In a recent editorial (“Should pipeline tree sitters get 20 years in prison?” June 11, 2019), the Roanoke Times makes many good points about the latest efforts by the oil and gas industry to turn peaceful citizens into felons serving 20 years in prison. Sadly, the editor’s conclusion reveals a serious lack of understanding about change in the face of entrenched power.
The Roanoke Times dismisses the dangerous and physically draining act of tree-sitting as a “gleeful” and “colorful” activity and labels such direct action “futile,” lecturing pipeline opponents that they should raise money to pay for lawyers, compete with hedge fund managers by buying stocks in pipeline companies to “work against the project from within,” and work to elect politicians who will reform the whole system. Tree sitting is a “distraction.”
Ignoring, for the moment, the fact that opponents have been doing ALL of these things since 2015, I can’t help but be thankful that Martin Luther King and others who engaged in civil disobedience did not rely on sources like this. If King had confined himself to buying company stock, hiring lawyers and working on political campaigns, he never would have written a letter from the Birmingham jail after being arrested for civil disobedience. Instead of “I Have a Dream,” he would have said, “I Have a Proxy Vote.” Instead distracting everyone by integrating lunch counters, Freedom Riders would have watched Congress kill the same bills that had already languished in committee for 80 years. The media would never have shown the rest of the country what was happening in places such as Alabama and Mississippi. More recently, the Rev. Paul Wilson of the Union Hill Church in Buckingham County would never have been arrested for opposing construction of an Atlantic Coast Pipeline compressor station in his historically black community.
ALL of the peaceful methods being used to oppose projects such as Mountain Valley Pipeline are important — including filings to federal agencies, editorials/letters to the editor, visits to elected officials at all levels, testimony at all public hearings, numerous lawsuits on varied grounds, and the election of at least 28 Virginia state officials who oppose both MVP and ACP.
But hearts as well as minds must be changed, and direct action moves the media and the public, drawing their attention for at least a moment. Free speech and a free press are the backstops of democracy against overreach by both corporations and governments and sitting in trees is far less destructive than the Boston Tea Party, where they tossed private property into the harbor.
The editorial also failed to mention at least one notable court case against the very first MVP tree sitters, who were on Peters Mountain in West Virginia, just downhill from the site where MVP wishes to cross the Appalachian Trail. In early 2018, MVP asked the Monroe County Circuit Court to issue an injunction against the tree sitters so that MVP could cut down trees. After complex technical discussions, Judge Robert A. Irons refused MVP’s request. He noted that MVP had produced evidence that was “inherently confusing, and appeared to be internally inconsistent and inaccurate” and that it was offered by witnesses who had such an “enormous financial stake in the outcome of the MVP” that “much of their testimony [is] self-serving.” Far from buying MVP’s story that their financial interests were critical, Judge Irons noted that there was “no showing of irreparable harm, as the only claimed harm is economic loss to the partners in MVP.”
Judge Irons concluded that the tree sitters “generally represent the interest of the public and the environment, such as the interest in protecting the waters underlying Peters Mountain, its flora and fauna, its view shed, the [Appalachian Trail], and similar interests that will or may be destroyed. . . These interests may suffer irreparable harm if the preliminary injunction is granted.”
A few months later, judges in the federal Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals made very similar statements while withdrawing permits for both MVP and ACP because of environmental destruction in national forests, crossing of the Appalachian Trail and negative impacts on water. In the ACP ruling, labeled the “Lorax Decision,” the three-judge panel chided the U.S. Forest Service and others for failing to protect the environment and quoted Dr. Seuss: “We trust the United States Forest Service to ‘speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues.’”
It is no accident that sources as disparate as the Sierra Club, Ken Cuccinelli, the Garden Club of Virginia, George Will and the Roanoke County Board of Supervisors have opposed the current use of federal power to seize land for private pipelines for which there is no demonstrated public need. Many different strategies are required when dealing with issues as large as denial of civil rights or use of state power to benefit private corporations. And ALL are vital.