Judge proclaims climate emergency

SUBHEAD: Massachusetts judge proclaims climate urgency in ruling that frees activists who blocked a freighter delivering coal.

By Dave Eisenstadter on 9 September 2014 for Occupy.com -

Image above: Bristol County District Attorney Sam Sutter chose not to prosecute case. This morning, for a moment, at least, a higher law—the law of conscience—held sway in Massachusetts. Photo credit: Peter Bowden. From (http://ascendingstarseed.wordpress.com/tag/fraud-of-the-system/).

A pair of climate activists prepared to invoke climate change as their defense were spared the effort Monday when the prosecuting district attorney did it for them.

Massachusetts's Bristol County District Attorney Sam Sutter was tasked with bringing four charges against Jonathan "Jay" O'Hara and Ken Ward, who used a lobster boat to attempt to block a 40,000-ton shipment of coal to the Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset, Mass., on May 15, 2013.

Instead, Sutter dropped one charge – conspiracy – and reduced the remaining charges to civil infractions. O'Hara and Ward, who were originally looking at months in prison, walked away paying fines of $2,000 each, which Sutter said would be used to pay for the police response to their action.

"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 made with our concern for their children, the children of Bristol County and beyond in mind," Sutter said outside the Fall River Justice Center on Monday.

Reading from a handwritten statement, Sutter added that climate change was "one of the gravest crises our planet has ever faced," and said he found political leadership on the issue "lacking."

Sutter said he was pleased that the decision satisfied O'Hara, Ward, their supporters and the police, but also that he was proud that the case had allowed his office to take a leadership role on the issue of climate change.

Cheers erupted from a crowd of about 100 activists and supporters who had gathered to observe the trial, and who were further buoyed when Sutter himself held up a Rolling Stone article written by climate change activist and writer Bill McKibben, who had been scheduled to testify on O'Hara and Ward's behalf.

In May 2013, O'Hara and Ward sailed a 32-foot lobster boat into the shipping channel of Brayton Point and waited for a 690-foot fully loaded coal freighter to make its delivery.

When the freighter, named the "Energy Enterprise," hailed O'Hara and Ward and asked them to move their boat – the "Henry David T." – they refused. The coast guard and local police responded, and after blocking the shipment for about seven hours, the two were compelled to move aside.

They weren't arrested that day, but were charged two months later with disturbing the peace, conspiracy, failure to avoid collision and negligent operation of a motor vessel.

Those criminal charges were reduced to civil infractions on Monday. One of the pair's attorneys, Matthew F. Pawa, spoke to the crowd Monday after the settlement was reached.

"Ken Ward and Jay O'Hara stood up for what is right, and now D.A. Sutter has stood up for what is right," Pawa said, adding that the matter was closed as far as the state of Massachusetts was concerned.

O'Hara spoke next, expressing gratitude to the supporters who showed up to the trial. He said the work of climate activism would continue, specifically at the People's Climate March at the United Nations in New York City on Sept. 21, where he will be sailing to take part. District Attorney Sutter said he would also be in attendance.

O'Hara said he believed the May action had profound effects. "I believe we did what was necessary to build a vibrant, vocal, loud, and powerful movement that's capable of doing what the science tells us is necessary to be done on the time scale that the science tells us it is necessary to do it," he said.

A few months after their action, owners of Brayton Point filed papers to shut down the plant by mid-2017, citing economic and environmental reasons, according to the Associated Press.

While enacting the blockade, O'Hara and Ward posted a "Coal is Stupid Manifesto" online, which distilled their arguments against burning coal.

"We are on track to achieve a temperature increase of 6 degrees Celsius/11.8 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, at least, and on a steep upward trajectory thereafter," the manifesto read. "There is no question that without abrupt political change, a second flood of biblical proportions will erase the conditions in which life remotely like that we know now is made possible."

Following O'Hara's statement, Ward said that Brayton Point is still burning coal, and that the rate of coal use at the plant is increasing.

"We found out this summer that the West Antarctic Ice Shelf is in collapse – nothing we can do about it," Ward said, referring to a recent NASA study predicting a significant sea level rise by the year 2100 due to the collapse of the ice shelf.

"It seems to me the only thing one can do is put yourself in the way. We have to stop this because the world as we know it is ending," Ward continued.

From that point of view, Ward said that what happened to them legally was insignificant.

Neither Ward nor O'Hara said they planned on similar acts to their Brayton Point blockade for the time being, but Ward said those types of acts need to continue happening elsewhere.

Supporters sang songs and expressed joy at the result of the trial. Among those celebrating were Ward's family. Cynthia Ward Wikstrom, Ward's sister, said she was proud of her brother and pleased with the district attorney's statement.

"That was about as powerful a testament to the value of doing this work as there could be," Wikstrom said.

Ward's mother, Cynthia Ward, said she viewed the trial's conclusion with relief. "I'm a worried mother," she said.

For both Ward and O'Hara, the opportunity to give testimony and get out the message about the importance of stopping coal burning would have been nice – but they said there would be other opportunities.

For O'Hara, the action of blocking the coal shipment, even temporarily, was most important.

"Doing this act would have been the right thing to do even if no one had paid attention, and that's the sort of act we all need to find in our hearts that's correct, and to follow that truth that we know, and speak as loudly as possible for the rest of the world," he said.


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