Right-wing myths about stolen elections and vaccine conspiracies will no doubt complicate many dinners today, as families gather to celebrate a holiday grounded in its own harmful mythology: Thanksgiving. Among liberals and leftists, there will be countless posts debunking the lies children are taught about the holiday in school. But on this day it is equally important to amplify the stories of Native people living today who, much like their ancestors, are battling world-crushing forces.
In the prosecution of Water Protectors who fought Line 3, we are witnessing a convergence of extractive forces that threaten all life and liberty on Earth. In this episode of “Movement Memos,” Water Protectors who resisted the construction of Line 3 talk about the campaign to drop the charges against them, what keeps them hopeful, and about what happens when fossil fuel companies fund the police.
Music by Son Monarcas and Ebb & Flod
Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.
Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about things you should know if you want to change the world. I’m your host, writer and organizer, Kelly Hayes. This week, as many people gather to celebrate Thanksgiving, hundreds of Water Protectors are facing charges, including serious felonies, for their efforts to halt construction of Line 3. For seven years, Indigenous people rallied against Line 3, warning that the pipeline would generate as much carbon pollution as 50 coal fired power plants, in addition to destroying sacred wild rice and threatening the drinking water of millions of people. In early October, the pipeline became fully operational, but the struggle continues. Today, we will hear from several Water Protectors who are still facing charges for their resistance to Line 3. We’re also going to talk about the larger implications of the extreme charges that some Protectors are facing. With Line 3, Enbridge is giving us a preview of Big Oil’s endgame in an era of catastrophe and collapse, where extractive companies offer police departments multi-million dollar infusions of cash in exchange for their role in brutally displacing land defenders and Water Protectors. The police have long played a violent role in facilitating fossil fuel extraction, but the already-brutal alignment between law enforcement and corporations is evolving into something even more dystopian.
After Line 3 became operational, in October, the struggle pivoted to Washington, D.C., with a historic week-long mobilization of Indigenous leaders, activists and allies that organizers dubbed “People vs. Fossil Fuels.” The week began with a rally outside the White House on Indigenous Peoples Day, where hundreds of attendees demanded that President Biden halt fossil fuel projects that are threatening Native communities “from Appalachia to Alaska.” 655 people were arrested during the week of action, which included a protest in which 50 Indigenous activists occupied the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the Department of Interior — a space Native activists have not attempted to hold in protest since 1972. Meanwhile, Indigenous communities on the Gulf Coast are pledging to resist downstream expansions of the Line 3 and Southern Access pipelines.
Some Water Protectors were unable to attend the actions in D.C. because they are currently facing felony charges that prevent them from traveling across state lines. On November 17, Line 3 defendants launched a campaign to drop all charges against people who were arrested while defending land and water during construction of Line 3, including the 80 Water Protectors currently facing felony charges. The campaign includes a petition aimed at Minnesota Governor Tim Walz and Attorney General Keith Ellison, which nearly 51,000 people have signed. The petition reads, in part:
Water protectors have endured police violence and other repressive tactics for exercising their first amendment right to protest and uphold treaties between the U.S. government and the Anishinaabeg. The police have used surveillance, harassment, physical torture (“pain compliance”) and made over 900 arrests…. Some water protectors are facing particularly escalated felony charges. These arbitrary and punitive charges are designed to deter water protectors from taking action, impinging on everyone’s right to free speech.
To get a better sense of what Water Protectors are up against legally, I spoke with Joshua Preston, an attorney who has been part of a coordinated effort to support and defend Line 3 arrestees.
Joshua Preston: My name is Joshua Preston. I’m a writer and attorney based in Minneapolis and I’ve been involved in the anti-Line 3 movements since January of this year.
I’ve had the opportunity to work with the National Lawyers Guild, with the Pipeline Legal Action Network and other organization to be part of a team of not only movement attorneys, but public defenders, legal workers, researchers, organizers, to really provide the best support we can, the best legal support we can, to those people who are out there every day doing everything they can to stop this pipeline. For as long as the anti-Line 3 movement’s been going on across Northern Minnesota, there has certainly been an escalation in the charges that Water Protectors are facing. I mean, in the beginning, you have the kind of charges that you’d expect from many protests, public nuisance, unlawful assembly, obstructing legal process. If there’s allegedly private property, maybe even trespassing.
What we’re seeing right now, and which is very, very unsettling, is that the state is beginning to leverage Minnesota’s trespass on critical utilities infrastructure law in spaces where it simply isn’t applicable. In Minnesota, we have a law that says if you trespass on a piece of critical utility infrastructure or a pipeline that’s moving resources, crude oil, natural gas, et cetera, then you can be charged with a gross misdemeanor crime.
The logic of this particular statute is that it’s a post-9/11 law meant to protect the state’s infrastructure so that if someone were to trespass on a facility that controls the electric grid for a part of Minnesota, that they’re not going to destroy it, cause harm that might have repercussions throughout the state.
That is a very different purpose than how the state is trying to use the statute right now. The state has been taking cases where Water Protectors have allegedly trespassed on construction sites and have made the argument that in fact, those construction sites were active pipelines just because there’s a piece of pipe that’s present because there’s construction equipment meant for constructing a pipeline or a pipeline pump station.
The difference between a misdemeanor trespass and a gross misdemeanor trespass is the difference between 90 days in jail and a thousand dollars or up to one year in jail and a $3,000 fine. It all comes down to statutory interpretation. There’s a particular line in the statute of pipeline equipment that is, “That is used to transport.” If you read the statute, it’s very clear that the legislature wrote this to apply to active pipelines, not to pipelines that are under construction. So far, almost across the board, if a Water Protector allegedly trespasses on a construction site, they’re being hit with this gross misdemeanor trespass. The two major charges that we’re seeing right now that are concerning is, one, the misapplication of this gross misdemeanor trespass statute.
Additionally, a very novel interpretation of the state’s theft statute, where people are locking themselves down to gates, maybe to a vehicle, to a piece of construction equipment. Maybe people are locking themselves to each other within a pipe that is not even placed in the ground yet, which is a pipe sitting on a particular easement that Enbridge has.
The state is looking at those situations and instead of just saying, “Oh, it’s trespass.” Or, “Oh, you’re obstructing legal process.” Or, “Oh, it’s an unlawful assembly.” They’re saying, “You’ve committed felony-level theft.” They’re using a very particular section in the state’s theft statute that applies to “indifference to the owner’s rights.”
And on the one hand, if it wasn’t so atrocious, you would want to applaud the state’s creativity. But what they’re doing is they’re bending over backwards to apply this statute in a way that’s just simply draconian. It’s not about the rule of law. It’s about the twisting of law to intimidate Water Protectors.
Fortunately, I can say that with this team of attorneys, legal workers, researchers that have been standing side by side with Water Protectors since the beginning to help them with their cases, I can say that as of yesterday, we’ve actually had a state district-level court dismiss a defendant’s felony-level theft charge for lack of probable cause.
This was the first time we’ve challenged this with a motion to dismiss. The court granted our motion and now the state has a few days to decide whether they’re going to appeal. This is exciting news. Actually, not everyone really knows about it yet and we just have to see what’s going to happen. Like I said, the state might appeal, in which case we’ll be there with the Water Protectors.
We will do everything we can to ensure that they don’t have to face a bogus charge like this, or alternatively maybe the state will do the right thing, is simply drop these felony charges across the board, but it all remains to be seen right now.
KH: The arrests of Water Protectors at Line 3 protests have often been brutal. Protesters were subjected to rubber bullets, chemical weapons, and pain compliance tactics that left some of them with facial paralysis. In June, gusts from a low-flying helicopter enveloped protesters in a cloud of sand and pelted them with debris. Police trained for more than a year to crack down on Water Protectors during the homestretch of pipeline construction. Law enforcement efforts were managed by the 16-county Northern Lights Task Force — a sheriffs’ group that coordinated policing around Line 3 construction efforts. From ‘field force’ trainings and helicopter and drone excursions, to overtime and mileage costs, agencies involved with the Northern Lights Task Force made the most of the multi-million dollar escrow fund Enbridge offered to fund the repression. Unlike the Standing Rock protests, which caught local officials off guard and cost Morton County, North Dakota, around $40 million, Enbridge turned Line 3 into a piggy bank for police. The escrow fund also created opportunities for enhanced, militarized training for local departments, who could then practice their new moves on Water Protectors. Pipeline Legal Action Network organizers told Truthout’s Candice Bernd that the felony charges Water Protectors face are a part of an organized effort across counties involved in the Northern Lights Task Force.
I recently spoke with Genna Mastellone, who is an organizer and legal worker within the broader Line 3 legal support network, via the Pipeline Legal Action Network, also known as PLAN. Genna had some thoughts about the nature of these charges and the importance of resisting them.
Genna Mastellone: So many of the Water Protectors and defendants who have been charged with a variety of things over the course of the past year, a lot of them have vowed to take their cases to trial knowing that there’s no way for these smaller Northern Minnesota offices to be able to prosecute this many cases to their fullest extent. As well, a recently released “Drop the Charges” petition and campaign…. (I can share a link, because the drop the charges campaign just dropped, so to speak.) Because so many of these charges are really ridiculous, especially a lot of these felony charges, which are…. It’s really clear that prosecutors are trying just to scare people and throw it all at the wall, and get people afraid of standing up for the water, and for participating in direct action, with threatening them with felonies, all of these young kids in their twenties, basically, facing felony charges for the crime of standing up for the water. So, just know that a lot of folks in the legal world, defendants and also lawyers, really are trying to push back against this oversight of prosecutors and these law enforcement who are really just trying to put fear in the hearts of young folks and Water Protectors.
KH: With Line 3 fully operational, and these cases moving forward, I really wanted to hear from some of the people who are facing these ridiculous charges. Sabine von Mering is an educator and a Water Protector who is facing a felony theft charge related to Line 3 resistance efforts and she had a few words to share about her journey and what’s at stake in these court cases.
Sabine von Mering: My name is Sabine von Mering and I grew up in Germany. I grew up on a tiny little island in the North Sea without cars, just horses and bicycles. And my dad was the only Lutheran pastor on the island and I played the church organ and sang in the chorus. And living on an island that, by the way, is threatened by sea level rise certainly was an early introduction to the climate issue even though as a child, of course, I didn’t know much about those things. But it’s in the back of my mind now.
And I’ve lived in the U.S. since 1992 and have become a very active member of 350 Mass, the climate organization here in Massachusetts. And I’m also part of the “No Coal No Gas” group that is fighting the last standing and active New England coal plant in Bow, New Hampshire. So, I very much identify now as a climate and Water Protector. And for over a decade I’ve been teaching a university-level course on climate, not as a scientist. I’m a humanist by training but I talk about climate change as a challenge to us as a human species. And so that’s very much what brings me to this struggle.
A few years ago after Standing Rock, Native American activists here in New England did a training, which they called “Promise to Protect.” And I participated in that training because I was really upset about what happened at Standing Rock. I wasn’t at Standing Rock but I certainly followed it from afar. And so when people at Line 3 in Northern Minnesota were facing the fact that the regulatory system had failed and they had to engage in civil disobedience to stop this pipeline, I felt called to go and help, and I did with a whole bunch of people whom I know from my activist work. That’s when we went up there in June of 2021.
I have to tell you the experience was transformative. I had never been to that part of the country and getting there and seeing this land that is just so breathtakingly beautiful. They call it, like, “The Land of the 10,000 Lakes,” I think. And that’s what it is: You see water everywhere and when you get out there and you walk around and it’s buzzing with life. I saw butterflies the size of my hand and dragonflies as many as I have never seen before. And sort of the sharp contrast between the life that I saw there and this machinery of the pipeline company and their threat to the wildlife and the wetlands and the rivers was just so stark. It really hit me and hasn’t left me since. I mean, this contrast of people literally fighting to protect the water and this Canadian oil company basically ignoring the people and of course as a person that has studied climate change, knowing that this tar sand pipeline is the worst kind of pipeline we can possibly put in the ground.
Not that any other pipeline is any better, but this is certainly the worst. And we’ll be producing greenhouse gases equal to 50 new coal fired power plants. The contrast between the life affirming prayer ceremonies of the Native folks up there, and this death machine that I saw like a weapon of mass destruction. I mean, it was so stark and so terrifying. And a few weeks later in my home native country, Germany, several villages were swept away by floods and several hundred people died. In the Boston area we have had to stay indoors this summer because of the smoke from the wildfires in the west [that] came over here. So, we’re literally experiencing collapse of the system and yet investing billions into further destruction.
And at the same time we have a president who claims to be a climate champion, and yet we can barely get some climate legislation passed. And we’re not in any way shape or form doing what needs to be done that is equal to the need.
And so I think what you’re seeing in this fight with Enbridge and Line 3 is sort of the last attempt of this system to continue to exist. But I think we’ve also clearly shown that people are absolutely tired of waiting for someone else to show up and do the right thing. We’re going to have to do it ourselves and we’re going to continue to fight. This fight isn’t over even though they claim that the pipeline is finished and the oil is flowing. This fight isn’t over, there’s thousands of people. There’s hundreds of us that are still with open cases. And we’re going to fight this because we need to. I’m a mother, I’m an aunt, I’m a university teacher. I see young people every single day who are depressed about the climate emergency, who are depressed about biodiversity crisis and extinction crisis. And we can’t sit by and hope that someone at the top has an understanding because clearly they don’t. So, I think people power is the only thing that can help us at this point.
KH: In August, a report released by Indigenous Environmental Network and Oil Change International found that Indigenous resistance has stopped or delayed greenhouse gas pollution equivalent to at least one-quarter of annual U.S. and Canadian emissions. U.S. and Canadian leaders have failed us, but Indigenous resistors have not. Peer-reviewed studies have indicated that Indigenous-managed lands around the world have far more biodiversity intact than other lands, even those set aside for conservation. In addition to holding knowledge and intentions that scientists agree are essential in this era of collapse, Indigenous people are also under extreme threat due to climate change. According to UNESCO, “For over 350 million indigenous peoples worldwide, climate change impacts are expected to be early and severe due to their location in high risk environments.” Indigenous leaders from around the world have denounced the recent Glasgow Deal at COP 26 as entrenching the mass sacrifice of Indigenous people.
According to the international human rights group Global Witness, 227 activists were killed last year for their grassroots environmental efforts. Indigenous communities make up about 5% of the world’s population, but accounted for more than a third of those killed. Our communities also steward about 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity.
In the United States, the criminalization of land defenders and Water Protectors is escalating. Native communities are being hit hard by climate change, tribal sovereignty is under attack, and we are now apparently entering a stage of climate conflict when projected Native resistance to extraction efforts will lead to the further infusion of corporate cash into local law enforcement. This is the context in which some Native Water Protectors who have resisted Line 3 now find themselves criminalized.
Members of the Giniw Collective have faced the gas, rubber bullets, hyper-surveillance and trumped up charges of a police state gassed up on oil money. During the struggle to stop Line 3, Giniw Collective members have trained over 1000 people in “non-violent direct action, decolonization, traditional knowledge and [living] life in balance.” Over the summer, I talked with a nanny who had left her job in Chicago to join the collective’s Namewag Camp in Minnesota, to join the frontline struggle to stop Line 3. When I asked her what it was like to live there, she said, “Living at Namewag shows us what a post-capitalist world could begin to look like, where labor is valued because it keeps our community safe, skilled up and fed from the land.”
I had plans to talk with a couple of Giniw members for this episode, but their work has kept them moving between resistance camps where internet access is shaky at best. So collective members Siihasin and Tara Houska recorded some messages for me to share with you all.
Siihasin: Hello, my name is Siihasin and I am from the Navajo Nation. I’m Diné and Mescalero Apache, from the Black Mesa region of Dinétah. I am feeling really grateful and humbled to be a part of the circles that I am in, and to have been able to meet so many amazing Water Protectors and land defenders through this struggle. It’s also been a very heartbreaking experience to fight a system that continues to take so much from Indigenous peoples, and from mother earth, and all of the different communities that are impacted by the system. As somebody who is also facing alleged charges from the state, I feel like there is a lot of reasons why people took the actions that they did to try and stop this pipeline. And that it’s important for people to understand that the people on the ground did everything that they could to end the extraction, to bring awareness to the impacts of man camps, to the missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit struggle. And ultimately to the territories and the life that would be impacted by the extraction. I think that people can show solidarity by continuing to show support for the land defenders and Water Protectors that’ll continue to battle the state through the court systems. So that can look like showing support to front liners, who are trying to find lawyers and get their legal fees paid for. That also looks like showing support for people who are advocating for the abolition of prisons and for the ending of incarceration. And ultimately tying the struggle that we have had as Water Protectors in this fight against Line 3, Line 93, to the struggles that are happening across the world around extraction, as to our borders where children are being held in concentration camps. These are all one in the same. Systems and structures of violence. And for people to be in solidarity for me, it means that they come into our spaces correct. And by correct, I mean, understanding the ways in which our struggles are connected.
Tara Houska: Boozhoo, my name is Tara Houska. I will touch on enduring memories about policing. Having engaged in different frontline, struggle, and advocacy over the years, one thing I was really shocked by, that didn’t seem to reach even within our own climate movement, nearly as far as I thought it should is the fact that police in Minnesota, who were being reimbursed by a foreign national called Enbridge, engaged in torture tactics, on unarmed people defending the water. And it just did not seem to reach even the people that we call allies in struggle in the way that I thought it would; that there was not an outcry of “how is this happening to these people?” It should be a moment in the history of climate justice in the United States and Canada, that something so violent and horrific happened to people standing up for life.
In holding hope for the future, and I guess, also lessons learned in struggle, I would say one thing that has been a source of hope and of strength, in a time that is very difficult, which is knowing that Enbridge is poisoning our rivers, and that so many of us face charges in court systems that are heavily skewed towards industry and injustice, has been that so many people, even those who were physically harmed by police engaging in brutality at levels I’ve never seen an environmental resistance in this continent continue to stand strong and be in community with each other and still embracing each other with love and with kindness, having gone through so much.
When I see Water Protectors who have been through so much standing with each other and still standing strong for their values and refusing to bow to the state, refusing to let Enbridge get away with what it did, in the sense that they continue to call this out, they continue to say “stop Line 3,” they continue to push back against politicians that allowed such an egregious thing to happen in Indigenous territory, and continue to now show up in other frontline struggles and stand up for the Earth, that gives me so much hope. And it’s something that I saw throughout the course of this resistance here in Anishinaabe and Dakota territory, which is people that are standing up for the earth with love in their hearts and know that we are fighting to survive. Miigwech.
KH: Another arrestee I spoke with was a homeschooling mother of three named Cheryl Barnds. Cheryl got involved with the Line 3 struggle through “Stop the Money Pipeline,” which is a campaign that targets the financial sector’s support of the climate crisis. During our conversation, Cheryl reflected on her role as a white woman supporting Indigenous struggle, and I want to share what she had to say about that.
Cheryl Barnds: So I went through this period where I knew that my lifestyle was at the expense of other people, but I didn’t understand how that worked. I really didn’t know. And now that I know, it’s hard to believe I didn’t understand it, but there are sacrifice zones in this country where all of the yucky stuff and all the toxins and the industry that makes our lives comfortable, makes my life comfortable, all these things are dumped into what are determined to be sacrificable places where sacrificable people live and sacrificable land and water. And it’s just decided that it’s okay for some people to have this type of lifestyle, other people can suffer and die horrible deaths, and their children can grow up unable to breathe without taking inhalers four times a day, like in Cancer Alley. And somehow it’s so well done with the PR around this, that it’s invisible. And I’m really embarrassed to admit I’m in my 50s and I didn’t know. I didn’t know.
So once I learned and finally knew how it worked, I absolutely felt responsible, guilty and responsible for doing everything I can to fix it, to uproot the system that is based on racism and based on some people being worthy of things like drinkable water, breathable air, fresh produce, and heated housing with running water. A lot of things that we take for granted, some folks in this country don’t have those things, a lot of people. And it’s because some people are taking from other people, basically.
KH: If you’re wondering what you can do to support Water Protectors who are currently facing charges for resisting Line 3, Joshua Preston had a few words to offer about that — and about why these legal battles are so damn important.
JP: I think it’s important for people to recognize that there are two parts to the anti-Line 3 movement. We’ve had Water Protectors on the ground, doing everything they can to protect our waters, fight climate change, defend the treaty rights of our Indigenous neighbors, but there’s also a legal movement happening.
It’s about standing up for those who are putting their life and liberty on the line, and also, working to keep both prosecutors and police in check. This matters, because not only is the whole world watching what’s going on in Northern Minnesota, but so too are the energy companies and other prosecutors’ offices all around the country.
If they can see based on what’s happening in Hubbard County, Cass County, Aitkin, Pennington, elsewhere, if they see that prosecutors can get away with warped interpretations and applications of the law and face no resistance for it, then you can bet that what is right now a legal novelty, is in two years’ time going to be the legal reality. And so we need to be very mindful of that. This is also a legal movement. Right now we’ve been very lucky that the courts have allowed Water Protectors to make many of their pretrial hearings virtually through Zoom, but the truth is that this may not last forever. A lot of these virtual hearings are just a consequence of the fact that we’re still living in a pandemic.
Although defendants under the rules of criminal procedure might be able to waive their appearances for certain in-person hearings, that may not be the case for folks facing gross misdemeanor or felony charges. It certainly won’t be the case for those who decide to take their case to trial.
Because this is a nationwide and even a global movement, not every Water Protector is going to have the means to make it to trial. Yet, no one, no one should be in the position where they can’t exercise their constitutional rights just because they can’t afford a plane ticket, just because they can’t afford a night in a hotel so they can be present for their hearings.
No one should be pressured to accept an unfavorable plea deal for that same reason, especially when sometimes taking a plea means years of probation or a thousand dollar fine, if not more, if it’s a gross misdemeanor. For those who want to support Water Protectors facing charges, I would recommend them to check out the Line 3 Legal Defense Fund.
The money that you donate to that particular organization doesn’t go to attorneys, so no one like myself is getting any money from the Line 3 Legal Defense Fund. It’s going strictly to Water Protectors, for transportation, sometimes for bail, to making sure that folks who want to stay in the fight can afford to stay in the fight.
KH: I agree that these legal battles are crucial. I think we need a lot more attention on these cases, and on the way Enbridge funded the police repression that preceded these charges. Solidarity is needed and there are some dystopian corporate police state dynamics at work that must be understood — and fought. There is a convergence in the extraction of the Earth’s remaining fossil fuels resources and the extraction of time from the lives of land defenders and Water Protectors, by way of criminalization and the prison industrial complex.
In her essay Abolition Geography and the Problem of Innocence, Ruth Wilson Gilmore wrote:
Today’s prisons are extractive. What does that mean? It means prisons enable money to move because of the enforced inactivity of people locked in them. It means people extracted from communities, and people returned to communities but not entitled to be of them, enable the circulation of money on rapid cycles. What’s extracted from the extracted is the resource of life—time. If we think about this dynamic through the politics of scale, understanding bodies as places, then criminalization transforms individuals into tiny territories primed for the extractive activity to unfold—extracting and extracting again time from the territory of selves. This opens up a hole in life, furthering, perhaps to our surprise, the annihilation of space by time.
We must rally behind criminalized Water Protectors and against violent systems of extraction — including the carceral state. In the fight against Enbridge, and in the company’s financial relationship with law enforcement, and the draconian charges we are seeing deployed against Water Protectors, we are seeing an extractive vision of the future. We are also seeing the dynamics of capitalism, settler colonialism and the carceral state laid bare. We all have choices to make about whether we will accept a future created on these terms, or if we will fight for something else. There are already people dying, so that we all might live. There are already people who are faced with the extraction of time, via the prison system, for their efforts to preserve this world. So while this weekend is a time of gratitude for some, and mourning for others, I hope we can all embrace this as a moment when we need solidarity, above all. I hope we can support those who have already made great sacrifices, and who are currently at risk, and that we can move forward together in resistance, to heal and protect this world, and each other.
If you want to sign the petition to drop all charges against Water Protectors or check out other resources related to the struggle, you can check out the show notes of this episode on our website at truthout.org. I want to extend my warmest thanks to the Water Protectors, attorneys and legal workers who spoke with me for this episode. I am holding you all in my heart today and I am grateful for your struggle.
I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today. And remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.
- You can sign the petition to drop all charges related to Line 3 resistance efforts here.
- You can donate to the Line 3 Defense Fund here.
- You can follow the Giniw Collective on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.