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Local Activist Puts His Body on the Line for the Planet

April 2015

Cover Story

Local Activist Puts His Body on the Line for the Planet

by Ryan Rickerts

Ryan Rickerts hails from north Idaho where mountains are old, lakes clear, snow deep and wilderness abundant. He enjoys traversing the landscape on foot, bike and ski. He cares for a cabin near Silver Lake where you can find him chopping wood and carrying water. His pen name is Huck LeBerry.

Herb Goodwin is easily recognized. A tall man with an impressively long, white beard, he describes himself as looking “like Santa Claus.” Since he often appears in black jeans, a black jacket and a black, broad-brimmed hat, I can see him more easily than Johnny Cash playing the role of abolitionist John Brown in the 1985 TV mini-series “North and South.” While his ambitions are more like the latter character, his demeanor is what you might imagine of the former. Friendly and soft-spoken, Herb sat at a picnic table with me near the gently flowing waters of Whatcom Creek eager to share stories of his many direct action efforts over the past four years.

Goodwin graduated from Nooksack High School in 1967 and studied mathematics at WSU. Shortly thereafter, he got his first taste of activism during the anti-draft movement of the Vietnam War. Fast-forward through several decades filled with three marriages, four children, running a business, being a caregiver for his mother until she passed, even a champion bodybuilder at the age of 50, and he once again became “a single person with a conscience.” You may have seen Herb in the public eye again when The Bellingham Herald profiled him about seven years ago for his 100 percent car-free lifestyle.

“People driving cars are the main threat to the planet,” he said. “But I soon realized giving up my car didn’t influence anyone to give up theirs.”

He shifted his attention to the Occupy Movement which inspired him to dive back deep into civil disobedience. He erected one of the first tents in the Occupy Bellingham encampment at Maritime Heritage Park in 2011 and remained there for 61 days until their eviction in late December. At the same time he joined 11 other activists in blockading a coal train; three of them chained their necks together over the tracks. All 12 were arrested, held overnight and charged with trespassing and obstructing an officer. They became known as the ‘Bellingham 12’ and Herb only just recently cleared up his case.

“The regulatory framework isn’t working, from the top down. The system isn’t working,” Goodwin said, in reference to leveraging the legal or judicial system for facilitating change. “I have no personal confidence in its ability to keep us from incinerating our planet. We aren’t going to reform ourselves out of this mess called the industrial revolution.”

Peaceful Disobedience Advocate

So Goodwin is now becoming an expert in peaceful disobedience. “The Occupy movement is not over,” he said. To renew his personal campaign to use his body as a tool for nonviolent resistance, he has joined forces with the Wild Idaho Rising Tide (WIRT) to engage in an activity called “megaload blockading.” He and his cohorts have identified bottlenecks for transporting of many hundred-ton pieces of fossil fuel extraction equipment, places where there is only one way through the mountains. These are often narrow two-lane highways in remote areas of Idaho or Montana as they move from port in Oregon to a refinery expansion in Montana or a fracking operation in the tar sands region of Alberta. Either the USDOT has prohibited the companies from using the interstate system due to weight restrictions, or they are moving stealthily by night to avoid negative attention and the blunt force tactics of environmental activists.

To organize the blockades, scouts are first put in place to monitor the preparations of the megaload crew. Then local activist groups mobilize as soon as the route and schedule are determined, and members of other Rising Tide organizations including Portland (PRT) and Seattle (SRT) move quickly to stay ahead of the load and help boost the groups’ presence at each point.

In late November 2014, WIRT and friends tracked three pieces of a hydrocracker (at 600,000 lbs. each) from Port of Wilma in Lewiston, Idaho, to John Day, Oregon, ultimately destined for the Calumet refinery in Great Falls, Montana. After several delays around Thanksgiving, the load was finally scheduled to move on Dec. 1.

Herb Describes the Action.

“Stop Megaloads activists chained themselves to the axles of the lead truck and (2) all three were shut down for the night,” he said. “That was a victory for us. The next night they had a paramilitary escort of 50-60 marked law enforcement vehicles.” While traveling across Idaho, Herb would sometimes be stopped by police two times a night and have his ID checked, even though in the highest stakes moments (standing against the semis) he could technically only be cited for a traffic infraction. He was never arrested, though many times he thought he would be.

“They are trying to scare us off. Their tactic is intimidation,” he said.

Government Agents Ask Questions

Attention from local or regional authorities varies as does the group responsible for the action. Often the local tribes, such as the Umatilla or Nez Perce, are the principal organizers of a blockade. As a key train passes through Missoula, Montana, you might find a 100 or more people gathered courtesy of the Indian People’s Action performing a round dance in the street for half an hour while police stand by peaceably. In contrast, when an FBI agent arrived at Goodwin’s doorstep along with a Bellingham police detective asking questions, it became apparent that the U.S. Government is not treating this activity as a trivial nuisance. They wanted to know of any affiliation he had with a group called Deep Green Resistance, which has advocated for more radical strategies than those of mainstream environmental activism.

“I said no and did not elaborate [for the agents]. I am a supporter of DGR, not a member,” he said. “They provide a good critical analysis of the problem. Derrick Jensen (the group’s co-founder) has published 20 books. They have a plan we need to consider. We need to emphasize the overthrow of capitalism and these dirty fossil-fuel oligarchs who are forcing dysfunction on our society.”

When Goodwin was arrested for blocking a coal train in Bellingham in December 2011 the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal was a hot-button issue locally and no Bakken crude oil trains were yet passing through Whatcom County. Now we have major explosions happening regularly, the most recent (at the time of writing) on March 5, 2015, when six out of a 105-car BNSF train that originated in North Dakota derailed about three miles outside Galena, Ill. Two of those burst into flames despite voluntary upgrades by BNSF to a newer model known as the 1232.

“These bomb trains on rails have to be dealt with. They are an even bigger evil [than coal trains]. Supposedly these new ‘safer’ tank cars have an additional wall of safety. That was completely exposed this last week when six exploded in a cascading series,” Goodwin said, referring to an accident on Feb. 16, 2015, near Mount Carbon, West Virginia .

Shifting to Crude

So he has switched emphasis from resisting coal transport to tracking the rapid increase in transport of volatile crude. His partners at WIRT have shifted their focus to Sandpoint, Idaho where BNSF’s Northern Transcon route bottlenecks at a one lane bridge over the pristine Lake Pend Oreille.

“They are trying to permit a second bridge and it has to be opposed,” he said. “Action at the refineries is good, but we need to oppose fossil fuel transport across the Northern Transcon instead of letting it get here. Every single coal and oil unit train crosses that bridge. It’s only a matter of time before there is a derailment that takes out some community like Sandpoint.”

Goodwin has also taken interest in the Solutionary Rail initiative of the Backbone Campaign which puts pressure on the railroad industry to electrify their infrastructure, starting with BNSF owner Warren Buffet and the Northern Transcon.

“These are the most brilliant thinkers we have in the environmental and social justice movement,” he said, speaking of the Backbone Campaign who are striving to take what is a negative in our society and turn it into a positive. “Trains are great! Railroads are the future. Let’s get fossil fuels off of them.”

Dissatisfied with the pacifism encouraged by the organized abolitionist movement in the 1850s, John Brown said, “These men are all talk. What we need is action — action!” While Herb Goodwin considers himself a pacifist—and he definitely strikes me as one — he most certainly agrees with John Brown — direct action.

“We have to be at war with what fossil fuel corporations are doing,” he said.

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