Bringing the Climate Disobedience Movement into Our Classrooms
Illustrator: Roger Peet
I am a runner. I run for time alone, to catch up on history podcasts, and because exercise is one of the few reliable tools I have to combat the depression and anxiety that have been permanent fixtures of my life since childhood. Last year I ran my first marathon. In August 2020, I ran my second. I run thousands of miles a year, all outdoors.
But during the second week of September? I ran 0.0 miles.
Like my friends to the north in Washington and to the south in California, in September we in Oregon were in the midst of a horrific fire season. And I, inconvenienced by the loss of my daily running ritual, and banished indoors, was among the lucky ones. I had permanent shelter. My drinking water was still, for the moment, clean. I did not have to evacuate, lose my home, or die.
Lucky yes, and yet the weather app on my phone told me day after day that the air in my city was “hazardous”; my throat, eyes, nose, headache, and nausea confirmed the designation — the air was unbreathable.
The unchecked burning of carbon is leading to warmer temperatures and more regular drought, which leads to more fires, which burns more carbon, creating even hotter and drier conditions, and more fire. As I sat in my house in Portland facing this devastating feedback loop, my compatriots on the other side of the country hunkered down for another hurricane. My phone pinged with New York Times alerts reading, “Water rushes into coastal cities as Hurricane Sally crawls inland” and “Behind Sally, more storms loom in the Atlantic.”
Then and now, our government is killing us. As the ongoing police murders of Black people, and staggering COVID deaths over the last year make clear, it is disproportionately killing the already vulnerable, already persecuted, and already beleaguered; but none of us is safe. All of us have the target of our country’s inaction in the face of the already-here climate disaster on our backs. And the faster and more frankly we recognize that reality, the better our chances of salvaging ourselves, protecting each other, and doing what is necessary to build a new world with our students and children.
In October 2016, five middle-aged white activists from Washington and Oregon became “Valve Turners,” coordinating the (illegal) manual closing of the emergency shutoff valves on Canadian tar sands pipelines across four states: Washington, Montana, North Dakota, and Minnesota.
Ken Ward, Leonard Higgins, Emily Johnston, Annette Klapstein, and Michael Foster said their actions were a response to the call by Indigenous activists for International Days of Prayer and Action for Standing Rock; they further explained their reasoning in a letter to President Barack Obama:
We have tried every avenue by which engaged citizens might advance such concerns — in this case, ecological — in public policy, and nothing has worked. There is no plausible means or mechanism by which the extraction and burning of coal and tar sands oil from existing mines and fields can be halted on the timeline now required by any ordinary, legal means.
Arrested and charged with trespassing, sabotage, burglary, criminal mischief, and other “critical energy infrastructure” crimes, all the defendants mobilized a “necessity defense,” a legal approach that does not deny the defendant’s criminal action, but argues that it was carried out in order to prevent a greater harm — in this case, the continued extraction and burning of fossil fuels that is warming our climate and killing us.
While the mainstream media paid little attention to these dramatic acts of civil disobedience and the trials that followed, filmmakers Jan Haaken and Samantha Praus have created an hour-long documentary about the Valve Turners’ actions to support the ongoing and Indigenous-led movement against Enbridge’s Line 3 in Minnesota. Necessity: Oil, Water, and Climate Resistance is a film we should introduce to our students. It weaves together many strands: the pipeline’s particular threat to the Indigenous people through whose land it runs; the pipeline’s universal threat as a conveyor of the fossil fuels that are scorching the Earth; and the rich array of creative activism — exercised by differently positioned groups and individuals — needed to sustain a successful climate justice movement.
In February 2020, I eagerly wrote a lesson to introduce the film to my students. Teaching in an overwhelmingly white suburb of Portland, I thought my students would be excited by the film’s attention to the role of “white allies” in an Indigenous-led movement, as well as by the examples of 21st-century civil disobedience, which is too often portrayed as a relic of the past, evident in the sepia-toned photos of the sit-ins and Freedom Rides, but not applicable in our own time.
But by March, schools were shuttered due to the coronavirus and my lesson plans were moot. Although students still watched the film (which they liked and seemed engaged by), I did not get a chance to try out the activity I designed to accompany it until this fall, with about 100 educators at the annual Indigenous People’s Day teach-in (held virtually on Zoom) hosted by the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) and Teaching for Change.
The lesson is a mixer role play, a strategy that will be familiar to readers of Rethinking Schools, reflecting 19 characters from the film’s storyline — most of whom appear on camera and a few who do not. I designed the activity to build anticipation for my students’ viewing of the film; the roles explore the motivations and actions of each of the activists, but do not reveal the outcomes of the trials or whether any of the defendants succeed in their mobilization of the necessity defense. I also hoped students would feel a jolt of excitement each time they saw someone on screen that they had already “met” in our class activity, and have a bit more of a stake in tracking their stories in the film.
Though with students I intended to do the mixer before showing the film, at the NMAI teach-in I started with key scenes from the documentary. I said, “We don’t have time to see the whole film today, but I want to share with you a few excerpts. What I love about this film is the way it has expanded my understanding of place. It beautifully surfaces the geographic, historical, and cultural meanings of place — the water, land, food, animals, and peoples of a particular spot in the place we today call Minnesota. But it also challenges us to consider another kind of place — our social location, our race, class, age, etc. — and our place in a social movement.”
I said, “As you watch, pay attention to what you notice about place, but also anything else that grabs your heart or mind. Be ready to share some poignant moments or aha’s in the chat.”
Afterward, one person wrote, “My aha — even a perfect pipeline is a bad pipeline!” Another person asked, “Who decides what is deemed criminal?” A third participant wrote, “White accomplices acting in solidarity!”
An overwhelming number of participants commented on the words of Debra Topping, a Fond du Lac Ojibwe Water Protector who is a central figure in the film. As one participant wrote, “I was most moved by the moment when the Water Protector said, ‘Who’s going to tell them that the water and fish are contaminated?’ referring to the birds.”
In this powerful scene, Topping stands next to a scratched and battered sign on the St. Louis River that reads:
FISH IN THIS SECTION
OF THE ST. LOUIS RIVER
MN. DEPT. OF HEALTH
MEALS OF THESE FISH.
CALL MN. DEPT OF
HEALTH FOR MORE INFO.
When she calls the number — using her iPhone on speaker — she gets the familiar three-tone chime of the “this number has been disconnected” message. Just at that moment a flock of ducks skitters across the water and into the air. Topping looks at the camera, points at the birds, and challenges, “I want to know exactly what that message is saying to them right there. Who is telling them that the fish in this river are contaminated? Who is telling them that?!”
Others wrote about another scene in which Topping stands atop a section of the Line 3 pipeline. She says she can feel the warmth of the oil flowing beneath through her moccasins, then adds, “If this were to leak, these waters flow into our wild rice lakes. That is what we are sacrificing. How do you pay for that, Enbridge? How do you put money signs on that for the next seven generations?”
Though I had created the mixer to build interest in the film, the opposite proved to be true as well — the film clips seemed to pique the interest of the NMAI teach-in educators. I showed only three scenes (about 12 minutes of footage total), but the chat brimmed with comments and questions. The participant who wrote, “How come I have never heard of the necessity defense???” was met by a chorus of “me too!” and “I know!” in the chat.
As we transitioned into the mixer, I pushed out roles to each attendee and, as I would if we were in person, I asked folks to take a few minutes to read their role a couple of times, jotting down a list of key information about their characters. Though the mixer roles are each only about half a page, they’re pretty dense, so students need at least five to seven minutes to really digest them. Here, for example, is part of what I wrote for Debra Topping:
I have harvested wild rice in the shallow lakes near my home for 38 years — and the treaties my People signed with the U.S. government protect my right to do so. In late summer, I use two lightweight wood batons, called “knockers,” to pull the stalks of grass over the canoe, and swat the husked tips into the boat. The seeds are full of protein and taste good, too. My grandson’s favorite is when I cook them inside a pumpkin, with sweet potatoes and squash. Our family needs hundreds of pounds of wild rice per year, for ourselves and to share with the community during feasts, ceremonies, and funerals. You cannot separate wild rice from what it means to be Anishinaabe. That’s why I am fighting so hard against Enbridge’s Line 3 tar sands pipeline project. The multinational corporation wants to build an oil pipeline along a new 1,000-mile route transporting 760,000 barrels of crude oil a day from the Alberta tar sands in Canada to Wisconsin.
Here is another excerpt from a role representing one of the movement lawyers, Lauren Regan of the Civil Liberties Defense Center (CLDC).
Working to defend Valve Turners in court is an obvious choice for CLDC. Valve Turners are activists who shut down pipelines. They commit civil disobedience — breaking the law — to draw attention to the necessity of decreasing the burning of fossil fuels as fast as humanly possible. We use a necessity defense — also sometimes called the lesser-of-evils defense — to argue that the harm posed by the oil industry far exceeds the harm caused by the actions of the Valve Turners. We want to give jurors, people just like you and me, the opportunity to think through who the real criminals are. The activists who break laws to stop catastrophic climate change? Or the policymakers and industries that cause it?
The roles are rich in information, some of which is in the film, some of which I gathered from additional sources. It is this information that I hoped students would share with each other as they met and mixed in the activity.
In the in-person, non-distanced classrooms of pre-pandemic yore, once everyone had read their roles, students would simply start bustling around the room, meeting one another, using guiding questions to anchor their discussions. Online, everything is a bit more complicated. In the Zoom version, I still offered participants some questions — these were attached to their role, pushed out in the chat, using Google Docs — to structure their conversations. For example, question No. 2 is “Find someone who knows about the necessity defense. Who are they? What is the necessity defense?” Question No. 7 reads “Find someone who knows about the impact of the fossil fuel industry on Indigenous rights and lands. Who are they? What did you learn from them?” But full disclosure? How useful these questions were to participants is a bit of a mystery to me, since their conversations with each other occurred in Zoom breakout rooms away from my prying, teacherly eyes.
Since I was pressed for time, we were able only to do two rotations of Zoom rooms, with three people per meeting, for about five minutes per round. With more time, I would have done at least three or four rotations. After the first rotation, I asked participants to jot down in the chat things they’d learned or interesting people they’d met in the first breakout room. This question had two purposes. First, it bridged the awkward wait time before the next breakout room was set up. Second, it allowed people a moment to process the conversations they’d just had. One person wrote, “I met a lawyer who was defending my character!” Another person wrote, “Benjamin Joldersma — filmed the resistance/direct action (turning off valves) because elected officials won’t save us from climate change — ordinary people must act.”
After the final breakout room, I asked everyone to take a few moments to write down some of their thoughts — about what they’d learned, the people they’d met, the relevance of the topic, or the lesson itself — before debriefing as a group. After a few minutes, I said, “OK, who’d like to start?” Little blue hands began popping up on Zoom profiles.
I called on the first person, who said, “I so appreciated that this lesson presents Native people in the present; too often Native people are only talked about in the past tense.” In the chat, someone else built on that theme. They wrote, “This [activity] is really important for teaching students about the colonization of Indigenous land, not only to combat the false narrative that Indigenous people only exist in the past, but to highlight the fact that they have always resisted oppression and injustice in service of justice.” Another participant said they thought the film would help students process their place in this summer’s rebellion for racial justice and to think about “why people make the choices that they do to get involved in civil disobedience or activism in different ways (in the streets, in the courts, in their communities, etc.).” An elementary teacher asked a hard question that, due to time, went unanswered, but which nevertheless made a powerful ending for the workshop. She said, “How do you address that idea of criminalizing people who are seeking justice with children so that they are not afraid to speak up?”
Let me briefly try to answer that final question now. I do not deny that this lesson reveals a discomfiting reality about our past and present: What is moral is not always legal and what is legal is not always just. I do not want students to fear that acting for justice will make them criminals, but I do want them to understand that were that to happen, they would be in good company. My hope is that young people who encounter the unsettling contradictions raised by climate disobedience are spurred to think about its larger implications. And that they are given permission, through the example of a curriculum rich in stories and histories of everyday people acting for justice, to dream and work for a better system, one in which moral actions are matched by moral laws, clean water and air matter more than profits, treaties are honored, and a healthy, fair future is secured for the next seven generations and beyond.
After the workshop, one teacher stayed on the call for a bit to clarify something that was nagging at them. They said, “I noticed you didn’t include anyone on the other side. There were no representatives of Enbridge Corporation, for example. I always try to include multiple perspectives in my curriculum. But this lesson seemed like it only had one.” This is a fair point. It is true that this lesson includes no climate deniers, no fossil fuel robber barons, no technology-will-save-us evangelizers. In another lesson I co-wrote on oil pipelines, about the #NoDAPL movement at Standing Rock, I and my collaborators did include the viewpoints of Energy Transfer Partners, the corporation behind the project, and the construction workers’ union, which supported it. In that lesson, one of our goals was for students to understand the different economic, historical, cultural, and political interests in the fight over DAPL. But that was not my goal here. Here, I wanted to bring into high relief the whole array of participants in the #StopLine3 movement — those like Debra Topping, who are its spokespeople; those like the poet Emily Johnston, who literally turned off the flow of oil; those like Benjamin Joldersma, who streamed Johnston’s actions to YouTube and Facebook for the world to see; those like lawyer Alice Cherry, who represented climate activists in court; those like engineer Anthony Ingraffea, who used an insider’s knowledge of the oil business to provide expert testimony in the trials. I ended up thinking that to provide Enbridge a seat at the curricular table would not help students gain a deeper understanding of this bright and varied tapestry of resistance, but actually distract them from it.
I want my students to have the examples of civil disobedience revealed by Necessity because it is going to take all of us doing what is necessary to stop the harms that 2020 put on such grand display — to act against white supremacy and to end to police murder of Black people, for a just response to the coronavirus and health care for all, to secure a livable planet, where we all can breathe. Our classrooms can join that effort, whether in-person or online, by sharing the stories of justice seekers who are choosing action over apathy, “making a way out of no way,” and providing hopeful models on which our students might build a breathable — and necessary — future.