Sixteen months ago two environmental activists anchored a lobsterboat in the path of a coal freighter, preventing it from unloading its coal at the Brayton Point Power Station on the border of Massachusetts and Rhode Island. They were quickly charged with conspiracy and disturbing the peace, as they expected to be, and they left without being arrested.
Their jury trial was set for early September 2014, drew the attention of other environmental activists, and Bill McKibbon agreed to be an expert witness on their behalf. Their defense was going to be that they had to act because the threats of climate change are so great. Henry Thoreau would have approved.
Politics as usual, you might think.
Instead, the most unusual happened. At the last minute, the prosecuting DA, Sam Sutter, dropped the charges. He is quoted as saying: “Climate change is one of gravest crises our planet has ever faced.,,,the political leadership on this issue has been sorely lacking.”
Sutter, also a ‘fervent environmentalist’, took a risk, acted boldly, and gives us if not a precedent, at least a model. The two activists didn’t get their day in court, but they also didn’t get prison time, and the event got wide publicity in the press, so they are pleased.
Civil disobedience has been an effective tool in bringing about major social change – for instance in civil rights, women’s suffrage, and more recently in climate change issues – but it is a tool not to be used lightly.
A civil disobedience handbook summarizes its use, constraints, and risks:
– it is employed only after other means have failed
– it is non-violent
– it is undertaken openly
– its participants are willing to submit to prosecution and punishment for breaking the law
– it is aimed at publicizing and challenging injustice
– it is not employed for coercive or intimidating reasons
Environmental activists like Tim DeChristopher, Bill McKibben, and now Ken Ward and Jay O’Hara have the courage required for non-violent civil disobedience, for the risks are very real.
Such civil disobedience is a tricky business, but it remains crucial where injustice is great or when the threat is dire. The objective remains to force leaders to acknowledge the climate change crisis and to take action.
The threat is dire.