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Judge Rules It Was Necessary For Activists In Massachusetts To Engage In Civil Disobedience To Stop Pipeline

A judge in Massachusetts ruled it was necessary for activists to engage in civil disobedience to stop Spectra Energy’s natural gas pipeline in West Roxbury and acquitted the activists of civil infractions.

Josh Raisler-Cohen, an attorney with the National Lawyers Guild, said the government reduced charges against the activists to a civil infraction, which is the equivalent of a traffic ticket.

The activists spoke in court about why the struggle against climate change was important and connected the local struggle against the West Roxbury Lateral Pipeline to national and international struggles to “stem the catastrophic effects of climate change.”

“The court made a ruling that by reason of necessity they were all not responsible for committing any civil infraction,” Raisler-Cohen added.

Part of why Judge Mary Ann Driscoll found no liability was because they engaged in a sustained effort to end the project and attempted legal remedies by the city council, mayor, and other agencies to stop the pipeline.

Even though the pipeline was still constructed and operational by January 2017, that was irrelevant. The judge found the activists were not liable.

Several of the activists participated in a “mass graves action” on June 29, 2016, in solidarity with Pakistanis who dug mass graves in anticipation of a dire heatwave. All thirteen of the activist acquitted participated in sustained resistance to the pipeline.

Tim DeChristopher, a climate justice activist who previously disrupted a corrupt Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land auction to oil and gas companies by making bids and was sentenced to prison, explained that they asked the judge to acknowledge “the severity of climate change, the degree to which our government’s response has been a failure, and the degree to which regular folks like us have a necessity to prevent this harm.”

Nora Collins, who lives in the community where the pipeline was built, apparently had an impact on the judge. Driscoll was nodding her head as Collins shared her reasons for opposing the pipeline.

“I told the judge that this is my neighborhood where I’ve lived my entire life. I walked to this courthouse this morning from my house, and the West Roxbury Lateral Pipeline is about ten minutes from where I live,” Collins shared.

When Collins learned it was planned and had “dangerous high-pressured fracked gas flowing through it and in proximity to an active quarry, where there are weekly blasts,” she knew she had to do something. She recognized what would happen if there was an explosion or a leak.

Activists who participated in the “mass graves action” laid down in the trenches that were dug for the pipeline in the middle of a city street to make a connection between global climate change and infrastructure projects, such as Spectra’s gas pipeline (Spectra is now Enbridge).

Karenna Gore, the daughter of Al Gore and a director of the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary in New York, was part of the “mass graves action.”

“We had a long and winding road,” Gore declared, “but essentially, the people who put themselves in the way of building this fossil fuel pipeline were found not responsible. The irony of that is we are making ourselves responsible.”

Gore continued, “We are part of the movement that is standing up and saying we won’t let this go by on our watch. We won’t act like nothing is wrong.”

Mary Boyle, an activist who lives near the pipeline and engaged in daily morning vigils for many months, said she was very happy that the “necessity defense” could now be “put up in a headline. That it won.”

She referred to all of the fellow resisters who spoke out in court and drew tears to her eyes. They said “such truth and that truth has to be said. We have to disturb the complacency of our society.”

This is a major victory for pipeline activists. Although they were not able to mount a “necessity defense” during a trial, the judge listened to what they had to say and ruled they had a necessity to act. It is possibly the first time a judge made this kind of a ruling when activists faced charges for anti-pipeline actions.

Leonard Higgins engaged in direct action against an Enbridge tar sands pipeline in Montana and turned an emergency shutoff valve. He cut down chains to enter the premise and was charged with “criminal mischief” and “misdemeanor criminal trespass.” In that case, he was prohibited from making a “necessity defense.”

In Minnesota, a judge ruled in October 2017 that three activists charged with felonies could argue it was “necessary” to shut down oil pipelines as a response to climate change. This also happened in a similar case in Spokane, Washington.

The case in Minnesota proceeds to trial in the summer. Experts on climate science and civil disobedience plan to testify in court.

Clearly, the outcome for West Roxbury resisters will stand as an inspiring example for future activists who engage in direct action and must mount legal defenses. And as DeChristopher described, to persuade the judge to make this ruling, they had to show there was a reasonable expectation to avert the harm.

“In the real world of fighting these projects, just one civil disobedience action or just one person acting is not going to reasonably stop these actions by huge corporations,” DeChristopher concluded. “But when communities come together to resist and movements stand up to resist over and over and over, week after week, day after day, with wave after wave of action, that shows a reasonable chance. That’s how movements actually win.”

There were at least 34 actions with 198 arrests, according to activists. Vigils were held on a regular basis, and the mayor and two United States senators even expressed concern about the project. That made it possible for the judge to see their act of dissent as something profound and justified.

Empty classroom. Photo by Max Klingensmith on Flickr.
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Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof Press. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."