The color of water

Local activist talks climate justice and race on eve of felony trial

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Vialard protesting Line 3 in northern Minnesota. Photo courtesy Mylene Vialard.

It was just before dawn, and they were moving quickly.

A headlamp-guided group of activists, who call themselves water protectors, scurry in the middle of a rural dirt road to set up a temporary structure. Shadows linger at the edge of the surrounding dense northern Minnesotan forest. 

The bamboo-like construction is made of three sections of beams crossed and stacked on top of each other, rising about 35 feet. A makeshift ladder hangs in the middle as a portal to the two hammocks nested at its crown. 

That’s where Boulder resident Mylene Vialard found herself near the end of August 2021, protesting the upgrade and expansion of Line 3, a pipeline that transports oil from Edmonton, Alberta, and across Minnesota to Lake Superior. Along with putting water bodies at risk and exacerbating climate change, water protectors like Vialard argue the new pipeline would threaten nearby Indigenous communities and their rights to hunt, fish and gather wild rice. 

Underneath a royal blue hard hat, Vialard’s nose and mouth are covered by a black mask with white print: INJUSTICE.

“I’m here for my daughter and my daughter’s daughter and all their children and grandchildren,” Vialard said in a video from the event. “I’m here because there’s 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 the rights of the people who have been on this land forever.”

She was arrested that day while bystanders cried for officers to stop as they forcefully removed Vialard and her collaborator from the top of the structure. 

Despite years of public resistance to Line 3, it was completed later that fall. 

Two years later, Vialard is returning to Aitkin County on Aug. 28 to face the felony charge of obstructing the legal process. If she’s found guilty, she could face up to five years in prison and a $10,000 fine. 

The term “water protector” is a concept in activism that arose in 2016 from Indigenous communities during the Dakota Access Pipeline protests at Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. These advocates are defined by a philosophical approach rooted in Indigenous perspectives that see water and land as sacred. Many white protestors, like Vialard, take on the mantle to show solidarity with Native communities.

Experts around the country are recording a steady increase of worry about climate change, coined as climate anxiety. Sometimes it results in direct action, like at Line 3. Other times it doesn’t. But Sara Jaquette Ray, a professor of environmental studies at Cal Poly Humboldt, says it’s an “overwhelmingly white” phenomenon. 

“The prospect of an unlivable future has always shaped the emotional terrain for Black and brown people, whether that terrain is racism or climate change,” Ray wrote in her 2020 book, A Field Guide to Climate Anxiety. “Exhaustion, anger, hope — the effects of oppression and resistance are not unique to this climate moment. What is unique is that people who had been insulated from oppression are now waking up to the prospect of their own unlivable future.” 

Defining the role of people “waking up” to the climate crisis is critical for the movement to continue moving forward. 

“There already is a mental health crisis, once we come to terms with the eventuality and the severity of climate impact,” says Renée Millard-Chacon, executive director of the environmental nonprofit Womxn from the Mountain. “People are going to panic, they are going to feel apathetic. … So justice is not just a priority, but it’s legitimately what’s going to maintain our foundations of a society to get through that.”

Interconnected

Racism and environmental injustice are inextricably linked. 

It’s been documented countless times across the country: Black and brown communities, low-income neighborhoods and other areas where people have limited power and resources are chosen for the sites of industrialized facilities like power plants or highways that negatively impact the health and wellbeing of the people living there. 

The Suncor refinery in Commerce City. Photo courtesy Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.

It’s not a coincidence, for example, that Suncor’s oil and gas refinery in Commerce City is surrounded by majority Latino and low-income neighborhoods who are, as a result, exposed to higher than average pollution levels. 

Environmental justice is also about protecting the places we live, work and play, which is why organizations like the Sierra Club are fiercely advocating against the Uintah Basin Railroad project that would allow crude oil to be carried from Utah along more than 200 miles of the Colorado River to refineries on the Gulf Coast. 

A federal appeals court rejected an essential permit for the project on Aug. 18. Although the railway is delayed, the U.S. Surface Transportation Board is expected to continue pursuing the project. 

While people who have historically been victims of pollution and climate externalities still bear the brunt, now those impacts are being felt across communities nationwide more than ever before with widespread wildfires, irregular storm patterns and heat waves.

Ray says climate solutions that don’t take into account the history of racism and oppression replicate the same systems that cause social injustice.

“Climate change is just exposing everyone to the fact that the system has never benefited anyone, and now the entire ecosystem on which all human life depends is under threat.”

The right time

Vialard says some of her biggest takeaways from her activism at Line 3 are about navigating her role as a white woman and acknowledging her privilege and bias through decolonization training. 

But it can be a tricky line to walk — when white participation is harmful or productive — in a movement that dismantles oppression white folks caused and benefit from, and empowers people disproportionately impacted by climate change. 

At one point in northern Minnesota, Vialard was called out by a person of color for doing something she had “no clue was harmful, but it was.” She says she learned a valuable lesson on the difference between intent and impact. 

“It’s about white supremacy, what it represents and what has been done by people who look like me,” she says. “So being conscious of my body in that way and what I represent was the greatest lesson.”

While acknowledging that white people have a role in maintaining a system of oppression and have a responsibility to act, Vialard says support needs to be fluid and based on listening.

Sometimes it’s “essential” for white people to step in, Ray says, like when privilege can be deployed by a white person or if there’s a financial cost at stake, but should be utilized at the right moments.

“There are times when there’s the white savior complex at play, and the sort of hero thing that is damaging and silencing,” she says. “And that line is a difficult one to draw and different people might say that line is different.”

“It’s very tricky and I think most white people say, ‘That’s too hard. I don’t know how to navigate that.’”

Millard-Chacon, whose background includes Diné, Xicana and Filipina heritage, says allies should avoid centering their own narrative and give BIPOC and Indigenous voices space in decision-making processes.

“These communities are doing more [with less] to even protect their communities,” she says. “So when we’re asking for allies in those spaces, or when we’re showing that we need accomplices, what it’s really going to take is for communities to understand that it’s now time to relinquish privileges.”

But for some it’s not natural to participate in a movement that completely reimagines the systems that white people have benefitted from, and either may not be keen to let them go or can’t imagine a different world. 

“There’s a request [in the climate justice movement] to completely throw out everything from Western colonial mindsets and re-engage with the world in a completely new way,” says Ray. “That is really scary to a lot of people and that’s one way white fragility manifests in the inability of white people to participate in climate change [activism].” 

Stacked deck

As a mother, Millard-Chacon says she has no choice but to be an optimist. 

Courtesy: Mylene Vialard

“I always tell my kids not to lose heart. I know it’s scary, and you were born in pollution you don’t deserve. But so was I,” she says. “There is an ability to have joy. You do deserve to have a creative and expressive life without extraction and exploitation. And it’s overdue for all of us to look at ourselves without environmental and colonized paradigms.”

Vialard has spent most of her life studying racial and environmental justice. On her way up the structure on the day she was arrested, she says she felt she was a part of a movement and a community.

“We are trained to think that we have to do it all by ourselves, that we have to be looking at ourselves and taking care of ourselves only. And it’s the wrong way to be,” she says. “If we want to be happy, if we want to have rich lives, we have to create community, and a community of values, but also communities with people we’re not currently in community with. We really have to experience each other. And that’s been one of my greatest lessons from Line 3.”

Since the summer of 2021, it was revealed that more than $8 million in additional resources was reimbursed to law enforcement by an Enbridge-funded escrow account to handle opposition to Line 3. The Aitkin County Sheriff’s Office, which arrested Vialard, was reimbursed more than $300,000.

Claire Glenn, a staff attorney for the Climate Defense Project representing Vialard, has represented nearly 100 Line 3 activists. She says most cases have resulted in dismissals due to overcharging. 

“The criminal system did not end up going after people to seek criminal charges … and that’s because this wasn’t about public safety, it was about getting a pipe in the ground as quickly as possible,” she says.

Line 3 has leaked four times since the pipeline was completed — exactly what Indigenous leaders and other water protectors argued would happen.

“We’re starting to understand that [Indigenous people] are right, they’ve been right all along,” says Vialard. “And we’re still not listening. We’re still violating the rights, we’re still putting profit over people.” 

Vialard didn’t take the plea deal offered to her, saying she couldn’t come to terms with stating she was guilty.

“Enbridge Corporation is the one destroying the land, is the one destroying the traditional way of life of Indigenous people, is the one altering the ecology and the environment, is the one denying the right to ceremony to the Indigenous people,” says Vialard. “All I did was say, ‘No.’” 

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