.

“This kind of gathering really makes me see that these people are really invested, too, and really want to make a change,” she said.

This month, following J-35’s actions, conservation groups filed a joint lawsuit against the Trump Administration, arguing that officials at the National Marine Fisheries Services have ignored their duty to facilitate plans already in place that would further protect the orcas and restore habitat.

The Trump Administration is also a target of the Backbone Campaign. Inspired by the coordinators who launched the seminal Trump Baby balloon over London in response to the president’s visit there last month, the campaign serendipitously came to acquire a replica of the original after a Washington man fundraised to have one brought to the state.

Bill Pope, a lawyer and advocate of environmental causes based in the Methow Valley, contacted the Backbone Campaign once he and several motivated donors raised the $4,500 needed to purchase their own Trump Baby balloon, identical to the one flown in the UK to protest the arrival of the president. He told The Seattle Times that “lots of people were motivated” to give.

Bill Moyer, executive director of the Backbone Campaign, said that their partnership is a testament to the organization’s history of using humor to promote their objectives.

“We are thrilled to have this image,” he said. “This sort of thing fits right in with that part of the work that we do.”

In the past, the Backbone Campaign has led demonstrations in cities across the United States, from Seattle to San Diego, Chicago, and Washington D.C. This year alone, volunteers have marched against the construction of oil pipelines, rallied for tenant rights and against the National Rifle Association. They have projected messages cast in light across the facades of buildings, such as calling on Jeff Bezos of Amazon to drop his fight against a head tax that would have been used to combat homelessness. Another message displayed in Brooklyn, New York, addressed the increasing division of wealth, saying “Fight poverty, not the poor.” The Backbone Campaign has targeted ICE detention facilities in Portland, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Texas; back home, members have defended net neutrality in the street and hung banners across overpasses to spread awareness about the threatened chinook salmon and the escalating plight of orca whales in Puget Sound.

Moyer said that the organization is attempting to raise $10,000 for the “Baby Trump Action Fund,” which would support the cost of inflating it with helium and for assembling a team to deploy it “in various contexts.” In the interest of resourcefulness, he is considering ideas that would help get the balloon into the air while using as little helium as possible, one of which is lifting it by combining the balloon with other symbols such as an inflatable Trident missile.

“Saul Alinsky said, ‘A good tactic is one your people enjoy,’” said Moyer. “People in our network are attracted to particular causes and particular tactics, and so it may appeal to some and not to others.”

Moyer said the intention of the balloon is to educate and engage citizens as well as to rouse those who are politically apathetic to “come out of the woodwork and help take actions.”

“As an organization, it’s our job to give them the tools they need to be effective and safe and to get them closer to having as maximum an impact as they can,” he said.

Donations to the Trump Baby Action Fund currently total over $3,000, but Moyer said the larger impact the organization stands to make outweighs the cost.

“We see a great value of being able to effectively reach hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people, with a relatively inexpensive action,” he said. “Even if we spend $5,000 on a particular action, if you reach 100,000 or a million people, that’s a hell of a good bargain. People spend a lot more money than that to reach far fewer people.”

At the moment, there is no plan for a specific occasion to debut the balloon — that time will come once the Backbone Campaign assesses the potential setting for its launch and how visible the balloon would be. Speaking broadly, Moyer said that while the Trump Baby has a purpose as an image, the roots of any worthwhile social movement are fiercely independent of any political party.

“The greatest leverage that any of us have is to shift the culture. If we shift culture, we shift politics,” he said.

Moyer added that opportunities to use the balloon will depend on the organization’s ability to balance ongoing projects, a task he said the Backbone Campaign will be able to manage. But it is not an option, he said, to compromise efforts focusing on regional issues, such as attending to the southern resident orcas.

“We need to make sure we have the capacity not to shortchange things that we all love and want to protect by getting pulled into the national politics of demagoguery and bullying,” he said.

More information about the Backbone Campaign’s Trump Baby blimp is available online at