Vancouver plays a pivotal supporting role in a new documentary film about oil trains and the activists who have worked hard to stop them from rolling along the Columbia River.
Local folks who successfully fought the Tesoro-Savage terminal project from materializing at the Port of Vancouver might just spot themselves in a few big meeting scenes included in “Necessity: Climate Justice and the Thin Green Line.”
The hourlong documentary screens at the Kiggins Theatre in downtown Vancouver. A Q&A session afterwards will include film director Jan Haaken and several key figures in the film, including Port of Vancouver commissioner Eric LaBrant; Cathy Sampson-Kruse, a member of the Waluulapum Band of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation; Cager Clabaugh, former local president of the International Longshore Workers Union; and Suzie Kassouf, a Portland high school teacher and activist.
“Necessity” explores how environmental activists in the American West have prevailed against civil disobedience charges by employing a lesser-of-two-evils legal argument: The progress of climate change and the failure of political leaders to stop it means just plain folks no longer have any choice but direct, personal intervention.
Film director Haaken is a Portland State University emeritus professor and researcher, but her specialty isn’t law or environmental science. It’s psychology.
“As a psychologist I’m interested in crisis settings, where people are doing work that’s controversial or on the social margins,” she said.
Haaken’s feature films include looks at military mental health therapists in Afghanistan (“Mind Zone”), and even at the communal boundary-testing of Portland’s drag-queen culture (“Queens of Heart: Community Therapists in Drag”).
“My films look at work that’s underappreciated and stigmatized, but provides an important kind of shadow labor,” she said. “It’s the dirty work of society.”
In 2019, a handful of local activists trespassed at the Port of Portland as they backed up a dump truck, buried train tracks under fresh soil and planted a garden.
They also conscientiously alerted the railway, port and police. Their careful planning included a designated safety officer, a spokesperson and a bold legal argument: In the big picture, peacefully blocking oil trains at the port causes less harm than allowing them to spur global climate change.
That’s called the necessity defense, Haaken said.
“It comes out of a long tradition of civil disobedience,” she said. “The most common criminal charge is trespassing, and the plea is not guilty by reason of necessity. There are provisions in law where you can make that case.”
The so-called Victory Garden activists explain in the film that, after fruitlessly working for change in all conventional ways — including repeatedly reaching out to agreeable elected officials, who confessed that even they couldn’t fight interests like railways and oil companies — they were forced to conclude that direct, peaceful intervention was the only way.
It’s a matter of balancing trespassing versus global climate change, attorney Lauren Regan of the Civil Liberties Defense Center sums up in the film.
To help size up the problem, “Necessity” includes startling maps that reveal the immensity of oil-extraction projects across the western United States and Canada, especially the massive Alberta Tar Sands mine.
“The Tar Sands is the largest mine on the planet. It’s visible from space,” says attorney Tara Houska of the Couchiching First Nation. “It’s a wound in the Earth.”
In 2013, tribal activists in Umatilla blocked the progress across their ceded treaty territory of a “megaload” train delivering South Korean mining equipment to the Tar Sands. Tribal leader and grandmother Cathy Sampson-Kruse lay down in front of that train and got arrested while news cameras watched.
“The tribes utilized that opportunity to make their stand,” Sampson-Kruse says in the film. “We don’t approve and we don’t agree.”
“The activists are interrupting the flow of fossil fuels by train because they have tried everything else, and the flow keeps escalating,” Haakan said. “The larger discussion is, there is so much power on the other side. How can we build the collective will to fight an industry that is threatening … life on Earth?”
Other grassroots folks who lend flavor and credibility to “Necessity” include local classroom teachers and students; former Port of Vancouver longshoreman president Cager Clabaugh, explaining how his labor union took the rare step of working against the Tesoro-Savage oil terminal here; and volunteer firefighter Charles Young of Mosier, Ore., in the Columbia River Gorge.
Mosier is where an oil train derailed and exploded just a few hundreds yards from the local school and downtown in summer 2016. Young describes how impotent his small-town fire department was against an oil-train blaze, and town leaders explain that their settlement with the railway was strictly emergency-response funds. There was no money to move the school and no change in the way oil is transported by rail, they say.
Like many such mishaps, Haaken said, the shocking Mosier fire was covered by local news, then quickly forgotten. Haaken said that’s one reason she’s gone into the moviemaking business.
“The medium of documentaries is an extension of the classroom, but more accessible to more people,” she said. “Documentaries are open to a much broader audience to engage with and have dialogue around complex social issues.”
Later this month, she said, the Portland Association of Teachers will screen “Necessity” and develop curriculum around its lessons.
“There’s a message of hope and inspiration, despite the scale of the problem. People are doing things,” Haaken said. “My films don’t bum you out.”
Is Haaken concerned that the necessity defense could be employed by anybody at all, over any societal systems or forces perceived as too monolithic to be stopped? For example, could Portland rioters or Jan. 6 insurrectionists plead a necessity defense because of the greater evils they claim to be fighting?
No, she said. To use a necessity defense, the action must be peaceful.
“These are nonviolent actions, by nature,” she said. “The action cannot contribute to a greater emergency. A high bar has to be met for safety and nonviolence. The … protesters at the Port of Portland were very careful and strategic.”
The result in that case, the movie shows, was a mistrial — with all but one juror voting to acquit the defendants, and the state declining to prosecute again.
“I think that means we are going to see a lot more direct action,” Haaken said.