This past Earth Day, two of the activist organizations I am a part of sponsored a screening of “The Reluctant Radical”, a documentary about Ken Ward, by Lindsey Grayzel.
Ken Ward is one of the “valve turners” who was arrested and prosecuted for closing the emergency valve on oil sands pipelines in October 2016. He argued in court that the urgency of climate change compelled him to act. “The Reluctant Radical” follows Ken as he struggles to find an effective way to combat the fossil fuel industry. Director Lindsey Grayzel was also arrested and charged for her role filming Ken’s actions.
Following the movie, we had a Q&A with Ken Ward himself and director Lindsey Grayzel over Zoom, which was a special treat.
First let me say that Ken and his fellow valve turners are my heroes. Michael Foster, 53, a family therapist and longtime environmentalist from Seattle, shut the North Dakota valve for the 2,700-mile-long Keystone Pipeline, which carries crude oil from the tar sands of Alberta to refineries on the Texas coast. Leonard Higgins, 66, a Unitarian and retired state-government employee from Oregon, closed a shut-off valve on the Enbridge Express Pipeline in Montana. Emily Johnston, 51, an editor and a poet, and Annette Klapstein, 65, a retired attorney for the Puyallup tribe, closed the shut-off valves on a pair of pipelines owned by Enbridge in Minnesota. (These are the pipelines bringing tar sands oil into my “backyard” in Northwest, Indiana.) And last, but not least, Ken Ward, 61, an environmental activist from New England, closed a shut-off valve on Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain pipeline in Washington.
Together, the valve turners closed all five pipelines bringing tar sands oil into the U.S. and stopped 15% of the flow of oil into the U.S. Not including legal defense costs, the operation cost them $12,000. Five people and $12,000 shut down 15% of the flow of oil into the U.S. for a day! As Ken Ward observed during our Q&A, that may be the most cost effective direct action in history.
All of five of the valve turners were arrested and charged. So too were five filmmakers, including Lindsey Grayzel, who were present with the valve turners. Ken got off with time served, community service, and a $5,000 fine. He’s appealing. Recently, Leonard Higgins, got off with a similar sentence. But Michael Foster is currently serving one year in prison.
The two remaining valve turners, Emily Johnston and Annette Klapstein, will have their trial this summer. The judge in that case decided to allow Johnson and Klapstein to present the “necessity defense”, meaning they may call scientists and other expert witnesses to explain the immediate threat of climate change to justify their actions. Earlier this week, the appellate court upheld the trial court’s decision.
The Reluctant Radical begins with Ken’s work as a grassroots environmental organizer. When he married, he and his wife (now divorced) decided Ken would be the stay-at-home parent. During those years, Ken spent his free time exhaustively researching the science behind climate change. In the process, Ken became increasingly alarmed and then, like a modern-day Cassandra, despondent when his attempts to inform friends and family failed to provoke the appropriate level of outrage. For a time, he saw a psychiatrist, who convinced him he was bipolar and put him on lithium. Eventually, Ken decided that he was not delusional and began a one-man direct action campaign against the fossil fuel industry.
The film follows Ken’s various attempts to raise the alarm, from the dramatically successful action now known as the “Lobster Boat Blockade” to the ridiculous time Ken dressed up as Santa Clause and hung stockings full of coal on Exxon gas pumps. Throughout all this, what comes through is Ken’s passion, but also his isolation, which undoubtedly contributed to the symptoms which led to his professional misdiagnosis.
Eventually though, Ken finds his community. In 2016, he took part in the 2016 Break Free action. Ken and 50 other people were arrested blockading track that carries “bomb trains”. That action was coordinated with 19 other direct actions on six continents against the fossil fuel industry (one of which I participated in here in Northwest Indiana). One of the most moving moments of the film for me was seeing Ken’s emotion as he describes being a part of a direct action involving so many people.
The film include several clips of Ken’s current “sweetheart” who has supported Ken through much of this struggle. Some of the most poignant moments of the film for me were hearing her speak about her support of Ken. She expresses regret that she cannot follow Ken’s example, but I think she does herself a disservice in this regard. For every person like Ken, there are dozens of people behind them, providing material and moral support, or publicizing the action or filming it like Lindsey Grayzel.
The film was punctuated with humor, from the Santa Clause incident described above to quotidian, but endearing scenes of Ken interacting with his son. Watching Ken try to get his teenage son to paint a wall right really humanized Ken for me, as a father of two teenagers myself.
The film culminates with Ken and the four other activists planning and executing the Shut It Down action, and the legal consequences for Ken–first a mistrial and then a partial conviction.
The Reluctant Radical isn’t really a film about climate change, since it takes the reality of anthropogenic climate change for granted. It is a film about one man’s struggle to find a meaningful way to live in a world on the verge of global catastrophe. We see Ken struggle with the question of whether he is mentally ill or whether the world has gone mad. We see him struggle with loneliness and his discovery of a community. For me, it was Grayzel’s portrayal of this struggle is what made “The Reluctant Radical” so compelling.
I’m no film expert, but “The Reluctant Radical” was excellent visual storytelling. There were lighthearted funny moments, poignant sad moments, exuberant triumphant moments, and tragic despairing moments. Through it all, I felt Ken’s internal struggle with how to act in the face of seemingly insurmountable indifference. Even if I didn’t already acutely feel the same way, I would have loved this film, for its portrayal of one man’s attempt to live moral life … no matter the cost.