The Sunday Read: 'The Valve Turners'The Daily
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- 17 Jan 2021
Most Americans treat climate change seriously but not literally — they accept the science, worry about forecasts but tell themselves that someone else will get serious about fixing the problem very soon.The Valve Turners, on the other hand, take climate change both very seriously and very literally.In the fall of 2016, the group of five environmental activists — all in their 50s and 60s, most with children and one with grandchildren — closed off five cross-border crude oil pipelines, including the Keystone.On today’s Sunday Read, who are the Valve Turners and what are their motivations?This story was written by Michelle Nijhuis and recorded by Audm. To hear more audio stories from publishers like The New York Times, download Audm for iPhone or Android.
I'm Michelle Knight House, and in February twenty eighteen, I wrote a story for the New York Times magazine about a group of five climate activists who called themselves the Valve Turners, their group of climate activists who in late 2016 really pushed the boundaries of what we think of as civil disobedience.
They got up very early in the morning. They traveled to different small towns on the US Canadian border and in a coordinated action, shut off major pipelines that carry crude oil from Canada to the United States.
And these people, they come from a long line of activists who have handcuffed themselves to bulldozers, who have laid down in the road in front of logging trucks, who have spent months living in the tops of redwood trees to protect them from destruction. But while most of these actions were defensive, the valve turners see their actions as distinctly offensive. They're actively interrupting what some people would call business as usual, but what they see as ongoing environmental destruction.
But there's something else that's always struck me. It's that even in taking the offense, as they call it, the valve turners did everything they could to minimize the risk of harm to others. The activists themselves took on the risk. In fact, I think it's fair to say that the consequences were actually the point. If you talk to most of these people, they'll say they want to be arrested, they want to go to court, and they are gambling that because of who they are, because they're middle aged white people who wear sensible shoes, who are Quakers and Unitarians, that they will get a chance to have a hearing and a chance to publicly address what they see as the biggest threat to all people.
And some people would argue that their voices, at least in combination with other forms of activism, are having some effect. President elect Joe Biden has pledged to shelve the Keystone XL pipeline. So here's my story, I'm just more afraid of climate change than I am of prison. Published in February twenty eighteen read by Julia Wailin. On October 11th, 2016, Michael Foster and two companions rose before Dawn left their budget hotel in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and drove a white rental sedan toward the Canadian border, diligently minding the speed limit.
The day was cold and overcast and foster his diminutive frame wrapped in a down jacket, had prepared for a morning outdoors as the driver, Sam Jessup, followed a succession of laser straight farm roads through the sugar beet fields, and a documentary filmmaker, Darya Schlosberg, recorded events from the backseat. Foster sat hunched in the passenger seat, mentally rehearsing his plan. When Jessica pulled over next to a windbreak of cottonwood trees, Foster felt the seconds stretch and slow.
For months, he'd imagined his next actions. He would get out of the car, put on a hard hat and safety vest, retrieve a pair of bolt cutters from the trunk and walk to the fenced enclosure about 100 feet away. He would snip the padlock that secured the gate and approach the blunt length of vertical pipe in the center of the enclosure. The stem of a shutoff valve for the 2700 mile long Keystone pipeline, which carries crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta to refineries on the Texas coast.
He would cut the chain on the steel wheel attached to the stem and turn the wheel clockwise until it stopped.
What Foster didn't expect was that once he'd broken through the chain link fence, he would be briefly overwhelmed by the magnitude of what he was about to do. He faced away from the biting wind and allowed himself to cry. He then put a gloved hand on the steel wheel, which was almost three feet across and mounted vertically, as if on the helm of a ship, and began to turn it for long.
And it spun easily. But then both the wheel and the ground below his feet began to shake. Foster had been told to expect this, but still he hesitated. When he resumed turning, he had to throw his body into the task, at times dangling from the wheel to coax it downward. Finally, he could wrestle it no farther and the shaking stopped. He felt a profound sense of relief. He replaced the lock on the wheel with a new padlock, sat down and breathing heavily, began to record himself on his phone.
Hey, I have never shot video for grandkids that I don't have yet, he told the camera, but I want any grandkids or grand nephews and nieces or whatever anybody in any family tree of mine to know that once upon a time, people burned oil and they put it in these underground pipes and they burned enough fast enough to almost cook you guys out of existence. And we had to stop it any way we could think of. Ten minutes before Foster entered the enclosure, Jessop and another supporter each called the operation center of the pipeline's owner, the TransCanada Corporation, and described what Foster was about to do.
The company called the sheriff about half an hour after Foster walked away from the valve station. An officer arrived and arrested Foster, Jessop and Shlosberg. What neither the sheriff's department nor TransCanada knew, however, was that while Foster was closing off the Keystone pipeline for other cross border pipelines in Washington, Montana and Minnesota were being shut down two together, the pipelines carry nearly 70 percent of the crude oil imported to the United States from Canada. Foster, who is 53, was charged with criminal trespass and criminal mischief, conspiracy to commit criminal mischief and reckless endangerment at his bond hearing in Cavalia, North Dakota.
He learned that he faced a maximum sentence of more than 26 years when prosecutors requested that his bail be set at 100000 dollars. Foster asked for a chance to speak. Your Honor, he said one of the main reasons for this action is to appear here and see justice done for our children and to protect the air and land and water that they will require to survive. So it's very important for me to be here in this courtroom and I wouldn't miss it for the world.
I'm it's terrifying, but I am not going to miss it. Judge Lori Fontain set his bail at 75000 dollars. I first met Foster on a pitch black evening in November 2016, a week after the presidential election in the community room of a progressive church in Hood River, Oregon, Foster and the four others accused of pipeline sabotage, all of whom had been released on bail, had been dubbed the valve turners. And this was their first public appearance since their coordinated action.
They stood in a self-conscious line before their audience, unsure how to begin. One by one, they recounted their actions. On the morning of October 11th, Ken Ward, 61, a longtime environmental activist from New England, closed a shut off valve on Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline near Mount Vernon, Washington. Leonard Higgins, 66, a soft-Spoken Unitarian and retired state government employee from Corvallis, Oregon, closed a shut off valve on the Enbridge Express pipeline near coal banks landing Montana.
Emily Johnston, 51, an editor and a poet and a net, collapsed in 65. A retired attorney for the people of Tribe traveled together from Seattle to Léonard, Minnesota, and turned the shut off valves on a pair of pipelines owned by Enbridge. The five men and women said little about themselves, dwelling instead on what they saw as the existential threat of climate change and the inadequacy of available legal remedies. I'm not courageous or brave, Johnston told the small crowd.
I'm just more afraid of climate change than I am of prison. Foster, dressed in what I would learn was his standard outfit, Hawaiian shirt, jeans and running shoes, stood at one end of the row, bouncing on his toes, slight and agile. He can seem much younger than his years, almost impish. I'm not afraid, he said, grinning. His companions left tolerantly. They had heard this before. Well, that's good, because you've got the biggest charges, Johnston teased.
The valve turners are, for the most part, quiet people, they wear sensible shoes and several attend church regularly. Most are parents and one is a grandparent. All are white, all are college educated, and none are truly poor. While all are deeply concerned about climate change, none are immediately threatened by its worst effects. No one's home has been flooded, and no one's health has been seriously damaged by heat waves or failed harvests or northward creeping tropical diseases.
All say that it is this relative safety and the relative advantages of age, race, education and wealth that makes them feel they have a particular responsibility as climate activists to push the boundaries of civil disobedience.
Most Americans treat climate change as the saying goes seriously, but not literally. We accept the science. We worry about its forecasts. We tell ourselves that the effects won't be as bad as predicted or that they will happen elsewhere a long time from now. We tell ourselves that someone else will get serious about fixing the problem very soon. We find some way to blur the casual line between our individual actions and their cumulative effects. This is in many ways an eminently reasonable reaction because it allows us to continue with our daily lives and to tend to the political emergencies of the moment, which are, after all, always numerous.
The valve turners take climate change both very seriously and very literally. They were among those whom Ward calls the climate freak out people, the scant two to three percent of Americans who, when asked by Gallup to name the most important problem facing the country today, mentioned pollution or the environment. They can quote from the work of scientists like James Hansen, the former director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in Manhattan, who was an author of the 2008 paper concluding that in order to preserve a planet similar to that on which civilization developed and to which life on earth is adapted, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere needs to be reduced to 350 parts per million or less.
They can also tell you that the current atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, which was about 385 parts per million when Hansen and his team published their paper, is now above 407 higher than it has been in at least 800000 years. For a variety of reasons, they have found themselves unable to look away from the scientific consensus that global business as usual is likely to cause and may well already be causing unspeakable suffering with what their admirers call moral clarity and their detractors, including some of their loved ones called tunnel vision, they've decided that their own business as usual must end.
Foster may have made up his mind as early as high school when he starred in a production of The Night Thurow spent in Jail, the 1970 play about Thoros refusal to pay a poll tax because of his opposition to the Mexican-American War. It's very simple. The plays the role tells the local constable what the government of this country is doing turns my stomach and if I keep my mouth shut, I'm a criminal to my conscience, to my God, to society and to you, Sam Staple's.
The modern environmental movement was born around the time Thoreau adjourned to his cabin on Walden Pond in 1845. But the climate movement, the part of the environmental movement concerned primarily with reducing greenhouse gas emissions and easing the effects of climate change, is barely 10 years old. For decades, the predictions of climate scientists inspired little citizen action in North America. At least the possible consequences of climate change were too abstract, too distant in time and space to galvanize a popular movement.
But as international negotiations kept stalling, proposed legislation repeatedly staggered toward failure and scientific forecasts worsened. Frustration grew among grassroots environmentalists. In 2008, seven Middlebury College graduates and a Middlebury Scholar in residence, Bill McKibben, whose 1989 book The End of Nature was among the first to take on climate change for a mass audience, founded the advocacy group 350 Dog, named after the study led by James Hansen. The work of McKibben and his students helped define the goal of the nascent climate movement, reducing the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million or less in the process.
They also defined their opponents, those who were adding the most carbon dioxide to the atmosphere where the movement's biggest enemies and at the head of that list was the fossil fuel industry. Climate movement leaders organized mass demonstrations in front of the White House, at international climate conferences and elsewhere, but almost from the start, a handful of activists began executing smaller scale, more confrontational actions, hoping to both rouse complacent sympathizers and shame major emitters in Utah. In 2008, an economics student named Tim de Kristofer, who had grown alarmed about the increasing likelihood of climate scientists worst case scenarios posted as a bitter at an auction for public lands drilling rights, placing fraudulent bids for leases on 22000 500 acres of land.
The Christopher was convicted of two felonies, sentenced to two years in jail and fined 10000 dollars. Like to Christopher Ken Ward, a former deputy director and chief operating officer of Greenpeace USA, had become convinced that such actions were essential provocations. This is the kind of disruption that's necessary to change politics, he says. Nearly six feet tall, Ward has craggy features, thick, dark eyebrows and a professorial air belied by his customary sturdy workwear. In the fall of 2012, he and other activists paid a series of surreptitious visits to Brayton Point, a port on the southeastern fringe of Massachusetts and the home of an aging coal fired power plant.
That was at the time the state's largest carbon dioxide emitter, posing as bird watchers. They surveyed the harbor with binoculars. On May 15th, 2013, Ward and a young Quaker sailmaker named Joe O'Hara piloted a 32 foot lobster boat into the Brayton Point Ship channel, dropping anchor in the path of a freighter carrying a load of West Virginia coal to the power station.
When the freighter neared, Ward and O'Hara alerted the police and the ship's crew that they were carrying out a peaceful protest. The call is coming from the United States. A crew member responded. What's the problem with that? It took the rest of the day to move the boat, which Ward and O'Hara had named the Henry David T.. The pair were charged with three misdemeanors and a felony. But on the morning the trial was scheduled to begin, the district attorney, Sam Sutter, announced that he had decided not to pursue criminal charges.
Climate change is one of the gravest crises our planet has ever faced, he told reporters gathered in the courthouse plaza. Sutter added that he would join a climate march later that month. That year, Sutter ran for mayor of the working class city of Fall River, Massachusetts, and won. By then, the owners of the Braiden Point station had decided to close it, citing low energy prices and the costs of retrofitting the facility to meet current environmental standards.
Ward moved from Boston to a small town outside Portland, Oregon, and began thinking about how he might continue what he and O'Hara started quietly. He began to discuss possibilities with core members of the climate movement in Seattle, conversations that would eventually include Michael Foster. Perhaps you've resolved to be more present this year for your family and friends and for yourself, and you think that learning to meditate might help?
It would, but you might find that your mind has other plans, waking up as a guide to understanding your mind for the purpose of living a more fulfilling life. It is much more than a meditation app, and over 40000 five star reviews attest to this. To experience a free month, go to waking up dotcom slash daily or download the app today. Foster, a family therapist, longtime environmentalist and father of two, had been living in Seattle for two decades, and he'd recently become active in raising awareness about climate change.
But his road to the beat fields of North Dakota began years earlier near Houston. Now, the southernmost end point of the Keystone pipeline. When Foster was three, his father was shot and killed on the street in Laredo, Texas. His mother, who left the family a few months earlier, lost custody of her three children to foster paternal grandparents. Foster and his siblings were raised in a Houston suburb, Deer Park. His mother remarried, moved to central Texas and maintained an affectionate but somewhat distant relationship with her children.
Not until Foster was in his 20s. Did she reveal her suspicion that his father, a junior college professor, had been having an affair with a female student and was shot by a rival despite the upheaval of his early years. Foster remembers his childhood as a happy one. His paternal grandfather worked for the Shell oil refinery, whose smokestacks still punctuate the Houston skyline, and his grandparents were able to raise Foster and his siblings in relative comfort. Foster's grandmother died of cancer when he was in eighth grade and he responded to the loss in part with a tent revival, religious conversion, becoming a Baptist, Foster believed that his future lay in the ministry and he eagerly anticipated the return of the traveling preacher who had drawn him into the church.
But as he sat with other believers in his high school auditorium, watching his mentor prowl the same stage where Foster had pretended to be Thoreau, he saw only artifice. He was promoting his television show. He was asking for money. Foster says, I'd learned something about performance and I could see this was a performance. He walked out of the auditorium and out of the church with a lifelong horror of hypocrisy. Foster first encountered the notion of climate change when his high school debate team was assigned to research energy independence in Texas in the 1970s.
Support for increased domestic oil production was practically a requirement for residency, but the team had to argue both sides of the issue. So they studied the prospects for energy sources at home and abroad. One day, an upperclassman gave Foster an interesting tip at Exxon, where some students parents worked. Company scientists had considered the effects of carbon dioxide emissions on the climate and concluded that humanity would soon have to wean itself off fossil fuels. It was just this goofy, weird piece of information, Foster remembers, we couldn't even figure out how to use it.
Was it an argument for energy independence or against it? In 2015, when news broke that Exxon scientists had indeed studied the causes and effects of climate change for decades, Foster would remember how he and his fellow debaters failed to understand that the industry on which their families depended might also be upending their world. Foster studied theater at the University of Houston and found work performing Shakespeare in local schools theater led him to Louisville, Kentucky, where he returned to school for a degree in counseling, hoping to channel his love for children and the outdoors into a career as a wilderness therapist.
After graduation, he moved to the Pacific Northwest, where he worked for a succession of outdoor education programs. He also reconnected with his college girlfriend, who was working in Seattle. And in 1999, they married. They soon had two children. Foster took enthusiastically to fatherhood. The violent death of his own father had given him an early lesson in the uncertainty of life, and he delighted in providing his family with the sense of security he had lost. My friends started complaining that I wouldn't spend time with them because I insisted on being home for bedtime, he says.
I was just so happy, ridiculously happy. But Foster was increasingly troubled by one particular threat to his family in high school, he regarded the heating of the planet by humans as a goofy rumor, but he'd since come to see it as a credible, even pressing concern. During the summer of 1988, when he was 23, he turned on the television just as Hansen was testifying before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee on global warming. It is already happening now, Hansen said at the hearing.
That's it, Foster remembers thinking. Now Congress knows now it's going to be fixed. It wasn't fixed, of course, through the 2000s, Foster worked as a therapist and an outdoor educator, finding solace in the connections he forged between kids and the rest of the living world. But he knew that the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere was increasing and he knew that its heaviest consequences, more extreme droughts, floods, fires and storms would be borne by his children's generation and those that came after it.
He felt compelled to do more. And in the summer of 2012, at the suggestion of a friend, he traveled to San Francisco for climate change activism training run by Al Gore. When he returned home, he adapted Gore's famous PowerPoint presentation for younger audiences, adding stories about kids who planted trees, built their own wind turbines and sued the United States government over its inaction on climate change. Soon, Foster was talking about climate change to hundreds of students.
Every month, he worked with a group of kids who were suing the state of Washington over its climate policy. In 2013, he and Emily Johnston helped found 350 Seattle dog, which became part of an intensifying campaign against the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure in the Pacific Northwest, successfully opposing the construction of several new coal and oil export terminals in Washington and Oregon in May and June 2015. In Seattle, Foster, Johnston and hundreds of other activists tried to prevent the departure of Royal Dutch Shell's offshore oil rig, the polar Pioneer, by forming chains of kayaks and canoes.
The following month, Foster joined another boat blockade in Portland that tried to stop a Shell icebreaker from leaving for the Arctic. Though both vessels eventually proceeded north, Shell officials were reportedly surprised by the strength of the opposition and the coverage it garnered in September. Citing the disappointing results of its exploration, the company abandoned its Arctic drilling operations for Foster. It was a revelation he had put his body in the way of the polluters and the polluters had turned back in the late summer of 2016.
An acquaintance invited Foster to a meeting with Ward and a small group of other activists, but warned Foster that his very attendance could make him an accessory to a felony. Foster didn't hesitate. How lovely, he remembers saying. I've been waiting. On October 9th, 2016, Ward left for northwestern Washington, Higgins' for Montana, Clapp's Dean and Johnston from Minnesota and Foster for North Dakota. They agreed that their actions would be nonviolent and that they would willingly accept the consequences in court.
All five have faced or are facing trials in the states where their actions took place, and in each they have sought to use the necessity defense to argue that they broke the law because they had exhausted all legal means to reduce or eliminate a clear and present danger, namely the threat of climate change. The necessity defense traditionally applied to crimes committed to head off immediate physical threats has been permitted only rarely in civil disobedience cases, and it has almost never succeeded.
But for the valve turners, its articulation is a deliberate extension of their campaign, a way to publicly express the urgency they feel. It's both practical and political, says Lauren Regan, the executive director of the Civil Liberties Defense Center in Eugene, Oregon, and the lead attorney in Ward's case, talking about this as a necessity. That really pushes the conversation in a direction the movement wants it to go. The valve turners see their actions as complementary to the rest of the climate movement as adding an offense to a movement that has so far played mostly defense as it did during the mass protests against the proposed Dakota access pipeline in 2016 and early 2017, which were led by the Standing Rock Sioux and other tribes.
Foster says. I participated in all these different protests, but how much of the poison had I actually stopped that I had a chance to take a major action against the existing flow?
God, finally. But the valve turners tactics are not popular within the environmental movement as a whole and remain controversial even within the climate movement. While the national leadership of 350 dog offered its support to the valve turners after their arrests, the response from mainstream environmental groups was subdued. For some, the shout offs were reminiscent of the anonymous vandalism carried out by groups like Earth First and the Earth Liberation Front beginning in the 1980s, which enabled opponents to demonize environmentalists as domestic terrorists.
The Christopher, who went on to study divinity at Harvard has worked with several of the valve turners through the New England based Climate Disobedience Center, which provides strategic support to climate activists practicing civil disobedience. He says their willingness to assume responsibility and to publicly explain their actions distinguishes their strategy from that of anonymous saboteurs. If you do something and then run away, that gives your opponents a huge opportunity to come in and say, let me tell you who these people are and why we should go after them, he says.
If you stand your ground and tell your story, that puts a face on it and it can have an entirely different effect. This theory was tested when Ward, whose case was the first to go to trial, appeared in court in the small city of Mount Vernon in far northwestern Washington state on a cold, bright January morning last year. The judge, Michael Ricot, did not allow Ward to use a necessity defense ruling that Ward had not exhausted his legal options.
Ward was charged with both burglary and sabotage, which in Washington is defined in part as willful interference with a commercial enterprise. And as Recher dryly pointed out, the case was not exactly a whodunit. The jury even watched a video of Ward cutting the chain that secured the emergency valve of Kinder Morgan's Trans Mountain pipeline. But after nearly six hours of sometimes heated deliberation, the jurors announced that they could not come to a decision on either charge. They told me that all were in favor of conviction, except for one who maintained that Ward's primary intent was not to break the law but to make a point about climate change.
The judge declared a mistrial based on the hung jury, and Ward was tried again five months later in June. This time, he was convicted of burglary. But once again, the jurors could not reach a decision on the sabotage charge. The second jury was even more divided than the first. A retired nurse who voted against conviction on the sabotage charge described Ward as a hero while the presiding juror, Donald Munroe, voted for conviction on both counts, calling Ward a jerk who did it to get attention.
Another juror, Warren Wick, a former corporate recruiter who retired to Mt. Vernon, voted against a sabotage conviction, calling the charge overkill and described Ward as a good man. But like many of the other jurors I interviewed, he has his reservations about Ward's strategy. I'm worried about somebody trying to outdo him, somebody doing something more outrageous for the sake of publicity, he said. The maximum penalty for second degree burglary in Washington is 10 years in prison and a ten thousand dollar fine after the prosecution decided not to pursue a second retrial on the sabotage charge.
Judge Rickard sentenced Warde to two days in prison and 30 days of community service, which ward, an experienced carpenter, fulfilled this summer by working for the local Habitat for Humanity chapter. Do I think that Mr. Ward's behavior is going to change if he spends 90 days in jail? No record said at the sentencing. Would putting Mr. Ward in jail change the behavior of other people from throwing the T off the boat or shutting off the oil pipeline? I don't think so.
Most of the valve turners say that their acute concern about climate change and their decision to break the law because of it have come with significant personal costs. Some have lost friends and partners and all have found that climate freak out people are not popular at parties. Still, most have reached an accommodation with those who don't share their alarm. Foster has found such accommodations with himself, with others nearly impossible when Foster committed himself to the climate movement. He also recruited his children, then eight and 10, to march and speak alongside him.
His older child, now a clear eyed 16 year old, says that both siblings were initially happy to participate, in part because it gave them a chance to spend time with their father, whom they saw less and less of as his activism increased. But before long, they felt pressured. When we would try to refuse, when we would say, Hey, I'm tired, or, hey, I have homework or Hey, I have school today, it would be, don't you care about the planet?
Don't you care about the future? The older child explains that felt awful because of course we cared. Of course, we wanted to do our part, but it felt like he was using our voices to spread his message. Foster was also determined that his household reduce its own carbon footprint. He tried to talk his family out of a Hawaiian vacation and other travel. He tried to talk them out of buying a Christmas tree and getting a cat. Everything I do and don't do today to pollute or stop polluting changes what lives and dies on the planet for the next 300 years in a very specific, particular way.
He told me I can't let myself off the hook. He couldn't let his family off the hook either. And resentments deepened when people asked me how things were going, how I was doing. I'd say he's doing important stuff and it matters, says his ex-wife Melinda, who asked that her last name and her children's names not be used to protect her family's privacy. I'd also say I really respect Gandhi, but I wouldn't want to be married to him.
Both Melinda and her older child say they felt constantly judged and frustrated by Fosters inflexibility in 2014. Melinda filed for divorce and his children said they no longer wanted to be part of his activism or part of his life.
Melinda says the emotional scars Foster left are profound. I think he believes he is doing what's right and he would be the first to say he's doing this to protect his kids. Melinda told me. What's tragic is that he's traumatizing his kids present. And what good is the kid's future without their present? Things might have been different. Fosters older child added if he had presented climate change to his kids as something to be aware of, not something to fear if he had responded to their occasional reluctance with understanding instead of anger, if he had listened.
When I hear someone mention climate change now, I just feel this overwhelming guilt, Fosters older child said. I think 27 trees. I've only planted 27 trees. I haven't done enough. I have so much further to go. After his divorce, Foster, who had already closed up his private therapy practice to focus on climate activism, moved into a room in a house owned by two fellow activists. He now lives on less than 500 dollars a month, usually traveling by bus, train or bicycle.
While low carbon living affords him some peace of mind, he can't entirely eliminate his own impact on the climate, and he sometimes stands in the grocery store wondering what he can possibly justify eating. He is not in regular contact with his family. A situation that clearly pains him deeply and his voice still shakes when he talks about his children. I am so sorry that I was not able to listen or sit still enough or be present with them enough so that they could share whatever they were feeling, he says now.
I failed to stay close and safe and be somebody they could count on, and that will always be my single greatest shame. Foster's trial began in Cavalia, a tiny town in North Dakota on October 2nd of last year, and after two and a half days of testimony, the jury convicted him of felony criminal mischief, felony conspiracy to commit criminal mischief and criminal trespass, a misdemeanor. He was found innocent only of reckless endangerment. Foster's codefendant, Sam Jessup, a 32 year old carpenter who accompanied him to the valve and live streamed it's closing, was convicted of felony conspiracy to commit criminal mischief and misdemeanor criminal conspiracy.
The charges against Schlosberg were dropped in pretrial hearings. Judge Fontain ruled that Foster and Jessopp would not be allowed to mount a necessity defense, just as the judges had ruled in Ward's case in Washington. And Leonard Higgins's in Montana. Lawyers for the two other valve turners, Emily Johnston and Annette Gladstein, were able to persuade the judge to allow that defense in their forthcoming trial. But the decision has been appealed by the prosecution. As a result, the climate scientist James Hansen, who attended Foster and Jessup's trial, was not allowed to testify.
But it's very unlikely that more information about climate change would have altered the verdict.
Unlike the divided jurors and wards trial, all the jurors and Cavalia were persuaded that Foster and Jessup were guilty of something. If you want to protest, you can protest. One juror told me, but you can't go on to someone else's property and destroy things. Lonnie Johnson, the TransCanada employee who visited the site after Foster turned the valve, testified that the valve wasn't designed to be closed against pressure, as Foster had done, but that he'd found no cracks or leaks when he inspected it.
The prosecutors, however, argued that a leak could have caused a fire or explosion or polluted the nearby Pembina River during jury selection. Several potential jurors said that they had heard about Foster's action while listening to police scanners and had been so frightened by the potential consequences that they did not feel they could serve on the jury. After his conviction, Foster returned to Seattle to await sentencing. He continued to plant trees, give slide shows and talk publicly about his decision to turn off the Keystone pipeline.
And he gave several guest sermons at liberal churches, some inspired by Thoreau's essay on the duty of civil disobedience. Hilarious to think my emotional experience is no different today, he told me in a text on February 5th. He and Jessup were back in Cavalia for their sentencing, accompanied by claps Dean Higgins and family members. The temperature was well below freezing even at midday, and the frosted streets were quiet that evening in the bar of the town's only motel.
The two prosecuting attorneys sat together while Foster and his group ate dinner just a few feet away. Foster was in a reflective mood. It's so strange to think that tomorrow I could get 21 years or I could be free for lunch, he said. The next morning inside the century old county courthouse, Judge Fontain asked if Foster wanted to make a statement before his sentencing. Yes, your Honor, Foster said, apologizing preemptively for his tendency to start preaching.
Foster spoke for almost 20 minutes, invoking the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and Thoreau. I don't know if this action was effective, he said. If somebody else somewhere down the line takes some meaning from what I did and they apply it in the way that they see fit. That's what my action was meant to do. Jessopp weighing his words carefully, spoke next. For my entire adult life, I've been concerned about this issue, he said, I came to North Dakota because I had a hope that through the necessity defense, the people of North Dakota would be given the opportunity to consider the evidence and weigh in, participate in a public deliberation in a way that I haven't seen.
He added, I don't think that this was a perfect realization of that vision. Judge Fontain announced a short recess, this is not a typical criminal case, she said when she returned, she had rejected the necessity defense because in her view, there were still legal means to address climate change. If you can't convince the government, then you can convince the people, she said. And it seems to me the way you convince the people in this world is by 60 second sound bites by commercials.
She had, she said, received many letters on Foster's behalf, most describing him as generous to his community and as doing exemplary work with kids. A few, however, described him as narcissistic and attention seeking. You like being in front of the camera. You like all the attention, she said. Everything about you and everything you've said to me is this was the right thing to do. This is what I'm called to do. This is what I have to do.
So nothing about that tells me you wouldn't do the same thing next month. Next year. Next week. Judge Fontain sentenced Foster to three years in prison with two of those years to be suspended and served on supervised probation, Jessop was given a suspended sentence of two years. When the hearing ended, two officers approached Foster. He stood and as he silently mouthed, I love you to his supporters in the front row, he was escorted out of the courtroom.
Jessop stayed behind the defense table, looking lost. The next afternoon, Higgins and I visited the county jail, an 18 bed operation tucked behind the courthouse.
We stood in the cramped cinder block, visiting booths, separated from Foster by a thick sheet of Plexiglas and took turns. Speaking to him through a phone handset. Foster was dressed in bright orange prison scrubs topped with a matching sweatshirt, and he looked tired but happy. Higgins, whose own sentencing for a felony criminal mischief and misdemeanor criminal trespass, is scheduled for March 20th. Chesed Foster about his new wardrobe, and Foster laughed. I'm going to miss everyone, he said.
The isolation's going to be hard. He would miss fresh air to Thoreau's cabin wasn't much bigger than a jail cell, but he got to go outside whenever he liked. Foster acknowledged, though, that he was there by choice and said he had regrets about his statement to the judge. I blew it. I really didn't speak to her concerns, but for the moment at least, he felt as if he were in the right place. Then he paraphrased the man he portrayed on stage 30 years ago.
If society is unjust, the only just place for a person is in jail. This was recorded by Autumn, Autumn is an app you can download to listen to lots of audio stories from publishers such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair and The Atlantic. Well. Traditional medicinals believes that nature knows best. That's why they use medicinal herbs like Echinacea to support your immune system, eucalyptus, to help give you a breath of fresh air and lemon ginger to promote healthy digestion every which way we turn.
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