By Tom H. Hastings, Guest Columnist
I’m heading to court from my home in Portland, Oregon, to Missoula, Montana.
Leonard Higgins is going to go on trial in a Montana courtroom for his role in the Oct. 11, 2016, coordinated shutdown of several of the dirtiest tar sands oil pipelines that increasingly and dangerously traverse North America.
Leonard simply shut off a valve, turning off the Express pipeline in Montana, an act of supreme nonviolent symbolism because he and everyone involved knew that the pipeline company would open the valve quickly and get the filthy tar sands oil sludging along again.
Four other climate chaos resisters also shut down sections of tar sands oil pipelines in Washington, North Dakota, and Minnesota the same day. All either face trial or have gone to trial. For the most part, thus far, the courts have disallowed the necessity defense, that is, effectively eliminating the chance for the jury to hear why these resisters did their actions.
This means that, for the most part, they have been kangaroo courts, a travesty of the judicial system.
Another valve-turner, Michael Foster, a mental health counselor in his 50s from Seattle, went on trial in North Dakota and one of the charges — the only one the jury found him “Not Guilty” of — was reckless endangerment. The other charges resulted in convictions, and he faces a possible 21 years in prison. His sentencing will be held on Jan. 18, 2018.
He is sitting in the packed van across from me as we travel to Leonard’s trial. I ask him about the 210,000-gallon spill that just occurred in South Dakota from a part of the Keystone pipeline.
“Yeah, I don’t think I was the one engaging in reckless endangerment,” Michael says.
And, as in Michael’s case, the Montana judge has refused to allow the jury to hear the necessity defense, so we are going to hold a mock trial to at least share with anyone interested what we would have presented, had Leonard been allowed to receive a fair trial.
The necessity defense would allow the jury to hear that the pipeline is carrying highly polluting tar sands oil, that the climate catastrophes we are starting to see — more fires, larger fires, longer fire seasons, more hurricanes, worse hurricanes, longer hurricane seasons, rising seas — will intensify with the ongoing failure to transition now to clean renewable energy. The jury won’t be allowed to hear that the resisters had at least some reasonable expectation of a positive effect as a result of their actions.
Instead, the jury will only learn that the defendants did turn off the pipeline, however briefly. Since the resisters had others call the pipeline company a few minutes ahead of time to warn them, this is hardly in question. The resisters did not admit their actions; they claimed them.
Meanwhile, the tar sands oil are polluting our groundwater and contaminating our soil at every step, even as the Trump representatives in Bonn are the only rogues promoting the use of more fossil fuels. The entire world knows better. Only the U.S. is going out of its way to act with demonstrable reckless endangerment.
Dr. Tom H. Hastings, Ed.D., is the director of the PeaceVoice program at the Oregon Peace Institute, and assistant professor and co-coordinator of Portland State University’s conflict resolution program. Find him at www.pdx.edu/conflict-resolution/tom-hastings or at http://hastingsnonviolence.blogspot.com.