Letter: Sometimes civil disobedience is the only answer

Supporters of legislation aimed at “protecting” North Dakota’s infrastructure (Senate Bill 2044) appear to believe the old way of doing things is always the correct way. These status quo adherents are ignoring history, along with the injustice and injury this recalcitrant conservatism maintains.

I attended the first day of Michael Foster’s trial in Cavalier, N.D. Foster is one of the “valve turners,” who on Oct. 11, 2016, stopped the flow of 70 percent of the tar sands crude oil flowing from Canada into the United States. These environmental activists believe their actions—i.e., breaking existing laws—is justified to avert a greater harm: the exacerbation of climate change.

Tar sands crude is some of the dirtiest on the planet. Furthermore, this highly viscous crude (like tar) essentially has to be “mined,” as if it were more like coal. As a result, at least two million acres of pristine boreal forest in Alberta is under threat. That’s an area six times the size of New York City, according to Global Forest Watch.

Foster and his fellow activists used bolt cutters to cut padlocks and chains so they literally could turn valves to stop crude from flowing. These valves are components of the safety features designed in to pipelines. The purpose of a valve is to be turned. The valve turners are guilty of trespassing and destroying private property (padlocks and chains) belonging to TransCanada Corporation, a company based in Calgary, Alberta—that is, a company with a demonstrably less than stellar environmental record.

For his act of conscience, Foster faced a maximum sentence of 21 years. Did his crime justify that punishment? Evidently not. The prosecution recommended five years. His sentence was three years with two years deferred. He served about six months in jail.

Sometimes laws need to be changed because either society, technology and/or other factors have advanced to such a degree that regulations are antiquated, and worse: harmful. In instances where these laws stubbornly remain on the books, civil disobedience is required.

In 1872, Susan B. Anthony was arrested for voting in the presidential election. Ordered to pay a $100 fine, Anthony replied, “I shall never pay a dollar of your unjust penalty.” And. She. Never. Did.

On Aug. 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment, allowing women the right to vote, became the law of the land. However, some states were ahead of the curve. North Dakota passed limited voting-rights legislation in 1917—when the North Dakota Nonpartisan League controlled the House of Representatives.

Oh, that North Dakota would be as proactive when it comes to energy policy.

The Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” after being forcefully arrested on April 12, 1963, during a massive civil rights protest. The letter supports nonviolent resistance and emphasizes that people have a moral responsibility to break unjust laws and to take direct action.

In 1964, King received the Nobel Peace Prize. The Voting Rights Act became the law of land in 1965.

This column was submitted for consideration in The Forum's search for "the next great columnist."