These Activists Say Sabotaging Pipelines Is Legally Justified Because Humanity Hangs in the Balance

A landmark trial will test the argument that civil disobedience is needed for the greater good.

Jessica Corbett

Environmentalists have long pointed out that "there is no planet B." This week, two climate activists will argue in court that this urgency provides a legal justification for civil disobedience. (Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images)

This arti­cle orig­i­nal­ly appeared in Com­mon Dreams.

"We cannot work through our political system, because its values are nothing but profit."

Three activists whose land­mark tri­al is set to begin in Min­neso­ta state court on Mon­day for their 2016 mul­ti-state #ShutIt­Down action—which tem­porar­i­ly dis­abled all tar sands pipelines cross­ing the U.S.-Canada bor­der — will argue the action was nec­es­sary because of the threat that fos­sil fuels pose to the planet.

Reject­ing a chal­lenge from state pros­e­cu­tors in April, an appeals court ruled that the valve turn­ers” can present a neces­si­ty defense“ — and bring in top cli­mate experts to tes­ti­fy. In June, the Min­neso­ta Supreme Court denied pros­e­cu­tors’ peti­tion to appeal that ruling.

The neces­si­ty defense is a plea that, yes tech­ni­cal­ly we com­mit­ted a crime, but we did it to pre­vent a greater harm,” explained Annette Klap­stein, a retired attor­ney from the Seat­tle area and one of the valve turn­ers on trial.

We can­not work through our polit­i­cal sys­tem, because its val­ues are noth­ing but prof­it,” she told The Nation. We live in an oli­garchy, not a democracy.”

It’s very much in the inter­est of the cap­i­tal­ist polit­i­cal sys­tem to make us feel pow­er­less, to make us feel that we can’t do any­thing,” she added, but ulti­mate­ly, they can­not win if we do not con­sent. If we real­ly with­draw our con­sent, if we real­ly go out there and sit down in front of the machine, even­tu­al­ly they can no longer oper­ate it. And at this point, that is our only option.”

Klap­stein and Emi­ly Nes­bitt John­ston are fac­ing felony charges under Min­neso­ta law for shut­ting down Enbridge Ener­gy’s Line 4 and Line 67. While Ben­jamin Jold­er­s­ma, who assist­ed them, also faces charges in the case, the state has dropped tres­pass­ing charges against video­g­ra­ph­er Steve Liptay.

The Nation reports that Prince­ton polit­i­cal sci­en­tist Mar­tin Gilens and Har­vard Law School’s Lawrence Lessig are among the expert wit­ness­es slat­ed to tes­ti­fy. Dr. James Hansen, a for­mer NASA sci­en­tist who has been called the father of mod­ern cli­mate change aware­ness,” and 350​.org co-founder Bill McK­ibben will also tes­ti­fy in case, accord­ing to the activist group Cli­mate Direct Action.

These peo­ple deserve our respect and sup­port,” McK­ibben said on Twit­ter about the valve turn­ers in Min­neso­ta on Friday.

This will be the first of the valve turn­er cas­es where those on tri­al can present a neces­si­ty defense, as judges in three states have barred fel­low activists from doing so. In Wash­ing­ton, Ken Ward was found guilty of sec­ond degree bur­glary after his first tri­al end­ed with a hung jury. The judge used a first-time offend­er waiv­er” to sen­tence him to two days in jail, which was ful­filled by time in cus­tody after he was arrest­ed for the 2016 action.

In North Dako­ta, Michael Fos­ter was con­vict­ed of two felonies and a mis­de­meanor, and sen­tenced to three years in prison, though he only served six months and was released in August. Sam Jes­sup, who livestreamed Fos­ter’s action, was con­vict­ed of a felony and a mis­de­meanor, and received a two-year deferred sen­tence with super­vised pro­ba­tion. In Mon­tana, Leonard Hig­gins was found guilty of a felony and mis­de­meanor. He received a three-year deferred sentence.

Jes­si­ca Cor­bett, a for­mer In These Times intern, is a Maine-based staff writer at Com­mon Dreams. Fol­low her on Twit­ter at @corbett_jessica.
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