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Enbridge Is the Guilty Party, Not Me: Meet the Pipeline Protester Facing 5 Years for Peaceful Action

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Image Credit: Giniw Collective

We speak with climate activist and water protector Mylene Vialard, whose trial for peacefully protesting the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline began this week in Minnesota. Vialard faces up to five years in prison for her 2021 protest, when she attached herself to a 25-foot bamboo tower erected to block a pumping station in Aitkin County. Vialard, who lives in Colorado, had come to Minnesota to take part in a wave of Indigenous-led acts of civil disobedience to stop the pipeline. Between December 2020 and September 2021, police in Minnesota made more than 1,000 arrests. Mylene Vialard is just the second water protector facing felony charges to go to trial. “We’re destroying our planet. We’re destroying our way of life,” says Vialard. We also speak with Indigenous lawyer and activist Tara Houska, who was also arrested in 2021 for participating in a nonviolent action against Line 3. She says police violence against environmental and Indigenous activists has gotten “exponentially worse” since the 2016 Dakota Access protests at Standing Rock. “The crackdown on environmental protests is nationwide,” says Houska.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, I’m Amy Goodman.

We turn now to Minnesota, where a nonviolent water protector is facing up to five years in prison for taking part in an action against the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands oil pipeline. Two years ago, in August of 2021, Mylene Vialard attached herself to a 25-foot bamboo tower erected to block a Line 3 pumping station in Aitkin County. Vialard, who lives in Colorado, had come to Minnesota to take part in a wave of Indigenous-led acts of civil disobedience to stop the pipeline. She was filmed during the action.

MYLENE VIALARD: I’m here for my daughter and my daughter’s daughter and all their children and grandchildren. I’m here because there is a real climate crisis, and nobody seems to care. I’m here because that’s the only thing I can do right now. I have to show up, and I have to defend this land and have to defend the rights of the people who have been on this land forever.

AMY GOODMAN: Between December 2020 and September 2021, police in Minnesota made more than a thousand arrests. Mylene Vialard is just the second water protector facing felony charges to go to trial. Her trial began this week.

Mylene is joining us along with Tara Houska, an Indigenous lawyer, activist and founder of the Giniw Collective. She’s Ojibwe from Couchiching First Nation. Tara Houska was also arrested in 2021 for participating in a nonviolent action against Line 3.

Mylene Vialard, talk about the trial this week. The prosecution has presented their case. Go back two years for us and talk more about why you came to Minnesota and exactly what you did and hoped to accomplish.

MYLENE VIALARD: Yes. Thank you, Amy. It’s an honor to be here with Tara today.

Two years ago, I heard the call from Indigenous women and two-spirit people to come to Minnesota to fight Line 3 and was really moved by their plight. It’s been a long fight for them. And so, my daughter decided to come here first, and then I followed her later to also participate in nonviolent protection.

On that day, on that particular day, August 26, there was a bamboo and wire tower that was erected, which I climbed to the top of and locked into with another water protector. And we were trying to stop the construction of this, with Tara, pumping station, which, by the way, just had an aquifer breach happening just exactly a month ago. So, we were trying to avoid just that. Enbridge has a really bad track record for oil spills, going back to the ’90s or ’80s, and so we were outraged that the permit had even been accepted and delivered.

And so, going there was really fighting for the people who had been fighting for seven years, alongside them, in solidarity with them, and fighting for the right to clean water, clean air, which the fossil fuel industry has destroyed, basically. So, we’re destroying our planet. We’re destroying our way of life. We’re destroying the water up here in Minnesota, where the headwaters of the Mississippi River are, where it’s the Land of a Thousand Lakes, and we’re destroying those lakes. Enbridge went under 200 bodies of water. And we were up there to say no, basically, no to destroying the land, destroying the water, destroying the air, destroying the way of life of everybody, but especially —

AMY GOODMAN: Mylene, I’m wondering how you feel the trial is going and why you refused to take a plea deal on the felony charge? You’re facing also a $10,000 fine?

MYLENE VIALARD: Right. I could not sign the paper saying that I was guilty, because I am not the guilty party here. Enbridge is destroying, is violent. The just destroying the land to put a pipeline that we know is going to leak is violence against the Earth, the water, the people who live on this land and depend on that. So, yeah, I could not take the plea deal. I am not guilty.

And if the state wants to prove me guilty, then they have to do that, which so far has not happened. And yet, I’m still here fighting. I’m still in court. I’m going to testify today. And even Sheriff Guida, who extracted us in the most careless manner, has not been able to prove or has not said that I was doing anything wrong up there. I’m a nonviolent activist. I believe in nonviolence. Everything I do that’s my daily life is nonviolent. So, you know, I was up there. I was not obstructing legal process, which is the charge I got. I was just up there protesting an abomination.

And so, I would say the trial is a farce right now at this point. My lawyer is at her end’s wit with reminding the court and the prosecution about procedures, about the law, about legalese 101 that everybody should respect in court. And it’s not happening. It’s not happening. There’s so many reasons that my case should have been dismissed by now. And I’m going to testify today.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you’re very brave to come on. And, you know, we’re talking amidst — well, after Lahaina was destroyed as a result of climate change in Hawaii, after the south of the United States, particularly Florida and the Carolinas, have been hit hard by Hurricane Idalia. Tara Houska, I wanted to bring you into this conversation, as an Indigenous lawyer and also a peaceful protester against Line 3. You joined us on Democracy Now! after you were released from jail in 2021. You had posted photos on social media with bloodied welts on your arms after you were shot with rubber bullets during your peaceful action. Can you talk about the escalation of police violence at the time and how you feel these cases are now going?

TARA HOUSKA: Since Standing Rock and the resistance against Dakota Access Pipeline, which you were also at and documented some of the police brutality that occurred there, the escalation of police both in the direct confrontations with nonviolent protesters and also just the prosecutorial system against specifically environmental activists has grown exponentially worse. I know that there’s been coverage on your program and others about the Atlanta Cop City protests. You know, you just had on someone talking about how they had added on a felony terrorism enhancement. That was upfront with the protesters down at Cop City, 42 people charged with domestic terrorism. I feel like the body of ALEC is around the entire state, all the state legislatures trying to push felony protest bills. That happened in Minnesota, too. They didn’t pass it successfully here, but they’ve passed it other places. The crackdown on environmental protest is nationwide, and it is, I think, a system in which you’re seeing everyone trying to push and see just what they can get away with.

AMY GOODMAN: There are several other Line 3 cases still open. Next month, three Anishinaabe women elders — Winona LaDuke, Tania Aubid, Dawn Goodwin — will go on trial together on gross misdemeanor critical infrastructure charges related to a January 2021 protest. If you can talk about what this all means, as the world becomes increasingly conscious of the climate catastrophe, and also the relationship between Enbridge security and Minnesota police and authorities?

TARA HOUSKA: We think about the words “critical infrastructure.” What is actually critical infrastructure to the survival of human beings and every other being on this Earth? It’s water, right?That is the actual critical infrastructure. Designating an oil pipeline for fossil fuels bound somewhere else, the active destruction of our own chance at survival, of my daughter’s chances of survival, at her, at her daughter, it is just an abomination of where we’re at as a species. You mentioned all those, you know, increasing signs of climate crisis that is occurring, talking about the global boiling. Right? We’re not even saying “global warming” anymore. It’s global boiling. And species extinction is just so painful to watch.

And then, you know, you have these attempts by human beings against other human beings who are trying to at least give nature a voice, at least trying to do something different, actively pushing against and trying to suppress that voice, where you see and hear in Minnesota, instead of the company behind closed doors paying off law enforcement to defend their pipeline and defend their project, it was an open agreement, overseen by the state of Minnesota, overseen by the Democratic government, overseen by Tim Walz and Peggy Flanagan here in Minnesota. You know, that still stands. They paid them over $8 million, closing in on $9 million. The biggest acceptor — the biggest person that accepted the money, like, or the agency that accepted that money was the Department of Natural Resources. That’s the people who are tasked, actually, to defend the wetlands, which just got deregulated, right? Like, all the nation’s wetlands just got deregulated, because the EPA no longer has oversight. That’s what’s happening. And that’s the global picture that’s happening, not just here but around the world, where land defenders are not just criminalized, they’re killed, for defending the Earth.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to end with Mylene, who is speaking to us right before testifying in court. Are you afraid of the sentence you face, if you were found guilty, five years in prison? Or are you hopeful that perhaps you will go the route of the Montana youth, where a judge has ruled on their behalf around climate protests and climate activism in challenging the state for engaging in destruction of the planet?

MYLENE VIALARD: I wouldn’t say that I’m afraid. I entered this fully aware of the risk I was taking, and not really believing that the justice system in this court would be served, would be hearing me fully. So, I am aware of what I’m risking, and I’m going — I’m going there fully aware of the risk, but I’m not scared. I know where I stand. I know what my purpose is here. I am grateful for you for hearing us today.

AMY GOODMAN: What does your T-shirt say?

MYLENE VIALARD: My T-shirt says “Defend the Sacred.” This is the T-shirt I was wearing on that day. This is why I was there. The sacred is the Earth, the nature, the water, the people who live on this land, and all the animals and Earth, sky, you know, just [inaudible] the Anishinaabe people have been talking about and doing forever.

AMY GOODMAN: Mylene, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Mylene Vialard, water protector on trial in Minnesota for taking part in an action against the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands oil pipeline. She will testify today in court. She faces five years in prison if convicted. Tara Houska, Indigenous lawyer, activist and founder of the Giniw Collective.

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