“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 the Henry 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.