“Action from principle, the perception and the performance of right, changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary…” —Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience”
Henry’s jaw would’ve dropped. This morning, for a moment, at least, a higher law—the law of conscience—held sway in Massachusetts.
OK, I know that sounds a bit much. But something truly remarkable, a kind of blessed unrest, took place today at the Bristol County courthouse in Fall River, Massachusetts, where climate activists Ken Ward and Jay O’Hara (Nation readers will remember them from this piece last year) were going to trial for blockading a coal freighter at Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset—using an old wooden lobster boat christened theHenry David T.—for the sole reason of addressing the climate crisis. In what looked to be an unprecedented case in the United States, they were set to be the first to use a “necessity defense” in a direct-action civil disobedience case centered on climate change, arguing that what they did was justified for the sake of public health and safety. James Hansen, one of the world’s top climate scientists, and 350.org’s Bill McKibben, among others, were lined up as expert witnesses.
And what happened, the truly remarkable thing, was this: the prosecutor, Bristol County District Attorney Sam Sutter, not only dropped the charges (which could have resulted in months, or even years, of jail time); he then proceeded out to the courthouse plaza where he made a statement to the media and to the hundred or more people gathered in support of Ken and Jay. Here’s what he said:
The decision that Assistant District Attorney Robert Kidd and I reached today was a decision that certainly took into consideration the cost to the taxpayers in Somerset, but was also made with our concerns for their children, and the children of Bristol County and beyond in mind.
Climate change is one of the gravest crises our planet has ever faced. In my humble opinion, the political leadership on this issue has been gravely lacking. I am heartened that we were able to forge an agreement that both parties were pleased with and that appeared to satisfy the police and those here in sympathy with the individuals who were charged.
I am also extremely pleased that we were able to reach an agreement that symbolizes our commitment at the Bristol County District Attorney’s Office to take a leadership role on this issue.
The crowd (myself included) went wild.
Then, if possible, it got better. When the cheering settled down, someone asked. “Will you be a model for across the country?”
“Well,” Sutter said, “I certainly will be in New York in two weeks,” referring to the much-anticipated People’s Climate March on September 21, just ahead of the UN climate summit convened by Ban Ki-Moon. “How’s that?”
The crowd thought that was pretty swell, too.
He added: “I’ve been carrying around Bill McKibben’s article in Rolling Stone“—and brandished the magazine (Jack White and all).
OK, maybe this guy’s running for office.
Still, I didn’t think it could get any better, but it did. A reporter then asked if he was sending a message condoning this kind of action violating the law. He said no, that’s not the message. “I’m sending a message that this was an act of civil disobedience, that we had to reach an agreement. I’m not at all disputing that the individuals were charged, but this was the right disposition, it was reduced to a civil infraction.” (To be precise, there were four charges: conspiracy, disturbing the peace, failure to act to avoid a collision, and negligent operation of a motor vessel. Sutter dropped the conspiracy charges and reduced the other charges to civil infractions. Ken and Jay will also pay $2,000 each in restitution, not fines, to the Town of Somerset).
“Just to be clear,” the reporter asked, “what would you say if people say in fact you’re encouraging other people to blockade tankers?”
“This is one case, one incident, at a time,” Sutter responded. “I think I’ve made my position very clear. This is one of the gravest crises the planet has ever faced. The evidence is overwhelming and it keeps getting worse. So we took a stand here today.”
And so, sometimes we win. It’s a small victory, in the scale of the climate. But it’s something.
Meanwhile, as Ken and Jay are quick to point out, the Brayton Point plant burns on. The announced 2017 closure (which came a few months after their action and a wave of protests they inspired) doesn’t come nearly soon enough—for the climate, or for the plant’s neighbors suffering its pollution.
What’s more, as Ken noted to me in an e-mail, according to data from the US Energy Information Administration, the Brayton Point plant essentially doubled its coal consumption last year, and reduced its use of natural gas, making it the first or second largest source of carbon emissions in New England, New York and New Jersey. And Ken says observed shipments of coal to the plant in recent months were increased over the previous year.
So here’s my message to DA Sutter, should he ever want to run for office as true climate champion: some people may think coal is dying a “natural” (market-driven) death in the Northeast, and therefore not much needs to be done. But if we really want to put an end to coal, we’re going to have to drive a stake through its heart, otherwise it will keep on rising from the grave.
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