Dakota Access Pipeline resister stands with integrity in face of long prison sentence

Sentenced to eight years in prison for acts of sabotage, water protector Jessica Reznicek reflects on her faith-driven resistance.

By Cristina Yurena Zerr

This article was first published in the German newspaper taz, and has been translated and edited for Waging Nonviolence.

On June 28, the federal court in Des Moines, Iowa was silent and filled to capacity. Fifty people were there to witness the sentencing of 40-year old Jessica Reznicek, charged with “conspiracy to damage an energy production facility” and “malicious use of fire.” The prosecution, asking for an extended sentence, argued that Reznicek’s acts could be classified as domestic terrorism.

This was not the first time Reznicek had been on trial, but this time she was facing a prison sentence of up to 20 years.

Sitting across from her was U.S. District Court Judge Rebecca Goodgame Ebinger, the prosecutor and an FBI agent. Numerous police officers in bulletproof vests stood around the courtroom. The defendant was called upon to give her closing speech.

In her loud, clear voice, Reznicek told them about her strong connection to the water. In her childhood she regularly went to the river to swim and play. But that’s no longer possible, she said, because the two rivers that run through Des Moines — Iowa’s capital — are now poisoned by agrobusiness pesticides and waste.

It was for these very personal reasons that she decided to fight the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, Reznicek told those in attendance. At least eight leaks, she explained, had already occurred in 2017, with 20,983 gallons of crude oil leeching into soils and the waterways. “I was acting out of desperation,” she said, describing her motivations for sabotage.

“Indigenous tradition teaches us that water is life. Scripture teaches that in the beginning, God created the waters and the earth and that it was good.” With these words, she ended her closing argument. The prison sentence followed shortly thereafter: eight years in federal prison, three years of probation, and a restitution of $3,198,512.70 to the corporation Energy Transfer.

The Des Moines River (Cristina Yurena Zerr)

On July 24, 2017 — two years before sentencing — Jessica Reznicek can be seen in a shaky video with her activist partner Ruby Montoya, a former elementary school teacher who was 27 at the time. They stand in front of a group of journalists next to a busy street. The speech they give would drastically change their lives.

After several months of secretly sabotaging one of the country’s most controversial construction projects, the two women, whose paths would later part, went public. “We acted for our children because the world they inherit does not meet their needs. There are over five major bodies of water here in Iowa, and none of them are clean. After having explored and exhausted all avenues of process, including attending public hearings, gathering signatures for valid requests for environmental impact statements, participating in civil disobedience, hunger strikes, marches and rallies, boycotts and encampments, we saw the clear refusal of our government to hear the people’s demands.”

That’s why Reznicek and Montoya burned five machines at a pipeline construction site in Iowa on election night in November 2016. They would later change their methods, using a welding torch to dismantle the pipeline’s surface-mounted steel valves, delaying construction by weeks. “After the success of this peaceful action, we began to use this tactic up and down the pipeline, throughout Iowa,” the two women say.

But no media reported on their activities; the corporation cited other — false — reasons for the delay. When the activists noticed during an action that oil was already flowing in the pipes, they decided to go public, as they had to admit a kind of defeat.

The two women appear clear and determined on this day in the summer of 2017 as they take turns reciting their pre-written text. “If there are any regrets, it is that we did not act enough.” They end their speeches and are led away in handcuffs by three police officers.

Using the slogan “Mni wiconi,” meaning “Water is Life,” in the Lakota (Sioux) language, a broad movement was organized in 2016 against the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The protest of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe garnered national and international attention.

The tribe sees the construction of the pipeline as a threat to their water supply because the pipeline runs under Lake Oahe, which is near the reservation. Other bodies of water are also at risk because the pipeline crosses under rivers and lakes in many places, which could contaminate the drinking water of many people in the event of an accident. In addition, ancient burial sites and sacred places of great cultural value would be threatened by the construction. Opponents of the pipeline speak of ecological racism — not only because Indigenous rights to self-government would be curtailed, but also because the construction of so-called Man Camps (temporary container cities for construction workers who move from other states) would lead to prostitution and an increase in violence against Indigenous women.

Their government — the Sioux Tribe is a sovereign nation — issued a resolution back in 2015 saying the pipeline “poses a serious risk to the very survival of our tribe and […] would destroy valuable cultural resources.” Construction would also break the Fort Laramie Treaty, which guarantees them the “undisturbed use and occupation” of reservation land. But their arguments went unheard by both the company and the government.

The operating company said the pipeline would not harm the environment, would not affect Indigenous rights and would not pose a threat to drinking water supplies. But the protest, which stretches across several states along the pipeline, has developed into one of the largest environmental movements in the United States. Native Americans from different nations and reservations are joining, along with landowners, environmental organizations and left-wing autonomous movements.

Reznicek first heard about the pipeline when she was released from prison six years ago, after serving a two-month stint for her protest against a U.S. military weapons contractor in Omaha, Nebraska. An organizer from Standing Rock had come to Des Moines to mobilize people for the protest. “I decided that I wanted to learn more about Indigenous ceremony, understanding that I am a white person, I cannot just go in and express my demands. And I also wanted to focus on stopping the Dakota Access Pipeline Project. So I drove up to Standing Rock.”

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