Environmental Activists Demand Dropping 5-Year Terrorism Sentence Against Pipeline Resister

Interview with Alex Cohen, a member of the Jessica Reznicek Support Team, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

In 2016, a section of the pipe laid in Iowa as part of the Dakota Access pipeline was disabled in an act of sabotage. The direct action was carried out in solidarity with the indigenous-led movement opposed to construction of the pipeline, led by the Standing Rock Sioux in North Dakota, before it became operational.

No one was arrested at the time, but a year later, in July 2017, two members of the Catholic Worker movement, Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya, publicly took responsibility for the action and were arrested. They both pled guilty in separate trials. Reznicek was sentenced to three years in prison, with a five-year domestic terrorism enhancement added on, for a total of eight years. The federal judge who sentenced her, Rebecca Ebinger, was a Republican appointed by President Obama in an expression of bipartisanship.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Alex Cohen, a member of the Jessica Reznicek Support Team, who has worked with her since 2016. Here, he talks about her case and the nationwide efforts being made by activist groups to remove the domestic terrorism charge from her sentence.

ALEX COHEN: There’s this view around what she did as being this like horrific thing, and the way she talks about it she sat there and watched them construct the Dakota Access pipeline, and so then she taught herself how to deconstruct it, so where they used welders to weld it, she unwelded it before it was operational.

MELINDA TUHUS: Maybe you could do a quick summary. I know that they weren’t arrested for some period of time and then they took public responsibility for what happened, and then they had their trials – separate trials, I guess.

ALEX COHEN: She was sentenced and then she went back to the Catholic Worker community to continue her service work, and preparing for prison, and then she self-reported on Aug. 11 to the Wauseca Federal Correctional Institute, where she is now.

MELINDA TUHUS: The terrorism enhancement – can you just say a little more about that and what it is supposed to or is usually used to apply to?

ALEX COHEN: Yeah. My understanding is there are key tenets and most of them are direct violence or threat of violence against the U.S. government or buildings or their employees or their families. And so while it’s been used in the past, particularly against other environmental activists, there’s not strong precedent outside of that for being used in such a case. All of the most recent examples are attacks against government buildings or government employees.

Interestingly enough, Joe Biden’s Department of Justice decided that the Capitol insurrectionists did not define with the domestic terrorism enhancement, yet Jessica’s actions did. As terrorism has always been a very politically charged word, and this enhancement and the way it’s being applied once again is a clear political decision by the Biden administration.

MELINDA TUHUS: Wow, that’s really pretty amazing. So she self-reported just a couple of weeks ago, she’s in prison; she has an 8-year-plus sentence, right?

ALEX COHEN: Yup, 8 years in and 3 years supervised probation, and a $3.2 million restitution to Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the pipeline.

MELINDA TUHUS: And does anybody have any idea where they arrived at that number, that dollar figure?

ALEX COHEN: Yeah (laughs). I think it was pretty much what Energy Transfer asked for and what the prosecution put in.

And unfortunately one of the things in the sentencing that went really wrong and is going to go forward in the formal appeal that’s already filed and then the appeal we’re doing in the court of public opinion is that the feds basically pinned all these other fires that Jessica or Ruby never owned up to, that they said they didn’t commit, that the feds agreed they didn’t commit, that the judge recognized they didn’t commit, but added it into her sentencing, which impacted the amount of restitution.

You know, multiple amounts of fires to construction equipment that everyone agrees they didn’t do, yet they put it in her sentencing report.

MELINDA TUHUS: Wow. Tell me about the movement to try to get the 5-year terrorism enhancement sentence removed.

ALEX COHEN: Right now, we’re culminated behind a petition drive basically asking Joe Biden to commute this use of this enhancement and her sentence. So, we are not seeking a full pardon though we wouldn’t be opposed to one. But Jessica is very clear that she owned up to what she did. She’s not trying to overturn her guilty plea or anything like that. Just a unified voice saying that protecting the water and climate action — especially given the current violence of the climate crisis and water contamination issues — is not terrorism.

So we’re actually seeing a lot of support. The petition I think the most important part is that it’s not an endorsement of her actions. It’s just a unified voice that recognizes the dangerous precedent of Joe Biden’s Department of Justice deciding that direct action during the unfolding climate crisis is terrorism. So, groups from 350.org national to Rainforest Action Network to Extinction Rebellion to peace groups like Code Pink, Veterans for Peace and About Face Vets Against the War — we’re just seeing a really broad-based support from national organizations that say, you know what, this isn’t terrorism and this needs to be reversed.

MELINDA TUHUS: What about support from indigenous groups?

ALEX COHEN: Yeah, we’re seeing support from indigenous groups. Just a lot of support too, from like the Line 3 movement on social media. A lot of the groups that are sharing the actions that are happening on Line 3, really see this as interconnected, which makes sense, because recently, a report came out that the reason the fusion center in Northern Minnesota isn’t turning over FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests to the media is because they’re deeming the Line 3 protests as terrorist activity. So we’re seeing this trend spread out and it’s really impacting everyone, which is why it’s so crucial. And we fight it where we can.

Support Jessica Reznicek, Protecting Water is Never Terrorism at supportjessicareznicek.com.

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