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Kalamazoo activist could face federal charges for Enbridge pipeline protest

Chris Wahmhoff spent 10 hours inside Enbridge's 6B pipeline and is now facing up to three years in prison

Clean up efforts on the Kalamazoo River
Clean up efforts on the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. Photo by Mic Stolz, Creative Commons license.

After Chris Wahmhoff broke up with his first girlfriend, he went down to the Kalamazoo River to think. When his grandfather died, he went looking for comfort in the same place. He has spent the better part of his life living within a few hundred feet of the river, but when he went down to the water last June, it was for a different reason.

On June 24—his 35th birthday—Wahmhoff climbed into a section of Enbridge’s Line 6B pipeline. When he got out 10 hours later, he was arrested and charged with resisting and obstructing a police officer and trespassing.
Tomorrow will be his last pre-trial court appearance before his case goes to trial at the beginning of the New Year. Along with three other Michigan activists, known at the Felonious Four, Wahmhoff could be facing more than two years in prison, but he says that so far court proceedings have gone well. At his most recent pre-trial in October, one of the lead witnesses, a Michigan detective, went on record saying that Wahmhoff had been very cooperative and a pleasure to work with, a statement that could go a long way toward refuting the charge of resisting arrest.

Even the judge seemed to think the charges were overblown, Wahmhoff says, describing a scene in the courtroom at his last pre-trial where the judge asked the prosecutors if they would offer a settlement and if Wahmhoff “can’t just write a letter and say he’s sorry.” But the prosecutors refused to offer a settlement. Wahmhoff is willing to go to jail if that’s what it takes, but he says a settlement is not what he’s looking for.

“I know myself and at least a few of the other felons, we refuse restitution and refuse settlement. We’re not willing to make a situation where we’re apologetic.” His lawyers will be presenting a defence of necessity, and seeking to have the charges dropped completely.

His three colleagues will go to trial January 27, six days after his trial begins.

Since the arrest, there has been an outpouring of support with campaigns and fundraisers springing up to collect money to help cover court costs. The dark side to a life of community organizing is that news tends to be bad and victories are often small, but Wahmhoff says the response to his troubles has been enough to inspire a lot of hope.

“The part that turns that back around and makes it worth it in so many cases is seeing friends and people step forward, and getting to see the part of it that’s family.” He says most of the support both moral and financial has come from small, grassroots communities like his own and not large NGOs. The local Unitarian and Quaker churches got involved and even local bars have come out in support of the Felonius Four. “It’s empowering to see that it really does happen.”

A social worker and a life-long Kalamazoo resident, Wahmhoff jumped into the arena of political and social activism after the 2008 economic collapse. There were several factors that served as catalysts. First, he was a homeowner at the time and felt first-hand the impact the crisis had the lives of ordinary people. Working primarily with adults with mental disabilities gave him a view of how the system treats the marginalized.

Finally, major health issues led him to get fired from his job. He was granted EI in 2010 but the court overturned it a year later and he found himself roughly $15,000 in debt to the American government. It was two weeks before Occupy Wall Street took over Zuccotti Park in New York City, and Wahmhoff decided to jump in with both feet.

When it came time to stand up against the company that had effectively destroyed a huge part of his home, he didn’t think twice.

“It’s where we grew up. Even the park where we played basketball everyday was on the river. My whole family even now is on well water, which goes off the river,” he says, adding that the lack of thorough and realistic health information is an ongoing frustration. “My three year old niece, I know she’s drinking well water and you have to wonder what’s going to happen.”

His own health was also on his mind that day back in June. He went into the pipeline with a plan to spend only a limited amount of time inside, not because he knew the police would arrive (the police report shows that at no time did officers actually ask him to get out) but because he didn’t know what kind of chemicals he was being exposed to.

“Honestly, I was really worried about the cops, but I was more worried about what I was in there with.”

While awaiting trial, Wahmhoff has continued to work in the community, helping to organize this year’s Occupy national gathering, held in Kalamazoo in August. But while his case has raised the profile of the work in Michigan, conditions placed on his release in July have severely impeded his ability to organize. He has had to give up some of his duties and, a court order to stay in the state has meant he has been unable to attend several events he helped to plan.

The uncertainty ahead has made it difficult to plan for the future. Wahmhoff has had friends and colleagues invite him to events upcoming in the New Year, and he honestly doesn’t know if he can say yes. He says it’s something of a reality check.

“I love playing basketball, it’s one of my favourite ways to relax,” he says. “Tonight was my night for that and I realized I only have six more of these before I might go away for awhile.”

Upping the stakes for him is the possibility of facing federal charges. The Kalamazoo Gazette reported in July that the police in the county had forwarded the case to the FBI for review. Wahmhoff has no idea if anything will come of it.

But regardless of the outcome, Wahmhoff says he’ll continue to fight for his community. He recalls the first time he went down to the river after the so-called cleanup efforts.

“I looked at it, and it was like looking at the landscape of Mars. It was dead and it was quiet and it was still. It looked like a grave.”

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