'They're Right': Citing Climate, Prosecutor Drops Charges Against Coal Blockaders

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'They're Right': Citing Climate, Prosecutor Drops Charges Against Coal Blockaders

'Climate change is one of the gravest crises our planet has ever faced,' said Bristol County DA Sam Sutter. 'In my humble opinion, the political leadership on this issue has been gravely lacking.'

Ken Ward (left) and Jay O’Hara on the boat they used to block the delivery of 40,000 tons of coal to a power plant in Somerset. (Photo: 350Mass)

A local district attorney in Massachusetts surprised parties on all sides on Monday after he sided with two climate justice activists who employed a "necessity defense" to justify their use of a small lobster boat to block the path of an enormous coal freighter trying to dock at the Brayton Point Power Station in the town of Somerset last year.

“I do believe they’re right, that we’re at a crisis point with climate change.” —Bristol County DA Sam Sutter

Several serious charges were brought against two men, Jay O'Hara and Ken Ward, for their attempt to wedge their boat, the Henry David T., between the dock and an approaching coal freighter, the Energy Enterprise, on May 13, 2013. (Read Common Dreams original reporting on the action here.)

For the brazen act of civil disobedience both O'Hara and Ward faced many thousands of dollars in fines and as much as two years in jail, but it was Bristol County DA Sam Sutter who decided that all charges in the case would be dropped after he determined that their expressed purpose—to put an end to the carbon-spewing pollution directly related to the current climate change crisis—was an adequate and defensible position.  Sutter dropped all charges against the two.

And he did more than that. Following an agreement between his office and O'Hara and Ward which would see the most serious charges—including conspiracy—dropped and fines replaced with orders of restitution (both men agreed to pay $2,000), Sutter emerged from the local court house to express why he thought the two activists were ultimately justified in their creative protest.

“Because of my sympathy with their position, I was in a dilemma,” Sutter told the crowd of approximately 100 people outside. “I have a duty to go forward to some extent with this case and to follow the applicable case law, but they were looking for a forum to present their very compelling case about climate change.”

He added: “I do believe they’re right, that we’re at a crisis point with climate change.”

Journalist and climate activist Wen Stephenson, who was present when Sutter stepped onto the courthouse steps, described the DA's delivery of his remarks and their possible implications as "truly remarkable." In a piece for The Nation, Stephenson first quoted Sutter at length, who 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.

The crowd "went wild," Stephenson reports and then describes how the moment "got better," adding:

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). [...]

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.”

In an interview with the Boston Globe following the news, Bill McKibben himself also called Sutter's stance simply "remarkable."

“I was moved in a way that I can’t remember being moved by a public official in a long time,” McKibben said. “It’s easy to get cynical about politicians, and then one of them shows a real maturity and grace.”

For their part, both Ward and O'Hara expressed being pleased by the outcome but acknowledged that their victory is only a small sliver of what must be done to truly avert the climate crisis that compelled them to take action in the first place.

As Boston Magazine reports:

“This decision by the District Attorney is an admission that the political and economic system isn’t taking the climate crisis seriously, and that it falls to ordinary citizens, especially people of faith, to stand up and take action to avert catastrophe,” O’Hara said.

Although the most severe charges against O’Hara and Ward were dropped by the DA, who said he would march with climate change activists in an upcoming protest in New York City, their work is far from done. Following the non-violent action in the harbor last year, the activists said their point wasn’t merely to make a statement about the impacts coal burning has on the environment, but instead a call to have the Brayton Point plant completely shut down.

In a way, they’re getting what they wanted—the plant is set to close in 2017. But for Ward and O’Hara, that’s not soon enough.

“Protest works, indeed protest maybe the only thing that can save us,” said Ward.

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