Two years ago, 51-year-old poet Emily Johnston took a large pair of bolt cutters to a length of chain locked around the manual shut-off valve at an Enbridge, Inc. pipeline facility in Clearwater County, Minnesota. As part of a coordinated action on October 11, 2016, with activists in three other states — all of whom would shortly be known as “the Valve Turners” — Johnston intended to stop the flow of oil from Canada’s tar sands into the United States.
Activist and retired attorney Annette Klapstein joined Johnston in the action in Clearwater, and before Johnston snapped the cutters through the chain, their collaborator Benjamin Joldersma called Enbridge as a safety precaution to inform the corporation of their intention to close the pipeline minutes later. Once the chain was removed, Johnston took the yellow-orange shutoff valve into her hands. With Klapstein looking on and Joldersma filming, she turned the wheel.
Since the Valve Turners’ nonviolent direct action in October 2016, environmental groups’ use of this tactic in their fight for the climate has only grown. Earlier this year, actions by First Nations organizers played a major role in halting the expansion of the Kinder Morgan Trans Mountain oil pipeline. Around the same time, activists protesting the Mountain Valley Pipeline crouched under tarps in tree platforms in the proposed pipelines’ path along West Virginia’s border. Just last Friday, water protectors opposed to Energy Transfer Partner’s Bayou Bridge Pipeline in Louisiana locked themselves to the front gates of the CEO’s mansion in Dallas.
Like the rest of the Valve Turners, Johnston — who is also the co-founder of the environmental group 350 Seattle — was arrested in Clearwater. She requested a trial by jury. Last week, she finally got one; or rather, she would have, if Minnesota Judge Robert Tiffany had not dismissed all charges brought against her, Klapstein and…