Sep. 18—It's been just over two years since Mylene Vialard headed north to protest a major oil pipeline in Minnesota.
Late last month, Vialard, a veteran activist and member of Boulder's Police Oversight Panel, returned to Minnesota to stand trial. After an arduous week filled with examples of what she called "egregious" misconduct by the prosecution, Vialard was found guilty on a felony charge of obstructing the legal process. She could face up to a year and a day in prison, but the 54-year-old water protector said she'd do it all over again if she could.
"The message is still the same. The reason I'm fighting in court is still for the same reasons," she said. "This is an aberration, that we're criminalizing people like me — activists — when our planet is burning. We know it's from the fossil fuel and all the extractive industries, and we're not doing anything about it. We keep destroying the land, and we keep getting permits for pipelines and extraction. And it has to stop."
The 1,097-mile Line 3 pipeline, owned by Canadian multinational oil company Enbridge Energy, runs from Edmonton, Alberta, to Superior, Wis., crossing through multiple states and running close to the headwaters of the Mississippi River. It's also known for causing major oil spills: In March of 1991, the pipeline created the biggest inland oil spill in U.S. history when it ruptured and dumped 1.68 million gallons of oil into a river near Grand Rapids, Minn.
Enbridge proposed replacing the pipeline in 2014, and although sections in North Dakota and Wisconsin have since been replaced, the project has faced stiffer opposition from Indigenous groups and environmental activists in Minnesota. Vialard said there were "so many reasons" for her to go and join the protests.
"(Enbridge) didn't do their due diligence. They didn't consult all the Indigenous people that were along the pipeline. Throughout the construction, they kept polluting, saying they were cleaning up, but we know that it's never quite cleaned up. ... Indigenous people were at a loss as to how to stop this construction. And the construction was endangering their way of life," she said. "There's a point where I couldn't just look and forget about it. I had to be there."
So, on Aug. 26, 2021, Vialard hoisted herself to the top of a structure near where a pumping station was being built along Line 3 in an act of protest. Six other protesters occupied the same structure. Within a few hours, they were all arrested.
Vialard said her charge of "obstructing the legal process" was essentially a charge of obstructing or resisting law enforcement, which she denies doing.
When she and others climbed on the structure, she said, "I was never thinking about law enforcement. I was thinking about Enbridge and Line 3, and the damages that are going to happen, that were happening ... because of the presence of this pipeline under over 200 bodies of water."
In court, Vialard described the behavior of the prosecution as "shocking." Prosecutors brought up charges such as trespassing that weren't being considered in her case, alleged she was on a private road — an allegation Vialard denies — and did not turn over phone records on a judge's request.
Aitkin County Attorney Garrett Slyva, who prosecuted the case, could not immediately be reached for comment.
When her guilty verdict came on Sept. 1, Vialard wasn't surprised, though she doesn't feel guilty.
"I've said it before, but I am really not the guilty party here," she said. "Enbridge, the fossil fuel industry, the extractive industries ... are guilty of the climate that we are suffering from now. And it's getting worse. And, you're criminalizing me because I say 'stop' in a non violent way?"
Vialard also doesn't see herself as unique or special for what she did. She said that many other protesters, even in Boulder County, "put their body on the line" just as she did. But she decided to go to trial in part because she wanted to create more awareness of the pipeline and inspire people to act because she knows activism doesn't happen "in a vacuum."
"Let's bring back the conversation. Let's make sure people know what Line 3 is. And also, there's so many other places in the U.S. where activism is needed, where activism is happening," Vialard said. "Bringing the conversation back to center is really important, and also tying it to everything else that's happening that we need to fight for, and really encouraging people to take action."
Asked for comment on the case, Claire Glenn, one of Vialard's lawyers, said in a statement that she would seek to appeal the verdict.
"The frequency and flagrancy of prosecutorial misconduct in Ms. Vialard's trial was disturbing. By no measure did she receive a fair trial. Unfortunately, the District Court denied our request to livestream the jury trial, depriving countless individuals the opportunity to see for themselves what the government is doing in their name and with their tax dollars," Glenn said.
"If constitutional guarantees mean anything, the District Court should reverse Ms. Vialard's conviction. If not, we will head to the Minnesota Court of Appeals and ask a higher court for justice."