[Pnews] 'You Strike a Match' - Why two women sacrificed everything to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline

Prisoner News ppnews at freedomarchives.org
Tue Jun 1 17:20:29 EDT 2021


[image: you strike a match eco-sabotage]

Illustration by Amelia Bates/Grist
'You Strike a Match'
Why two women sacrificed everything to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline

May 26, 2021 - Julia Shipley

*This story is published in collaboration with Grist <http://grist.org/>, a
nonprofit media organization covering climate, justice, and sustainability.*

On election night in 2016, two young women drove toward a construction site
off Highway 7 in northwest Iowa’s Buena Vista County. Their car contained a
half dozen empty coffee canisters, several quarts of motor oil, and a pile
of rags.

Throughout the previous summer, the two women — Ruby Montoya, then a
27-year-old former preschool teacher, and Jessica Reznicek, then a
35-year-old activist — had tried everything they could legally do to stop
or delay the development of the 1,172-mile-long Dakota Access Pipeline
<https://www.rollingstone.com/t/dakota-access-pipeline/>, or DAPL
<https://www.rollingstone.com/t/dapl/>. Both women believed the pipeline
would inevitably leak the crude oil it was designed to carry from North
Dakota to Illinois, contaminating drinking water and soil. They’d already
attended public hearings, gathered signatures for Environmental Impact
Statements, and participated in marches, rallies, boycotts, encampments,
and hunger strikes. They’d even locked themselves to the backhoes that were
used to excavate the pipeline. Between the two of them, they’d also logged
a handful of arrests.

But all of those measures failed to permanently halt construction, and by
late autumn a diagonal line of pipe lay across the entire state of Iowa.
Montoya and Reznicek were frustrated. While occupying a jail cell on
trespassing charges following a protest in late October, they conferred
with each other. Did they really, truly want this thing stopped? Was
stopping the pipeline more important than their own freedom? To them, the
answer was clear.

As the results of the election were being tallied, Montoya and Reznicek
steered their car to the side of the road outside the town of Newell,
beside a vast stubbled field that had been emptied of corn. A quarter*–*moon
illuminated the pipeline worksite before them. Montoya was nervous but
focused. “You see a bulldozer, you know what it does,” she later
remembered. “You know it’s not going to do a damn bit of good.”

They grabbed one of the coffee cans whose tin they’d punctured with holes,
stuffed it with rags, and placed it on the seat of an excavator. Then they
filled the can with motor oil. They placed the other cans in the same
manner in the seats of five more heavy machines parked at the worksite.
Then they lit them.

Shortly after 11 p.m., a 911 caller reported seeing red and yellow flames
puncturing the darkness in a field off of Highway 7. By the time
firefighters arrived to quell the blaze, Montoya and Reznicek were long
gone. Only the charred skeletons of four excavators, a bulldozer, and a
large portable crane remained on*–*site.

The cost of the women’s election-night sabotage was estimated at $2.5
million. Over the next six months, they taught themselves to use
oxyacetylene torches, which they used to damage four different pipeline
valves in three counties across Iowa.

Often their actions went unmentioned by news outlets, although one local
television station reported in March 2017 that someone had crawled under a
fence and used a blowtorch to melt a hole through one of the pipeline’s
valves. Two months later, a local radio station reported that a DAPL site
in a different county had been tampered with. No suspects were named.

Despite engaging in what they dubbed a “campaign of arson” against a
multibillion dollar infrastructure project, the women were never caught.
Nor did they stop the pipeline. Oil was flowing by early-May 2017. That
summer, Montoya and Reznicek realized there was one more thing they could
do to try to stop the project.

One day in late July, the women woke up in the Des Moines Catholic Worker
House where they’d been living together since the fall. The building — one
of hundreds of similar autonomous houses in the U.S., which promote a social
*–*justice interpretation of Catholicism — was a hub for the local activist
community that had supported the pair’s less-clandestine efforts to fight
the pipeline. Reznicek slung a backpack over her shoulder containing a
hammer, a crowbar, and a statement the women had composed. Then, along with
some legal advisers and friends, the pair drove to the offices of the Iowa
Utilities Board, the state regulatory agency that had issued the permits
allowing Energy Transfer Partners, DAPL’s developer, to run their pipeline
throughout the state.

When they arrived, the women stood in shin-high grass beside the building’s
sign, squinting in the sunlight. Facing a crowd of about 20 people from
various media agencies, as well as a Burger King across the street,
Reznicek and Montoya took turns reading their statement as they elaborately
described their many acts of eco-sabotage, and took full credit for
carrying them out.
[image: jessica reznicek ruby montoya iowa utilities board]

Reznicek and Montoya in front of the Iowa Utilities Board, taking credit
for their acts of sabotage against the Dakota Access Pipeline. They faced
nine felony charges and more than 100 years in prison until they pled down
to one charge in February. They now face a maximum 20 years, and will be
sentenced at the end of July.

Des Moines Catholic Workers Archives

“Some may view these actions as violent, but be not mistaken. We acted from
our hearts and never threatened human life nor personal property,” Montoya
said. “What we did do was fight a private corporation that has run rampant
across our country, seizing land and polluting our nation’s water supply.
You may not agree with our tactics, but you can clearly see their necessity
in light of the broken federal government and the corporations they

As a result of this admission, Montoya and Reznicek were indicted on nine
felony charges of intentionally damaging energy infrastructure — a
designation that can render a private, commercial company’s enterprise a
matter of federal concern. The designation was a provision of the Patriot
Act, the controversial George W. Bush-era national security law passed in
the wake of 9/11, and federal prosecutors have embraced it as a way to
target environmental activists who engage in property destruction.

For more than a year, Reznicek and Montoya each faced the possibility of
more than a century in federal prison. Then, in February, both women
entered into plea agreements with federal prosecutors to drop eight of the
charges in exchange for pleading guilty to one count of conspiracy to
damage an energy facility. The agreement means that the pair now face a
maximum 20-year sentence each — a punishment that would still be among the
longest-ever sentences for eco-activism in the U.S. The women are due to be
sentenced at the end of July

In public appearances and interviews following the indictments, Reznicek
and Montoya have consistently expressed regret that they didn’t do more,
sacrifice more, and destroy more property to stop the Dakota Access
Pipeline, which currently carries roughly 500,000 barrels of oil per day
from North Dakota’s oil-rich Bakken Shale to a terminal in Illinois. A
comprehensive review of the women’s voluminous public writing and speaking
before and after their campaign, as well as interviews with a dozen of
their friends, family, advocates, and fellow activists, paints a picture of
growing spiritual hunger that found its ultimate outlet in an unwavering
commitment to the single illicit objective of stopping the pipeline. (Both
women have consistently declined to speak to journalists about their
property destruction, given that their sentencing is still pending, but I
was able to speak to Reznicek at length about other matters on the phone
and during a three-day visit in January 2020.)

Though Reznicek and Montoya saw themselves as acting within the Catholic
Worker tradition, their uncompromising stance on the efficacy of property
destruction alienated even some within the broader movement. Nevertheless,
the pair never expressed outward doubt or remorse about committing their
acts, even as oil continued to flow through the pipeline.

“I am not going to choose fear,” Montoya said in 2017 to an audience of
eco-activists in Minnesota, many of them old enough to be her parents or
grandparents. “I’m looking at centuries in prison — and I feel more free.”

*Their friendship was little* more than a month old when Reznicek and
Montoya got in the car to drive toward Newell. Prior to election night,
neither woman had committed arson. In fact, protesting the pipeline was
Montoya’s first extended encounter with activism. Reznicek, on the other
hand, had already spent the better part of a decade exposed to the
spiritual-activist tradition of the Catholic Worker and the Plowshares

The Catholic Worker Movement, which grew out of the eponymous newspaper and
hospitality houses founded by Dorothy Day and Peter Maurin in the 1930s,
stressed justice and mercy, and took firm stands against war, segregation,
nuclear proliferation, and other forms of violence. So-called Plowshares
activists follow in their footsteps. Inspired by the biblical prophet
Isaiah, who foretold of the day when nations would “beat their swords into
plowshares,” these activists make personal sacrifices for the sake of a
greater good, using modern-day hammers to physically and symbolically
“beat” contemporary tools of war. Montoya and Reznicek saw themselves as
bringing these traditional techniques to bear on the contemporary crises of
climate change and water contamination.

But before all of that, Reznicek was in her mid-twenties, married to a
financially secure Des Moines-area pharmacist, and studying political
science at nearby Simpson College. In the mid-2000s, she started on the
path that would ultimately bring her to the pipeline. One week she decided,
rather abruptly, to take a three-day trip to Colorado. She had no fixed
itinerary — no exact destination, no hotel reservation — just an impulse to
revisit a tranquil area she had enjoyed as a kid. She was looking for a way
to speak one-on-one with God, she told a judge in 2016.

In place of the babbling streams she remembered, she now found brooks
blocked off by “Do Not Enter” signs. She saw large swaths of earth dug up
by oil-and-gas industry machinery. Locals complained to her that the water
could sometimes burst into flames. Instead of communing with nature, as
she’d planned, she purchased poster board and markers and made protest
signs to plant in front of the operation.

She returned to her home, her husband, and her studies, but things were
never quite the same. “From my spiritual retreat began an activist’s
quest,” she later recalled in court. In 2011, while Reznicek was in the
homestretch of earning her degree, her history professor told her about
Occupy Wall Street. That night she watched its live webcam until 4 a.m.,
riveted. She soon fished her suitcase out of storage and told her husband
she was heading to New York. He warned her that their marriage would be
over if she went, so she asked him to come with her. He declined, and she
left to catch a bus to midtown Manhattan — “lunging into the unknown with
complete enthusiasm,” she told me when we spoke by phone back in February
[image: Small groups gather at the Occupy Des Moines encampment at Stewart
Square east of the capitol on Thursday, Oct. 20, 2011 in Des Moines.
Protesters from across the country will be invited to help occupy all the
presidential campaign headquarters in Iowa. Under a plan approved at Occupy
Iowa's meeting Monday, Oct. 31, 2011, in Des Moines, the protesters would
go in the headquarters to share their message. If they aren't let in, the
protesters would try to shut down the headquarters by sitting in front of
their doors. Occupy Iowa is an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement.
(AP Photo/The Des Moines Register, Bill Neibergall) MANDATORY CREDIT]

The Occupy Des Moines encampment, in 2011, where Reznicek was first
introduced to the Catholic Workers Movement.

Bill Neibergall/The Des Moines Register/AP

After three weeks in Manhattan’s Zucotti Park, Reznicek learned that a
satellite protest had sprung up back home in Des Moines. One of the most
active Occupy protesters in Iowa, Julie Brown, remembers precisely the
moment that Reznicek arrived. It was a chilly day in November and Brown was
shivering in the shadow of the state capitol building as she watched a
petite blonde with pale-green eyes barrel up the sidewalk to present
herself. “I just got back from Zuccotti. What do you guys need?” she asked.
Reznicek bought heaters and other items for the activists sleeping at the
protest site, and she was soon attending every general assembly and
working-group meeting.

In the subsequent weeks, Reznicek and Brown befriended the Des Moines-based
Catholic Workers, who had volunteered to wash dishes at the camp. Reznicek
noticed the Catholic Workers’ steady, constant presence at many of Occupy’s
local marches, sit-ins, and rallies. Reznicek had been raised Catholic in
the small town of Perry, half an hour northwest of Des Moines. Her father,
who worked for the sheriff’s department, sometimes walked with her to
catechism classes at the parochial school two blocks down from the stone,
fortress-like St. Patrick’s church. Though Reznicek had not been a regular
churchgoer since childhood, the strong social-justice mission of the
Catholic Worker Movement represented a way to merge her growing concerns
about injustice with her desire to fill what she later said was a “nagging
void” in her spiritual life.

When the Occupy movement fizzled out that winter, both Reznicek and Brown
moved into one of the city’s four autonomous Catholic Worker houses. Their
new home, the Rachel Corrie house, was named for an American activist who
was crushed to death at age 23 as she sought to prevent an Israeli
bulldozer from destroying a Palestinian home in the Gaza Strip in 2003.
Reznicek began writing for Via Pacis, the Des Moines Catholic Worker
newsletter, reflecting on her transition from a financially secure
housewife to an activist who’d found her spiritual purpose.

“I abandoned without hesitation the routine that had strangled both my
voice and my spirit. I left the house I had lived in for over five years
and found my home,” she wrote. “I became liberated from the powerlessness
and emptiness that accompanied the constant maintenance it required to
function halfheartedly in the world of designer clothes and clammy
handshakes. My decision to begin anew magnified the discontentment I had
departed from and reminded me of the true meaning of my life: love and

But Reznicek also found community life grueling, with its commitment to
consensus decision-making and committee work. She struck a deal with the
Catholic Workers: She would alternate stints of cooking, cleaning, and
washing dishes in the nearby Bishop Dingman hospitality house with periods
of going for what she called “long walks” — very, very long walks,
including one from Kansas City to Guatemala (she hitchhiked part of the
way), and another from eastern Iowa to Washington, D.C.

Her sporadic voyaging was an exception that the community made to
accommodate her, but it was also a practice that the house’s founder, Frank
Cordaro, understood. A Plowshares activist and former priest, Cordaro often
joined Reznicek on her travels. “Social justice,” he told me, “is what love
looks like in public.”

All the while, Reznicek’s arrest record grew, as she attended protests like
the Occupy Des Moines sit-ins. In her writings in Via Pacis, she
acknowledged the fleeting high that she could attain through her activism —
and the increasingly perilous risks she’d take to achieve it.

“Somehow in the midst of chained wrists, cell walls, locked doors, and
grieving women, beaming out from within me was a feeling of utter freedom
unlike any I have ever felt before,” she wrote in 2012. “Each moment I
spent at Polk County Jail, and each moment since, has generated throughout
me overwhelming surges of gratitude and love (although I am mourning
longingly the departure of these sentiments as my spiritual fullness
reaches an inevitable period of slow deflation.)”
[image: Jesuit priests and anti-war activists, Fr. Daniel Berrigan, left,
and his brother Fr. Philip Berrigan, are pictured outside the Montgomery
County Court House in Norristown, Penn., Feb. 23, 1981. They are being
tried in connection with burglary, assault and criminal mischief at a
nuclear weapons plant, along with other members of the Plowshares Eight, in
King of Prussia, Penn. (AP Photo/Paul Shane)]

Father Daniel Berrigan (left) and his brother, Father Philip Berrigan, who
were part of the first Plowshares action, in 1980, at a nuclear-weapons
plant in Pennsylvania, where they pounded missile nose cones with hammers
and poured blood on company paperwork. Since then, more than 75 Plowshares
protests have taken place worldwide.

Paul Shane/AP

Much of Catholic Worker activism sits firmly within the tradition of
nonviolent protest, but those who identify as Plowshares activists go
further. The first Plowshares action took place in 1980, a year before
Reznicek’s birth, when a group of eight Catholic Workers — including two
brothers who were also priests, Father Philip Berrigan and Father Daniel
Berrigan — entered a facility that manufactured nuclear-missile nose
cones at a General Electric plant in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania. One
activist pounded two nose cones with a hammer. Then, the trespassers took
out containers of their blood and poured it on some of the company’s
paperwork. They prayed as they awaited arrest. When the facility’s manager
arrived, the protesters handed over a document stating what they’d done and
why. The activists later defended themselves in court, ultimately receiving
sentences ranging from one and a half to 10 years in prison. After a decade
of appeals, the “Plowshares Eight” were resentenced to time served.

Since then, more than 75 such protests have taken place worldwide,
according to Plowshares activist Arthur Laffin, who has also written a
biography of the movement. Orchestrated by as few as one or as many as a
dozen activists, each has involved symbolic property damage,
self-representation in court, a sense of sacred purpose, and a refusal to
hide what they did — the activists always openly took credit.

In the fall of 2015, Reznicek applied for and received a $1,000 grant to
research defense contractors located in the Omaha area. She was hoping to
complete the project and use the leftover funding for airfare to leave the
U.S. for a quieter life where she could focus on her spiritual growth. But
in the course of her research, she learned that Northrup Grumman was
developing a weapons system called the RQ-4 Global Hawk — a drone that was
going to be exported for use around the world.

Newly outraged, Reznicek set off for the defense contractor’s offices with
a sledgehammer and a baseball bat two days after Christmas, to associate
the action with the Feast of Holy Innocents. Reznicek politely introduced
herself to the guard on duty, and then smashed a window and door before
kneeling on the sidewalk beside her tools to await arrest. As she sat in a
cell before her trial, she told reporters, “I’ll sit in jail for as long as
I need if it gets people talking.” Ultimately, she dodged a 22-year prison
term and served the entirety of her eventual 72-day sentence, for
trespassing and vandalism, while awaiting trial.

*By the spring of 2016,* Reznicek had learned about the Dakota Access
Pipeline. She began walking and hitchhiking to the Standing Rock
<https://www.rollingstone.com/t/standing-rock/> Reservation in South
Dakota, the epicenter of the #NoDAPL protest. In early August, on the way
north, she encountered a group of young indigenous runners carrying staffs
and feathers to Washington, D.C., to urge the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
to revoke the pipeline’s permits. After spending a few days at Standing
Rock, she caught up with the runners by the Mississippi River in Keokuk,
Iowa, participated in a four-day ceremony, and then tagged along to

More than any other cause she had been involved in, the pipeline felt
personal. The oil would be surging poisonously under her home state. She
didn’t just want to call people’s attention to the pipeline — she wanted to
stop it. That might take more than the symbolic actions she had engaged in
so far.

That distinction between so-called direct action and other forms of protest
can be murky, but typically direct action seeks to produce an immediate,
specific effect: to stall or stop or make intolerably costly the
objectionable endeavor. Symbolic action — protest marches, street theater,
and similar efforts — reinvigorate activists themselves while targeting an
injustice, with the aim of pressing public officials or other institutions
to change policy.

Plowshares actions, for instance, foreground the expression of symbolic
meaning. Hammering a missile head may seem like a way to render it
inoperable, but the intention is more to express a possibility rather than
inflict disabling damage. It’s an action “not to disarm, but to transform,”
said Michele Naar-Obed, who operates a Catholic Worker house in Duluth,
Minnesota, with her husband. Between them, they have participated in eight
Plowshares actions. In 1993, they boarded a nuclear submarine in Newport
News, Virginia, and banged on its missile launcher with a hammer and doused
it in their blood. The purpose of using their own blood, Naar-Obed
explained, “is so that we will not have to take the blood of anything [in
war] — just the way Jesus offered his life so that others might live.”
[image: jessica reznicek northrop grumman]

Reznicek smashing a window at the offices of defense contractor Northrup
Grumman, in 2015. She did it two days after Christmas, to associate the
action with the Feast of the Holy Innocents.

Des Moines Catholic Workers Archives

In contrast, the radical environmental activists of Earth First!, during
their heyday in the 1980s, favored techniques like planting spikes in trees
to repel lumberjacks and protect old*–*growth forests. They advocated
sabotaging heavy machinery for the purpose of actually destroying that
machinery and preventing it from doing harm. Another sect of activists, the
anarchic Earth Liberation Front, or ELF, likewise committed a series of
strategic and sometimes spectacular acts of property destruction in the
1990s and early 2000s. Acting in anonymous cells, they set fire to
buildings throughout the U.S., including an SUV dealership, a
genetic-engineering laboratory at Michigan State University, and — most
famously — the ski-resort lodge
in Vail, Colorado. Though individual members attempted to maintain their
anonymity in order to continue their actions, ELF regularly claimed
organizational credit for its destruction through an independent press

The actions that Reznicek and Montoya would go on to take seem to represent
a hybrid of both activist traditions, combining the severe practicality of
the radical environmentalists’ direct action and the symbolic spiritualism
of Plowshares actions. They would also follow the main current of both
traditions by deliberately avoiding actions that might result in physical
harm to people. Viewing themselves as the evolution of an established
tradition, the women would later call their work a “Rolling Plowshares.”

But in the final, humid days of August 2016, little more than two months
before the Newell arsons, Montoya and Reznicek hadn’t even met. With only
the vaguest plan in mind, Reznicek packed a sleeping bag, a coat, some
markers, and a guitar, and bummed a ride to a site two and a half hours
east of Des Moines*,* where workers were beginning to bore a hole to build
the DAPL underneath the Mississippi River. Her ride dropped her off just a
few miles south, along a road parallel to the river. “I’m going to figure
this out,” she told herself. “This is my new place.”

Within moments of arriving, she located the road where trucks were
accessing the site. Nearby, she found a heap of tires and plywood left over
by the construction crew. She stacked the dozen or so tires to make a
blockade in the middle of the road. Against it, she leaned a long wood
board upon which she’d written in black magic marker: “Water = Life.” Then,
wearing sunglasses with her hair pulled back, Reznicek stood beside the
tires and played her guitar.

When a truck inside the work zone approached her barricade as it attempted
to exit, she continued to play and sing. The truck shifted into reverse and
backed up. Ten minutes later, Deputy Steve Sproul of the Lee County
Sheriff’s Office showed up. An Associated Press photographer captured the
moment: Sproul scowling at Reznicek, who’s looking back at him with a
determined side-eye.

Sproul remembers roasting in his uniform as he asked Reznicek to leave. She
declined, so he began to remove the tires, which Reznicek admitted she
would put back after he was gone. “Should I just go ahead and arrest you
now?” he asked before booking her on misdemeanor charges of interfering
with official acts.

The next day, after Reznicek got out of jail, she blockaded the road again
— and spent the night in jail, again. The third day, instead of facing
another arrest, she disassembled her blockade and made camp on private land
nearby, after receiving permission from the landowner. Then Reznicek knelt
on the borrowed land and prayed for other protesters to join her. “My
encampment here is just the beginning of a beautiful widespread mass
movement,” she told an Iowa Public Radio reporter who caught wind of her
actions. “Personal sacrifice is definitely a component of what I’m willing
to risk to save our water supplies.” Within a week, 50 people showed up to
join her. She called it the Mississippi Stand.
[image: Activist Jessica Reznicek, talks with Lee County Sheriff's Deputy
Steve Sproul while conducting a personal occupation and protesting the
Bakken pipeline, Tuesday Aug. 30, 2016 at a pipeline construction site,
along the Mississippi River Road near Keokuk, Iowa. Reznicek, a Des Moines
Catholic Workers group member, was later taken into custody at about noon
Tuesday by the Lee County Sheriff's Department. (John Lovretta/The Hawk Eye
via AP)]

Reznicek confronts Lee County Sheriff’s Deputy Steve Sproul during “the
Mississippi Stand,” her personal occupation and protest of a pipeline
construction site along the Mississippi River in Iowa.

John Lovretta/The Hawk Eye/AP

*One of those arrivals* pulled up in an SUV with Arizona plates. Reznicek
studied the driver, a young woman with long, dark hair, as she was
unloading a crisp new tent and shiny cookstove. The next morning Reznicek
glanced over to see the woman practicing yoga. After an informal camp
meeting, Reznicek noticed the woman’s wristwatch set to military time. One
of the first things she said to the new arrival, Ruby Montoya, was: “You a

Montoya had been working as a teacher at the bilingual New Horizons
Cooperative Preschool in Boulder, Colorado. She loved being greeted every
day by the children, who were enthusiastic and curious. The school was the
kind of place that recognized we all have something to teach one another.
The closest she’d come to activism was speaking to reporters about a new
law banning animals (such as baby chicks) in schools, calling it a
“limiting” example of government overreach.

Then Montoya happened upon a news story describing Energy Transfer
Partners’ plan to drill an enormous oil pipeline under the largest waterway
on the North American continent. Concerned, she attended a local
informational meeting led by indigenous people from the Standing Rock
Reservation who were calling for action. They wanted people to help
protest. At that moment, Montoya felt that she had no choice but to go to
Standing Rock.

To her relief and surprise, Montoya discovered that hundreds of protesters
were already camped across the reservation’s vast prairie. Following the
indigenous-led #NoDAPL news site closely, Montoya read a story about a
woman in a small town in Iowa who had blockaded a road with tires, and
thought, “Wow, she did that by herself? That’s really cool.” Although
Montoya had grown up in Phoenix, where her father is a civil rights
attorney, she has roots in northwest Iowa on her maternal side. So when the
article mentioned that Reznicek was out of jail and calling for people to
show up to her encampment, Montoya felt summoned.

One day after Montoya’s arrival, Reznicek took her to the boring site, just
beyond the camp. What she saw disturbed her: a huge blaring horizontal
directional drill and remnant pools of toxic chemicals. Worse, she could
smell them.

Over eight weeks, hundreds of demonstrators largely organized by Reznicek
showed up for stints of varying lengths. They tried to do anything they
could to slow or stop construction: blockades, even lock-ons — protesters
securing themselves to construction equipment, essentially turning
themselves into human padlocks, holding the equipment hostage so that it
couldn’t operate without maiming or killing them. But Montoya and Reznicek
grew increasingly exasperated with their lack of results.

Still, the Lee County Sheriff’s Office was overwhelmed. Deputy Sproul had
never seen a lock-on before and worried about cutting through the devices
because, as he put it, “you didn’t want to shear off a few digits.” They
had to borrow a van to transport all the arrestees, sometimes dozens at a

By the end of October, Energy Transfer Partners announced that they’d
finished boring under the river. Within 48 hours, the protesters were gone.
The machinery disappeared soon after. “When it was over, it was like the
end of the movie,” Sproul said. “The wind just stopped and the dust finally

In the days following the failure of the Mississippi Stand, Reznicek and
Montoya assessed their efforts. Reflecting on the two-month direct-action
campaign, they realized the only time they’d accomplished something was
during the lock-ons. Speaking to an audience of protestors in Iowa City,
Reznicek said, “The best sound that you can hear is that machinery shutting

“But you come out of jail the next day or 10 days or however many days
later, and the machine’s back up and running,” she continued. “And you
think, ‘This is *not* enough!’”

Reznicek and Montoya knew they wanted to find ways to stop construction
more permanently.

“Jessica and I got together and had this idea to mess with the engines of
these heavy machines,” Montoya later told the publication for the radical
activist group Deep Green Resistance. “We brainstormed back and forth all
day,” she said, proposing and eliminating actions they weren’t sure how to
accomplish, like draining the machines of their oil. “So why don’t we just
burn it? OK*.* I know how to light a fire. You strike a match.”

*Less than a month* after Reznicek and Montoya’s election-night arsons,
outgoing President Barack Obama rescinded the permits that the Army Corps
of Engineers had granted to the Dakota Access Pipeline. Suddenly, it felt
like the Standing Rock fight was over, and that the activists had won.

Reznicek, who was two weeks into a hunger strike at the time, welcomed the
news. Her picture appeared in the *Des Moines Register* as she prepared to
eat her first meal, a spoonful of chicken soup. However, within two weeks
of assuming office in January 2017, President Donald Trump reinstated the
permits. In February, Reznicek and Montoya began a road trip along the
pipeline’s path in Iowa and South Dakota, using acetylene cutting torches
to sever the valves at their seams, which delayed the pipeline’s
construction, adding on days and weeks to its scheduled completion. “Our
goal was for [Energy Transfer Partners] to exhaust their financial means,”
Montoya later told the news program *Democracy Now!* They didn’t stop until
they ran out of supplies.

As winter turned to spring, they returned to arsons — again setting fires
on construction sites, resorting to the techniques they had first used in
November. “Property destruction, or as I prefer to call it, property
improvement, is the only solution I foresee,” Reznicek wrote in Via Pacis
that April, though she didn’t admit in the piece that she’d already
committed such acts. “Everything else we’ve tried, just isn’t cutting it.”
[image: via pacis Des Moines Catholic Workers ruby montoya jessica reznicek]

Montoya and Reznicek (with a fellow Catholic Worker’s baby) on the cover of
Via Pacis, a Catholic Worker newsletter. “Property destruction, or as I
prefer to call it, property improvement, is the only solution I foresee,”
Reznicek once wrote in Via Pacis. “Everything else we’ve tried, just isn’t
cutting it.”

Des Moines Catholic Worker Archives

In May, the women were attempting to blowtorch a valve in Wapello County,
Iowa (not far from the house made famous in Grant Wood’s painting “American
Gothic”), when they discovered that oil was already flowing through the
pipeline and, horrified, backed away. They wanted to stop the operation of
the pipeline, not blow it up. (They also realized that they might have
blown up themselves, too.)

Reznicek and Montoya had tried everything they could think of, but the
pipeline was still functioning. It looked like they were out of options.
They returned to the Catholic Workers’ Berrigan House in Des Moines, where
they’d been based since the conclusion of the Mississippi Stand. It was
back to a life of community service, cooking, cleaning, and joining local
protests for related causes. Reznicek’s article in Via Pacis that spring
described her life’s work as “a slow and agonizing journey.”

In July, an investigative reporter for The Intercept reached out to the
women. They agreed to speak with her, hoping that media coverage might help
bring public attention back to DAPL. The publication had obtained leaked
documents from TigerSwan, a private-security contractor hired by Energy
Transfer Partners. They indicated that Montoya and Reznicek were suspected
of pipeline vandalism. The women denied any involvement.

But after the interview, they wondered whether the situation offered an
opportunity. Their passion for the cause had not cooled. Although Montoya
had tried to stop caring, she couldn’t let it go. She and Reznicek still
felt responsible for failing to stop the pipeline. Going public with their
actions presented one final opportunity to do so — “the last thing we can
do,” as Montoya put it to Deep Green Resistance. After all, they had
already fortified themselves for the consequences from the beginning. “[We]
were fully prepared going into it, in that mental mind game of ‘I’m driving
myself to jail right now,’” Montoya later told the activist publication. If
they took credit publicly, she reasoned, people might finally listen. After
talking through the idea with Reznicek, Montoya concluded: “Fuck it, man,
let’s claim it.”

On the morning of July 24th, Reznicek woke up in Berrigan House and washed
her hair, letting it air dry against her shoulders. She put on her mauve
Des Moines Catholic Worker T-shirt, illustrated with a drawing of people
sharing a meal at a round table — the same T-shirt she wore on her first
day of the Mississippi Stand. She and Montoya sat on the covered porch with
their backs to the railing, and a videographer asked them how they felt
about what they were about to do. Both women appeared to be holding back

“I think we’re both feeling pretty nerve-racked today,” Reznicek replied,
“mainly because the oil continues to flow through the Dakota Access

After the interview, Reznicek changed into a plain purple T-shirt and
pulled her hair back in a loose knot. Then the women, who had met less than
a year earlier, set out for the Iowa Utilities Board.

After delivering their statement, standing in the grass by the agency’s
sign, Reznicek extracted a hammer and crowbar from her backpack and handed
the hammer to Montoya. They turned to face the sign and engaged in one last
act of dissent against the agency’s authority. Montoya pried off the letter
“A” while Reznicek worked on the “S,” but state troopers quickly yanked
them away and handcuffed them. A reporter ran alongside Reznicek as she was
being shepherded to a squad car and asked, “Worth going to prison for?”

Reznicek stared straight ahead, her jaw set. “Absolutely,” she replied.

The women hadn’t been charged for actions detailed in their credit claim
(only for defacing the IUB sign), but they had assembled pro bono legal
counsel. Then around 6 a.m. on August 11th, the FBI raided Berrigan House
with a warrant to search for financial records, clothing, footwear, mobile
phones, computers, tools capable of cutting metal, potential fire
accelerants, literature pertaining to environmental extremism, and pipeline
maps. Roughly 30 officers — local law enforcement led by FBI agents —
searched the house, confining Montoya, Reznicek, and Frank Cordaro, still
dressed in their scant summer nightclothes, to the porch. After four hours,
the officers left with 20 sealed boxes and bags full of material, including
legal notes the women had been making in consultation with their attorneys.
They made no arrests.
[image: ruby montoya jessica reznicek iowa utilities board]

It took more than two years for the government to bring charges after
Montoya and Reznicek confessed to sabotaging the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“Many think it was because the government was trying to figure out how to
charge additional people, but ultimately they were unable to link them to
anyone else,” says one of their attorneys.

Des Moines Catholic Worker Archives

Later that month, one of their lawyers sent an email to Des Moines’
assistant United States attorney, Jason T. Griess, saying that the women
were “absolutely willing to surrender themselves to you or any person that
you designate at your office whenever your office is ready to invite
prosecution against them.” Griess responded the next day with one word:

Still, no charges followed. So the women continued to go about their lives,
which included giving talks about their activism to local audiences
throughout the Midwest. At the end of September, they left a talk in
Minnesota for a speaking engagement on the West Coast, but they never
showed up at their destination. They stopped responding to calls and texts
from loved ones. Reznicek’s father went as far as filing a missing*–*persons

After about a month, both Cordaro and Reznicek’s parents received letters
from the women explaining that they had uprooted their lives because they
had “too much spiritual work to do,” Cordaro recalled. Thanksgiving and
Christmas came and went, and the absence of the two in the Berrigan
House weighed on him. “Personally my heart is broken,” Cordaro wrote in a
Via Pacis newsletter. He saw the women as the embodiment of the promise of
the Plowshares movement, and he worried for their future.

*The Catholic Worker community* was far from unanimous in its support of
Reznicek and Montoya. Members debated the women’s acts in chapter
newsletters for months. Some defended them, likening their property
destruction to another of the Berrigans’ legendary actions, the burning of
Vietnam draft documents in 1968. Others were uneasy with their destruction
of property because it was “actual, not symbolic” and therefore not aligned
with the Catholic Worker principles of nonviolence.

In January 2019, Montoya appended a personal plea onto the Catholic Worker
house’s annual fundraising*–*appeal letter, claiming that a
private-security contractor involved with the pipeline had been attempting
to stalk and harass her, that she was suffering the “psychological and
emotional effects of state and corporate repression,” and that the
possibility of criminal charges haunted her. She hoped to raise funds to
visit her parents in Phoenix for the first time in the momentous two and a
half years since “stepping into the arena” to, as she put it, “kill the
black snake.”

The two women then opted to go their separate ways. Montoya returned to
Arizona to work as a schoolteacher. Reznicek, who had unsuccessfully vowed
in years past to turn her spiritual attention inward and away from
activism, finally committed to this change of course, becoming a monastic
intern at the St. Scholastica Monastery in Duluth, Minnesota. Both women
were still laying low in September 2019 when a grand jury convened in Des
Moines and approved charges against them.

The women’s lawyers couldn’t fathom why Griess had neglected to bring
charges for more than two years. “Many think it was because the government
was trying to figure out how to charge additional people, but ultimately
they were unable to link them to anyone else,” Bill Quigley, one of their
attorneys, said. (Griess did not reply to requests for comment.)

By October, Montoya and Reznicek had been located, arrested, indicted,
released to limited house arrest, fitted with ankle monitors, and forbidden
to communicate with each other. They both peacefully submitted to their
arrests. They were permitted to be at work, church, or home. Each woman
faced nine identical federal felony charges pertaining to illegal uses of
fire and intentional damage of energy infrastructure.

The indictment enumerates precisely the acts the women detailed in the
written confession they’d come forward with in the summer of 2017. However,
while they described taking action “lovingly” and “peacefully,” the federal
government substituted “willfully and knowingly.” The charges carried a
mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years and a maximum of 110 years, plus
hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines.
[image: ruby montoya arrest iowa utilities board]

Montoya after being arrested at the Iowa Utilities Board. “I am not going
to choose fear,” she said in 2017 to an audience of eco-activists in
Minnesota. “I’m looking at centuries in prison — and I feel more free.”

Des Moines Catholic Worker Archives

*In March 2020,* a federal judge ordered a full environmental*–*impact
review of the Dakota Access Pipeline in South Dakota, siding with members
of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe who sued Energy Transfer Partners, citing
the possible contamination of their drinking water and sacred lands. The
judge stated that the Army Corps of Engineers’ initial environmental review
had been inadequate and failed to respond to Sioux concerns. Energy
Transfer Partners insists that its pipeline poses absolutely no threat to
groundwater. Despite the Standing Rock Sioux arguments that DAPL should be
forced to shut down while the Corps undertakes a new environmental review,
which will conclude next year, a federal court ruled in mid-May that oil
could continue to flow through the pipeline.

Interrupting the transport of crude oil even temporarily would likely cost
the company far more than Reznicek and Montoya’s campaign of arson. Stop
Fossil Fuels, or SFF, an anonymous collective whose mission includes
“researching and disseminating effective strategies and tactics to halt
fossil fuel combustion as fast as possible,” analyzed the women’s acts of
sabotage and calculated
that they inflicted about $6 million in damage by stopping about 30 million
barrels of oil that otherwise would have flowed freely. “That’s less than
one*–*sixth of one percent of the $3.78 billion pipeline budget — amounting
to a rounding error, and likely reimbursed by insurance,” SFF asserted.

But from another vantage point, the women were efficient in achieving their
goals. In terms of barrels of oil stopped per person per month, SFF claimed
that Montoya and Reznicek were “1*,*000 times more” effective than the
entire #NoDAPL campaign. By a more brutal calculus, each of them initially
faced as many as 55 years in prison for every month they delayed the

However, while the women had a worldly motivation for their actions, they
also had a spiritual one. In the latter realm, their accomplishments are
immeasurable, unquantifiable, and mysterious. Plowshares activists pray to
become the hands of God; as such, the outcomes of their works are less
relevant than their commitment to them.

“We must be prepared to accept seeming failure,” Dorothy Day once wrote,
“for sacrifice and suffering are part of the Christian Life. Success, as
the world determines it, is not the final criterion for judgments.” Julie
Brown, who joined the Catholic Worker Movement after her experience with
Reznicek in Occupy Des Moines, invoked this passage to defend Reznicek in
an online Catholic Worker forum.

When I visited Reznicek at the Catholic Worker house where she was living
in Duluth, Minnesota, in January 2020, she rose before 6 a.m., made coffee,
and hurried out of the house to walk to morning prayers with the nuns at
St. Scholastica, just a few miles uphill. In the early afternoon she had a
shift cooking dinner for a dozen children at the Damiano Center, a
nonprofit emergency meal provider. Reznicek told me she was lonely. The
nuns she prayed with in the mornings were twice her age, and the kids she
served in the evenings were half as old as her. Besides that, her ankle
monitor limited her movement to a strict schedule. She longed for friends
she could relate to, and struck up a conversation with a librarian on the
church campus. Reznicek had often seen a lone fox making its way across the
campus, and she wanted to know if anyone else had seen it, too.

The services at St. Scholastica helped her cope with the waves of fear and
uncertainty she occasionally felt as her court date approached. As she
walked home from mass in Duluth’s stinging-cold air, there was one thing in
the future that she was sure about: If the feds allowed her to take off her
ankle monitor, she knew exactly what she wanted to do. She wanted to head a
few miles south of the Iowa classroom where her professor first mentioned
Occupy Wall Street, arriving at the unspoiled shores of Lake Ahquabi. She’d
take in the geese, the conifers, and the serene blue of the water’s surface
— and then, without further pause, dive right in.
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