Valve Turners and fossil fuel divestment

What’s more effective than valve turning or tower toppling? Divestment.

WWALS Watershed Coalition advocates non-violent opposition to the unnecessary, destructive, and hazardous Sabal Trail fracked methane pipeline. As an organization, we do not participate in property damage, either. (Individual WWALS members may of course do whatever they like, as long as they don’t say they’re doing it on behalf of WWALS.) Among many other reasons, I think there is a more effective tactic: fossil fuel divestment. I think this because of the history of the anti-nuclear movement and because of how fast fossil fuel divestment is going compared to earlier divestment movements.

Photo: Ken Ward, EcoWatch, 6 March 2017, The Climate Data That Led to a Hung Jury

This reminds me of something long ago. Steve Liptay, Vimeo, 16 October 2016, SHUT IT DOWN TODAY,

On October 11, 2016, five brave climate activists, determined to act commensurately with the truth of unfolding climate cataclysm in the face of the failure of adequate policy, closed safety valves on the 5 pipelines carrying tar sands crude oil into the United States.

Martha Baskin, FSRN, 3 February 2017, Washington state jury refuses to convict first “valve-turner” in four state tar sands pipeline action,

In a surprise victory, a Washington state jury has refused to convict Ken Ward, the first of five “valve turners” who shut off tar sands pipelines from Canada to Washington in October of last year. Ken Ward, who turned off an emergency block valve on Kinder Morgan’s Trans-Mountain Pipeline, was charged with two felony counts. After more than five hours of deliberation, Ward’s three day trial ended in a hung jury, with at least one juror refusing to convict.

The prosecution in Ward’s case is expected to appeal the jury’s decision to not convict. The next valve-turner trial is expected sometime in the spring.

Found on, the defendant explains what he showed the jury that resulted in a mistrial. Ken Ward, EcoWatch, 6 March 2017, The Climate Data That Led to a Hung Jury,

In my defense, truncated as it was, I was able to present the barest minimum of information outlining and supporting the simplest and direst aspect of the climate emergency: catastrophic sea level rise and why my action can be considered appropriate in the circumstances.

For some number of the Skagit County jury, this limited data set on climate change impacts proved more persuasive that the graphic depiction of my actions. At the next trial, if the prosecution chooses to retry, we may expect that at least these exhibits will be introduced again.

Congratulations, jury, for doing your duty.

And this is what that case reminds me of. Harvey Wasserman, The Progressive, 27 February 2013, The Tower that Toppled a Terrible Technology,

There it stood, 500 feet of insult and injury. And then it crashed to the ground.

The weather tower at the proposed Montague double-reactor complex was meant to test wind direction in case of an accident. In early 1974, the project was estimated at $1.35 billion, as much as double the entire assessed value of all the real estate in this rural Connecticut Valley town, 90 miles west of Boston.

Then — 39 years ago this week — Sam Lovejoy knocked it down.

Does this sound familiar, residents of what a Spectra Energy executive from Houston, Texas called “the middle of nowhere”, our south Georgia and north Florida (and Alabama) where Sabal Trail is gouging its 100-foot-wide path of destruction?

When the local utility announced it would build atomic reactors on the eastern shore of the Connecticut River, 180 miles north of New York City, they thought they were walking into a docile rural community.

And this:

Nobody believed we could beat a massive corporation with more money than Lucifer. An initial poll showed three-quarters of the town in favor of the jobs, tax breaks and excitement the reactors would bring.

For us, one out of four of our neighbors was a pretty good start.

Remember only five years ago when everybody thought Big Coal was invincible and Cobb EMC wanted to build a coal plant in Ben Hill County, Georgia? Cobb EMC switched to solar plants. Nobody is building coal plants anymore; they’re being shut down left and right; China is cancelling new orders; and the market cap of U.S. coal companies is down by 90%. The bigger they are, the harder they fall.

But nationwide, when Richard Nixon said there’d be 1000 US reactors by the year 2000, nobody doubted him.

Richard Nixon, The American Presidency Project, 18 April 1973, 128 – Special Message to the Congress on Energy Policy,

Our well-established nuclear technology already represents an indispensable source of energy for meeting present needs. At present there are 30 nuclear power plants in operation in the United States; of the new electrical generator capacity contracted for during 1972, 70 percent will be nuclear powered. By 1980, the amount of electricity generated by nuclear reactors will be equivalent to 1.25 billion barrels of oil, or 8 trillion cubic feet of gas. It is estimated that nuclear power will provide more than one-quarter of this country’s electrical production by 1985, and over half by the year 2000.

That would be a thousand nuclear generating sites by the year 2000. Do you see a thousand nukes? Nope, the number peaked at about 104 and is going down rapidly. Here’s why.

Back to Harvey:

Nuclear power was a popular assumption, a given supported by a large majority of the world’s population. We needed a jolt to get our movement off the ground.

That would be the tower….

So at 4am on Washington’s Birthday (which back then was still February 22), Sam knocked it down. In a feat of mechanical daring many of us still find daunting, he carefully used a crow bar to unfasten one…then two…then a third turnbuckle. The wires on the other two sides of the triangulated support system then pulled down six of the tower’s seven segments, leaving just one 70-foot stump still standing. It was so loud, Sam said, he was “amazed the whole town didn’t wake up.”

But this was the Montague Plains, the middle of nowhere. Sam ran to the road and flagged down the first car — it happened to be a police cruiser — and asked for a ride to the Turners Falls station. Atomic energy, said his typed statement, was dangerous, dirty, expensive, unneeded and, above all, a threat to our children. Tearing down the tower was a legitimate means of protecting the community.

This being Massachusetts, Sam was freed later that morning on his personal promise to return for trial. Facing a felony charge in September, he was acquitted on a technicality. A jury poll showed he would have been let go anyway.

The legendary historian Howard Zinn testified on Sam’s behalf. So did Dr. John Gofman, first health director of the Atomic Energy Commission, who flew from California to warn this small-town jury that the atomic reactors he helped invent were instruments of what he called “mass murder.”

Harvey’s article continues about the rallies at the Seabrook, New Hampshire nuclear plant site, which peaked at 20,000 people. He doesn’t mention the split in Clamshell after a fraction decided to take up clippers to cut fences to get into the site. They even adapted a children’s song and dance:

You put your clippers in,
you take your clippers out,
You put your clippers in,
and you shake them all about…

The state troopers from as far away as Rhode Island were not amused.

Yes, I was there. No, I did not have clippers. No, I was not an organizer. And the clipper people were not among the original organizers. In fact, that tactic caused the end of the demonstrations at the nuke site.

Harvey was one of the founders of the Clamshell Alliance. Here’s more from him and other organizers. Al Giordano, No Nukes Oral History Project, 8 May 2014, Clam Magic: The Birth of a National Anti-Nuclear Movement, A Chapter from the Oral History of How the No Nukes Movement (1973-1982) Saved the United States and Maybe the World,

Renny Cushing: We were trying to couch ourselves in terms that we’re defending our community against an outside invasion: Against the power company, the big banks, Wall Street, they we’re all coming to just occupy and take over our community, to drive the people out of their homes, to take people’s jobs, and, you know, to steal our democracy. We were conscious that it was going to be us. That whoever they put up to counter us, we knew they wouldn’t have anybody who wasn’t a flack. They couldn’t speak with any authenticity about the community and what the struggle was. Having authentic voices saying, “There’s my house here, these are our lives, this is not something that’s a movie, this is really our lives that are being directly affected by this.” And we wanted to do that. And New Hampshire tends to be, like a lot of places, a little xenophobic, or when it’s people from away, you’re always easily dismissed. But when it’s your neighbors doing something, it really does set a different tone.

Sound familiar?

And if I sound so positive about the Valve Turners and Sam Lovejoy’s tower toppling, why do I say there’s a better tactic?

Because of what Renny Cushing said: the big banks and Wall Street are the source of the problem, because they finance the utilities and companies that build these boondoggles for profit.

John Cavanagh and Robin Broad, YesMagazine, 25 October 2011, Occupy Wall Street, 1979: Before there were hashtags, more than a thousand protesters were arrested for trying to shut Wall Street down for a day …,

Thirty-two years ago, the two of us and 1,043 other protesters were arrested for what one would now call “occupying” Wall Street. It was October 29, 1979, the 50th anniversary of the Wall Street crash that ushered in the Great Depression. We two were then graduate students at Princeton, and we had trained for weeks as part of an “affinity group” of about a dozen people prepared to commit acts of civil disobedience to prevent what we saw as a greater evil. It was about six months after the catastrophe at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. And so, on the 29th, thousands of us blocked off the entrances to Wall Street to protest the corporate funding of the nuclear power industry.

But the protests were not only about the nuclear industry. The day before, we had joined a giant rally against corporate power at the World Trade Center. Then, in the early dawn of the 29th, our affinity group and hundreds of other such groups from across the country gathered to surround Wall Street and shut it down. Our group went to its assigned street corner where we sat down and linked arms. Police were everywhere, many of them seated menacingly atop horses; they were equally determined to keep Wall Street open that day.

There’s a video.

Uploaded on Oct 12, 2011
This is a short clip from the film “Early Warnings” that details the sit-in that happened on Wall Street on the 50th Anniversary of the 1929 Stock Market Crash. The protestors were demanding an end to financial support for the nuclear industry and the action was part of the larger occupations at the Seabrook Nuclear Power Plant. The costumed figures on stilts are from the Bread and Puppet Theatre. The film is from Green Mountain Post Films

Notice the friendly interactions with the police.

The protestors didn’t shut down Wall Street, because there’s an underground tunnel for traders to get in. I know this because I was there. No, I wasn’t arrested. I am proud to say I helped distribute flyers for the event around the New York City metro area.

Brandon Bauer saved to Nuclear Disarmament Posters
Anne Katz ~ designer – Take It to Wall Street: Stop Nuclear Investments (1979)

What that event at the Stock Exchange did was kick-start nuclear divestment.

And fossil fuel divestment got kicked off at Harvard in 2015, in response to an article by Bill McKibben, who got his start reporting on the Seabrook anti-nuke demonstrations.

Fossil fuel divestment is going faster than previous divestment movements against apartheid, against tobacco, etc.

More recently, divestment has bloomed across Florida against the Sabal Trail boondoggle, with a Day of Divestment this coming Friday:

More new U.S. electricity came from solar power than any other source in 2016, the solar industry already employs more people than coal, oil, and gas combined, and by 2023 more total U.S. electricity will come from solar than any other source. When FPL could buy a lost more megawatts per hour of solar power than that Sabal Trail boondoggle would ever produce, you know natural gas is going down, just like nukes and coal before. The bigger they are, the harder they fall.

Demonstrations against nukes didn’t stop, and there was a later tower-toppling. I don’t say there’s only one tactic, and I don’t say who should participate in what. There are lots more tactics, such as getting Congress to take eminent domain out of the Natural Gas Act.

I do say Clamshell and the anti-nuke movement proved Richard Nixon wrong. And one of the most important ways that happened was through divestment. If big money sees an industry as having too much opposition, it may conclude that industry is not profitable, and no more industry expansion.

Except where it explicitly states WWALS policy, this article is my own personal opinions, not an organizational position of WWALS Watershed Coalition, Inc.

 -jsq, John S. Quarterman, Suwannee RIVERKEEPER®

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