The night of 28 November, Samantha Brooks, 24, hunched over the railway tracks near Bellingham, Washington, about 32km (20 miles) south of the Canada-US border and installed a “shunt,” according to trial documents obtained by the Guardian.
A shunt is a wire stretched between the tracks that mimics the electrical signal of a train, causing oncoming trains to engage their emergency brakes. Shunts can cause derailments, which is especially dangerous for trains carrying explosive materials.
As Brooks installed the shunt, a Burlington North Santa Fe (BNSF) railway officer received an alert and photo from a game camera (a motion-sensing camera) near the tracks. Police arrived and found Brooks and another woman, Ellen Brennan Reiche, on the tracks with a bag containing a drill and wire, and arrested them.
On 9 July, Brooks pleaded guilty to violating Title 18 of the US Code, which prohibits terrorist attacks and violence against railroads. Reiche faces trial on 30 August and is pleading not guilty to the same charge. They each face up to 20 years in prison. (Reiche’s lawyer declined to comment and Brooks’s lawyer did not respond to request for comment.)
According to anarchist blogs, the saboteurs were acting in solidarity with Indigenous people to stop construction of the Coastal Gaslink pipeline through Wet’suwet’en territory in northern British Columbia.
The FBI is investigating at least 41 incidents of railway sabotage in Washington state since 19 January 2020. In the most serious incident, on 22 December, a train derailed and caught fire in Custer, Washington, spilling 29,000 gallons of crude oil and prompting the evacuation of 120 people nearby.
At a pivotal time for both Indigenous rights and the climate crisis, activists are increasingly turning to direct action, including blockading railways and other critical infrastructure. But the deliberate sabotage of railways marks a dangerous escalation in this strategy that is now prompting terror charges.
In past decades, eco activists found themselves at odds with Indigenous groups (Greenpeace opposing the Inuit seal hunt, for example), but now radical environmental activists are aligning themselves with Indigenous struggles.
‘Come to the aid of the Wet’suwet’en people’
On 7 January 2020, the Wet’suwet’en nation called for solidarity from Indigenous and non-Indigenous people after a judge granted an injunction against its community members, who have never signed a treaty or sold their traditional territory.
By this time, the Wet’suwet’en had already faced one violent raid by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who had authorized lethal force against them. “Light your sacred fires and come to our aid as the RCMP prepares again to enact colonial violence against Wet’suwet’en people,” they said in a statement. They asked that people act peacefully.
From coast to coast, people took to the streets and blockaded rail lines, halting trains for weeks and prompting layoffs of VIA Rail employees.
On 22 January, an anonymous poster wrote on an anarchist blog that the mass protests had inspired them to sabotage trains in Washington state. “This simple action can generate enough confusion in the system to cause big slowdowns and bureaucratic delays,” they wrote. Their goal was to disrupt economic activity, calling BNSF, the largest freight railroad in North America, “a primo target for blockages and slow downs”.
“If the RCMP raids Wet’suwet’en territory, we will shut down the supply lines where we stand,” the poster wrote.
In February 2020, the RCMP again aggressively raided Wet’suwet’en camps. Through 2020, activists appear to have carried out their promise; at least 40 shunts appeared on railway tracks in Washington State. In May 2020, an anonymous poster also claimed responsibility for sabotaging train tracks in Hamilton, Ontario.
Meanwhile, though a shunt wasn’t involved in the Custer derailment, the incident was no accident, according to Russ Quimby, a former National Transportation Safety Board investigator with 22 years of experience investigating railway incidents. Based on details provided by KUOW, Quimby told the Guardian someone had disabled the air brake system and separated the link between two rail cars while the train was unattended. “That’s something that’s not going to take place just at random or because of vibration – that’s a deliberate act,” he said.
The timing of the incident, after Brooks and Reiche already faced charges, and the use of different methods, led Quimby to believe more than two people were sabotaging trains.
When trains carrying hazardous materials derail, they can explode, poison groundwater, prompt evacuations and threaten the lives of people nearby, such as railway staff, he explained. In 2013 a train carrying hazardous materials accidentally derailed and exploded in Lac Megantic, Quebec, killing 47 people. Quimby called it “a good example of how bad things can get”.
‘Radical forms of activism’
Before 2020, Quimby could recall only one other incident of rail sabotage in the US: the unsolved 1995 derailment of an Amtrak passenger train in Arizona that killed one person and injured 78.
Steven Beda, assistant professor of history at the University of Oregon, said the recent sabotage reminded him of Earth First, a movement of radical activists who vandalized logging equipment, destroyed logging roads and spiked trees in the Pacific north-west in the 1970s and 1980s. Tree spiking is a method of hammering metal into trees that makes it dangerous, even deadly, for logging workers to saw trees.
“A lot of these things were meant as a form of psychological warfare … especially with tree spiking, to make loggers so afraid that they don’t want to go to work,” Beda said.
Beda believes the shunting incidents are part of a decentralized radical activist movement with no leader. Recent anarchist blog posts contain detailed explanations of how to install shunts. Beda said Earth First took a similar approach: publishing literature on how to spike trees and telling people, “do with it what you will”.
Beda said Earth First and the people installing shunts appear to share the belief that change cannot happen through the courts or political systems, so they make the leap into sabotaging economies and industries, at any cost.
“This is a debate that is hardly unique to the environmental movement – the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s movement – any major social movement in world history has had this debate about whether they should go through the political and legal systems to get the change they want, or whether they should engage in more radical forms of activism,” Beda said.
Molly Wickham, spokesperson for Gidimt’en Checkpoint, a Wet’suwet’en camp opposing the Coastal Gaslink pipeline, told the Guardian she was “very disturbed by the news that young people who are supporting our struggle are facing trumped up terror charges.
“To see that supporters of Wet’suwet’en sovereignty are facing up to 20 years in prison tells me that the state is very fearful of Indigenous resistance and those who support Indigenous resistance,” she wrote in an email.
She said the #ShutDownCanada movement inspired many people who believe that dramatic change to the capitalist, colonial system is necessary, and that Canada’s actions toward Indigenous people has deep roots in genocide. She pointed to the ongoing findings of Indigenous children’s graves at forced-assimilation residential schools in Canada and the US.
“These charges are clearly an attempt to discourage solidarity with Indigenous sovereignty because we threaten the legitimacy of Canada,” she concluded.