The Flood
No Trespassing Catholic Workers occupying the Enbridge pipe yard storage facility, April 2018; Image courtesy of fournecessity.org

No Trespassing

A Profile of the Four Necessity Valve Turners

By Jeannine M. Pitas \ 2019-06-02

As the weather gets more and more unpredictable, as glaciers vanish and sea levels rise,  climate activists around the world are sounding the alarm, warning that we are not responding quickly enough. After nearly a year of prayerful reflection and discernment, Michele Naar-Obed, Daniel Yildirim, Brenna Cussen-Anglada and Allyson Polman – all farmers associated with the Catholic Worker Movement – decided to take a radical step.

On February 4, 2019, they entered an Enbridge Energy Valve site, breaking the lock with bolt cutters and replacing it, then cutting the chain for Pipeline Three, which transports crude oil from the Alberta Tar Sands to processing facilities in Northern Wisconsin. Before using their tools to turn off the valves, they called the company and gave them the chance to turn them off remotely. As a result of their action, the four valve turners were arrested,  jailed for forty-eight hours and charged with a felony and gross misdemeanor. If convicted, they could face up to five years in prison.

“We're hoping to use the necessity defense at our trial,” explains Cussen-Anglada, a farmer at St. Isidore Catholic Worker Farm in Cuba City, Wisconsin. “If there is a building on fire with a child trapped inside, but outside the building there's a 'no trespassing' sign, anyone in their right mind would go in to save the child.” For her and the other valve turners – who are not the first activists to undertake such an action -  the world is on fire. An October 2018 report from the UN’s International Panel on Climate Change gave humanity twelve years to take drastic action to transition away from the fossil fuel economy in order to mitigate climate change, warning of irreversible damage to the planet's habitibility if we fail.

“I believe it is up to ordinary people,” says Allyson Polman, a young farmer originally from Texas whose spiritual journey led her to drop out of college, begin farming, join the Catholic Worker movement, and ultimately convert to the Catholic faith. This valve turning action is her first act of civil disobedience. “I was inspired by our fellow valve turner Michele Naar-Obed, who has been involved in antinuclear activism for years and relates Jesus' message to her own antiwar message. I'd never before met an activist who took Jesus as a model. I loved the idea of a spiritual life fuelling activism.”

In terms of the effectiveness of the group's action, Cussen-Anglada believes that in this case they might see tangible, concrete results. “Doing the right thing is always worthwhile, even if it doesn't have a global impact. Even if they are not directly effective, these actions can be seen as an effort to cooperate with God's will,” she says. Although the necessity defense has rarely been successful in civil disobedience cases before, Cussen-Anglada is hopeful, “we have a chance of winning our case in court.This will set a precedent for others to use the necessity defense for climate activism, and it will add our action to the movements of indigenous people and other activists, becoming an unstoppable force. We have the chance to do something that will have a legal as well as a spiritual impact.”

Polman mentions that all of Enbridge's pipelines are currently backed up due to activists' efforts. She adds that, like all struggles for justice, each action must be understood in the context of a broader movement. The small action of valve turning, which we've done in imitation of indigenous activists and others, is linked to a much larger ecological movement. People use their gifts in different ways. And we believe that prayer coming from the right place is also a very effective form of action.”

As farmers, both women have begun to feel the effects of climate change on their work. “Texas usually has a water shortage in the summers, but in the five years I've farmed there, I've actually seen more flooding,” says Polman. “It's getting hotter and hotter, looking almost tropical. We now grow limes and avocados in the North of Texas. Meanwhile, the weather has become more erratic.”

Cussen-Anglada, who has farmed in the Driftless Region of Northeast Iowa and Southwest Wisconsin for a decade, agrees that the weather has become more unpredictable: “In 2011 we had fourteen inches of rain in one night; the previous record had been seven. More recently, torrential rains have turned some of our pastures into rocks and mud. The last frost is supposed to be around May 15, but that is not always the case now. It's difficult because we have paying customers we need to provide for, and so much of our work depends on us being outside.”

As I write this. the trial date is not yet set, and while being sentenced to prison remains a real possibility, neither of these women is afraid. As for the future, Cussen-Anglada admits that she does not place much faith in humanity's capacity to reverse climate change. “The earth is billions of years old and will outlast this, though I don't know if humanity will do so well. However, I believe that God created this world, and as a Catholic I feel called to stand up for justice. Our Scriptures tell us to stand up for the most vulnerable:  those marginalized by the dominant society. Indigenous communities are taking the lead. As a descendent of settler-colonizers of this land, I seek to support the work that they are already doing.”

Polman is reassured by her faith , “I love the Church's emphasis on valuing the dignity of all life as well as its teaching that we should consult and follow our conscience, which is the Holy Spirit. It's really quite simple. I try to remain deeply grounded in the desire to celebrate the dignity of all life.”

Jeannine M. Pitas is a writer, teacher, and Spanish-English literary translator currently living in Iowa, where she teaches at the University of Dubuque.