Activists take over Apple store in S.F. to push renewable energy

SAN FRANCISCO — At 11:10 a.m. on the dot, a squad of fresh-faced environmental activists bearing ominous black balloons sashayed into Apple’s flagship store on Union Square.

Some were dressed like members of a hipster, black-clad cleaning crew. Others plastered outsize decals on the minimalist retail establishment’s windows. And anyone taking an Apple device for a test drive Tuesday morning was automatically routed to a Greenpeace website.

The store takeover — carried out in sync with actions in New York and Toronto — was part of a global Greenpeace campaign to get technology giants to switch to renewable sources of energy for powering the electricity-hungry information cloud.

Protests like this take months of meticulous planning. And on Monday night, about 30 Bay Area activists gathered in a chilly Greenpeace warehouse in San Francisco’s industrial Dog Patch neighborhood to get their final marching orders.

Dinner was vegan and served on compostable paper plates. The printed materials were recyclable, union-made and locally sourced. Transportation to the mid-morning action in the center of this traffic-clogged, construction-choked city would be by van pool.

And the main message about how to behave while trying to change the world? Be polite.

After all, it worked for the zombies.

At least that was Greenpeace staffer Basil Tsimoyianis’ analysis as he clicked through an array of “reconnaissance photos” of the Apple store used to help plan the protest. Among them was a shot of Zombie Day, when the store was invaded by 200 wanna-be walking dead — a blood-smearing, otherworldly flash mob.

There were no arrests, Tsimoyianis said. In fact, the Apple crew laughed at the spectacle. “Hopefully, they’ll be pretty friendly tomorrow,” he said.

Understanding their target’s tolerance for chaos was only part of the equation.

How to make a surprise entrance with nearly three dozen people and 400 balloons was also on tap Monday night. Tsimoyianis flashed a Google map on a warehouse wall and pointed out the route: from the drop-off point on Market Street, down into the BART station to traverse a block or so underground and then out of a subway exit hard by the Apple door. Surprise!

“We have to be like clockwork,” Tsimoyianis instructed. “Walk with a purpose. There’s no running.”

And what if the Apple crew weren’t friendly on arrival? There were lessons for that too.

“The main exit strategy? When we’re told to leave, we’re leaving,” Tsimoyianis continued. “Read their eyes.... Sometimes security is very hard to read. Their job is to deal with us and get us to leave. But if they put their hand on you, there’s no judgment call. Leave.”

Greenpeace activists had already created a faux Apple home page with a fake iCloud video and the headline, “Apple’s iCloud relies on coal. Help them clean up their act.”

To make sure that as many devices displayed the message as possible, about a dozen activists were charged Monday night with going from gadget to gadget in the Apple store and clicking on to

Others got cleaning crew costumes, squeegees and brooms.

A group was designated as civilians to trouble-shoot and stage manage. Others would tweet, photograph and take video of the event — mostly using their own iPhones.

And that, Casey Harrell told the activists-in-training, was the point: The activists are Apple product lovers too. Tsimoyianis projected the slide-show on the warehouse wall using a MacBook Pro. Harrell, a Greenpeace IT analyst, was packing his own slender, beloved Apple laptop.

“Who here uses an Apple product, an Amazon product or a Microsoft product or service?” Harrell asked — naming the three tech companies Greenpeace most wants to nudge toward what the group sees as better environmental behavior. He paused to count the raised hands. “That’s everyone here.

“This is about making these companies champions,” Harrell said. “We’re trying to build them up, not tear them down. We’ve got some companies — Google and Facebook and Yahoo — leading the way. These are the companies we want to bring up.

“That’s why we’re going to Apple tomorrow.”

Last week, two Greenpeace members rappelled down the side of an Amazon building under construction and hung a banner that asked: “Amazon, Microsoft, how clean is your cloud?”

The stunt coincided with the release of a controversial report that rated technology giants on how they power their massive data servers, where customers store music, videos, photos and other files.

“Three of the largest IT companies building their business around the cloud — Amazon, Apple and Microsoft — are all rapidly expanding without adequate regard to source of electricity, and rely heavily on dirty energy to power their clouds,” the report said.

Greenpeace has dinged Apple in particular for having a North Carolina data center that it said uses 100 megawatts of electricity — enough to power 75,000 to 80,000 homes — and is largely coal-powered. It also gives Apple poor marks for transparency and infrastructure siting.

Apple has disputed Greenpeace’s claims and called its own environmental efforts “industry-leading.”

“Our data center in North Carolina will draw about 20 megawatts at full capacity, and we are on track to supply more than 60% of that power on site from renewable sources including a solar farm and fuel cell installation which will each be the largest of their kind in the country,” Apple spokeswoman Kristin Huguet said in a statement.

On Tuesday, the Greenpeace campaigners swept, wiped and politely proselytized in the downtown San Francisco store for about 30 minutes before they were — equally politely — shown the door by company staffers.

Greenpeace “cleaner” David Pinsky, 28, to shopper: “We want to clean Apple’s cloud, powered by dirty coal.... I’m from Virginia originally, one of the areas very impacted by these data centers, deeply impacted by coal.”

Apple manager Sven to Greenpeace protester: “We appreciate how cool you guys have been, but we’d like you to go outside.”

Customer Freddy Gandeza’s assessment of the protest?

“They’re trying to clean up the energy supply that Apple is using and go to a different power source, which is a good thing. But I gave them a hard time about their Mylar balloons. Not environmentally correct.”