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Native view: Water protectors have little choice but civil disobedience

A water protestor is taken away in handcuffs after he was freed from being chained to his car outside the entrance of Michel's, a contractor for Enbridge, in Superior on Thursday morning. (Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com)

Why do water protectors face arrest and imprisonment? Portrayed as reckless, many water protectors feel their actions are necessary and call on a long history of civil and human rights movements.

There's a legal term known as the "necessity defense," a defense that permits a person to act in a criminal manner in an emergency situation not of the person's own creation to avoid greater harm from occurring. I feel like extraordinary times require extraordinary actions, and I am thankful to the water protectors who are standing up in Wisconsin ("Protesters lock down Superior site," Sept. 15).

Enbridge's Line 3 oil pipeline replacement project is barreling toward Minnesota, where a court-ordered environmental impact statement process has been fast-tracked. The process is at 280 days while a thorough examination would take years, not months. I don't feel secure.

In Wisconsin, Enbridge was able to secure a number of concessions in a regulatory era dominated by Gov. Scott Walker. A Jan. 21 Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editorial told how Wisconsin's regulatory agencies were swept aside for Enbridge.

"This should be where state government comes in to ensure that the pipelines are safe and appropriately regulated," the editorial read. "Instead, Enbridge successfully lobbied the Wisconsin Legislature in 2015 to quietly adjust a state law so that private property adjacent to the firm's 80-foot easement can be more easily condemned under eminent domain — a move that opens the door to expanding the easement's width through the state, with or without property owners' consent."

A landowner group known as 80 Feet is Enough is challenging Enbridge's eminent domain.

Legislation also was passed barring counties from seeking insurance to protect farm land from oil spills. As the Milwaukee newspaper reported, "An attempt by Dane County to require Enbridge to carry $25 million in insurance to clean up spills was thwarted after the Legislature added a last-minute provision in the state budget, also in 2015, that stripped counties' ability to demand such insurance. Dane County Supervisor Patrick Miles, a Democrat, called the move 'an act of political cowardice.'"

The water protectors being arrested near Superior are not alone in their frustration. Many were at Standing Rock, and after Standing Rock, tribal governments released data on sacred sites to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and to Energy Transfer Partners with the claim that the corporation destroyed sacred sites.

After President Barack Obama slowed down construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, President Donald Trump overturned it. And a lot of us got shot at, tear-gassed, arrested, and sprayed with unknown toxic stuff.

Across the country, principled people are being charged for opposing pipelines. Take the case of 98-year-old Frances Crowe in Massachusetts. She explained in court, "I care a lot about my grandchildren and all grandchildren in the world. ... And I had exhausted my administrative remedies when I went to the pipeline to put my body there to say 'no.'"

In Minnesota, four individuals are charged with turning valves on Enbridge pipelines near Clearbrook. Facing felony charges, their attorney Timothy Phillips wrote, "Their actions were motivated by the need to mitigate catastrophic climate change and its effects on public health and the natural environment. ... The economic power of oil, gas, and coal companies, exacerbated by corruption and the evisceration of public participation in policymaking, have blocked government action on climate change, leaving no reasonable legal alternative for individuals seeking to avert its ongoing harms."

So here we are, Minnesota, looking down the barrel of a pipeline, and history is being written. As wildfires burn to the West and South and as floods and hurricanes lay to waste entire countries, states, and islands, I am sure which side of history I am going to be on.

Winona LaDuke lives on the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota. She has written six books on environmental and Native American issues and directs Honor the Earth, a national Native American environmental foundation. She wrote this for the News Tribune.

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