Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

I Committed Civil Disobedience by Blocking Oil Trains in Portland, Oregon — and Won

Insights + Opinion
YouTube

By Jan Zuckerman

A few weeks ago, I showed the world that I am not a criminal, despite having been arrested and charged with first-degree criminal trespass. In a five to one vote, a Multnomah County, Oregon, jury refused to convict me and four fellow activists in our historic trial for blocking tar sands oil trains entering Portland.


A week later, the Multnomah County District Attorney dismissed our case. The dismissal offers an implicit admission that with consciousness of the climate crisis growing every day, prosecutors here would not be able to secure a conviction of people who engage in civil disobedience on behalf of the planet.

Here's the background to this victory. Last April, on Easter Sunday morning, along with other members of Extinction Rebellion, I helped build a garden on the railroad tracks at the Zenith Energy Export Terminal, blocking the processing of trains carrying tar sands crude oil for export. As I sat on the tracks with my friends that day, I thought about my grandchildren's future, a future that has been made uncertain by the existential threat of the climate crisis. Thirty-four hours later we were arrested by Portland Police and charged with criminal trespass in the second degree.

A week later, we came back and did it again. This time, the police charged us with criminal trespass in the first degree.

Five of us pled not guilty "by reason of necessity." With the help of our legal team and the Civil Liberties Defense Center, we presented a "choice of evils" defense to a jury.

The first hint that the prosecution was going to have trouble convicting us came during the voir dire portion of jury selection. In questioning, each of the 35 prospective jurors acknowledged that climate change is real, is human-caused, and is serious. Several members of the jury pool said that they would be unable to convict anyone for civil disobedience on behalf of the planet.

Once our jury was seated, we argued that we were obliged to break the law in an effort to prevent the greater evil of climate catastrophe. The judge allowed three days of extensive testimony from the five defendants, along with expert witnesses. Jury deliberation took almost a full day, at the end of which, the jury announced it was deadlocked, and the judge declared a mistrial. Later we learned that five members of the six-person jury voted for acquittal.

Actions like ours are the only tactic that we — everyday people — have left to address the climate crisis. We have lobbied our elected officials, organized demonstrations, and supported litigation, all to no avail. Even our few wins have turned out to be short-lived.

We worked tirelessly to push the city of Portland to adopt a ban on the creation or expansion of new fossil fuel infrastructure within city limits. This organizing was victorious when, in 2016, Portland's city council adopted the Fossil Fuel Terminal Zoning Amendments. But the fossil fuel industry has continued to challenge the law and expand in our city. And using an old construction permit, Zenith Energy flouts community sentiment and the city's intent and has almost quadrupled its capacity, from 12 to 44 rail cars at a time.

To make things worse, much of the crude oil that Zenith processes is Alberta tar sands oil, perhaps the most dangerous and dirtiest fossil fuel on the planet. In 2018, Zenith "flipped" an old, run-down site and increased crude oil exports from a value of $2,532 a year to $71 million in 2018. Portlanders were outraged, yet city officials claimed they could not stop this expansion.

In the face of this grave injustice, we must ask ourselves, who are the real criminals here? Me — a mother, grandmother, and retired teacher, who sat on railroad tracks? Or Zenith Energy, the Texas corporation subverting our local democracy and putting our city and climate at risk?

In 2019, 9,167 rail cars came to Zenith, according to the Oregon Department of Transportation. That's more than three times the 2,836 cars that came in 2018. With an industry standard of 90-100 oil-filled cars per train, that's more than 90 trains a year — almost two per week. And with each train carrying as much as 70,000 barrels of oil, that amounts to 6.3 million barrels of crude oil a year. Consumption of that oil is the equivalent of 2.7 million metric tons of carbon dioxide spewing into our atmosphere, the same as 583,000-plus cars driving for over a year. And that is just from combustion, without accounting for the much larger emissions from tar sands oil or its full life cycle. To me and my co-defendants, Zenith's contributions to the climate crisis are a crime against humanity.

If we want to ensure a future for our children and grandchildren, companies like Zenith must be stopped.

The strategy of mass civil disobedience is the most effective tactic that we can use. When all legal methods of change have been tried and proven ineffective — a mass movement of non-cooperation that shuts down business-as-usual is the only choice that we have left.

I used to tell my kids: "When you are in a hole, the best thing to do is to stop digging." Yet, it seems that our leaders are unwilling or unable to drop the shovel. It has fallen upon us to tear that shovel from their hands.

I urge you to join us.

Jan Zuckerman taught elementary and middle school in Portland, Oregon for 30 years, and now works with Extinction Rebellion and the Portland Public Schools Climate Justice Committee.

Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.

With restaurants and supermarkets becoming less viable options during the pandemic, there has been a growth in demand and supply of local food. Baker County Tourism Travel Baker County / Flickr

By Robin Scher

Beyond the questions surrounding the availability, effectiveness and safety of a vaccine, the COVID-19 pandemic has led us to question where our food is coming from and whether we will have enough.

Read More Show Less

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Tearing through the crowded streets of Philadelphia, an electric car and a gas-powered car sought to win a heated race. One that mimicked how cars are actually used. The cars had to stop at stoplights, wait for pedestrians to cross the street, and swerve in and out of the hundreds of horse-drawn buggies. That's right, horse-drawn buggies. Because this race took place in 1908. It wanted to settle once and for all which car was the superior urban vehicle. Although the gas-powered car was more powerful, the electric car was more versatile. As the cars passed over the finish line, the defeat was stunning. The 1908 Studebaker electric car won by 10 minutes. If in 1908, the electric car was clearly the better form of transportation, why don't we drive them now? Today, I'm going to answer that question by diving into the history of electric cars and what I discovered may surprise you.

Read More Show Less

Trending

A technician inspects a bitcoin mining operation at Bitfarms in Saint Hyacinthe, Quebec on March 19, 2018. LARS HAGBERG / AFP via Getty Images

As bitcoin's fortunes and prominence rise, so do concerns about its environmental impact.

Read More Show Less
OR-93 traveled hundreds of miles from Oregon to California. Austin Smith Jr. / Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs / California Department of Fish and Wildlife

An Oregon-born wolf named OR-93 has sparked conservation hopes with a historic journey into California.

Read More Show Less
A plume of exhaust extends from the Mitchell Power Station, a coal-fired power plant built along the Monongahela River, 20 miles southwest of Pittsburgh, on Sept. 24, 2013 in New Eagle, Pennsylvania. The plant, owned by FirstEnergy, was retired the following month. Jeff Swensen / Getty Images

By David Drake and Jeffrey York

The Research Brief is a short take about interesting academic work.

The Big Idea

People often point to plunging natural gas prices as the reason U.S. coal-fired power plants have been shutting down at a faster pace in recent years. However, new research shows two other forces had a much larger effect: federal regulation and a well-funded activist campaign that launched in 2011 with the goal of ending coal power.

Read More Show Less