As many of you know, we’ve been following the Valve Turner Trials since their Direct Action on October 11, 2016. The last of the first round trials happened near our place this past week. It was a whirlwind of excitement, surprise, happiness, and disappointment.
On the way home from the first day of trial last Monday I was overcome with feelings of concern. I knew the jury pool was weak and worried that NO ONE on the jury would have a clear understanding of Climate Change. With the judge ruling that none of the expert witnesses could testify to Climate Change or Civil Disobedience (because “everyone understands” them), and with all but two jurors in the pool saying they did not think it was okay to break the law for moral reasons, I knew it would be an uphill battle. And I knew that most of those people were lying to themselves and everyone else. Who hasn’t broken the speed limit because they had to get to church on time?
Seriously, I was fretting. It seemed the ability of the defense attorneys to prove our case was being shredded. But as I drove south on County 2 toward home, an eagle flew across the road just as I was approaching. I looked at that eagle and remembered a story a friend told me recently when she was talking about being nervous about an upcoming action. She said that an eagle had flown in front of the car as they were heading to the action and she remembered many Indigenous telling her, “If you see an eagle, you know the Ancestors are with you,” so she relaxed and felt like all would be well.
So I saw this eagle and felt a bit better. But I also knew that we see eagles often up here. So there was still some doubt. That evening, as I wrote a reply to Mom’s comment that my blog last week made her proud and happy, I burst into tears. I was suddenly overwhelmed by the emotion I was feeling for her and it was like a dam burst and my entire being just succumbed to the terrible feelings of fear for our trial, for our children, for our community of beings, for our planet. I thought about the IPCC report that was just issued that day basically giving us a dozen years until we reach a tragic, unrecoverable situation with regard to climate change. I thought about the Valve Turners and their words on how urgent this crisis is. I thought about how many people are doing nothing, except maybe holding the pedal to the floor burning through fossil fuels without thought or consideration. I just sobbed and sobbed.
Dan said to me, “Are you all right?” I replied moaning through tears with a towel held to my face, “Nooooo!” He said, “Don’t forget…” And this was a moment. I wailed, “I know, I know! The asteroid!!” You see Dan keeps saying, “Just think, any moment, an asteroid could hit the planet and it’s game over!” Sometimes he adds on, “Splat!” And he’s been doing this for a while so now it’s basically to a point where he just says “Splat” and it’s all clear.
I managed to stop crying and work on the pots of soup for Wednesday’s party and watched some TV to take my mind from it – numbing behavior is sometimes the only way to deal with the pain. And in the morning, I resolved to be calm, to keep my head in a book, to just watch the process as calmly as I could. And as I drove to the trial that morning, as I drove down US 2, an eagle flew directly across the highway in front of me. I calmed. I thanked the Ancestors for telling me they are here. I decided to trust in the Universe – at least for today. And then the first day of testimony began and it was crazy.
We had entered the day finalizing the jury pool – wasn’t sure any of these were good potential jurors as we’d been removed from the courtroom during jury selection (voir dire). I just couldn’t put many faces with their answers from the previous day. But I knew chances were good we had a total jury of climate deniers.
It was pretty remarkable to watch the judge as he thanked the jurors for their service and walked everyone through the process. If you haven’t experienced this, I recommend a visit to your next local jury trial so you can see how things work. Hopefully you will have a judge as dedicated to the record as Judge Tiffany.
Then began the opening statements. Al Rogalla had a very strong performance presence, full of deliberate placements of evidence, strong and dramatic language, and only a few stumbles in his verbiage. It was a bit overdone in my opinion and much of the jury seemed unphased as he breathlessly said (complete with a cutting motion as if there was a giant hedge in front of him), “And then they CUT the CHAINS!” His main point was that there was video evidence of the crime that the jury would see in testimony so they must convict. Then Lauren Regan of the Civil Liberties Defense Center presented the opening statement for the defense team. She gave a well-presented explanation of what she intended to present, what her clients had done and a bit of why, and some information on the urgency of climate change. It was thorough, informative and professional.
After this, Al Rogalla presented the case for the State of Minnesota with two witnesses, Clearwater County Sheriff Darin Halverson and Bill Palmer, Enbridge Energy’s Clearbrook Terminal Supervisor. Sheriff Halverson was able to assure chain of custody for the evidence and identify the three defendants sitting at the table adjacent to him.
Halverson walked through the events of the day and was on the stand as the video footage that Ben Joldersma (third defendant) took during the action was shown for the jury. It depicted the entry into the valve stations and included the safety phone call that Ben made to Enbridge before the action occurred asking them shut down the line.
Kelsey Skaggs of the Climate Defense Project did the cross-exam. She asked about the two calls made to the Sheriff that morning, the first from the media and the second from Enbridge, both around 9:15 AM. She verified that the defendants were waiting for him on arrival at about 10:30 AM. She asked if he could identify the fourth person arrested that day, Steve Liptay (seated in the rear of the small courtroom, 4th row), but he was unable to identify him. This, planted a small seed of doubt in the Sheriff as Kelsey made clear that the original fourth defendant was present.
As I put the pieces together, it seems that the action took place about 8:30 but the Sheriff was not informed until 9:15 with a call from WCCO who had seen footage on FB. They didn’t get to the scene until 10:30 so the defendants waited two hours for their arrest. This behavior doesn’t seem consistent with people who want to get away with criminal damage.
Next on the stand was Bill Palmer. His work history was reviewed and his assessment of the photographic evidence was gained by Rogalla who seemed tickled by reminding Palmer of the flowers in the chain that had been added to the valve after it was turned off. Palmer confirmed that oil flow was stopped for about 8 hours that day on Lines 4 & 67 and he noted the extra staff verification that was done in turning the valves back to open. This included a flyover (which is done regularly by the pipeline anyway – not sure if it’s a safety requirement or something the company just does but they fly over our place regularly).
Lauren did the cross-exam for this witness asking if he was one of fifteen employees at the Clearbrook site. Palmer corrected her noting 17 plant employees but agreed. He agreed that this is an automated facility and that he was informed that morning (but could not specifically tell her when) by Enbridge of the shutdown. (I was kind of thinking, gee, if I knew I had to testify on this at a trial, I probably would have brought all my notes on the day with me and been able to answer a question like this. But then, I am a woman, of German heritage, who has a strong tendency for documentation so I’m left with the impression that this guy isn’t real strong on documentation or details. Not sure if this is the guy we want running a major fossil fuel terminal…) Palmer was only informed of one call (though the defendants had assured two calls, one from a party off-site and one ten minutes later from Ben, fifteen minutes prior to closing the valves). Lauren asked if Enbridge shut down the line for batch changes and he noted that they do not but they do shut down for maintenance. He also noted that a shutdown does not cause damage “if done correctly”. He verified that Enbridge shut down the line at 6:40 MST that day (seeming to have a little trouble translating that to local time of 8:40 CST for a moment). When asked if there was ever damage to the pipeline from others, he agreed sometimes there is third party damage but he could not recall an instance where he ever received fifteen minutes notice prior to any of these instances.
The State rested its case and Lauren asked for a 5 minute break.
On return, Minneapolis-based attorney Tim Phillips read the defense team’s motion for acquittal. It should be noted that the jury was not in the room at the time – the court took care of a lot of administrative type activities while the jury was out, bringing them in only when it was time for evidence to be presented. Tim asked the Judge to approve a motion for acquittal for all three defendants based on the fact that the State did not prove their case and that the evidence would not allow a reasonable juror to find guilt.
I sat in the rear of the room next to Andy Pearson of MN350 and I looked at Andy expectantly. He is one cool character, this Andy. He leaned over and quietly said in my ear, “He’s going to deny.” Well, Judge Tiffany kept us at bay, first explaining the legal code that allowed for a defense team to request acquittal following the presentation of the State’s case. He noted the requirements on him as a judge for considering said motion in making his ruling. Then he spoke about the Minnesota code defining pipelines and I began to get hopeful again. He was doing a LOT of explaining… Andy looked at me with a surprised hopeful look and then grabbed my hand as we continued to listen. And it was just a matter of a few more moments until the Judge granted their motion for acquittal and banged his gavel noting that, “We are adjourned.”
The courtroom erupted in cheers, tears, and a level of dumbfoundedness. Could it all really be over like that? It was surreal. This was almost immediately followed by the realization that our Climate Necessity Defense was not going to be presented. With cheers, smiles, and disappointment, we gathered at the stairs to hug, celebrate that our friends would not face prison, and commiserate our loss. Annette’s husband put it very succinctly. He said he was happy for his wife but wished we would have been able to present our case.
The press conference that followed was amazing (second half of press conference here). Expert witnesses Dr. Jim Hanson (former NASA Chief Scientist), Dr. Anthony Ingraffea (an expert who authored the American Pipeline Institute pipeline safety guidelines), and Dr. Bruce Snyder (reporting on the public health concerns and associated financial aspects) appeared alongside the defendants and attorneys Kelsey and Lauren. Vivienne joined as well, bringing the real reason for our fight to the forefront. I was always so amazed with Ben’s ability to bring the focus back to our children – all our children – and his feeling of obligation to do all he can to protect their future. It was nice to get a quick chance to hear some of the testimony we would have heard had our experts been able to take the stand.
After this excitement, I headed to Split Oak Farm to drop off a pig bucket. I gave Jeff and Angie the update on what happened. I texted their expected house guest for the evening to let them know of the acquittal and the two of them decided to turn back at St. Cloud. The fun of logistics begins anew! People who planned to come support the trial canceled plans or turned around mid-trip. Folks from Seattle to LA to NY worked on their plans for returning home. It would be a whirlwind for the next few days.
I headed home to regroup and prepare for an evening of James Hansen and a likely good celebration at Brigid’s Pub with the Valve Turner gang. I needed a nap! And as I drove east toward County 2, I spotted an eagle as it flew over my car. I guess I need to start trusting the Ancestors are with us… especially in times of need.
Democracy Now! did a great interview with Kelsey, Emily, Annette, and James the next day. (Part 3 is more of a summary of the story including some footage of our good friends Leonard Higgins & Michael Foster along with more explanation of the Necessity Defense.) It was nice to get some exposure for the movement and share some information with the public.
Bill McKibben did an MPR interview on the issue and also wrote an Op-Ed in the LA Times giving much of what he would have testified to had be been allowed to do so in Bagley and indicating that we need climate civil disobedience if we are to save our planet.
“Politics as usual is not working to address the climate emergency, save for a few outliers like California or Norway. And a few outliers is not enough.” ~ Bill McKibben, LA Times
And for my friends in Alexandria (with a REAL newspaper), here’s the coverage from the Echo Press which was in large part accurate (compared with the confusing and unclear coverage the trial got in our local Bagley paper).