Are climate activists heroes? Or are they terrorists?

As a climate activist, I've often thought about how far those of us who are fighting to save the planet will need to go to change denial, apathy and empty promises into acceptance, alarm and meaningful action, writes Mark Simmons.

What may be right legally isn't always what's best for the people that the law is meant to protect

Demonstrators stand next to burning tires as armed soldiers and law enforcement officers assemble to force Dakota Access pipeline protesters off private land where they had camped to block construction. Jessica Reznicek was sentenced to eight years in prison for sabotaging construction equipment being used to build the pipeline. (Mike McCleary/The Bismarck Tribune/Associated Press)

This column is an opinion from climate activist Mark Simmons. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

On Aug. 11, 2021, Jessica Reznicek self-reported to a U.S. federal prison to begin her eight-year sentence. Her crime? One count of conspiracy to damage an energy facility (to which Jessica had pleaded guilty), plus a domestic terrorism "enhancement" added by the judge during Jessica's sentencing to deter others from taking similar actions. 

You may not have heard of Jessica. I hadn't, until I saw a petition asking President Joe Biden and the U.S. Congress to repeal her terrorism enhancement. It was the petition's title that really caught my attention: "Protecting Water is Never Terrorism." 

It seemed hard to argue with that logic. Water is life. Water is essential. Everyone needs it to survive. How could protecting something that everyone needs be an act of terrorism? 

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Terrorism is intimidation. Terrorism is death. Terrorism is destruction. As the FBI defines it, domestic terrorism is "violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as those of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature." 

So why was Jessica treated as a domestic terrorist? Jessica is a land and water defender, someone who takes non-violent action to protect the environment against exploitative or destructive practices. Her crime was sabotaging construction equipment being used to build an oil pipeline, the Dakota Access Pipeline, in lowa. 

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Why did she do it?

No one was injured by Jessica's actions, and she took them only after her numerous other attempts — including commenting at public hearings, leading calls for an environmental impact assessment, and participating in marches and rallies, boycotts and even hunger strikes — failed to stop the pipeline. Her actions resulted in a four-month delay in construction and millions of dollars in damage, and were considered violent enough for the court to deem her a terrorist. 

So why did she do it? Because she could no longer stand by and watch the river she grew up with, the Raccoon River in Des Moines, Iowa, be destroyed. When her many attempts at working within the system failed, she felt she had no choice but to take action against the system. 

As a climate activist, I've often thought about how far those of us who are fighting to save the planet will need to go to change denial, apathy and empty promises into acceptance, alarm and meaningful action. How do we force change when those who hold power are so resistant to it? 

A row of protesters stands face-to-face with a row of police officers in a forest.
RCMP and old-growth logging demonstrators stand face-to-face at the Fairy Creek blockade before police pushed the group back to access a tree structure a demonstrator was harnessed to. More than 1,100 Indigenous and non-Indigenous protesters have been arrested at Fairy Creek, in what has become Canada's largest act of civil disobedience. (Adam van der Zwan/CBC)

This year, the water utility company that ensures that 500,000 people in Des Moines and surrounding areas have access to clean drinking water announced that they would begin drilling wells, at a cost of $30 million US, because agricultural runoff had made the water from the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers unsafe to drink. Further water contamination was exactly the problem that Jessica had been trying to stop when she chose to sabotage the pipeline equipment.

A similar story is currently playing out in Canada. 

At Fairy Creek, in the southern part of Vancouver Island, more than 1,100 Indigenous and non-Indigenous forest defenders have been arrested in what has become Canada's largest act of civil disobedience. 

Their crimes? At their heart, they're not that dissimilar from Jessica's. They used non-violent civil disobedience to try and protect the old-growth forests around Fairy Creek. 

The trees in these forests are estimated to range in age from 250 to 2,000 years old, are homes for many endangered species, and store more carbon per hectare per year than those in the Amazon rainforests. Teal Jones, the company looking to profit from cutting down these ancient wonders, is perfectly within its legal rights to do so. But as Jessica's case shows, what may be right legally isn't always what's best for the people that the law is meant to protect. 

While no terrorism charges have been laid against those arrested at Fairy Creek, numerous reports of physical assaults, destruction of forest defenders' private property and other abuses by the RCMP — confirmed through widespread videos on social media and a recent ruling by B.C. Supreme Court Justice Douglas Thompson — would seem to match the definition of terrorism as defined by the FBI. 

Acting to intimidate

Ultimately, can't the RCMP's actions be seen as having the same effect as Jessica's terrorism enhancement — to intimidate those acting to defend our planet from corporate greed and environmental destruction into submission and compliance? 

To be clear, what Jessica Reznicek did was a crime. One that she freely admitted to doing, publicly and in the courtroom. No one is denying that. 

But is Jessica Reznicek a terrorist? Well, as NASA climate scientist Peter Kalmus put it, "Jessica was sentenced to eight years for protecting all of us from climate and ecological breakdown. She acted from necessity and from love. She is a hero, not a terrorist." 

And as those that fought and continue to fight at Fairy Creek show us, she is not the only one. How many more heroes will need to stand up before corporations, and the governments that enable them, begin putting the water and forests we all depend on ahead of their profits?

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  • An earlier version of this story didn't sufficiently clarify that that the pipeline was not the direct cause of the drinkability issues with the Raccoon and Des Moines Rivers. It was farming.
    May 30, 2022 1:02 PM ET
  • An earlier version of this story stated Jessica Reznicek was sentenced on a "terrorism charge." It was actually a "terrorism enhancement" that was added to her sentence for damaging an energy facility.
    Nov 16, 2021 10:56 AM ET


Mark Simmons is a member of Toronto350, a non-profit organization committed to ending the extraction and consumption of fossil fuels through collective non-partisan, grassroots action and non-violent civil disobedience.