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Michigan Authorities Collude With Tar Sands Company In Jailing Nonviolent Protesters

In the fourth episode of our podcast (we’re working on a name, I swear), Firedoglake’s Kevin Gosztola and I speak with Chloe Gleichman from the Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands (MI CATS) about three Michigan activists who face up to two years behind bars for participating in nonviolent direct action to prevent the construction of an Enbridge Inc. tar sands pipeline. 

Last summer, three members of MI CATS—Vicci Hamlin, Barb Carter and Lisa Leggio—locked themselves to excavators at an Enbridge construction site to block the the expansion of a pipeline that ruptured in 2010, flooding the Kalamazoo River with 800,000 gallons of crude oil. On January 31, the three were found guilty of misdemeanor trespassing and resisting and obstructing police, a felony that carries with it a maximum two year prison sentence. Their sentencing hearing is scheduled for March. Until then, they are stuck in prison because the judge denied them bond.

It’s a crime how little attention this story has received. These nonviolent activists are on the front lines of preventing the transport of Canadian tar sands oil, which threatens the health and safety of the entire planet. Their communities are directly impacted by the havoc these pipeline companies and their dirty product wreak. Meanwhile, the system that’s supposed to be protecting them is instead colluding with oil companies to muzzle and imprison their victims. These brave activists need and deserve our support.

After speaking with Chloe, Kevin and I go on to discuss several underreported news items, including a massive coal ash spill in North Carolina, the rising child mortality rate in Detroit that rivals third world countries, the PTSD crisis in poor inner-city neighborhoods that’s going untreated, the cover-up of a lynching in a Texas sundown town, the outrageous George Zimmerman celebrity boxing match (it’s since been called off, thank god) and the trivialization of terrorism at the NATO 3 trial (good news since we recorded, the prosecution lost!).

You can listen to the episode here:

I’m not sure when but very soon you will be able to subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, where you can download it automatically. But before that can happen, we need to come up with a name. In the spirit of listener-powered media and community engagement, we’d love to hear your ideas for possible names and of course we will credit you and give you many shout outs if we your suggestion is the winner. You can leave your recommendations in the comments section or tweet us at @kgosztola and @raniakhalek. We look forward to hearing from you!

The transcript of our interview with Chloe:

KEVIN GOSZTOLA, What drove people to take action? What was the action? And then what was the reason why you had three members of your organization put on trial?

CHLOE GLEICHMAN, MICATS: Sure. Thanks very much. So, in 2010, Enbridge spilled over million gallons of tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River and that is killing people, sickening the whole community and it’s still not cleaned up. And now they’re expanding that same pipeline to carry double the amount of tar sands oil through the state and out to the east for export.

Three people – Lisa, Vicci and Barb – this summer locked down equipment on one of their construction sites and stopped construction for the day. They were arrested. They were charged with a misdemeanor, trespassing, and a felony, resisting and obstructing. And they went to trial last week.

After a pretty heated and long trial and jury deliberation, they were found guilty of all their charges. The judge immediately put them in jail and revoked their bond and sentencing’s set for March 5th.

RANIA KHALEK, Dispatches from the Underclass: Can you talk a little bit about the fact that during the trial they weren’t able to argue that their actions were environmentally necessary, even though the pipeline does affect their health and them personally?

GLEICHMAN: Sure, that was one of the things the lawyers had brought forth before the trial started was potentially using the necessity defense. The judge said he doesn’t see this action as environmental necessity. That he sees necessity as someone running out and stopping an oil leak that’s happening, but this is not that. They could absolutely not use that. So, during the trial he would stop them whenever anything was brought up about what Enbridge had actually done, what tar sands is, any of those things. They were pretty limited in how much they could say and how much of their story they could tell.

GOSZTOLA: During the trial, I remember hearing Tim DeChristopher talk about you in Chicago. I don’t know—some of your people from your organization, I think, were in the audience for a speech that he gave here in Chicago a few months ago. And I listened to him talk about the trial and the fact that the three of these individuals here they did not take any sort of a plea agreement. They went to trial because they thought it could be helpful to the movement just to show the value to engaging in this civil disobedience. Can you talk about that?

GLEICHMAN: That’s correct. The three of these woman chose to take it to trial for several reasons. From what I understand, they didn’t want to plead guilty to these things. They believed these actions were necessary and good, and they didn’t want to plead guilty. Also, a lot of times direct action—We see the action. We see people go to jail, and then they get released and it kind of just ends. And they really wanted to see the whole process through.

They also recognized that they have a lot of privilege being who they are and that they could really make this into something bigger is by really following the whole process through and accepting the consequences and continuing from that.

KHALEK: With the activists, you mentioned their bond was taken away. Basically they are not allowed to post bail. They have to remain in prison until next month, right?

GLEICHMAN: Right, that’s what the judge ordered right after the jury made its decision. They were sent to jail and with a bond revoked there was no bail. So they’ll be there until sentencing.

KHALEK: Are they receiving any help from environmental organizations involved in helping them legally in any way whatsoever.

GLEICHMAN: The National Lawyers Guild has been helping, but really it’s just the Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands and other allied groups stepping up and sending solidarity with them and the whole struggle in general.

GOSZTOLA: That was actually one of the issues I wanted to raise because another thing that the remarkable climate activist Tim DeChristopher brought up was that it was his belief that maybe you had been abandoned, that this group that engaged in nonviolent resistance against Enbridge had been left for dead basically because larger organizations had asked people to mobilize and take action and then now, while people are facing these serious charges—they’re going to have to do jail time—there is little peep from these people who could use their organizations to call attention to what people were doing. Do you have anything to add or comment about this?

GLEICHMAN: I definitely agree with that. I think oftentimes frontline communities get left behind in the rhetoric that is so political coming from the large organizations. In Michigan, we often get frustrated with some of those big organizations talking about the Keystone XL pipeline, which is a big deal, however, there’s many other tar sands companies and tar sands pipeline that are doing the same thing. And, in a lot of ways, we feel like we get ignored or just kind of pushed under the radar because of the political implications that the Keystone XL fight has had.

And it really isn’t about politics because we know that every time politics fails. It’s about community power and frontline communities reclaiming that power.

KHALEK: How does this tie in to the fight against the Keystone XL? I’ve seen recently that you’ve got native communities in Canada that are saying we’re not gonna let this pipeline happen, and they’re on the front lines. Like you said, it seems like these small locally affiliated organizations, who are immediately affected by the impacts of these pipelines, are the ones fighting this on their own right now. How does that tie in with the Keystone XL?

GLEICHMAN: The Keystone XL and Enbridge’s line [inaudible] and so many other pipelines are tar sands pipelines. It’s the same companies doing the same things. Each community that’s affected by it is resisting it.

The way it ties is mostly the whole national rhetoric that’s political around this is really not what’s going on. The communities that are really facing the real stuff that’s happened because of this sickness, toxins, poison, exploitation of labor, all these things—they’re the ones on the ground resisting these companies. Enbridge, TransCanada—they’re all one and the same.

KHALEK: Could you go into what’s been happening in Michigan in terms of the impact on the community?

GLEICHMAN: In Kalamazoo, the tar sands oil spills out [and] it sinks. It doesn’t float. The oil is still in that community. From what I understand from people who live there and work with people there, people have died. People have developed conditions, having seizures, neurological problems, all these things. It’s really a pretty awful picture over there. People who have never before experienced any sort of problem are experiencing problems now.

One of my friends who has done a lot of medical work over there has said that over 100 people have passed away since the spill in 2010.

KHALEK: Over 100 people?

GLEICHMAN: Yeah. It’s not something you hear because you can’t necessarily link it directly to that, but these are people who had never had problems before the spill and now after have problems.

GOSZTOLA: Not to end the the interview on a downbeat note here, but I want to ask something rather serious and then you can add anything you want on what you and your organization are doing now as you continue your activism. I have two questions here, which is—Is there any sort of cooperation in the state between like the prosecutors and the police and then these energy companies? Are they very afraid of the fact that you have had people out doing actions? The second question I have is, what are you going to be doing in the coming months? I presume you are continuing to engage in actions.

GLEICHMAN: In the trial, it was very evident that there was at least a little bit of collusion between the prosecutor, the judge, the police and Enbridge. There was a huge police presence the entire time. We do know that the police are paid off by Enbridge to guard their easements and patrol after hours. And it was very evident that they were collaborating during the trial. The judge was extremely partial to the prosecution. The police were talking with Enbridge people. There was an Enbridge attorney there we know because we know who he is, but he was there in plain clothes acting as if he wasn’t associated with Enbridge. So, we definitely know that there is that collusion going on, but in spite of all that the Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands is going to continue to do what we do.

I think all of these things are definitely in response to what we have done. I think the state’s a little bit scared and a little intimidated by us, which is a good thing. So, we don’t really want to stop when we’re at that point. We’re going to be continuing with jail support for the three ladies and getting our strategy together for the sentencing and also continuing to protest Enbridge and help with all the other struggles that are going on that we can help with.

KHALEK: Hey, Chloe, what can people do to help your organization and help these women? Is there like a fund they can donate to?

GLEICHMAN: Sure, yeah, if you go on our website,, there’s a page that has updates on how you can help. Definitely writing letters. They only accept 4 x 6 post cards, but all the information is on the website. If you have money, donating to their commissary fund. Obviously, taking solidarity action is awesome as well.

GOSZTOLA: Wait, the prison only takes 4 x 6 postcards. You can’t just write letters?

GLEICHMAN: Yep, it’s a postcard only policy, which is pretty irritating, but 4 x 6 plain postcards without any pictures or fun stuff on them.

KHALEK: So they can read what you’re writing.

GLEICHMAN: Guess that makes it easy.

GOSZTOLA: Thank you for joining us. We’re happy that you joined. We really wish you and everyone in the state that our doing this work the best. Definitely it’s critical to continue pushing and working, and we sympathize with everything that your organization is going through as the state continues to prosecute the three people in your organization.

GLEICHMAN: Thank you so much.

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