DA drops criminal charges against Brayton blockaders

Bristol County DA Sam Sutter holds a copy of Bill McKibben's article. Photo credit: Peter Bowden.

In one of the most delightfully unexpected twists in a US courtroom since Miracle on 34th Street, the Bristol County District Attorney, Sam Sutter, dropped criminal charges against two men who had used a lobster boat to block a coal shipment at the Brayton Point power station and promised to join them at the People's Climate March in New York in two weeks.

"Political leadership on this issue has been gravely lacking," Sutter said, in video taken at the press conference this morning outside the Fall River District Court where he announced the deal which dropped the criminal charges in favor of civil infractions with restitution to the towns affected. Sutter went on to say that he was pleased to have reached an agreement that "symbolizes our commitment at the Bristol County District Attorney's office to take a leadership role on this issue."

"I certainly will be in New York in two weeks," he said. He showed the assembled media a copy of Rolling Stone featuring an article by climate activist Bill McKibben urging people to attend the People's Climate March on September 21.

This afternoon, the Better Future Project, which had been organizing support for the two climate activists through the web site Lobster Boat Blockade.org, sent a release to media with the background and responses from the two men.

In May 2013, Ken Ward and Jay O’Hara used a small white lobster boat, the Henry David T, to block a shipment of 40,000 tons of coal to the Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset, MA, the largest coal plant in New England. They were charged with conspiracy, disturbing the peace and motor vessel violations and faced up to several years in jail.

Ken and Jay had sought to become the first American climate activists to use a “necessity defense”, arguing that the blockade was necessary in light of the imminent threat of climate change. They had planned to call former NASA climatologist James Hansen and environmentalist Bill McKibben to the stand as expert witnesses.

“The truth is that taking these sorts of actions is necessary in light of the drastic news that continues to be described by the science. 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,” said Jay O'Hara, a Quaker.

“By dropping the criminal charges against us and stating that ‘political leadership on this [climate] issue has been gravely lacking,’ DA Sutter in effect accepted our necessity defense. The climate crisis is so terrible and so fast that it overwhelms ordinary political avenues. Even now, as the West Antarctic ice shelf is in unstoppable collapse, the Brayton Point plant is increasing the amount of coal it burns. Protest works, indeed protest maybe the only thing that can save us,” said Ken Ward.

Ken and Jay’s blockade sparked a summer of action at the Brayton Point, including the arrest of 44 people at the gates of the plant in July 2013. Last fall, the owners announced the closure of Brayton Point in 2017.

Editorial note: Written from a press release.