CHRISTIANSBURG — Activist and self-identified “raging granny” Glenna “Duff” Benjamin traveled to Montgomery County in September to lock herself to a sideboom pipelayer and block construction of the Mountain Valley Pipeline for five hours.
On Monday, she returned to face the consequences of her act of non-violent civil disobedience. The 76-year-old Benjamin pleaded not guilty to a charge of trespassing, but acknowledged the evidence against her would be enough to return a conviction. In return, she received a $200 fine that would be suspended on the conditions that she keep at least 100 yards away from the pipeline and its construction sites and that she not harass MVP employees or contractors.
Four other related charges were held under advisement by General District Court Judge Gino Williams and will be dismissed in 12 months if Benjamin abides by the court’s conditions.
“You understand I’m going to get to be the referee about what harassing is from here on out, as long as it’s within the jurisdiction of this court, OK?” Williams told Benjamin. “Do you understand that? I don’t want to cut you off from doing the things you’re legally allowed to do, but if there’s a question in your mind about what’s harassment, it would be a good idea not to do that.”
Benjamin meekly acquiesced. But a few minutes later, as she walked out of the courtroom, she grinned like the cat that ate the canary.
“I’m happy that I did it,” Benjamin told reporters outside the courtroom, as a crowd of pipeline protesters and supporters listened.
Her lawyer, former Montgomery County supervisor Chris Tuck, added, “She doesn’t have any regrets. In channeling the teachings of Martin Luther King and his actions, she’s committed to nonviolent protest, and that’s what she did. She’s appreciative of the compassion the commonwealth’s attorney showed her in this case. She will continue to be a voice in protecting our environment and a cause she believes in with all of her heart.”
Benjamin, from Durham, North Carolina, is one of several anti-pipeline activists who have locked themselves to pipeline equipment and wound up in court since construction began in late 2017. Benjamin is notable not only for her age — she’s half a century older than many of her counterparts — but also for the length of time she’s engaged in protest. Like protesters at the Yellow Finch tree sit in nearby Elliston, Benjamin uses a “forest name,” but her pseudonym itself is as old as some of the activists who were in court to support her on Monday.
“Eons ago when Julia Butterfly Hill was living in a tree in Humboldt County, I was one of the people down below protecting her and bringing her food and taking her meals,” Benjamin said. “We were instructed by the leaders of the group that we all needed to kick a forest name so the police wouldn’t know who we were. So I chose ‘Duff,’ and just over the years have begun using it more and more.”
Benjamin went on to eventually join the Raging Grannies of Madison, playing washboard and singing satirical lyrics set to traditional songs during protests against Wisconsin’s then-Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to limit collective bargaining. It was during that time that Benjamin saw that Greenpeace was training protestors in action camps. She signed up and learned about how to conduct blockades.
After Benjamin moved to Durham, she attended a workshop by Appalachians Against Pipelines, an anti-pipeline organization that had grown out of the mountaintop removal coal mining protests of the early 2000s. She began visiting the Yellow Finch tree sits and support camp, where she learned the six basic knots necessary for climbing trees.
“I flunked out of Girl Scouts as a child because I couldn’t learn any knots, but they became second nature,” Benjamin said. “I did them almost like a meditation.”
But when she went to climb a tree, she ran into a problem: Her hands wouldn’t cooperate.
“I started up a tree trying to make some progress, and my hands began to spasm, terrible spasms, terribly painful,” Benjamin said. “I couldn’t hold onto the rope. I waited for them to go away, but they didn’t go away. It got worse.”
Since she couldn’t climb a tree and participate in the tree sits directly, Benjamin decided she’d lock herself to pipeline construction equipment instead. She remembered the planning meeting at a house, in which a big whiteboard was used to chart every element of the operation.
“I’ve never seen planning that minute and graphic,” Benjamin said. “I knew who was going to make the peanut butter sandwiches, and what was going to be on them, and what kind of bread, and what time they were going to do it, and who was going to load it into the car, and who was going to be in which car, and what time to get up and what to wear.”
Early on September 27, the morning of the action, Benjamin rose well before dawn and dressed in layers of frilly clothing.
“I wanted to look like a granny,” she said. “I wanted to emphasize my age and look as frail and grandmotherly as possible. So I picked out like a full, long skirt and petticoats and leggings underneath.”
The group targeted a pipeline construction yard by U.S. 460 in Elliston, not far from Yellow Finch. She climbed onto the biggest piece of equipment she could find, hung a banner reading “pipelines blow,” and slipped a custom-made lockbox over her hands.
Benjamin delayed construction about five hours, but Appalachians Against Pipelines’ use of the “raging granny” on its Facebook page and other channels made a splash on social media. The group raised bail money on a GoFundMe page, and Benjamin was released on the same day as her protest and arrest.
She said her court-appointed lawyer refused to put up a defense. She hired Tuck, who had previously declined to take pipeline cases because of concerns over a conflict of interest with his post as a county supervisor, but his term ended with 2019. Benjamin found her court costs escalated because of that first, court-appointed lawyer. They totaled $801, with about $600 of that stemming from that first lawyer’s fees.
Benjamin wasn’t the only grandmother in the courthouse on Monday. Crystal Mello, a grandmother who lives in Montgomery County and who has participated in tree sits, came to support Benjamin in court. She was also joined by another grandmother, Becky Crabtree of Monroe County, West Virginia, who in 2018 barricaded herself in a Ford Pinto over a pipeline trench. The charges against Crabtree were dropped.
“In some ways it feels like I’m living through her, and in some ways I feel like I need to be doing something,” Crabtree said in response to a question about how she felt watching Benjamin’s case. “Grandmothers and older people are thinking a little more about the future, perhaps, than some folks are. It confirmed my joy for what I did, and certainly made a bond between Duff and I.”
Benjamin said after the ruling that she will continue to fight the pipeline — albeit from a distance of at least 100 yards, per the agreement.
“The thing that gets me a lot is that they put these pipelines in poor people’s neighborhoods, and people of color, and these people don’t deserve it,” Benjamin said. “They can’t fight back. They can’t hire an expensive lawyer to fight back, and so they become victims. It infuriates me.”