Not since John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln has an actor so spectacularly misread his audience.
After assassinating President Lincoln at Ford’s Theater in Washington, D.C.—and plotting with his coconspirators to simultaneously assassinate three others—the egotistical actor expected to be hailed as a hero by the Confederacy for avenging the South’s recent defeat.
Instead, virtually the entire nation—including most of the Confederacy—railed against Booth, with newspaper editorials labeling him a “madman” and a “wretched fiend.” Even General Robert E. Lee condemned the murder as “deplorable.”
Actor-turned-ecoterrorist Michael Foster made a similar miscalculation about his audience—and suffered a similar fate.
After shutting down the Keystone pipeline in North Dakota—and plotting with his coconspirators to simultaneously shut down pipelines in three other states—Foster expected his actions to inspire others to engage in eco-terrorism themselves.
“If somebody else, somewhere down the line, takes some meaning from what I did and they apply it in the way that they see fit, that’s what my action was meant to do,” Foster said.
But the eco-revolution never materialized. "I wish I could say more than a year later that we could see the ripple effect, but I'm not sure I see that," he said.
Instead, Foster is sitting in a North Dakota jail at the start of his one-year sentence for felony criminal mischief, felony conspiracy to commit criminal mischief, and criminal trespass. The other “Valve Turners” (as he and his coconspirators are called) are either awaiting trial or sentencing for the felonies they committed while sabotaging the other pipelines.
As it turns out, people appreciate eco-terrorists about as much as they appreciate presidential assassins, which isn’t very much. And it’s not just the general public; according to The New York Times, “the Valve Turners’ tactics are not popular within the environmental movement as a whole and remain controversial even within the climate movement.”
Such extreme ideology is not even appreciated among blood relatives, as both Booth and Foster learned. Booth’s older brother, Edwin, grew so tired of the younger Booth’s anti-Lincoln rants that he told him he was no longer welcome in his home. And Foster’s relationship with his wife and children deteriorated even more.
After years of badgering his family to do more to fight climate change—like giving up vacations, Christmas trees, and the family pet—his wife filed for divorce in 2014, “and his children said they no longer wanted to be part of his activism, or part of his life,” according to the Times.
But perhaps Foster’s least appreciative audience was Judge Laurie Fontaine who presided over his trial. After the Judge asked if Foster if he wanted to make a statement before sentencing, Foster launched into a 20-minute soliloquy in which he invoked the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Gandhi and Henry David Thoreau.
After hearing his speech but before handing down his sentence, Judge Fontaine essentially called Foster a ham. “You like being in front of the camera, you like all the attention,” she said.
Citing a few letters sent on Foster’s behalf describing him—much like Booth—as “narcissistic and attention-seeking,” the Judge said, “Everything about you, and everything you’ve said to me, is this was the right thing to do, this is what I’m called to do, this is what I have to do. So nothing about that tells me you wouldn’t do the same thing next month, next year, next week.”
Then she sentenced Foster to three years in prison, with two of those years suspended.
The next day, speaking from the county jail located right behind the courthouse, Foster finally acknowledged that he completely misread his audience. “I blew it,” he said. “I really didn’t speak to her concerns.”