Trespassing charges dropped against local Grannies for Dakota Access Pipeline protests

Mary Beth Versgrove, Ann Christenson, Georgiane Perret, Miriam Kashia and Aaron Silander. — photo courtesy of Mary Beth Versgrove

Trespassing charges against five local members of 100 Grannies for a Livable Future were dismissed by Lee County Judge Gary Noneman on Monday. The Grannies were arrested last fall for entering private property in an attempt to stop construction on the Dakota Access Pipeline as a drill began to bore below the Mississippi River.

“We resorted to this because it was the only avenue left to us,” one of the defendants, Miriam Kashia, 74, of North Liberty, said. “We have done everything else by the book, and we have been consistently ignored by the Iowa Utilities Board, by our state legislators, by our governor, whose job it is to protect the public well-being and they aren’t doing their job.”

Kashia, along with Mary Beth Versgrove, 65, Ann Christenson, 80, Aaron Silander, 67 and Georgiane Perret, 76, of Iowa City were charged with misdemeanor trespassing on Oct. 1, 2016. Perret was additionally charged with trespassing in the same area on Sept. 17, 2016. Perret pled not guilty to the October charge and spent the night in jail, but pled guilty to the September charge and was planning to stand trial with the other Grannies.

“Obviously we’re thrilled that there’s no more legal risks, but really the risk to the drinking water as well as the land remains due to the pipeline. So I think they’re going to continue on with their advocacy, and I’ll be right alongside them because I think this is a major issue that the public faces that a lot of people don’t really know about,” the Grannies’ lawyer Rockne Cole said.

Aaron Silander (farthest right) and Mary Beth Versgrove (second from right) are pictured along with the group as they prepared to go to the drill site on Oct. 1, 2016. — photo by Cheryl Valenta

100 Grannies for a Livable Future is an environmentalist organization. It is part of the statewide Bakken Pipeline Resistance Coalition as well as the Mississippi Stand Solidarity Network centered around stopping pipeline construction at the site of the arrests.

On the morning of Oct. 1, the Grannies attended a nonviolent direct action workshop, then around noon walked through the woods to the Dakota Access drill site in Lee County where it was boring under the river. Versgrove said there were over 200 activists there and dozens entered and encircled the construction site. Work continued.

Dozens were arrested at that site in multiple direct actions and many pled not guilty, but most have not gone to trial, either due to delays or because they were offered dismissal with only $60 in court costs, Silander said.

“We declined that offer because we wanted to have a day in court. We requested a jury trial so that we could continue to get the word out about the clear and present dangers the pipeline poses,” Silander said.

Silander (in red), Versgrove (in green) and Kashia (kneeling in blue) outside the Lee County sheriff’s office after being released from jail Oct. 2, 2016. — photo by Cheryl Valenta

Late last Friday, Lee County Attorney Clinton Boddicker filed a motion to dismiss the charges against the Grannies, and later that afternoon a judge dismissed the case for lack of evidence, without court costs to the defendants.

“There were probably about five cases that were not going to be eligible for dismissal,” Versgrove said, including a felony charge. “Many of those people pled guilty because they could not afford to take the time to plead not guilty and request a jury trial.”

Heather Pearson, of Logan, Iowa, was arrested Oct. 29, 2016 in Calhoun County for direct action against the pipeline after being invited onto the property by the former landowner whose property had been seized by eminent domain. Versgrove and Silander went to support Pearson in court on Wednesday, May 24, but the trial was postponed.

Versgrove said when she learned the charges against the Grannies would be dismissed, she called supporters in Keokuk who planned to testify on behalf of the Grannies, including a 90-year-old landowner whose property was condemned because it was in the path of the pipeline.

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“Those people aren’t done either, they’re just very weary,” she said. “This has been three years of a lot of pain and suffering for them.”

Mississippi River site where the Grannies were arrested, Oct 1 2016. — photo by Kate Larson

Dakota Access recently filed a motion with the Iowa Supreme Court to dismiss a case against them by landowners and the Sierra Club. That motion’s dismissal makes Versgrove optimistic about how the court will rule in the case, she said.

The parent company of Dakota Access, Energy Transfer Partners, has come under fire for two pipeline leaks last month in the Ohio wetlands, as well as over 100 gallons that leaked from the pipeline the Grannies were protesting in two separate incidents this March.

“The profits aren’t going to benefit anybody in the state of Iowa,” Silander said. “The risk of ruining Iowa’s primary industry [agriculture], drinking water and the aquifers, it’s incredibly irresponsible.”

The Mississippi Stand Solidarity Network, made up of mostly people from Iowa City, has continued to meet, focusing on education and divestment from banks that fund the pipeline, Versgrove said.

“We’re talking about some follow-up actions and events and strategies we might take to keep this issue going,” she said. “It isn’t done, it isn’t over. We haven’t decided on anything yet but we do want you to know that there are things in the works. We’re not done with this fight.”