Cutting the chain took about eight minutes. As he struggled with the bolt cutters, Leonard Higgins worried the cops might arrive before he could finish his job. Once inside the Spectra Energy Express Pipeline’s valve station, Higgins turned the small wheel that would stop the flow of bituminous oil. Bulky winter clothes made it clumsy work. Then he waited. It got cold. An hour and a half later, the Chouteau County Sheriff’s deputies arrived.
The scrape of forks across plates occasionally interrupted Higgins’ story Wednesday night. Everyone had loaded up on potluck goodies from the folding tables in the corner. Quiche, egg rolls, chili with melted Colby-Jack, a Sichuan-style noodle dish. Thirty-plus people had turned up for the 350 Missoula-sponsored presentation, and not one of them passed up an opportunity to laud Higgins for his activism. 350 Missoula chair Jeff Smith introduced Higgins not as a hero or an anti-hero, but “an everyman.” The 64-year-old Oregon native had spent the previous day in a Fort Benton courtroom being arraigned. He didn't act like a man facing up to 10 years in Deer Lodge.
Courtesy Leonard Higgins
Leonard Higgins is escorted away from an oil pipeline valve station by Chouteau County Sheriff's deputies Oct. 11. Higgins appeared in Missoula Dec. 7 to discuss how he and other protesters shut down five oil pipelines in four states.
“Bottom line,” Higgins says, “we’re facing a far greater threat than prison. For all of us.”
Higgins isn’t the only one
facing felony charges for the Oct. 11 action
. Four other protesters were busy breaking into valve stations in Minnesota, North Dakota and Washington as Higgins went to work
in Chouteau County. Their plan, carefully researched, crafted and practiced over the course of several months, was to manually shut down the flow of oil from the Alberta tar sands through five different pipelines within the same hour. Everything was done in part as a show of solidarity with the pipeline protesters on North Dakota’s Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Videographers livestreamed the goings-on on Facebook. Support staff called each pipeline company minutes before the valve-turning commenced to alert them to what was happening. The activists had spent the preceding weeks debating specifics, Higgins says, and leapt into action only when they felt confident they’d minimized risks to themselves, the public and the environment.
“If we had not been able to satisfy ourselves that there was only a small chance of any leakage,” Higgins says, “we wouldn’t have gone forward.”
Each of the targeted pipelines remained shut down for nearly a day. In the video Higgins shared of the multi-state effort, one valve-turner is shown leaving a bundle of flowers behind.
“There were only four of us in the courtroom yesterday for Leonard’s arraignment,” Smith said, turning in his chair to face the audience. “It might be nice if next time we could get 40 people up there.”
Smith’s pitch led to a brief discussion about the pitfalls of filling a central Montana courthouse parking lot with Missoula license plates. Someone suggested carpooling with others from outside Missoula County. Higgins’ spirit of solidarity appeared to be rubbing off.
As Higgins took questions from the crowd, the conversation gradually turned to more philosophical questions about activism. Did the actions of Higgins and his cohorts—who dubbed themselves Shut It Down—truly qualify as nonviolent? Will their choice to enter a “necessity defense” in court, invoking the threats that tar sands development and climate change pose to others’ lives, pan out successfully? How has their elicitation of the Standing Rock protest been received?
The only thing Higgins knew for sure was that his fate will be decided by a Montana jury. His trial date in Chouteau County has not yet been set. Aside from the five valve-turners
, two support staffers and three independent documentary filmmakers were arrested during the events of Oct. 11. The Montana Petroleum Association denounced the protesters
as "eco-terrorists," but Higgins believes such criticisms have it backwards.
"At this point in time," he says, "it's the fossil fuel companies that are the eco-terrorists."