Climate change | Energy | Environment

Seattle Climate Activists Get Confrontational In Trump Era


"Direct action" trainers Alec Connon (L) and Ximena Velazquez-Arenas (R).

"Direct action" trainers Alec Connon (L) and Ximena Velazquez-Arenas (R).

John Ryan/KUOW

Environmentalists concerned that lobbying and polite marches have failed to weaken America’s reliance on fossil fuels have started turning to more confrontational approaches.

Climate activists with the group 350 Seattle say 2,000 people from the Seattle area have signed a “pledge of resistance” to participate in civil disobedience on behalf of the global climate.

While civil disobedience is nothing new, even for climate activists, 350 Seattle organizers said interest in it has ballooned since the election of President Donald Trump.

Ranks of resisters pledged to support civil disobedience on behalf of the climate have nearly tripled since November.

Thousands of people peacefully marched in the streets of Seattle on Saturday to support climate research – and science in general. Some of the Seattleites trying a more confrontational approach to climate change gathered on Sunday to learn how to put their bodies on the line, even if it means getting arrested.

Annette Klapstein of Seattle cuts a chain on an Enbridge oil pipeline in Minnesota in October 2016.

Annette Klapstein of Seattle cuts a chain on an Enbridge oil pipeline in Minnesota in October 2016.

Credit still from video by Steve Liptay

These activists call what they do civil disobedience or “nonviolent direct action.” Prosecutors have called recent actions “sabotage” and “criminal damage to property of critical public service facilities.”

Those are two of the charges that a team of activists is facing after coordinated attempts in October to shut off pipelines in Minnesota, Montana, North Dakota and Washington.

Northwest activists face felony charges

In rural Minnesota, about 50 miles south of the Canadian border, retired attorney Annette Klapstein and 350 Seattle activist Emily Johnson, both of Seattle, took a bolt cutter to a thick steel chain on the morning of Oct. 11. The chain fell away from a large, wheel-shaped valve on an Enbridge Inc. pipeline carrying heavy Canadian oil.

The self-proclaimed “valve turners” wanted to interrupt the flow of tar sands oil from Alberta. Burning that oil is incompatible with maintaining a livable world climate, according to energy modelers at University College London.

After phoning the pipeline companies to let them know what they were doing, they shut the valves and waited to be arrested.

“We shut down all of the major tar sands pipelines coming from Canada into the U.S., and it was all Northwest activists who did it,” Klapstein told KUOW.

Those activists are now facing felony charges in four states.

“If somebody doesn’t stop the fossil fuel companies, quite frankly, civilization will collapse,” Klapstein said. “I mean, agriculture will fail if we have massively unpredictable weather, and we’re already well on our way there.”

The World Health Organization has estimated that 240,000 people a year will die from heat exposure, malnutrition and other maladies caused or exacerbated by climate change by the year 2030. 

Michael Barnes, a spokesperson for Enbridge, declined KUOW’s request for an interview. “Unlawfully breaking into our facility and then attempting to turn the valves to stop the flow of oil was dangerous and reckless,” a statement he emailed reads. “The groups involved in this event claim to be protecting the environment, but their actions alone are inviting an environmental incident.”

“These pipelines aren’t meant to be turned on and off by activists or really anybody but people that know this infrastructure very well,” energy analyst Sarp Ozkan with Drillinginfo said. “Going out to a pipe and turning some knobs around to stop flow for a matter of hours seems more like a prank than anything else, but it is detrimental and it’s also dangerous.”

The Denver-based analyst said the anti-pipeline activism could boost the cost of transporting oil from Alberta — one of the activists’ stated goals — but also the danger of doing so, by diverting oil to trains or trucks.

Klapstein, an activist her entire adult life, has been arrested blocking a pipeline and oil-train tracks – both times during the Obama administration. With the Trump administration working to dismantle much of the U.S. government’s response to climate change, she said such actions are more important than ever.

“It’s clear to me that there is no government that is beginning to address the gravity of the crisis that we are already in,” she said. “Under our current political system, there simply is no way to legally address it.”

A growing number of people in Seattle appear to agree.

Trainers demonstrate "lockboxes" designed to make it hard for police to remove activists from a blockade.

Trainers demonstrate "lockboxes" designed to make it hard for police to remove activists from a blockade.

John Ryan/KUOW

Human blockades

“For this exercise I need at least a half-dozen volunteers who are okay with a little bit of physical contact, and a little bit of argy bargy,” 350 Seattle organizer Alec Connon asked a roomful of activist-trainees on Sunday in his Scottish brogue. “Is that a word that you use here?”

Trainers from 350 Seattle and the Neighborhood Action Coalition were showing about 50 people how to do sit-ins and form human blockades.

“Could you all sit on the ground, facing one another in a circle?” Connon asked.

A half-dozen volunteers tried out different ways of forming a physical united front: holding hands, linking elbows, standing in a line, among others.

“Every blockade has pros and cons,” Connon said.

Activist-trainees form a "caterpillar" blockade, intended to be difficult for police to break up.

Activist-trainees form a "caterpillar" blockade, intended to be difficult for police to break up.

John Ryan/KUOW

“When you’re thinking about actions, you’ll have to think about the scouting ahead of time, what the space looks like, what the entryways or exit ways are and what the visuals will be,” Ximena Velazquez-Arenas with the Neighborhood Action Coalition said.

Volunteers stuffed their arms into modified PVC tubes called lockboxes, designed to force police to use power tools to separate protesters from each other.

One blockade called the caterpillar – a line of people sitting almost in each other’s laps with arms and legs intertwined – led to awkward body contact and laughter among the volunteers trying it. Even so, Velazquez-Arenas told the group a real-life blockade can be stressful and scary.

“Frankly, getting arrested sucks,” she said. “You don’t want to get arrested, [though] sometimes, it’s a necessary action.”

Most of the people in the room had pledged that they were willing to risk arrest.

“It definitely does make me feel nervous,” Rebecca Deutsch of Seattle said.

Climate activist-trainee Rebecca Deutsch of Seattle.

Climate activist-trainee Rebecca Deutsch of Seattle.

John Ryan/KUOW

Deutsch doesn’t have to worry about losing her job if she winds up in jail: As the founder of a startup, she’s self-employed.

“I’m in a fortunate position,” she said. “I want to use those privileges that I have to put myself out there.”

“We’re not on a good path – if anything, we’re going in the absolute wrong direction,” Deutsch said. “We have to do something different. We’re already out of time on the climate.”

The workshop crowd was a mix of ages, from millennials to retirees.

Ramona Lawson of Bremerton said she’s willing to break the law to give her children a safe climate:

“To agree to be arrested is ironic,” she said. “My children now text me, ‘stay safe’.”

While the pipeline and arrests last October were in remote rural locations, the protesters are now gearing up for urban confrontations.

Together with tribal activists, they plan to shut down 15 JPMorgan Chase bank branches across Seattle on May 8 unless the bank agrees not to invest in the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to Nebraska or any other new oil pipelines.

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