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“Valve Turner” Case a Mistrial, but Also a Warning for Direct Action Activists

Criminal sabotage was one of the charges for Ken Ward.

Ken Ward was bound for court to face two felony charges and the prospect of a 20-year prison sentence, but he sounded calm and determined. He hadn’t always been so composed. “I was actually depressed for a couple weeks, at least,” he said of when his charges were first handed down. Then he began to prepare. “I went on a six-day silent retreat to practice meditation. I’ve been running and lifting weights. I’ve changed my diet. I’ve reduced my reliance on medications and caffeine, all of which is in preparation to be jailed.”

Ward was charged with burglary and sabotage for temporarily shutting off a Kinder Morgan oil pipeline near Burlington, Washington, and he wasn’t contesting the charges. “There is no question about what I did,” he said in a public statement after his arraignment. “The only question is whether what I did was an appropriate and practical response to what President Obama recently described as terrifying climate change conditions.”

On Oct. 11, Ward and fellow activists in Minnesota, Montana, and North Dakota shut down pipelines carrying tar sands oil into the United States. The orchestrated action earned them the nickname the “Valve Turners,” and was described by Reuters as “the biggest coordinated move on US energy infrastructure ever undertaken by environmental protesters.” Ward’s trial, which began last month, was the first for the five activists who had a direct hand in turning valves. Several others, including media members who were present only to document the action, also face charges.

Ward cut two chains to stop the flow of oil through Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline. He was initially charged with trespass, burglary, assemblage of saboteurs, and criminal sabotage. That this last charge — a rarely invoked law drafted to quell labor protests in the early 20th century — was dusted off for this case may be an ominous sign of the times and a harbinger of the inclemency future activists should expect in this new era.

To date, conservative legislators in 10 states, including Washington, are considering new laws that would chill protest. Proposed legislation ranges from attempts to stifle free speech, as seen in North Carolina Sen. Dan Bishop’s bid to make heckling politicians a crime, to laws that would excuse violence, like the proposal under consideration in North Dakota that would protect motorists who inadvertently run over protesters blocking roads and highways. These proposals sprouted during the Standing Rock protests that grew to challenge authorities through autumn and early winter. Now, in a season of mass activism following President Trump’s inauguration, anti-protest bills are spreading across the country.

With government and law enforcement preoccupied with quashing dissent, environmentalists are identifying legal tools to address the risks imposed by continued greenhouse gas emissions. Ward had hoped to argue the necessity defense, which seeks to justify breaking a law in order to prevent a greater harm, like climate change. “I believe that it is the obligation of every thinking person to find a way to stave off climate cataclysm, and there is no effective, legal alternative to personal direct action,” Ward said after his arraignment. But Judge Michael E. Rickert ruled out the use of the defense, saying of climate change, “I know that there’s tremendous controversy over the fact whether it even exists.”

This resistance to scientific fact is, in part, what pushed Ward, a 60-year-old father and former deputy director of Greenpeace USA, to direct action. During his testimony, he described a report published in 1997 that changed his notion of what was necessary to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

“My thinking up until that point,” he said, “was that people who were working to avert the worst of climate change would be able to do so through the normal procedures and processes available to us, which includes supporting international treaties … engaging in public education, lobbying our state and federal legislators, and occasionally going to court. … That report showed that the scale of the change that we were facing would be very difficult to achieve through those processes.”

For four years as a stay-at-home-dad after his son Eli was born, Ward studied scientific articles on climate change. The facts had an emotional impact. “While I was doing this research, I had a toddler running around the household and it focused my thinking about the importance of the decisions we make now and what meaning they will have for the future,” he said.

In 2013, his climate activism led him in a new direction, to nonviolent direct action based on spiritual faith as well as political conviction. Ward and his friend Jay O’Hara bought a small boat, named it after Henry David Thoreau, and set it in the path of a freighter hauling 40,000 tons of coal to a Massachusetts power plant. “The Lobster Boat Blockade” had a dramatic and surprisingly positive effect on District Attorney Sam Sutter, who agreed the climate crisis was a dire threat to public safety and reduced the pair’s charges. Public discussion of climate change jumped forward a notch or two, and attention focused on the Brayton Point Power Plant, a major carbon offender that is now scheduled for closure.

Successes like this have shown that direct action can effectively turn public opinion and political will. “I think it’s somewhat mysterious,” Ward said, “but history shows that at times when only a very small minority of people have a sense of what’s wrong and what needs to be done, when they use direct action, when they put their bodies on the line, it sometimes works.”

There were no organized protests outside the courthouse during Ward’s three-day trial, but at his request, supporters from various faith traditions were present in the courtroom, and every day started with silent prayer and meditation. That’s in keeping with the aims of the Climate Disobedience Center, which Ward co-founded with O’Hara, Marla Marcum, and Tim DeChristopher. “Our conscious aim is to support direct actions with a distinct spiritual aspect,” he said of the center. “To win, we need to do this in ways that make a sharp distinction between evil systems and institutions and people — people we are trying to be loving toward.”

It is beginning to look like Ken Ward knows a thing or two about winning over allies. On Wednesday, after five hours of deliberation over two days, the Skagit County jury in Ward’s trial was hung, with at least one juror refusing to convict. The judge declared a mistrial, an unexpected development that was greeted as a victory by Ward and his supporters. A Feb. 9 hearing has been scheduled to determine whether there will be a retrial.

It’s no secret that a majority of American voters were dismayed by Trump’s inauguration. But there has also been a surge of involvement in progressive movements to defend essential rights and programs that have come under attack. Still, a few days before his trial, Ward warned: “Given what we know about a whole slew of immediate political problems, it’s going to be very easy for everyone to forget about climate, or to add it to a really long list, because the other concerns are so immediate.”

To address the significance of the environmental threat we all face, Ward said, the next election will need to focus on climate change. “I know this is a minority view, but if we fail to address climate change, nothing else we do will matter in the long run.”

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