Minnesota Judge Defends Indigenous Water Protectors Over Line 3 Pipeline Charges

In a rare and profound move last week, a Minnesota judge decisively stood up for the environment and the rights of indigenous activists. Judge Leslie Metzen dropped misdemeanor charges against three Anishinaabe water protectors who protested at the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands oil pipeline construction site. Her bold statement, “To criminalize their behavior would be the crime,” carries a strong message about the values that matter in today’s world.

Utilizing a seldom-cited Minnesota statute, Judge Metzen prioritized justice over petty legal tussles. Her judgment recognized the significance of the Anishinaabe people’s commitment to safeguarding their treaty lands. In an era where activism often faces legal hurdles, this ruling shines as a beacon of hope for environmental defenders and indigenous communities alike.

The trio of brave defenders, Tania Aubid, Dawn Goodwin, and Winona LaDuke, had previously been charged for their roles in a January 2021 protest. The celebration of the judge’s verdict was bittersweet, however, as LaDuke pointed out that the completed pipeline has already inflicted damage, with Enbridge having punctured aquifers multiple times during construction. It underscores the urgency of the situation: our legal and regulatory systems are alarmingly unprepared for the mounting environmental crises we face.

It’s worth noting the financial ties between Enbridge and law enforcement agencies during these protests. Reports suggest Enbridge funneled millions to these agencies, possibly incentivizing the excessive police presence during the protest. LaDuke rightly pointed out the absurdity of having 40 to 50 officers on the scene, deeming it “excessive force” and accusing Enbridge of incentivizing the overreach.

While the water protectors battled charges, Enbridge faced minimal accountability. They paid a fine for environmental damage after an aquifer was pierced, but criminal charges? Barely a slap on the wrist. The disparate treatment between the indigenous protectors and a massive corporation underscores the systemic imbalances in our justice system.

Defense attorneys cleverly highlighted the global context, pointing to record-high temperatures and the growing climate crisis. In a world facing such monumental environmental challenges, how is it that grassroots activists face more legal consequences than the corporations causing the damage?

This story serves as a powerful reminder of the battles being fought by indigenous communities to preserve our shared environment. With over 900 criminal cases filed against Line 3 protestors, most of which were dismissed, it’s evident there’s a broad movement of people putting their freedom on the line for the planet.

In her ruling, Judge Metzen reflected on her personal evolution in understanding the struggles and rights of indigenous communities. Recognizing the commitment and sacrifice of the water protectors, she determined that their actions were rooted in their right to free speech and spiritual expression. It’s a moment of reckoning for all of us, urging us to ask ourselves: What are we doing to ensure justice prevails in our world?