'Overt Bastardization of the Truth': Valve Turner Listed as 'Extremist' by U.S. Government Faces Upcoming Trial
The valve turners recently listed by Homeland Security as "extremists" believe their action of shutting down 15 percent of the daily U.S. oil supply on Oct. 11, 2016 was their only option of fighting the climate crisis.
Valve turner Ken Ward of Climate Direct Action is going to trial this spring for the third time. He is charged with burglary and sabotage. EcoWatch teamed up with Ward and his attorney Lauren Regan, the executive director and co-founder of Civil Liberties Defense Center, on EcoWatch Live to share what this trial means for climate activists and why the U.S. government is listing some of these peaceful activists alongside mass murderers and white supremacists.
Watch the interview here:
"In a fairly short period of time, after making some phone calls to pipeline companies, we broke in to enclosures, cut some chains, closed what are called safety block valves and closed down all five pipelines that carry tar sands oil from Canada into the U.S.," Ward said of the October 2016 direct action. It "might count as the most significant thing I've ever done on climate."
Ward, who has been working in energy policy since 1978, including a variety of strategic approaches to climate change says "what sociologists and political scientists are demonstrating is that faced with this kind of situation, faced with an intractable political environment, where powerful industries have billions to spend ... the single most effective thing that you can do is do engage in nonviolent direct action."
Five members of Climate Direct Action are seen before a coordinated effort to turn off valves on a pipeline in four states. Climate Direct Action
In mid January, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security listed these valve turners as "suspected environmental rights extremists" and "domestic terrorists." What does this listing mean for climate activists?
Regan is not surprised by this "rhetorical" listing.
"The far right and the fossil fuel industry are spending about $30 billion in a media campaign, basically a smear campaign. It's one of the last-ditch efforts to try and persuade Americans that their gross profits are worth more than clean water and a healthy planet," Regan says. "As they're gasping for their last profiteering breaths, they are pulling out all of the dirty tricks that those types of profiteering industries have used historically."
Such listings seem to have no relevance for climate activists, as those who engage in direct action are aware of risks such as being arrested and potentially facing serious consequences.
Regan points to "the overt bastardization of the truth or manipulation of reality by those industries." It's an attempt to "frame nonviolent civil disobedience as the same type of action as Nazis who murdered humans or anti-choice zealots that murder abortion doctors. I think normal humans with thinking brains see the incredible difference between those scenarios. It really exposes the desperation of the industry in my opinion."
Ward mentions the "immense privilege" he has to engage in direct action here in the U.S. "Most people doing this around the world are getting killed or going to prison for long periods of time," he says. "The costs are so low compared to that."
Because Ward is engaged in climate action, he doesn't have "a certain amount of existential dread." He'd doing what he can. "I encourage everybody to think of what you could do," because we're out of time he says.
In the upcoming trial, Regan is defending Ward on the grounds of the climate necessity defense, something Ward was not permitted to offer in his first or second trial which both landed in a hung jury. Although Ward finished his sentence after the second trial, he chose to appeal anyway on the basis that he wasn't allowed to use the only defense he had.
Regan outlines where they are in the process:
A defendant pursuant to the Sixth Amendment is entitled to assert defenses and have jurors who are the fact finders in trials determine whether or not the defense actually passed muster. The Washington Court of Appeals ruled in our favor and affirmed the right of a defendant to use the climate necessity defense.
The state then appealed up to the Washington Supreme Court. The Washington Supreme Court ruled in our favor and again affirmed the right to a climate necessity defense, thereby creating Washington state precedent for future activists to be able to use.
Since that time there has been one other climate activist that was prosecuted since our appellate victory and the state did not even attempt to hinder their right to use the defense at trial.
So now we will move forward with the ability to put on expert witnesses and to be able to argue to the jury that when you are balancing the harms of cutting a lock and temporarily shutting a block valve compared to the serious and imminent harms of the climate crisis, sea level rise, forest fires and everything else that is going on in terms of harm from climate change, when you balance those two things clearly the scales tip in favor of engaging in direct action to avert the catastrophic impacts of climate change.
When EcoWatch asks how a victory in Ward's upcoming case would be good news for climate activists, Regan says "it's already good news for climate activists." For example, in Minnesota, where valve turners have also been granted the right to use the necessity defense, climate activists will be able to use it to argue a case to fight the Line 3 pipeline.
Regan stresses the importance of the upcoming trial: "It will be the first time that 12 jurors will be given all of the evidence and information to actually do that weighting and that balancing," Regan says, while realizing that it's a "big ask" for the public to justify a crime for the greater good.
"We've been really trained that when the state tells you that something is a crime that you're supposed to think it's bad and you're supposed to punish them," Regan says. "In light of all of the broken systems of democracy right now in our country, more and more people are coming to the realization that we may have to fight for our own lives and not rely on global policies and the fossil fuels corruption of the democratic processes."
This trial will find out whether Americans who are not necessarily engaged in climate activism, the jurors, will agree that nonviolent direct action is justified in the face of the climate crisis, in what Regan says, will be a first.
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Internal documents from the Department of Homeland Security reveal that non-violent demonstrators targeting the oil industry were classified as "extremists," with some organization members listed alongside known white supremacists, as The Guardian reported.
Five members of Climate Direct Action — Michael Foster, Ken Ward, Emily Johnston, Annette Klapstein, and Leonard Higgins — have been dubbed the Valve Turners after a coordinated effort on Oct. 11, 2016 to cut through fencing and turn off valves on a pipeline in four states. The pipeline carried crude oil from Canada's tar sands to refineries.
The activists alerted the oil companies of their actions, filmed it and waited patiently for authorities to arrive and arrest them, as The Guardian reported. For a few hours, the oil stopped flowing. Those pipelines carried 15 percent of the daily U.S. oil consumption in 2016.
Chargers for three of them were dropped, but Michael Foster, who turned a valve in North Dakota, spent six months in jail and is now on probation. During his trial, prosecutors compared him to the 9/11 terrorists and the Unabomber, according to Common Dreams.
Michael Foster pictured with his partner and fellow activist Sue Lenander shortly after being released from a six month prison sentence. Shut it Down - Climate Direct Action
More recently, the Department of Homeland Security described the Valve Turners as "suspected environmental rights extremists." The Guardian reported that the document, which evaluated domestic terrorism threats from 2018 to 2020, also categorized the group alongside Dylan Roof, the white supremacists who murdered nine people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina and James Fields, who plowed his car into a group of people protesting a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Fields killed Heather Heyer and injured 19 others.
"Equating mass murder by white supremacists with what Michael and I did is totally obscene," said Sam Jessup, one of the activists named in the documents, in an email to The Guardian. "This whole infrastructure of so-called security has done little more than secure the future of the fossil fuel industry by terrorizing people into silence."
Jessup, 34, was the driver and videographer live-streaming the action in North Dakota while Michael Foster, a former family therapist who lives in Seattle, turned the valve. Foster is the defendant who spent six months in jail.
Mike German, a former FBI agent and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice, wrote an email to The Guardian stating that Homeland Security's framing was "highly misleading because white supremacists are responsible for the bulk of this violence and almost all of the fatalities that result. There is little that environmentalists have engaged in the types of deadly violence that would meet the statutory definition of domestic terrorism, as codified by Congress."
Emily Johnston and Annette Klapstein seen bolt cutting. Shut it Down - Climate Direct Action
The labeling of environmental groups with extremists is mirrored in Britain as well where the activist group Extinction Rebellion was labeled in a document by Counter Terrorism Policing South East alongside banned far-right organizations like National Action and Islamic terrorist organizations, according to the Telegraph.
Extinction Rebellion, which uses non-violent disruptions to business as usual to call attention to the urgency of the climate crisis had a similar reaction as the Valve Turners. They were shocked and appalled.
"How dare they," said climate change group Extinction Rebellion, as the BBC reported.
A spokesperson for Extinction Rebellion said, "Teachers, grandparents, nurses have been trying their best with loving non-violence to get politicians and big business to do something about the dire state of our planet. And this is how the establishment responds," according to the BBC.
Speaking about the Homeland Security document, Carl Williams, executive director of the Water Protector Legal Collective, which has defended Dakota Access Pipeline protestors said to The Guardian, "I think there is a strategy that rightwing forces are using to criminalize dissent. This bulletin shows that dirty hand."
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Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.