An Act of Conscience: Break Free Arrestees Go On Trial

‘I am an ordinary person. I am not a radical. I’ve never broken the law, and I had to think long and hard about that.’

— Susan Monson, retired 6th grade teacher testifying at her trial for criminal trespass.

The six defendants Susan Monson, Randy Meier, Clara Cleve, Joelle Robinson, Cait Taylor and Ahmed Gaya

The six defendants Susan Monson, Randy Meier, Clara Cleve, Joelle Robinson, Cait Taylor and Ahmed Gaya

Last week, six people were tried for criminal trespass in the second degree in Skagit County District Court, Mt. Vernon, WA. Their “crime” was to have taken part in an oil train blockade as part of the Break Free mobilization of May 2016.

As part of Break Free, there were actions in 31 countries on 6 continents: in Newcastle, Australia, the largest coal terminal in the world was shut down, as were the largest coal mines in both the UK and Germany, while in Washington, over 2,000 people traveled to a Northwest refinery hub  to call for a just transition away from fossil fuels.

As part of the mobilization—which included a three-day climate conference and a 2000-person Native-led march—over 300 people pitched tents, built structures and slept on the train tracks that led to the refineries. As a result of the action, both refineries—which combined are responsible for 47% of the gas consumed in the Northwest—cancelled all oil trains that weekend.

The blockade lasted 36 hours, from Friday evening until Sunday morning. When the police swept in at 5am on Sunday morning, 52 people chose to remain on the tracks and be arrested for trespassing on BNSF property. Their trials are happening nearly weekly from now through May.

Break Free was a planned act of civil disobedience. Why? The Break Free PNW website gives the following answer:

In his Letter from Birmingham City Jail, Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote: “We who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface hidden tension that is already alive”. In this case, that hidden tension is the fact that the survival of a stable planet depends on our not going past 1.5°C of warming; despite widespread acknowledgement of this truth, at the moment, we’re on track for over 3°C, and there are no existing political plans that address this disparity. Many of us here in the NW risk far less than MLK did when we risk arrest--and far less than indigenous activists defending their lands elsewhere: it’s important those of us with privilege use that privilege to impact the policies that are taking such a terrible toll on the whole world.

At the first day of trial, the state called its witnesses and police officers took to the stand to testify. “I was impressed by the organization of the camp. It was calm and peaceful,” said Officer Haglan. It was a sentiment repeated by every officer: They were polite, they were courteous, they were well-organized and surprisingly disciplined.

On the second day of trial, the defendants took to the stand. Many of them spoke of their engagement with the political system—of educational efforts, voter mobilization drives, fundraising campaigns, letter writing, picketing and petitioning they had participated in. But despite all this, they said, the urgency of the climate crisis has only increased.

One defendant, Ahmed Gaya, had written of his family in Karachi, Pakistan, where nearly 1200 people died in a single heatwave in 2015, and the fact that 35-40 million Pakistanis are expected to be made refugees in coming decades, as a direct result of human-caused climate change.

Closer to home, another defendant spoke of fourteen years of working on climate issues, and of growing up in  Whatcom County with a father who was a fisherman, a logger and a volunteer firefighter. “I’ve been very concerned about the increase in the number of catastrophic wildfires in Washington state,” she said, her voice wavering with emotion, as she spoke of recent Washington wildfires that killed three firefighters and left another with life-threatening injuries.

“If there was one thought going through your head after as you headed to the tracks what was that?” asked her lawyer

“I felt I needed to be able to look my nieces and nephews in the eyes and tell them that, honestly, I had done everything I could,” she said.

In his closing statement, the defendants’ lawyer, Ralph Hurvitz, gave a lengthy speech about the history of civil disobedience. He referenced Susan B. Anthony, who broke the law prohibiting women the right to vote by casting a vote in the 1872 Presidential election. He spoke of the women led by Alice Paul, who for two years picketed outside of the White House calling for the right to vote, and of the hundreds who were arrested, as part of these demonstrations. “These women changed the conversation with their acts of civil disobedience,” he said, drawing a clear link between their actions and the passing of the 19th Amendment to the United States constitution.

He spoke also of Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat, of the Greensboro four who sat at the lunch counter and were arrested for criminal trespass, and of the priests Daniel and Philip Berrigan, who destroyed 368 government draft files in protest of the Vietnam War.

These acts were essential, he said, because they changed the political conversation, and changed what was possible. “I will go out on a limb,” he finished by saying, “And tell you that this country would be very different than it is if it were not for people throughout history who have stepped forward, been brave and committed acts of civil disobedience.”

Shortly afterwards, the jury found all six defendants guilty of criminal trespass and sentenced each to pay a $250 fine and carry out eight hours of community service.

As we packed up our things, preparing to leave the courtroom after a long two days of trial, one of the jurors came back in to the courtroom. She was an older woman, grey-haired and in her sixties. Like all of us, she had spent the last two days listening to each of the defendants explain why they had been moved to break the law, why they had blockaded an oil train for some 36 hours. She had also heard the prosecutor make her case and, after all of that, she had found the defendants guilty of criminal trespass. She looked at each of the defendants now: "I have just come to say thank you," she said. "I am so, so grateful for what you done." 

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This Is Not Normal. We Can’t Behave As If It Is.


Protesters outside airport after the #MuslimBan.

Protesters outside airport after the #MuslimBan.

The opening salvos of a Trump Presidency have been even worse than feared. In the first seven days alone we saw all mentions of climate change, LGBTQ and civil rights vanish from the White House website, scientists gagged, steps taken towards illegalizing abortion, executive orders on the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines, an unconstitutional ban on Muslims entering the country, the starting gun for the building of a wall on the Mexican-American border, the illegal placing of an unqualified racist in charge of the nation’s foreign policy and a promise to cut all federal funding to Welcoming Cities. 

Westlake Plaza the night after the #MuslimBan

Westlake Plaza the night after the #MuslimBan

That such a week resulted in huge outpourings of dissent should surprise no one There would be something gravely wrong if it did not.

Some of the largest protests
— which came a week after what has been called the the largest coordinated protest in American history — came after the #MuslimBan.

After Trump signed an executive order to ban people from seven Muslim countries entering the United States, protests broke out at airports across the country. At Sea-Tac, thousands marched through the airport chanting "No hate, no fear. Refugees are welcome here."

Later, many hundreds attempted to shut down the airport, blockading entrances and exits with their bodies, as they sought to prevent people from entering or leaving.

These tactics have since been criticized by some well-meaning and good-hearted people. Such criticism, however, I fear, is not only misguided, but dangerous. To understand why, it is important to understand both the severity of the threat that we face and how power works.

Thousands gathered at SeatTac airport with hundreds remaining well into the night, blockading entances and exits to the airport.

Thousands gathered at SeatTac airport with hundreds remaining well into the night, blockading entances and exits to the airport.

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Gene Sharp’s The Politics of Nonviolent Action was first published in 1973. Sharp is widely recognized as the founding father of the academic field of civil resistance and his theories on how power works have -- albeit disputably -- been credited with helping to spur revolutions and overthrow dictators in Serbia, Egypt and Tunisia among others.

The following sentences appear early in The Politics of Nonviolent Action:

"The most important single quality of any government, without which it would not exist, must be the obedience and submission of its subjects. Obedience is at the heart of political power."

Sharp continues to augment this argument, as he contends that any ruler -- be it a dictator or a President -- is dependent upon the submission and obedience of their subjects in order to rule:

“The degree to which the ruler succeeds in wielding power and achieving his objectives ... depends upon the degree of obedience and cooperation [they are able to achieve]”.

In this Sharp is echoing sentiments expressed by Mahatma Gandhi a generation earlier:

“government of the people is possible only so long as they consent either consciously or unconsciously to be governed.”

In short, this is why it is so important that we disobey under Trump: without the obedience of the majority of people, the majority of the time, it will become far more difficult for Trump to rule effectively — taken to the extreme, it becomes impossible.

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There is a long, yet largely ignored, history that gives credence to Sharp’s theory of power. It is glimpsed every time a social movement has won a victory following its removal of obedience from a system: Roman plebeians winning concessions from government by removing their obedience; the nonviolent Russian revolution of 1905-1906 meeting with considerable success; civil disobedience preventing the success of the Kapp coup d’etat in Berlin in 1920; the fall of the dictator Slobodan Milosevic in Serbia.

In America, too, the successes of various nonviolent social movements — women’s suffrage, the restriction of child labor, the implementation of workplace safety, the outlawing of many forms of discrimination — point to the truth of Sharp's basic theory of power. In all of these instances, politicians have been pushed to provide legislative remedies to grievances expressed by mass numbers of people removing — or threatening to remove — their obedience from the system. 

Yet, of course, simply saying that all we have to do to topple Trump is refuse to obey borders on the asinine when coupled with the true complexity of the task. But this fact does not detract from the simple truth that our obedience is essential to Trump’s ability to rule. And that would be my very simple response to those critical of the SeaTac airport protests, to ask them to remember this. Because one thing is for sure, the threat that Trump poses to our basic liberties, to the lives of millions and to the very habitability of our planet is not normal, and we cannot behave as if it is.

For if we behave as if it is normal, then it will, of course, become normal.




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How Seattle Can Help Kill DAPL

For months, we have watched the astounding bravery of the Standing Rock Water Protectors from afar, but now, with THE CITY CONSIDERING AN ANTI-WELLs FARGO ORDINANCE, we can make a difference from right here in Seattle.

Rachel Heaton, Matt Remle, Jesse Nightwalker, Raymond L. Kingfisher and Paul Cheoketen Wagner outside of the Wells Fargo Center in downtown Seattle, January 5th 2017. Photo courtesy of John Duffy.

Rachel Heaton, Matt Remle, Jesse Nightwalker, Raymond L. Kingfisher and Paul Cheoketen Wagner outside of the Wells Fargo Center in downtown Seattle, January 5th 2017. Photo courtesy of John Duffy.

In November, Standing Rock leadership re-asserted the call to target the investors of the Dakota Access Pipeline: “We ask anyone that is considering traveling to join the encampments at Standing Rock to stay home for now and instead take bold action in your local communities to force investors to divest from the project,” wrote Honor the Earth, Indigenous Environmental Network and Camp of the Sacred Stones in a joint statement.

Since then banners have been dropped from stadiums, celebrities have closed their accounts and a self-reported $47.5 million has been divested from the banks behind the project.

Here in Seattle we’ve risen to the challenge too: dozens have closed their accounts, protesters have disrupted branches and last week some five hundred people rallied at Wells Fargo’s Seattle HQ.

Even more important though is the fact that the City of Seattle is now considering an ordinance that would see it sever ties with Wells Fargo, owing, in large part, to the bank's financial support of the DAPL. If the ordinance passes Seattle will be following in the footsteps of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and other tribal governments, who have already severed ties with Wells Fargo as a result of DAPL.

The Socially Responsible Banking Ordinance was drafted by Councilmember Sawant and Matt Remle, a Standing Rock Sioux Tribal member who received the City of Seattle’s Human Rights Leader Award in 2014. Should the ordinance pass, Seattle would be the first major municipality to end its relationship with a bank because of the pipeline. And with an annual turnover of around $3 billion, that’s the sort of message that Wells Fargo executives will be listening to.

But the really exciting thing is that has the potential to be far bigger than that, bigger than just Seattle.

Wells Fargo Center, Seattle, Jan 5th, 2017

Wells Fargo Center, Seattle, Jan 5th, 2017

Seattle was the first major city to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Washington, D.C, and the state of New York soon followed suit. And this is what is going to have Wells Fargo executives really worried: the thought that Seattle divesting will inspire other cities to do likewise.  

And it really does have them worried. I had a call recently with the program director of a large green NGO. The NGO in question have worked on the issue of the banks' funding of fossil fuel projects for years. As such, they have levels of access to the banking world unavailable to us scrappy little activists. When asked if they thought Wells Fargo were paying attention, they laughed. “They’re more than paying attention,” they replied. “They’re terrified.” Wells Fargo, they told us, have an entire task force analyzing the #DeFundDAPL movement and working on DAPL.

Now it's time to really scare them. 

Once this ordinance is passed, we need to ensure that it is exported to other cities. Plans are forming to do that, lists are being compiled: cities that bank with Wells Fargo, cities that have introduced fossil fuel divestment resolutions, cities that have passed Standing Rock resolutions.

And ...  well … let’s just say that if over the next few months half-a-dozen cities, with multi-billion dollar bank balances, start threatening to leaving Wells Fargo, that could change the equation somewhat: suddenly their investment in DAPL will start to look very different to Wells Fargo executives.

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It is clear that if enough of us -- cities, individuals, businesses -- speak up on this, and put our money where our values are, Wells Fargo and others will have no choice: simple business sense will mean they have to remove their funding from the pipeline.

And if that happens it could change everything.

While Wells Fargo are only responsible for around 5% of the financing behind the DAPL, if they pull their loans, it paves the way for others to do likewise. And if enough of the funding leaves, well, the whole damn project collapses. That’s what #DeFundDAPL is all about. 

First things first though, we need to ensure that this ordinance passes in Seattle.

And there are several ways you can help do that, right now.

1) Email every City Council member and tell them that you support the Standing Rock Sioux and the socially responsible banking ordinance. You can do so in less than thirty seconds using this form letter

2) Call your City Council member and ask them to vote Yes on Council Bill 118883. And what d’ya know, you can even use this handy call script to do so:

3) Grab your #DeFundDAPL sign and come to the Finance Committee meeting on February 1st. Event details and RSVP are here:

Please take a few minutes to invite your friends and family to this hearing. It’s vital that we really pack City Hall for this one and show them how strong support for this ordinance is. You can prepare a two minute testimony by using these talking points.

Paul Cheoketen Wagner, Jan 5th 2017. Photo couretsy of Alex Garland

Paul Cheoketen Wagner, Jan 5th 2017. Photo couretsy of Alex Garland

For months, many of us in Seattle have watched the Standing Rock fight from afar, moved and inspired, but entirely unsure of how we could really help, but now… now, with Seattle possibly being the first city to divest from the banks supporting the pipeline, we might just have the chance to really make our own small contribution to one of the most important struggles in American history.

I hope you will all take the time to do your part: Make those calls, send those emails, show up. That's all you've got to do.

Image of a $1 million account closed by a Seattle local

Image of a $1 million account closed by a Seattle local


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Stand with Standing Rock and #DefundDAPL

We need to start stigmatizing the banks that fund climate disaster -- Wells Fargo is a great place to start.

When the Army Crops of Engineers denied Energy Transfer Partners a permit to drill under the Missouri River, the Standing Rock Sioux won a huge victory against the Dakota Access Pipeline, but the struggle is far from over. Standing Rock leadership have made this clear: “While this is clearly a victory, the battle is not over,” states the Camp of the Sacred Stones website: “Organizers continue to call for every day of December to be “a day of #NoDAPL action” against the investors of the Dakota Access Pipeline.”

For us liberals and progressives here in Seattle that should mean one thing: we have our orders.  

The largest investor in the Dakota Access Pipeline that has a large presence in Seattle is Wells Fargo: they finance the Dakota Access Pipeline and the corporation behind the project, Energy Transfer Partners, to the tune of $467 million.

That is why the people of Seattle who stand with Standing Rock are responding to the call for actions by participating in a mass action and closure of accounts at the Wells Fargo Center on Thursday, January 5th, as well as a rolling series of actions and protests throughout the month.

If you are, like me, a Wells Fargo customer, and you believe in standing up for Indigenous rights and sovereignty, standing up for human rights and standing up for our right to a livable planet, you should join this day of action.

You can sign up for the action here; or learn more about how exactly to move your money, and some better banking alternatives, here.

Going after the financiers of the Dakota Access Pipeline makes strategic sense: With the latest delay, Energy Transfer Partners are going to have to renegotiate the terms of their deal with the refineries and there is widespread belief that this will change the economics of the project - giving financiers the perfect opportunity to pull out and leave the project crippled. Some banks have already started to do this.

Last month, Norwegian bank DNB pulled over $300 million worth of funding from the pipeline. Other banks have chosen to divest their money entirely from Energy Transfer Partners.

The moral imperative in closing your account with Wells Fargo is clear: 
Energy Transfer Partners are a corporation that has willingly set attack dogs on nonviolent protectors, bulldozed Native American sacred sites and sat back and watched as police have launched brutal and violent assaults against unarmed men, women and children. To support the institutions that finance a corporation guilty of such barbarity is, quite simply, to be complicit in the system -- and to be complicit is to be morally culpable.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu summed up the moral argument of the fossil fuel divestment movement: "People of conscience need to break their ties with the corporations financing the injustice of climate change.”

It was leaders like Archbishop Tutu that helped the fossil fuel divestment movement become the most successful divestment movement of all time: With almost $5 trillion committing to removing its investments in the fossil fuel industry, the divestment movement helped to stigmatize the fossil fuel industry and to create the global political environment that made last year’s historic agreement in Paris possible.

But now it is time for the divestment movement to evolve and to grow.

It's about time that we started to stigmatize not just the fossil fuel industry, but also those industries that underwrite and finance climate change and destructive projects like the Dakota Access: namely, the banks. 

The exact same theory of divestment, as applied to the fossil fuel industry these past five years, applies equally to the banks, upon whose support the fossil fuel industry is dependent.

And just as Tutu’s words apply equally to both the banks and the fossil fuel corporations themselves, so too do those of former United Nations climate chief, Christiana Figueres: “The investments that we are going to make globally over the next five years … will determine the quality of life for future generations, simple as that.”

In short, we need to start taking our money out of the problem, and putting it into the solution. People of conscience need to start letting the big banks know that as long as they finance climate disaster and horrific projects such as the Dakota Access Pipeline, we will go after them, damage their public image and refuse to give them our custom.

Of course, it isn’t just Wells Fargo. Almost all of the big banks finance the fossil fuel industry to the tune of dozens of billions of dollars a year. 

But, Wells Fargo, with its recent track record of racism, deception and corporate greed, seems like as good a place as any to start.

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The #ShutItDown Actions Were Not Only Important But Necessary

On October 11th five activists shut off every tar sands pipeline coming into the United States, temporarily disrupting the flow of 15% of America’s oil consumption. Now they are facing maximum sentences that could mean decades in jail -- but this is only the beginning of their story.

Emily and Annette shutting down one of five tar sands pipelines coming into the US                Photo: Steve Liptay

Emily and Annette shutting down one of five tar sands pipelines coming into the US                Photo: Steve Liptay

According to the United Nations we now have only three years to aggressively reduce our carbon emissions, with far greater ambition than was shown at the COP21 in Paris, otherwise we will witness at least 3℃ warming within our lifetimes -- enough warming to trigger tipping points beyond which we lose all control of the climate crisis.

Three. Years. Even before Trump’s victory, no government on Earth had a plan to move that quickly, to act that swiftly -- and that is why, as they hope to argue in court, the #ShutItDown actions were not only important, but necessary.


A necessity defense is defined as a:

    “Defense that permits a person to act in a criminal manner when an emergency situation, not of the person’s own creation compels the person to act in a criminal manner to avoid greater harm from occurring.”

The classic example of a necessity defense involves a person who has carried out the criminal act of breaking into someone’s property because the house is on fire and people are trapped inside.

While the Northwest’s own Delta 5 came close in an emotional trial a little over a year ago, a necessity defense around climate has never been won before in the United States. Indeed, a climate necessity defense has only ever been won once anywhere, in the United Kingdom in 2008, when eight Greenpeace activists were acquitted of property destruction and criminal trespass, after successfully arguing that government inaction on climate change warranted their breaking the law to draw attention to the imminent dangers posed by coal-fired power plants.

For a successful necessity defense in the US, you need to prove several things:

  • That you faced a serious and imminent danger.

  • That you reasonably expected your illegal action to avert this serious danger.

  • That there were no legal alternatives to your criminal conduct — i.e: that the illegal act was necessary because nothing else would work.

Looking at these criteria it appears that the #ShutItDown team has an incredibly strong case for a necessity defense plea.

The danger is serious and imminent: By failing to ban the consumption of tar sands, a type of oil that is over twice as damaging to our climate as conventional crude, our laws are failing to protect the lives and well-being not only of our future generations, but of all life on Earth.

The actions could help avert the danger: Dr. Martin Luther King is but one who recognized that non-violent acts of civil disobedience, such as the #ShutItDown activists’, can be effective at instigating change. “Where the spotlight illuminated the evil,” wrote Dr. King, on the Birmingham and Selma campaigns, “a legislative remedy was soon obtained.” And that was exactly the point of the #ShutItDown actions: to put tar sands in the spotlight once more, in the hope that once in the spotlight, a legislative remedy would be applied.

The legal alternatives have failed: Each of the activists involved have worked on climate for years; suing their governments, forming numerous organizations, helping lead international NGO’s, as well as filing petitions, lobbying politicians and organizing dozens of marches and rallies; yet, despite all of these actions, here we are: three years from losing all control of the climate crisis. 

The #ShutItDown team’s case for a necessity defense could hardly be stronger.

Leonard Higgins, who worked for Oregon State's budgeting department for 31 years before turning off one of five tar sands pipelines coming into the United States.

Leonard Higgins, who worked for Oregon State's budgeting department for 31 years before turning off one of five tar sands pipelines coming into the United States.

If the judges in their cases allow them to plead necessity we may be about to witness some of the most important trials of our time: If the #ShutItDown activists were to take their necessity pleas to the courts and win -- in other words, if a United States judge were to rule that the threat posed by tar sands necessitated citizens shutting off pipelines -- well, that would change everything. The entire dialogue around tar sands would change.      

But before that, we still have a long way to go. The other huge part of the #ShutItDown saga is getting the story out there. After the Keystone XL victory people, even people within the climate movement, seem to have largely forgotten about tar sands -- and over the next twelve months, the #ShutItDown team will be seeking to change that.

They will be speaking at schools, colleges and town halls throughout the country, as well as to journalists and camera crews, telling their stories, again and again, talking about why they were moved to act, why they had to act, why they put their futures at risk to put tar sands back in the spotlight. And, of course, about why we need to shut down the tar sands now, today.

They whole #ShutItDown team will be speaking on December 12th at Sole Repair on Capitol Hill.

This may be the only time that the entire team are speaking in Seattle and I hope that you are able to make it and show these heroes the respect that they’re due.

Where: Sole Repair Shop, 1001 E Pike St, Capitol Hill, Seattle
When: Monday, December 12th, 630-900
What: The #ShutItDown Activists’ Speaking Event

Full details of the event are here. Please share them widely.

And if you’re not able to make it, but would still like to help, you can donate to their legal fund here.

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The Activists That #ShutItDown Are Heroes And They Deserve our Help

Yesterday five activists shut down every pipeline that transports tar sands into the United States, disrupting the flow of almost 2.8 million barrels of oil.

today I’m asking if you can help these brave heroes BY
donating to their legal fund.

Emily, Annette, Leonard, Ken and Michael 

Emily, Annette, Leonard, Ken and Michael 

This week we watched as Haiti was savaged by a storm that left over one thousand dead and over a million needing urgent humanitarian aid. We watched as the same storm hit the shores of the United States and two million were forced to evacuate their homes and dozens were killed. Coupled with this we have now seen sixteen months in a row that have been the warmest on record, 2016 is well on course to the be the warmest year ever recorded and the oceans are warming far faster than anyone had predicted.

Yet as all of this happens we watch a Presidential debate where climate change receives eighty-two seconds of attention, and we watch an entire Presidential election where even the Democratic candidate has a history of supporting fracking and avoids talking about climate change as much as possible.

This, in short, is why we need actions like yesterday.

In his Letter From A Birmingham Jail, Dr. Martin Luther King wrote that “we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface hidden tension this is already alive.”

Annette and Emily after shutting down Enbridge's line 4 and 67, which bring over a million barrels of tar sands into the US every day.

Annette and Emily after shutting down Enbridge's line 4 and 67, which bring over a million barrels of tar sands into the US every day.

And this is exactly what the activists who shut down the pipelines were doing: bringing to the surface the tension between the physics of our planet and government inaction on climate change; in particular, they were bringing to the surface the intractable tension between the physics of our planet and the continued extraction of tar sands, a fuel that is over twice as damaging to our climate as conventional crude and has been officially opposed by over fifty First Nations and indigenous tribes.

At a time when scientists are telling us that we can’t even burn all the fossil fuels we already own, yet corporations are spending hundreds of millions looking for even more reserves and politicians aren’t even talking about the problem, we have never been in such dire need of actions like yesterday.

This is something that the great Dr. King would have recognized. “Where the spotlight illuminated the evil,” he wrote, talking in hindsight about the campaigns in Birmingham and Selma, “a legislative remedy was soon obtained that applied everywhere.”

And that is exactly what the #ShutItDown activists were doing yesterday. They were shining a spotlight on these issues that we care so deeply about; they were shining a spotlight on the urgent need to stop extracting tar sands and on our government's failure to respond to the climate crisis -- and they were doing so because it is clear that without such a spotlight myopic politicians will continue to ignore the problem.

That they were successful in shining that spotlight is clear: the Canadian Energy Minister was forced to answer questions as a result of their action, the story put tar sands on the evening news around the country and the story has been shared tens of thousands of times on social media. 

It is for all of these reasons that I am asking you to please do what you can to support the brave activists who have put their own futures on the line in order to stand up for all of our futures.

You can do so by donating to their legal fund:

In the months ahead the activists may face harsh reprisals. As I write not only the five activists, but two members of the support crew and three filmmakers are also in jail. All of the activists are facing felonies. Some look as if they may be charged with sabotage. They could be facing years in jail. And here, of course, it is important to remember that the great Dr. King was also once viewed as an enemy of the state, was hounded by the FBI, had his phone tapped and was placed on a list of America’s most dangerous criminals.

I do not know this, but I suspect that some of the #ShutItDown activists may chose not to accept a plea bargain, even if it is offered to them. They may choose instead to plead a necessity defense. That is to say they will go to court in order to argue that their actions were justified because of the greater crime, to both current and future generations, that is the continued burning tar sands; that they were forced to their actions because the law is failing to protect all of us from the threat of climate change.

Such a case has been won before in the United Kingdom. No such case has ever been won in the United States, even though the Delta 5 came close in an emotional trial a little over a year ago.

Michael Foster, turning off the TransCanada Keystone pipeline

Michael Foster, turning off the TransCanada Keystone pipeline

But whatever happens from here, whether they go to court or not, it is clear that the five activists who yesterday stopped all tar sands from entering the United States have taken a brave and important action -- and that is why I am asking you to support them.

You can do so by donating here:

I’m going to start myself by donating $50 today.              

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Why Only A Movement Can Save Us Now

Over 150,000 people are already dying every year as a direct result of human-caused climate change. Tens of thousands have already been killed and made homeless due to extreme weather events. The entire nation of Kiribati is so threatened by sea-level rise that their President has already begun negotiations to relocate all 103,000 of the country’s people.  

Even here in Washington, in one of the richest states in the richest nation in the history of the planet, we are already feeling the impacts of climate change: In recent years over 50% of Columbia River salmon have died in overheated rivers, record-breaking wildfires have scorched lands, burned homes and killed, drought has cost the state hundreds of millions of dollars and snow packs have plummeted resulting in more water pollution, less drinking water and less hydro-electric capacity.

It was against this backdrop that, after over two decades of international negotiations, we finally got an agreement on global warming targets in Paris last year. This was met with much fanfare and celebration around the world. Job done, the world’s governments declared. We are going to win the war on global warming, they promised us; yet, when the smoke cleared and the world leaders flew home on their private jets, one small and salient fact remained: Even if every single one of the non-legally binding, entirely voluntary pledges in Paris are kept, to the letter, we will still have between 2.7 and 3.5 degrees of global warming.

That is enough warming that will ensure that vast swathes of land will turn to desert, entire nations will be swallowed by the sea, marine food webs will collapse, species will be pushed to extinction, hundreds of millions will be displaced, millions more will die.  

The journalist George Monbiot perhaps summed it up best: “By comparison to what it could have been, it’s a miracle. By comparison to what it should have been, it’s a disaster.”

On the subject of global warming, COP21 in Paris made one fact more clear than ever: conventional, incremental politics have failed to the climate crisis.

Politicians around the world -- forced to adopt chronically myopic visions by the nature of electoral politics -- have dithered and dallied, obfuscated and kicked the can down the road until the crisis is so severe and urgent that it is now beyond the realms of incremental politics to respond adequately. This fact becomes all the more clear when we consider today’s calamities beside the chorus of scientific warnings about impending tipping points beyond which we lose all control of the climate crisis.

And this is precisely why only a movement can save us now.


The traditional view of politics is that change comes gradually, in small victory by small victory steps; yet history is coloured with rare moments when change arrives not incrementally, not gradually, but in great surges and cascades.

It was less than ten years after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, an event that in many ways signaled the start of the national civil rights movement, that the Civil Rights Act and Voting Acts Right were signed into law. These political achievements, as Princeton professor and Black activist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor notes “could not have been imagined even ten years before [they] happened.” It was, Taylor argues, only the “amazing accomplishment by … the civil rights movement.” that made even imaging such change possible. That such accomplishments were possible appears to have been something that Martin Luther King was well aware of, “Sound effort in a single city such as Birmingham or Selma,” he wrote, “Produced situations that symbolized the evil everywhere and inflamed public opinion against it … [and] where a spotlight illuminated the evil, a legislative remedy was soon obtained that applied everywhere.”

This was also how the women’s suffrage movement achieved their goals. Woodrow Wilson may have signed the bill giving women the right to vote, yet he had opposed them almost every step of the way. As with the passing of the Voting Rights Act and Civil Rights Act, it was only the amazing accomplishments of the suffrage movement that made such far reaching legislative change possible.

But we needn’t reach so far back into history to witness the rapid societal change that can be propelled by populous movements. In 1990 three-quarters of Americans viewed gay sex as immoral. In 1996, the Defense of Marriage Act -- an act that legally defined marriage as being solely between a man and a woman -- sailed through the US Senate, passing by a huge 85 to 14 margin. President Bill Clinton signed it into law, stating that, “I have long opposed governmental recognition of same-gender marriages.” In 2004, this stance was further entrenched as thirteen states passed ‘marriage protection’ amendments. Yet a mere eleven years later same-sex marriage was legal in all fifty states.

This sort of rapid transformative change was only possible, as Mark and Paul Engler argue so convincingly in This Is An Uprising, because of the movement for marriage equality that fought their battles in the court of public opinion, drew on a transformational vision and brought tens of thousands to the streets, to knock on doors and to tell their stories. It was, the Englers argue, the movement and the subsequent shifting of public opinion, that forced the change upon government and not, as conventional wisdom would argue, the government that granted the change to the people.   

It is here, in the power of people’s movements, that our best hope of curtailing further catastrophic climate change now rests. 

                                                      *   *  *

Fortunately, we are not starting from scratch. Far from it. Millions have already marched. Hundreds of thousands have already started organizing. Huge victories have already been won.

Keystone XL was once viewed as a done deal. It was nothing more than just another pipeline, just another piece of fossil fuel infrastructure among a hundred others. Then 1,234 people chose to get arrested outside of the White House opposing the pipeline, over 90,000 Americans signed the Pledge of Resistance and protests exploded all over the country. And on November 6th 2015 President Obama used his veto power to ensure that the Keystone XL would never be built.

Shell Image.jpg

In 2011 a few idealistic students started a campaign to push their universities to sell their fossil fuel stocks. Today almost $5 trillion worth of investment capital has formally committed to not investing in the fossil fuel industry.   

In May 2015, almost 500 people took to kayaks to protest Shell’s Arctic drilling. The protests spread around the world: from Portland to London to cities around the world. In September Shell formally pulled out of the Arctic, with an insider citing the “reputational element” as being a reason for their change of plan.

Here in the Pacific Northwest, the movement too has won some huge victories. Several years ago there were five new coal terminals slated for the Northwest. Five of those proposals are now dead. And they are dead because thousands of people flooded public hearings, attended rallies and took to the streets. That is the power of movements, that is the power of people and that is the power that the corporations are afraid of and beginning to wake up to.  

But as the scale of the problem increases exponentially so to must the movement.

And here’s a truth: I have no idea if we are going to be able to do it, I have no idea if we are going to win big enough, quickly enough -- the problem is already spiralling so quickly out of our control.

This much, however, I do know: without the movement, without the involvement of millions of ordinary people taking extraordinary action, without millions of people all over the world making fighting climate change a major part of their lives, without all of that, we are doomed.

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Mostly, I'll be writing about the climate movement and climate issues, but I may sporadically post about other topics too. 

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Why We Chose Not To Eat For Three Days

Last month was the 14th month in a row that broke all global temperature records, 3 record-breaking hurricanes have been recorded in the last 8 months, Arctic sea ice is virtually gone and, according to international health agencies, hundreds of thousands are already dying as a direct result of human-caused climate change. The only question is: what are you going to do about it? 

In 2014, eight school children petitioned Washington’s Department of Ecology to promulgate a rule capping greenhouse gas emissions using the "best available science."

Their petition was ignored and so they took Ecology to court.

Then, in November 2015, King County Superior Court Judge Hollis Hill denied the kids’ in court; however, she only did so because by that time the Department of Ecology was already developing a new carbon-emissions cap, under the Clean Air Act, having been ordered to do so under the executive order of Gov. Inslee.

Yet, in spite of her ultimate ruling, Judge Hill upheld every one of the kids’ fundamental arguments: finding that the Department of Ecology has an obligation, under both the state’s Clean Air Act and its Constitution, to protect the climate for future generations -- or in other words, she found that future generations have a constitutional right to a stable climate.

And so the kids went home, feeling as if they had both won and lost, and they went back to focusing on their homework and firing spitballs across the classroom until the Dept. of Ecology released the draft version of their new Clean Air Rule.

Ecology recently released their rule and, well, how to put this?

It fucking sucked. It certainly falls way, way short of protecting our future generations right to clean air and a stable climate. Which, if you ask me, is a pretty dang major failing.

The kids felt the same.

“The science states that we need emissions cuts of about 8% per year,” said Gabe Mandell, a fourteen-year-old involved in the court case. “This rule will only give us cuts of 1.7% of 2-3rds of the state’s emissions. And that means this Rule is failing to protect what a Superior Court Judge found to be our constitutional right to clean air and a stable climate.”

As part of 350 Seattle’s team working on the clean air rule, we started to look closely at the rule and -- like virtually every green group in town -- we found it pretty hard to argue with Gabe: the proposed rule does fall way short of ensuring a stable climate for future generations.

We also knew that time wasn’t on our side though. The two public hearings on the rule -- neither of which were in Seattle, a fact that would leave the D.O.E. open to accusations of excluding frontline communities from the conversation -- were less than two weeks’ away. Public comment closed only a week later. We knew that we would have to move fast to get people to wake up to this issue in time. But that wasn’t going to be easy. A wonky legislative rule just doesn’t have the same galvanizing appeal as an Arctic drilling rig parked in downtown Seattle. When it comes to reducing WA’s greenhouse gas emissions though, this fight is far more important than the one that would ultimately see Shell pull out of the Arctic.  

And so a small group of us decided that, three days prior to the public hearing, we would go on a hunger fast outside of Governor Inslee’s office. We agreed that we needed at least half-a-dozen parents and grandparents to join us.

On Tuesday the 12th of July, we arrived on the Capitol Steps. There was 19 of us, mostly parents and grandparents, who would be consuming nothing but water for the next three days. Eight more would be fasting from home and dozens of supporters joined us over the course of the three days.  

As those days progressed I thought a lot about what we were doing, why we were fasting and what we were trying to achieve. I was still thinking about this when we met with the Governor’s Chief of Staff, Dave Postman, and his climate change policy adviser, Chris Davis. By this time we hadn’t eaten for almost sixty hours.

At that meeting we were told that the rule was as strong as it could be given current existing legal realities. The meeting left my head spinning. I left the Governor’s office in no doubt that these were good men who cared deeply about this issue; however, I also realized something else: we were here, going without food on the steps of the Capitol, to highlight the moral realities.

Seven million people a year die as a direct result of air pollution. As many as 400,000 people a year already die because of human-caused climate change. That is the moral reality of this situation and the moral reality must overcome the legal reality.

I realized that was why we were here, why we were fasting: to fight for that truth, to ensure that the proposed rule was judged against no other “reality” than that moral reality.

A day later, after 72 hours without food, we attended the public hearing. The room was packed. The organizers, caught by surprise, were running into other rooms to get more chairs. Over 100 people signed up to give testimony. Every single testimony, bar one from a representative of a natural gas company, called for a stronger rule. Mothers held photos of their children and cried on stage. A father spoke of his heartbreak that his children had decided not to have kids of their own because of the state of the planet.

Of course, this had been part of the reason why we had been fasting: drawing attention to this issue so that room would be full, so that the Dept. of Ecology knew that while the titans of industry were preparing lawsuits and demanding a weaker rule, the public were holding photos of their children and demanding as strong a rule as possible. That was one reason why we hadn’t eaten for three days, but I knew it wasn’t the only reason.

Towards the end of a long evening, a grandfather walked to the front of the room to give his testimony. ‘I’m going to read a poem,’ he said. The poem, he told us, was called Hieroglyphic Stairway, written by Drew Dellinger and as this elderly man with greying hair read the poem aloud, I knew that I had found the real reason why I hadn’t eaten for 72 hours:

My great great grandchildren won’t let me sleep

My great great grandchildren ask me in dreams

What did you do while the planet was plundered?

What did you do when the earth was unraveling?

Surely you did something when the seasons started failing?

As the mammals, reptiles, birds were all dying?

Did you fill the streets with protest when democracy was stolen?

What did you do once you knew?

Thanks for joining my blog. I hope you enjoy my ramblings and if so you might also want to look into my first novel, The Activist.

You can learn more about The Activist here.
Or you can go right ahead & purchase it through any of the following links:


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