1 – Praxis in retrospect – on the Battle of Willow River

By M.O.T.H Collective

If you dare to struggle you dare to win. If you dare not to struggle, goddamnit you don’t deserve to win. Let me say this: all power to the people.” -Fred Hampton

When Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline crossed the Mississippi, we knew we couldn’t let them take the Willow River without a fight. On July 3, protestors in black and green bloc constructed a barricade on a road leading to a pipeline easement and flooded past security. The pipeline workers cleared out and sat in their trucks, smoking cigarettes, scrolling through twitter, expecting another—now typical—three to four hour machine lockdown. On the outside of the construction site, we built barricades out of tires, car doors, rebar, barbed wire, and wood debris at two choke-points. At a third barricade, two people locked into a painted car at the entrance blocking workers from getting in.

The element of surprise delayed the cop response time. Before police were able to arrive, the Horizontal Directional Drill’s control box was ripped out and its electrical power cords sliced. For a week or so after the action, the sound of metal cutting into the earth didn’t pierce the air. For a while, they were set back.

What happened at the Willow River demonstrated how much damage was and could be done to ecocidal infrastructure by a few dozen autonomous actors. Guerrilla warfare — as a model for nonviolent civil-disobedience — never seeks to overcome the enemy by strength or numbers. With any future resistance to this pipeline and others like it, organized resistance can pick targets, concentrate a large enough number of people at a weak point, hit hard, and then disperse under the cover of their surroundings. Mao sums up the principles of asymmetrical warfare against an occupying force: “The enemy advances, we retreat; the enemy camps, we harass; the enemy tires, we attack; the enemy retreats, we pursue.” 

The July action came a few hours before the Line 3 “Four Necessity Valve Turners” would appear before a judge for the very last time. Valve Turning is a direct action tactic that involves safely and forcibly turning the emergency shutdown valves of pipelines. As they carried out their action, the four Catholic workers prayed and sang. The Catholic Worker movement ranges from monastic types who are content sowing pea seeds in their rural enclaves to the type that light excavators on fire with coffee bin molotovs and chopped up the Black Snake DAPL with welding torches — as Jessica Reznicek and Ruby Montoya did in their “rolling ploughshares.” Ploughshares actions usually involve an attempt to do maximum damage to devices of genocide and imperial domination (warheads, submarines, pipelines). The people who take these actions are almost always incarcerated, and continue to care for the downtrodden within the carceral system. Reznicek, whose arson charge of two years was supplemented with a six year terrorism enhancement, wrote from prison that she’s begun teaching creative writing classes to other folx in genpop.

We gathered around fires in the winter to stay warm, and in spring we gathered in the smoke to keep the bugs away. We talked and passed along rumors. Rumors of wiretapping and police drones with thermal optics. Rumors about the horizontal directional drill (HDD), the machine that utilizes pilot drones with drills attached, followed by thousands of gallons of clay and chemical sludge mixed with extracted river water, to drill a tunnel for the pipeline underneath water bodies like the Mississippi River. We wondered how many drills there’d be, where they’d be positioned first, and the possibility of disrupting the pullback process, speculating on how bad the cops would try and hurt us for non-violent civil disobedience. One rumor that floated around was that there were only three of these machines in North America, which proved to be utterly false. Rumors of pipeline workers clearing out any wildlife along the line, including wolves and bears, by shooting them from their ATVs. Some of the ecocide could be documented with water samples during frac-outs when, amidst the drilling process, an aquifer is breached, causing the drilling fluid, made mostly of clay and xanthan gum, to gush into the surface water. This geyser of industrial waste suffocates plant and animal life, from algae to wild rice to minnow. 

As we talked, the cops dislodged and arrested tree sitters, police liaisons and medics all while Border Security helicopters kicked up debris to disperse crowds. Police told arrestees in riot vans, “If you act good, I’ll turn the heat on to make sure you don’t freeze.” Sheriffs would threaten Protectors who locked-down that if they didn’t disengage (unhook themselves from pipeline construction equipment) they’d be subject to pain compliance — officers grinding knuckles on pressure points at the nose, behind the ears, and in the jaw, torturing non-violent protestors causing permanent nerve damage to some.

Meanwhile, in Minneapolis, the police murdered Daunte Wright, and Mayor Frey deployed the National Guard. Agape Project removed the barricades around George Floyd square. Winston Smith was assassinated by a federally deputized task force. Deonna Marie was hit and killed by a white nationalist car attack. And through all this, the sound of machines continued to pound by the rivers, in the woods up north. As Enbridge sucked water out of the rivers and lakes for drilling in the middle of a drought, entire rivers disappeared virtually overnight. 

The lifeline of a movement is fairly predictable, and there were points where we fundamentally failed. There was an occupation that successfully blocked the entry of an HDD drill site for a week, with people camped out on the easement leading into the river crossing. But after a week of waiting on the company’s water permits, they were all upheld, and leadership decided to do a coordinated march out of the site to take formal arrest. At the end of it, the Sheriff said to the crowd, “Come to my car if you want to be cited.” And a few days later the drills rolled in unhindered. 

In the weeks leading up to the river crossings, thousands materialized for a mass civil disobedience that targeted one of the pipeline pumping stations. But the action was swept into the news void. 

An entire camp formed at the beginning of the fight, positioned next to the Mississippi river crossing. The coordinators expected to house thousands of campers and be for the Line 3 fight what Sacred Stone was to Standing Rock. 

However, the numbers barely materialized, and there were points where the camp was a skeleton crew. The infrastructure and openness of this camp led to a tendency towards liberal tourism, where many people congregated to learn about the struggle for a weekend, but few actions ever materialized. The week of a scheduled Indigo Girls concert put on by the camp, Enbridge ploughed beneath the Mississippi River.

We began to wonder if we could disrupt work well enough to escape the cycle of symbolic arrest, and to avoid seeing our friends brutalized, subjected to the dehumanization of the carceral system, and bogged down for months in lengthy and expensive court proceedings. With some success, autonomous actors were able to infiltrate worksites and evade arrest by running out through heavy brush. We wondered if this tactic (practiced by the Mississippi Stand camp and detailed succinctly in the Swarm Manifesto on antidotezines) could be proliferated, so that we’d have a way to fight back beyond machine lockdowns. 

We all knew the monster we were going up against, and we knew pipeline owner Enbridge had the cops and courts incentivized to come down on us as hard as possible. There is a whole network of Task Forces, private security, infrastructure-specific citations, suits, informants, surveillance software, grand juries, and solitary cells for anyone who challenges the system in a way it cannot tolerate. 

Letter writing campaigns, bank actions, marches, and even lockdowns are situations the corporations can adapt to and control. When their investments are hit in a way that is multi-pronged and out of nowhere, it reveals that their security apparatus is not all-powerful, but rather fragile. A paper tiger can turn to ash with a single spark.

Asking people to mobilize in a way the system can’t tolerate requires a lot of trust, and a lot of faith that you’ll have each other’s backs when the state retaliates. It even requires faith in history. The reactionary will say of any revolutionary act, from a march, to a hunger strike, to sabotage like that of Reznicek, “Well, what did that do? They lost in the end anyway.”

Our ‘victory’ may never be clear-cut but every revolutionary act inspires another. (So we have to also believe in the butterfly effect.)

A lot of the people out in Northern Minnesota fought because they were fighting for their home. Oil executives made the age-old decision of disregarding indigenous sovereignty again. Some people fighting Line 3 had been at Standing Rock or had watched a livestream of that camp being burned as it was cleared by black-helmeted police.

People power, when used responsibly, has a clarifying effect on all participants. Despite the cops, mace & guns, & legal legitimacy to capture and kill, there are moments when you feel your feet on the ground, the relief of rain on your face after weeks of drought, and none of the violence matters yet, because the cops aren’t there yet, and everyone’s charging one way: forward.

A red dress hangs and sways in the wind and in the daylight, surrounded by abundant green, the frame of a body in the fabric looks less like a ghost and more like a guardian. Outside my window, Lake Superior is indistinguishable from the night sky.

Still, tar sands are flowing under the Mississippi River. As the non-profit resistance camps close down for the winter, there is a sense of disbelief and mourning in this moment. A lot of people who risked their lives in this struggle are wondering if they could have done more. I’m sure many people are wondering if we could have gotten greater numbers or gotten the right media coverage or made a strategic shift that would have delayed this day from coming. We have to remind ourselves the fight does not end with this pipeline because the people in its path are surviving more than just this project.

I believe that one day the emergency shutdown valves will be turned. The pipe will be excavated, cleaned, and sold for scrap.

Hundreds of young people came out and acquired essential skills for fighting white supremacy & extractive industry, supported by radical, resilient communities forged in the fire of this fight. Now, Enbridge seeks to vertically integrate production and distribution, buying several ports in Texas for the international sale of crude. What if, on a given day, railroads were blocked in Calgary and Clearbrook with a simultaneous blockade of the ports in Texas? What if someone in another country could turn the valves with malware and lock the companies out of their own system (as the Colonial Pipeline hackers successfully did, kept it shutdown for months, and apolitically ransomed it for a few million.)

A lot of people will throw around their political affiliations in action spaces. Anarchist, communist, socialist – or some vague fusion of the three. All that politics, especially away from the frontlines, is just talk. Now that the pipe’s done and the cameras are gone, the longterm work begins. Community care-based programs like free lunch, people’s clinics and childcare, wilderness survival and self-defense courses, patrols for missing and murdered Indigenous relatives and eviction defense teams will be set up to do what the state will never do: care for the people trapped in its borders. We will be on standby ready to take back the land from fascist and corporatist forces when the time comes.

As we move beyond the threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius, Minnesota’s position as a climate refuge will invite conflict in the region, rather than de-escalate it. As people arrive, displaced by our resource wars and trade policies, and displaced within the nation by poverty and ecological disaster, there may be a virulent tide of eco-fascism, unless we can lay the groundwork to stop it. It is already deeply entrenched in the logic of white nationalism. “This is our land” and “You’re trespassing” is uttered by the typical Line 3 sellout as they swerve their trucks or four-wheelers at us. “They [migrants] are a strain on our resources” is a rhetorical point that echoes through the Fox News broadcasts they all watch, a point that was also braided into the manifesto of the El Paso shooter who committed a genocidal terror attack against Chicano people shopping at Walmart. Out of a need to play soldier, lone wolf attackers like Kyle Rittenhouse in Kenosha or organized groups like the Proud Boys in the Pacific Northwest kill and physically dominate anyone they perceive as a threat to the American empire and private property.

There were moments in the winter when there were a few hundred people marching down a country road, flanked by snowdrifts. The man camps, essentially Enbridge-built trailer parks that operated with the same opacity as fraternities or precincts, were hotbeds of Covid-19 transmission and, more pressingly, sexual assault & trafficking. As the march concluded with prayer and song, I wondered what would have happened if we’d stormed the man camp. The workers, despite the fact that they too are exploited under capitalism and completely disposable to their employers, deserved to be driven out.

Misogyny, Covid-19 denialism, anti-Semitism, Christian Creationism, neo-confederacy, and utter contempt for Indigenous people is endemic to the culture in their line of work. What if we’d banged down the doors and occupied their ‘homes’, made them, for a portion of time, displaced? But of course, it would’ve led to mass arrest and riot charges for the leadership of the march…

As the imperial core continues to collapse, the next wave of fascists will continue to collaborate with law enforcement and increasingly fringe local government, trying to create sovereign ethno-states, to exert control over farmland, freshwater, and hunting grounds as the climate crisis becomes a game for resource-ownership. 

In the resistance fight, the communal fires, dinners, and conversations of about ‘what could be’ were all little parts of a bigger picture. The crisis of the Line 3 pipeline created, in the woods around border townsfe wells of grassroots democracy akin to international revolutionary projects like the Zapatista resistance that gained autonomy over Chiapas or the eco-socialist Autonomous Administration of North and East Syria, also known as Rojava. Expanding autonomous regions may become a more common sight within the next decade as the people begin to take their power back.

All in all, what we’re asking is for us to think a little outside the box, considering the batshit sci-fi movie that already is our reality. We should imagine cyberpunk outlaws to hack Amazon’s self-driving semis. Imagine non-lethal drone swarms to delay commercial air traffic. Imagine flotillas of buccaneers overtaking oil tankers in the middle of the ocean. All of this so we can have drinkable water and breathable air, so that our daughters and nieces may grow strong and storm the jails and camps, decades from now, as liberators. 

In the meantime, though, we can only know that at some points in the fight, we landed a blow that made them bleed. From Fairy Creek to Thacker Pass, from the forests of Humboldt County to South Atlanta, we’re fighting a war for the dawn, and we have a duty to win.

What do we do when our planet is under attack? STAND UP, FIGHT BACK

Further readings:

For America to Live Europe Must Die- Russel Means (pdf on Indigenous Action)

Accomplices Not Allies (Warrior Zine)

Defend the Territory (Warrior Publications)

Anarkata (the anarchist library)

The struggle is not for martyrdom but for life: on the revolution in Rojava (Crimethinc)

Swarm Manifesto (antidote zines)

ELF Black Cat sabotage manual (downloadable on the earth first website)