Called to be faithful and rebellious

“As I’m looking at an uncertain future, my faith is what sustains me when paying the consequences of state repression.”

Jessica Reznicek

To stop the Dakota pipeline from being built, Jessica Reznicek set construction equipment on fire and, with a welder, cut apart sections of pipe. She now faces 8 years of prison for her actions.

Photo: Jessica Reznicek, image courtesy of Cristina Yurena Zerr

By Cristina Yurena Zerr

On the outskirts of Des Moines, the Midwestern U.S. capital of Iowa, where partially dilapidated houses replace anonymous high-rises, sits a nondescript two-story house with a porch and overgrown yard. This is the place where it all began.

Jessica Reznicek sits in front of a wall covered with posters and newspaper clippings. Behind her hangs a banner that reads “We are here to protect. Water is life.” Because of her actions for clean water, the 40-year-old will spend the next eight years in prison.

In the eyes of the judiciary, Jessica Reznicek is a domestic terrorist. For others, however, she is a water protector who was willing to risk her freedom for this fight.

After civic life

“Global warming and the growth of the fossil fuel industry, which is horribly out of control and literally burning up the entire planet, is an obvious danger,” Reznicek, meanwhile, says. “I’m just watching for the last two decades, corporate industry taking over this community and that community, slowly inching away everything that I love, everything about my history and my future and the future of the children in my life.”

Reznicek speaks in a clear, loud voice, and – despite the mostly heavy topics – breaks into laughter again and again. Although she doesn’t like being in the spotlight and avoids journalists, she tells her story in vivid words. The story of a feverish search for forms of resistance that are really capable of changing something. Of turbulent resolutions, acts of sabotage – and of the FBI.

The story begins ten years ago when Jessica Reznicek, then a thirty-year-old politics student, leaves her bourgeois life behind to take part in the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York. Despite her then-husband’s threat that it would mean the end of their relationship. During the protests against the effects of the financial crisis and social inequality, she gets to know the Catholic Worker movement.

Photo: Jessica Reznicek cooks for the guests in the Catholic Worker House of Des Moines. Image courtesy of Cristina Yurena Zerr

This is how the young activist arrives at the collective house with the porch in Des Moines, which would become her base for the next ten years. The Catholic Worker movement is a community consisting of about two hundred autonomously operating “houses of hospitality” worldwide – about one hundred of them in the USA – where contemplation, self-organization and non-violent action are lived together in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount.

Christianity and anarchism – lived in radical critique of domination, striving for nonviolence and liberation from oppressive conditions – meet here in Des Moines. It is a place where the Christian message of social justice and solidarity with the marginalized becomes practice.

For Reznicek, Des Moines marks the beginning of what she now calls “conversion”: finding her Christian faith and returning to her Catholic roots. Her experiences in the community slowly change her attitude; she reduces her prejudices against religiosity. And: from now on, she wants to work more radically against injustice.

“Jesus was very political. He was a revolutionary. This is a human, challenging all authority and willing to give his life for what he loves, who he loves.”

Jessica Reznicek

“Jesus was very political,” Reznicek says. “He was a revolutionary. This is a human, challenging all authority and willing to give his life for what he loves, who he loves. Reading the Scriptures through this lens motivated me a lot in my resistance work.”

From Palestine to the Zapatistas

For the Christian activist, a restless search for her place and commitment in and to this world begins from that point on. As part of a peace organization, she flies twice to Israel, where she is deported for protesting in solidarity with the Palestinian people. She visits the Zapatistas in Mexico and spends time with the indigenous people of Guatemala.

In between, she returns to the Catholic Worker community, back in Des Moines. There she lives with other activists, organizers of the Black Lives Matter movement, and people who came to the community in need of a home. The community lives in “voluntary poverty” and is funded by private donations and odd jobs from its members. Most have a connection to Christianity, and some describe themselves as Catholic. But the movement also includes people who do not believe or believe differently.

Food is served daily at the house for those who don’t have a home or are looking for community. It is a meeting place for those who live on the margins of society: Homeless, illegalized, trans people, former prison inmates. On a particularly hot day at the end of July, Jessica Reznicek has her last cooking shift. In front of her is a huge pot of mashed potatoes on the stove, into which she generously adds butter. “Our guests love butter,” she says with a laugh. On the windowsill in front of her is a statue of a bishop with a rosary draped around him. “I like the days when I’m in charge of the kitchen,” she says as she begins to wash the mountain of dishes. “It takes my mind off all the things that are going on in my life.”

A month earlier, on June 28, the Des Moines court sentenced the Christian activist to eight years in prison for “conspiracy to damage an energy production facility,” and “malicious use of fire.” This is in addition to three years probation and a restitution payment of more than $3,198,512.70 to the corporation Energy Transfer. The crime was categorized as “domestic terrorism,” which significantly increased the sentence.

Using all means against the pipeline

It has now been five years since Jessica Reznicek first heard about the Energy Transfer corporation. Back in 2016, the Standing Rock Native Americans began forming a protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline being built by Energy Transfer. The pipeline transports crude oil from the northern U.S. state of North Dakota to southern Patoka, a pipeline hub in Illinois.

The Sioux people have since been fighting the pipeline, which runs near their reservation and poses a major threat to their water resources. Other bodies of water are also at risk because the pipes run under rivers and lakes in many places, which could contaminate drinking water in the event of an accident. In 2019, a leak from the Keystone pipeline, also in North Dakota, spilled about one and a half million gallons of crude oil.

In 2016 and 2017, Reznicek participates in various different actions to prevent the construction of the 1172 mile pipeline. Rallies, protest camps, signature collections. Near the town of Keokuk, Iowa, she builds a barricade to prevent construction workers from drilling. Over the course of a week, she is arrested by police and taken to jail – only to continue blockading the following day. More and more people join the action. But they fail to prevent the drilling. When it begins, Jessica Reznicek resorts to more drastic means.

On the night of Nov. 8, 2016, when Donald Trump is elected president of the United States, Jessica Reznicek, along with co-defendant Ruby Montoya, set fire to five pieces of construction equipment in Buena Vista County, northwest Iowa. “When I got home that night, I wasn’t sure if that was a good way to use my energy,” she recalls. Instead, she begins fasting in protest. For two weeks.

But she doesn’t think she’s building enough pressure with the hunger strike. When she observes construction workers welding the pipeline  sections together, she decides to use a welding machine to take the pipes apart again.

Over five months, Reznicek and Montoya use these tactics to fight the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Then a private security firm hired by the energy company finds out that all the sabotage in Iowa can be traced back to the two Christian activists.

“They started following me everywhere,” Reznicek says. “Those psychological tactics really wore me down over time. I was really wrestling with having this secret. I knew that I couldn’t tell anybody that I was sabotaging the Dakota Access Pipeline because that would incriminate whoever I told. And so I just had to hold that secret inside of me while I was watching all of this harassment by the pipeline company, that slowly wore me down… This is a huge reason why transparency is so powerful. Because we suffer from our secrets. Our secrets will eat us up. You need to talk with people about the things that are going on in your life. And that became such a toxic thing living inside of me. My sense of spirituality and my sense of what was right started to diminish from being stalked every day and not being able to talk to people about it. So I decided, essentially, that I was just going to publicly say what I did and take that power back. I decided that that was the only way that I was able to survive this era of my life.”

In July 2017, Reznicek and Montoya explained publicly what they had done to a group of journalists. Three months later, at 4:30 a.m. they heard banging on the door of the community house in Des Moines. “I ran down the stairs and could see about fifty FBI agents with big guns and vests through the window,” Reznicek recalls. “I was terrified.” When she opened the door, the FBI rushed in, throwing her to the ground. “They threw me down on the ground with a huge gun in my face and [a] foot on my neck.”

The violence of the welding torch

Right here, in front of the wall with the “Water is life” banner, that’s where it happened, she says. Reznicek is receiving criticism not only from the judiciary, but also from her own ranks for the manner of her actions. Many describe the damage to property as violent. Reznicek, on the other hand, believes she acted nonviolently. ” Interestingly, people do not think that the man who used the welder to construct a pipeline that put our very lives under threat was violent. []But I hear often a woman using a welder to deconstruct a pipeline as being violent..”

After the raid, Jessica decides to leave: “After the FBI raid I kind of kept a strong face, I tried to exude confidence. But everything was kind of crumbling internally. One of my oldest coping mechanisms from early on was to run away.”

For a year, Jessica hitchhiked around the United States, without a home. “I wasn’t necessarily underground. I was running and hiding, but not just from the government. I was hiding from everything and everyone.”

When she has a breakdown after ten months in Colorado, she finally realizes she needs help. But it will not come from people or places, but from her relationship with God, Reznicek says. After this experience, she realizes she wants to live in a place where she can encounter God. She decides to enter a Benedictine convent as a novice.

“When I arrived there, I knew almost immediately that was the place I was looking for. I felt a huge weight lifted from me,” Jessica recalls of her first visit to the convent in Duluth, Minnesota. “I found a freedom so great that I was able to finally release the tears that I’ve been holding in for so long. I was able to express the fears. I was able to go deeply into scripture.”

But this new life lasts only a short time. Reznicek is picked up again by the FBI and charged. She has to spend the time until the verdict in house arrest.

On Aug. 11, a month and a half after the sentencing, Jessica Reznicek began her sentence at the women’s prison in Wascea, Minneapolis. While in prison, she now plans to continue her education via distance learning to become a social worker. So that when she’s back on the outside, she can become part of a network that offers an alternative to calling the police. “I don’t think by any means that there is less work to do in prison. I think there’s just as much opportunity to grow and to find joy and to find peace no matter where you are anywhere.
I need to believe that I will continue to contribute making this world a better place, no matter where I am.”

(In early November, Reznicek addressed the public for the first time since her incarceration. In a letter published on Twitter, she expresses hope and gratitude for the support she receives. At the same time, she says, she struggles with depression and is still sometimes shocked by where she is.)

Cristina Yurena Zerr is an independent filmmaker and author with a focus on non-violence, antimilitarism and faith-based resistance.

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