The Paradox of Radicalism

Posted on in On Our Radar by Anthony Rogers-Wright

Meet the Valve Turners


Radicalism has always been met with skepticism and resistance in this country—at first. For myriad reasons ranging from discomfort to unfamiliarity, what typically presents the most inertia to radicalism is fear. By mollifying their own fear, ardent radicals manage to articulate their actions as a necessary means to advance justice and morality and simply to stay alive. The moment “radicalism” and its tactics for advancing justice are viewed as axiomatic—this becomes the moment of demonstrated efficacy. Radicalism simply becomes nominal.

From abolition and back again to racial justice, confronting these forces initially seems absurd. Take the absurdity of a Black woman born into slavery defying that very system by emancipating others. What of the nerve of LGBT citizens who stood up to police at Stonewall? The gall of Native Americans to occupy Alcatraz and, more recently, create one of the largest resistance camps in U.S. history? What about the insolence of queer Black women to declare “Black Lives Matter”? All these acts are now celebrated and deemed as requisites, without which the world might have allowed for the maintenance of a life-threatening (and life-taking) status quo, accompanied by an uninformed and static populace.

Our current geological epoch, the “Anthropocene,” includes runaway climate change, which according to 97% of scientists presents a clear and present danger to everyone and everything on earth. The consequences of climate change manifest themselves with quick strikes and slow violence, “a war with no battles, no monuments … only casualties.” Climate change is oppressive, preventing liberty and the pursuit of happiness, tyrannical as it wields its power arbitrarily, racist in that it preys disproportionately on Black and Brown people, and misogynist in that 80% of those displaced by its wanton fury are women. Whether via blitzkrieg or attrition, the outcome remains the same—violence and expiration.

Efforts to assuage such a radical challenge require radical praxis. Author Wen Stephenson captures this truth adroitly in What We Are Fighting for Right Now Is Each Other, stating, “And so I want to say a word for the radical—and for the kind of radical movement that has made possible, politically and socially, things that were previously unthinkable.” Stephenson captures the essence of icons like Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Jr., the American Indian Movement, and the founders of Black Lives Matter, who all altered the “unthinkable” to what proved both possible and necessary.

The Valve Turners (l. to r.): Emily
Johnston, Annette Klapstein, Leonard
Higgins, Ken Ward and Michael Foster
The Valve Turners (l. to r.): Emily Johnston, Annette Klapstein, Leonard Higgins, Ken Ward and Michael Foster

Valve Turners: Ken Ward, Leonard Higgins, Emily Johnston, Annette Klapstein, and Michael Foster are known collectively as the Valve Turners. On October 11, 2016, they shut off the five major pipelines responsible for transporting 70% of the crude oil imports from Canada. These soft-spoken everyday citizens hardly refer to themselves as “radicals” despite coordinating an action that involved criminal activity including trespassing and reckless endangerment. But the action was not in itself as radical as their decision to willingly surrender and be tried for their actions. They literally called the police on themselves knowing there would be consequences—they wanted consequences. For this would allow them to share a truth with the world, a truth that according to Emily Johnston, too few embrace. She explains, “When society is so dependent upon a myth—in this case, that we can ignore the laws of physics, take endlessly from the earth, and not suffer consequences—then those who fight hard to break the spell of that myth will be seen as radicals.”

The myth Johnston speaks of is not just climate denial. It’s also the idea that we can continue to merely address intersectional crises of climate change, racism, and inequality without exercising immediately actionable solutions. According to Johnston many are responsible for maintaining this way of thinking: “Some exceedingly powerful people and corporations are dependent upon that myth, and to some degree, the rest of us are in its thrall as well, thanks to the lies of those people.”

For the Valve Turners these “lies” represent an idea they believe is literally killing people, while gaining more power to inflict increased calamity every day. The idea they decry advances an Orwellian doublespeak that paints a concerned citizen’s action to save lives as “radical” while the perpetrators of calamity are seen as banal. Johnston expands upon this idea, stating, “So shutting off pipelines looks crazy and dangerous, when the truth is that at this moment, it’s running pipelines that’s crazy and dangerous. Someday if we make it through this that will be very clear.”

They have done more than “make it through.” They’ve experienced some adversity. Foster is currently serving a one-year prison sentence for his actions. They’ve experienced conclusions as Ward and Higgins were sentenced to no jail time. And they’re experiencing hope—a judge in Minnesota has allowed the necessity defense in the case against Johnston and Klapstein. And we all may be experiencing the genesis of direct action against fossil fuel infrastructure increasingly viewed as standard activity and perhaps a standard in itself. Just last month 13 anti-pipeline campaigners in West Roxbury, MA, including Al Gore’s daughter Karenna, were acquitted of all criminal charges for disrupting construction of a pipeline.

The judge granted acquittal on the grounds that breaking the law was necessary to address the climate crisis. Hence the Valve Turners and many before them paved a pathway for those concluding that direct action is a necessary tactic to stand up to the climate emergency. And maybe now, even more everyday people will do everyday things—like shutting off pipelines in the name of that little thing called survival—more often.

Anthony Rogers-Wright is a nationally known climate and racial justice advocate, writer, and organizer who was selected as “One of the 50 People You’ll be Talking About” by

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