By Cristina Yurena Zerr, an interview with Jessica Reznicek
“I need to believe that I will continue to contribute making this world a better place, no matter where I am.”
The U.S. climate activist Jessica Reznicek was sentenced to 8 years of prison for her protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline. On August 13th she reported to prison in Wascea, Minnesota. In this interview, Jessica Reznicek shares how her Christian faith relates to her commitment to fighting injustice and violence.
What is your relationship to nature?
I grew up in close contact to nature: the river, the trees, the woods. I feel like that really helped to define what became a priority later in life.
My relationship with water in particular was very pronounced. We could swim in the water. There was no concern about health consequences at that time. But it is my understanding that we have mistreated my mother, our mother, in such severe ways that I grieve that deeply.
In your statement before court you said, that you were acting out of this grief: seeing the water system of your city on the verge of collapse, the rivers polluted by the industry. But still I wonder: looking at the whole world, there are so many places on fire. I mean, there’s so much to do. How did you decide to get engaged against this pipeline and fight for clean water?
The Standing Rock Tribe formed their encampment in protest of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) at a very pivotal time in my personal life. I was looking around at that point to learn where I was going to pour my love, energy, and care into. I had been engaging in a variety of activism.
I had gone to do peace work in Palestine twice but was denied entry for 10 years. I spent some time in Central America. [Then I decided to] engage in activism in Jeju Island in South Korea. There was a building of a US naval base that was being resisted by local natives.
All these experiences culminated at this point in my life when I heard about the Dakota Access Pipeline. I was really interested learning more about the indigenous tradition and communities in North America. And I was also very attracted to the idea that prayer was one of the core values of the encampment.
I didn’t have any idea of how I was going to engage. I had no real plan other than wanting to say yes to that journey, wanting to say yes to learning more, wanting to be of use, wanting to grow personally more, wanting to learn about prayer more deeply, wanting to meet wise people.
Could you tell me the story how you got involved in this struggle from the beginning to end?
The winter before the Standing Rock happened, I had done a protest in Omaha, Nebraska, against a weapons contractor for the US military which did involve property destruction. I was incarcerated but released after two months.
So, first thing I did [when I came out] was I heard about Standing Rock. A Standing Rock organizer came to Des Moines. She was encouraging us to get involved in the resistance that was happening up in North Dakota.
I decided that I wanted to learn more about indigenous ceremony, understanding that I am a white person, I cannot just go in and express my demands and say this is what I want to learn. And I also wanted to focus on stopping the Dakota Access Pipeline Project. And so, I drove up to Standing Rock.
And through that experience, I determined to say I would go to the Mississippi River [in Iowa]. I found where the boring site was under the Mississippi River and camped near it that night. I woke up the next morning and barricaded the road so to not permit the construction crew access to the boring site.
When the police arrived, he writes me a criminal trespass and pulls me away. And I go to jail. I got released the next morning. And apparently everyone had heard about it. And I’m walking back to the construction site from jail. I camp again. And I do the same thing the next morning, and they come and arrest me. Maybe three or four times I walk back, I go [to jail], and walk back. And then finally, a lot of people are hearing about it. They convince me, to start an encampment instead of going to jail again.
But after many efforts, the Dakota Access Pipeline did succeed in boring under the Mississippi. Then I went and burned five pieces of machinery in Bonavista County in November 2016.
The movement that I was formed in was the Plowshares movement. The tricky thing for me was that usually we do an action, and we stay. But I didn’t feel like that was the best strategy at this point. I felt like it was better to act and act again, all with a willingness to be incarcerated for my actions. As I’m preparing, I’m understanding the risk. I’m assessing how this might impact the movement. I’m assessing how this might impact me personally. I’m assessing whether or not this is an effective, useful way to operate.
I returned home that night, and I didn’t feel super confident about that being a good way to use my energy.
So, I switched gears and did a 24 hours day encampment outdoors on a fast for two weeks.
The 14th or 15th day of my fast, I received word that Barack Obama had revoked the permits.
Well, as soon as Trump came into office, of course, he reinstated the permit. That’s when I reinvested in sabotage as a kind of viable tactic in resisting Dakota access pipeline.
I went down to observe the construction cruise, creating the pipeline, welding pieces of the pipe together. I thought, I can just use that same tool to undo what they’re doing. So basically, that’s what I did for the next five months of my life.
I did wait, watch, wait for the construction crew to leave and then come and undo what they’d done.
Then the Paramilitary surveillance team called Tiger Swan – Tiger Swan was a paramilitary surveillance team that was hired by Energy Transfer Partners, which is the Dakota Access Pipeline parent company – learned that all that was happening in Iowa was me. And they started following me everywhere, tailing me.
Those psychological tactics really wore me down over time.
So, I decided, that I was going to publicly say what I did. I knew it was kind of suicide, legal suicide, I should say. But I decided that that was the only way that I was able to survive this era of my life. And then the three months later, the FBI raided my home. They took a lot of stuff with them when they left. And then the indictments came down two years after that, the warrant and now the sentencing. And here we are.
Were you here when the FBI came?
Yes. It was like 4:30 in the morning, [they were] pounding on the door. The house was actually shaking. Probably 50 agents everywhere. I ran downstairs and I could see them through the window with big guns and vest. I was terrified. It was a very traumatic experience.
When I opened the door, they rushed through it, threw me down on the ground with a huge gun in my face and their foot on my neck.
And I had to run from that point, I had to run as fast as I could into spaces that fed me spiritually so that I could survive the mental condition that resulted from the harassment by the security forces.
And then you went underground?
I wasn’t necessarily underground. I think that I was running and I was hiding, but it was not exclusively from the federal government. I was not hiding from prison. I was hiding from everything. I was hiding from my community. I was hiding from my relationships. I was hiding from myself. I think I had a desire to reconnect with myself, but didn’t have any clue how to initiate that process.
When I was in a Colorado town, probably ten months into my year I finally just had my breakdown. I finally admitted to myself that I needed help, but not the kind of help that I thought I needed. I needed God. I’ve engaged in authentic, true prayer a few times in my life. And that was one of those moments and everything changed from there.
I decided I need to learn how to pray. I need to be somewhere where people pray a lot. And I think one of the most courageous things I’ve done on this journey is to walk into a monastery and unpack my bag and stay there.
People often judged your actions to be violent. How would you respond to that?
I’ve thought about this a lot over the years. This is the conclusion that I’ve drawn:
The pipeline welders got an oxy-acetylene welding torch and welded metal together. I’m a woman who loves water and cares about children. I got an oxy-acetylene welding torch and welded metal apart. Interestingly, people do not think that the man who used the welder to construct a pipeline that put our very lives under threat was violent. I never hear anyone asking if a man using a welder to construct a pipeline is violent. I hear often a woman using a welder to deconstruct a pipeline as being violent.
And I think that is just because we’re indoctrinated into a way of thinking that we perceive somebody who is employed and paid to do a job, as totally legitimized to do whatever they want, and nobody asks the question. It’s the way that our society has funneled us into understanding what behavior is appropriate and what behavior isn’t, who’s doing good and who’s doing bad, who is dangerous and who’s not. And I would just ask people to challenge those paradigms.
What meaning did your faith have in this whole process?
It became an imperative to me to survive the actions of courage that I took. I would need a solid faith to return to when things became shaky. I think that I was very underdeveloped when I began this journey over the last five years. But I had a commitment to deepening it. And that commitment to strive to form that foundation that I will build upon was the core element that drove me to make the decisions that I’ve made.
My faith is what sustains me now as I’m looking at an uncertain future, paying the consequences of state repression.
You were saying that you were reading the scriptures for preparing yourself for the action. Were the scriptures a way to deal with what you are facing, or were they more a source of inspiration to act?
I would say the former. I had started reading scripture more deeply prior to my actions, for sure. And so much of the narrative resonate deeply with me, especially the human aspect of biblical characters. I have some qualities in me that I think I need to be like God’s all star player all of the time and show up perfect. And I think that one of the things that Scripture has helped prepare me for making difficult decisions is to remind me that we are not perfect. I am not perfect, and I don’t have to be perfect. God is not expecting that of me. Some of God’s greatest servants were far from perfect, and were kind of nervous wrecks.
In my early life, I battled with so much that kept me from God. And I think one of the things that I know, that really influenced me into trying to show up in a different way in life was reading scripture and understanding I don’t have to be perfect. But guess what? As I understood more and more this love that God has for me, I started wanting to do better just to be better, just to feel better.
In your statement before court you mentioned that at this point you want to go into a prayerful life. How did you come to make this decision? How is it connected to your last years journey?
When I journey to the monastery, I had no idea what to expect. I had no clue if this is going to be a good fit for me, or if this is somewhere that would accept me, or if I would accept them. And so when I arrived there, I knew it almost immediately. I felt a huge weight lifted from me. And I would just weep in Chapel with the Psalmist, knowing what those desperate please were. Because I had just spent a year homeless, hitchhiking across the country and back and forth searching, seeking, longing for something. And just being in a space where I can release. And I did release. It felt safe there. I felt safe for the first time in a long time. And it wasn’t because the Feds couldn’t get me. Of course, the FBI could come in at any moment. But one of the things that I’ve learned in this journey is that the ego wants us to believe that having choices is freedom, is liberation. I was beginning to understand that that was a lie, being at the monastery and having the structured prayer times and being expected to be at a certain place to serve in a certain way, and then having these elders and mentors surrounding me with love and prayer and guidance.
Maybe I didn’t have a lot of choices about how my day was going to be spent. But in that I found freedom. I found a freedom so great that I was able to finally release the tears that I’ve been holding in for so long. I was able to express the fears. I was able to go deeply into scripture.
So my current plan is: I will go to prison, will be released, and move to Duluth, in the closest proximity possible to the monastery. If I can live there, I will. This is the first place in my life that I’ve ever been where I would ever say I will do this forever.
How do you look at those years in prison? How can you still be full of energy and joy?
It’s so interesting that you asked that because I was living at the monastery when the warrants came out for my arrest. I relocated to a different place in Duluth, still attending prayer but living outside of the monastery. And I wept and wept and wept for two weeks. I was more upset about leaving the monastery then I was about going to prison. It’s just so interesting. I think for a while I was pretty angry with God for showing me this beautiful way to live and grow and thrive and learn and love and be loved.
And then to have that ripped away, you know? That was the process of grief that I went through for probably about six months. And today I’m joyful. I think because I’ve accepted my reality, I’m looking at it head on. I’m going to make the best of my situation. I don’t think by any means that there is less work to do in prison. I think there’s just as much opportunity to grow and to find joy and to find peace no matter where you are.
So my current plan is to get a social worker degree through a prison correspondence education program. I think that I could really help the community of Duluth when I return to society by offering an alternative to calling the police if people are needing help in their homes.
One of the big efforts right now across the country is to defund and abolish the police. I completely support that movement. I think what we need to do is try to create community networks to provide alternative phone numbers and resources for people who are struggling in their homes and on the street. So I’ll just focus on that because I need to believe that I will continue to contribute making this world a better place, no matter where I am.
And I mean, prison is one of the places where Jesus told his disciples to go, wasn’t it? It is like a community of marginalized people…
Yeah. I think a prison or incarceration is like a rich opportunity to serve and to show up and to listen to people who are suffering greatly, particularly in women’s prison. I anticipate that I will be in close proximity to women who have lost their children to the state, women who have lost their homes. So much of our incarcerated population are full of people who are actually just struggling with mental health problems and trauma. One of the things that I just really do to lots of situations is bringing lightness and laughter and joy and also a very compassionate heart.
Cristina Yurena Zerr grew up between Gran Canaria and the Black Forest (Germany). In Vienna she studied social science and art. She works as an independent filmmaker and author with focus on non-violence and faith based resistance. Since 2018 she’s part of the board of IFOR Austria. In May 2021 she co-published a book called: Breaking Bread and Laws. Christian Antimilitarism on trial in Vienna (Mandelbaumverlag).