A CONVERSATION WITH MARILYN KIMMERLING OF TACOMA DIRECT ACTION
By Stephen Quirke
IN THE EARLY MORNING of May 17, 2017, six people entered a construction site at the Port of Tacoma, Washington, and locked themselves to an auger. Four hours passed before Tacoma police could remove them.
One officer told 79- year-old Cynthia Linet that his grandmother would never do what she had done. “Shame on your grandma!” she responded.
The group was part of Tacoma Direct Action, a civil disobedience group that has been fighting construction of a $300 million Liquefied Natural Gas project on the Tacoma tideflats. The sponsoring company, Puget Sound Energy, has faced consistent opposition since it started work at the site in November 2016. The project is also facing legal challenges from the Puyallup Tribe, who object to more safety hazards and pollution risks in its traditional lands on Commencement Bay. Since the opposition began, the city of Tacoma has adopted a temporary ban on new fossil fuel infrastructure.
Two who participated in the May 17th action — Cynthia Linet and Marilyn Kimmerling (in photo at top; Kimmerling is on the left) — took their cases to trial. Last December, both were acquitted of all charges after a jury heard testimony from Puyallup elder Ramona Bennett, a veteran of Washington’s “fishing wars” and a highly respected tribal leader.
Kimmerling agreed to be interviewed by Jewish Currents about her action, her Jewish heritage, and why she attempted to read a Treaty from 1854 in Tacoma Municipal Court.
SQ. Could you explain your action on May 17th?
MK. Six of us went down at 5:30 in the morning, and we had PVC pipes, and we locked down to the giant auger. And of course we were arrested, and we spent two days and one night in jail.
I’m 69 years old, almost 70, and I’m retired . . . we [Linet and Kimmerling] knew that it wouldn’t be as damaging to us. We weren’t going to lose a job. They weren’t going to take our kids away from us. We were in a position to go ahead and take this all the way to trial. We wanted a jury, because we wanted our story to get out.
SQ. Was your initial hope to argue that you were on tribal land?
MK. They would not let us use a necessity defense. They threw that out. And they would not let us use the defense-of- others defense. They threw that out. Which left us practically nothing.
I had maybe six inches of [documentary] evidence, maybe more of that, that I had amassed, plus video, and the judge threw it all out, wouldn’t let us present it, except for two maps of the area that were given to me by Ramona Bennett of the Puyallup Tribe. And they threw out all of our expert witnesses. They wouldn’t allow any of them, except Ramona Bennett.
SQ. Why did the jury decide you weren’t guilty?
MK. Based on the evidence that was given, they could not be sure that the land did not belong to the Puyallup Indians. And if it belonged to the Puyallup Indians, then we weren’t trespassing because we were there at their invitation. And if we were there at their invitation, and the police officers were not there at their invitation, and tried to arrest us, then we were not obstructing justice, because they [the tribe] have their own police.
So it wasn’t exactly the way we thought we would win, or hoped we would win, but in some ways it’s better, because it throws into question all of the seizure of land, and breaking of treaties, and it’s a huge win for native people all over the United States.
SQ. Did people know who Ramona Bennett is (pictured at right)?
KM. Here in Tacoma she is absolutely famous for the week-long takeover of Cascadia Treatment Center [in the 1970s], which she won back for the Puyallups. Her name is well-revered out here, and I was so delighted when she agreed to testify for me. That was my dream witness.
SQ. Did you know Ramona Bennett before your trial, or did you first meet her there?
MK. I had marched for years for Leonard Peltier. I knew Ramona Bennett’s history, and I had been star-struck. Her fight during the fishery wars, her incredible steadfastness, and courage . . . So when I did my action, and we went to trial, I knew I wanted Ramona Bennett to testify. She did agree to do it, and I was delighted. And of course we’ve got to know eachother better since then.
S.Q. Were Puyallup rights a motivation for you to take action at the port?
KM. It certainly was a motivating factor. Although I wasn’t allowed to present the treaty, I cited what’s known as the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854, which is still in effect, which guaranteed the shorelines to the Puyallup Nation for fishing in perpetuity . . . so it was literally stolen from Puyallup.
And another motivating factor was the [ICE] Northwest Detention Center. It’s right in the blast zone, and they had absolutely no plan for evacuating those detainees. It was wrong on so many levels: environmentally, safety-wise, native rights, common sense. We already have a poor health record here from the history of heavy industrial use down in the port.
Public sentiment is huge here in support of native rights, in Tacoma. But those people are being shut out of the process with city council. But there are hundreds — literally hundreds and hundreds of people — that are now very favorably inclined toward native rights because of the LNG plant. But we’re up against big business, and we’re up against, unfortunately, the longshoremen. Although people from the longshoremen went out to support Standing Rock, they won’t support their own backyard, because their jobs depend on it. But I know that the indigenous people of this country are not going backwards. A treaty is a two-way street.
SQ. Was this your first foray into activism?
KM. I’ve been involved in activism for a long time. I’ve been involved in trying to keep the NW Detention Center from being built. I’m a member of Jewish Voice for Peace for Palestinian rights. I’m chair of Jobs with Justice [for Tacoma]. You know, I’m from the Washington, D.C. area originally — I marched in the counter-inaugural march for Nixon, I’m a member of United for Peace Pierce County, and I’m also an associate member with Veterans for Peace. I’ve been involved in activism wherever I see injustice. But these days, with what’s going on in our country, it seems to me that I can have more immediate effect acting locally.
SQ. Were you raised Jewish?
KM. My parents were pretty much the high-holy-days kind of Jewish family. They took the kids to sabbath school, but they never went to shul unless somebody died or unless it was the high holy days. They were both first-generation. Their parents were both from the old countries — Ashkenazi, raised Orthodox, but didn’t practice. My parents were raised in Conservative Judaism.
SQ. Did your upbringinging plant any activist seeds?
KM. My parents were Republicans. And I remember my mom being glued to the tube during the McCarthy trials. She just thought those terrible communist people were awful, and McCarthy was doing a great thing. So I did not absorb that sense of social justice in my home, but I was taught what a mentsh was — a true human being. People would say, “What a mentsh!” — my father, my mother, my relatives. And what I learned was that a mentsh thought of people more than yourself, gave to charity, tried to do what was right. So there was a sense of justice. There sense of justice was different from mine, but there was a sense of justice.
I didn’t hear the words “tikkun olam” [repair of the world] until I was an adult. And that definitely resonates with me. Part of my understanding of being a mentsh is that you definitely fight for others, and you fight for justice. And you try to heal the world. There’s a lot in this world that needs healing.
SQ. Does it have personal meaning for you to support Native rights, as a Jewish person?
MK. It does have meaning for me. And I also remember when I was a kid growing up in a Catholic neighborhood — one day at school being slammed against a wall and beaten up because I killed Jesus. So I have personal experience. Walking down the street with a black person, who happened to be male, a car tried to run us down. I experienced my dorm mother saying to me. “Oh, you’re Jewish? I thought you were white.” That was the first time I realized, oh my God — I’m not white! That’s fabulous! It was so liberating.
SQ. Do you believe there’s an ethical obligation to take action against climate change?
MK. We have to do everything we can to stop it. We have to do it. Obviously the change is not going to come from the top down. Obviously the people have to take a stand. And I don’t know if we can win. But God help us if we don’t try.
Stephen Quirke is a journalist in Portland, Oregon who writes about the environment, Indian country, and social justice.