Climate activists turn to civil disobedience at the risk of serving prison time.
The climate activists arrested after shutting down Canada-to-U.S. pipelines, from left: Emily Johnston, Annette Klapstein, Leonard Higgins, Ken Ward, and Michael Foster. (Courtesy Climate Direct Action)
For Leonard Higgins and Michael Foster, climate change is scarier than prison.
Dubbed the “valve turners,” Higgins and Foster participated in the coordinated, simultaneous—and illegal—shutdown of five transborder pipelines in October 2016. They are two of the five civil disobedient activists who temporarily halted the flow of all tar-sands oil entering the United States.
Foster, 53, shut down the pipeline entering North Dakota. A former mental health counselor who regularly attends University Unitarian Church in Seattle, Washington, Foster felt a mismatch in counseling kids and families in “how to be well-
adjusted in an increasingly pathological world.”
He turned to environmental education, but it wasn’t enough.
“In between the mental health career and shutting down the pipeline were three years of activism: organizing kids, planting trees, suing the government—meaningful things that were not gaining traction,” explains Foster. He decided that civil disobedience was the obvious next step.
“It’s about walking the talk, living the emergency, and being a first responder to everything to come,” he says. “As time continues to tick by, most people will recognize that this is the only reasonable response.”
Foster was found guilty of multiple felony and misdemeanor charges and was sentenced to three years, two of which are suspended. He is now serving time in the Missouri River Correctional Center and will not be up for parole until the summer.
“Since the Shut-It-Down action,” Foster recalls, “UUs have offered me pulpits and given me the opportunity to share the message of climate emergency—a message I’ve heard more from UUs than any other faith group.”
Foster is grateful to UUs, who have also donated funds to assist in paying for his defense.
UU fellowships continue to hold fundraisers for the valve turners, including Leonard Higgins’s congregation, the UU Fellowship of Corvallis, Oregon.
Higgins, 66, is also grateful for his UU connections. He and fellow UU climate activists took training in nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience. He points to the “red candle of courage” ceremony bestowed on him by the congregation as a powerful spiritual experience and message of love and support, held just prior to his trial for being the valve turner who shut down the tar sands entering Montana.
Convicted of misdemeanor trespass and felony criminal mischief, Higgins arrived at his sentencing hearing fully prepared to go to prison, just as Foster had done six weeks earlier. Standing before the judge in rural Montana, Higgins spoke: “My hope is that more and more of us . . . will see and feel the emergency and pull together to demand immediate changes to reduce our carbon emissions and the other responses needed to avoid the worst.”
Then came his sentence: three years imprisonment, but all three deferred. Although Higgins is on probation, he does not have to serve time.
‘Nonviolent civil disobedience . . . is the only activist’s tool that has a chance to change public perception, public and government policy, quickly enough to save us from the worst impacts of climate change,” says Higgins. “We are out of time and crossing unrecoverable tipping points.”
Before they shut down the pipelines, all valve turners called the authorities. After the oil stopped flowing, they waited to be arrested. All requested jury trials. Three have been tried and convicted, including Foster and Higgins. All have been found guilty, but so far only Foster is serving time.
“We meant to challenge the system that was meant to protect life and liberty . . . (a)nd the corporate property and trespass laws that undermine life and liberty,” says Foster.
Both Foster and Higgins are appealing their sentences. The main issue on appeal: neither judge allowed the valve turners to present a “necessity defense.” The rulings denied Foster and Higgins the opportunity to explain their deep motivations—and the underlying science—that indeed makes them more frightened of climate change than prison time.
For a necessity defense to be admissible, defendants have to meet a specific set of conditions, including that they were “faced with a choice of evils and chose the lesser evil” and had no legal alternatives to violating the law.
However, in what could be a big step forward for climate-change activists, the necessity defense will be allowed in the trial of the last two valve turners, set for this summer in Minnesota. One of them, Emily Johnston, has brought her message to even more UUs, last year recounting her climate wake-up journey at the pulpit of Northlake UU Church in Kirkland, Washington.
Unlike Higgins’s and Foster’s trials, Johnston and her co-defendant, Annette Klapstein, will be allowed to give testimony as to why their actions are necessary and justified to prevent climate harm, and why climate change is much worse than trespassing or interfering with the pipelines.
Possibly the biggest game changer: climate-change experts will be able to submit hard evidence on the science behind the valve turners’ actions.
In March, a judge acknowledged the necessity defense for the record and found thirteen protesters “not responsible” after they were arrested for demonstrating against the construction of a natural gas pipeline running through Boston’s West Roxbury neighborhood. At the eleventh hour, the prosecution reduced the charges from criminal to civil, barring a jury from hearing evidence of why the heating of our planet is a crisis, and avoiding the inevitable media coverage.
One of the defendants, UU and climate-change activist Tim DeChristopher, who co-founded the Climate Disobedience Center, explained to the judge why people such as himself and the valve turners end up breaking the law: “The power of the fossil fuel industry over our government is so extensive that there was nothing that could be done . . . which is why we were driven to engage in civil disobedience.”
Valve turner Michael Foster has no regrets and views his time behind bars as one for reflection. “Being in prison is a time for me to unwind,” says Foster. “(I can) get clear spiritually, get clear emotionally, and allow my mind to consider what needs doing now.”
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Alexandra Varney McDonald is a freelance journalist and unaffiliated UU living in Hull, Massachusetts, with her husband and three children.
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