Dwain Wilder, Colleen Boland, Sandra Steingraber, Roland Micklem, Susan Mead, Judy Leaf, Jimmy Betts, John Dennis, Michael Clark and Kelsey Erickson. They all have at least two things in common. 1) They are outstanding and involved citizens in both their regional and global communities. 2) They went to jail for their efforts to protect Seneca Lake and expose the problems with Texas-based company Crestwood Midstream’s plan to store highly-pressurized gas in crumbling salt caverns.
Outstanding, involved, passionate and concerned citizens, going to jail. For a violation trespass — not a criminal trespass. They went to jail over something equivalent to a parking ticket.
Judge Raymond Berry of the Reading Town Court never enjoyed his job of sending peaceful protesters away to jail when they refused to cough up a fine. He admitted to defendant Irene Weiser, Town of Caroline councilwoman, during one court session that his granddaughter refuses to speak to him when he sentences someones to jail.
Berry especially sputtered over me going to jail. I was 19 the first time I appeared before him, and rather than sentence me he postponed my case repeatedly. On several occasions with the aforementioned people, he tried to talk them out of their convictions. To Mead, he said, “You don’t want to go to jail,” and to Erickson, he asked, “Do your parents know you’re doing this?”
Berry’s struggle with sending good people to the slammer exactly reflects Mohandas Gandhi’s intentions with civil disobedience during the Indian independence movement. The act of severely punishing citizens who are standing up for a higher moral purpose, whether it be smashing them over the head with a billy club or imprisoning them, exposes the ironies and problems within the so-called justice system.
In our case the irony comes from people being arrested and going to jail for something equivalent to parking ticket, and meanwhile, Crestwood, which has the potential — admitted in it’s own 10K report to the Securities and Exchange Commission — for incredible disaster at the cost of human and ecological life, has gone unexamined and unpunished by our justice system.
On Wednesday, March 18, my back-and-forth with Judge Berry finally came to a close. Along with 41 others, my case was dropped in the “interest of justice” — no jail, no fine, no trial and nothing held against me. Our team of devoted lawyers and the district attorney, Joe Fazzary, reached an agreement on this, one that is now being lauded as historical and potentially precedent-setting. Our dismissals came on the heels of two other major victories in the world of activism: the acquittal of lobster boat activists in Maine who blocked a coal ship after successfully using necessity defense in court, and 10 Flood Wall Street protesters proven not guilty for a sit-in back in September, with the judge taking “judicial notice” of the urgency of climate change.
Here’s the statement we made that night in court, which prompted many present in the courtroom, including our lawyer, to break down into joyful tears:
We only have this planet. We must safeguard it for those who follow. Would that it not be necessary, but sometimes citizens of good conscience must engage in non-violent acts of civil disobedience to protect that sacred trust. As long as Crestwood Midstream Partners, or any other corporate or public or private entity, continues to threaten our way of life by the proven dangerous storage of highly compressed gas in the crumbling caverns at the Salt Point facility, I reserve the right to act as my conscience dictates in order to protect Seneca Lake, its citizens, and the surrounding environment. I reserve all rights to protest further at the Crestwood facility, although it is not my intent at this time to break the law in doing so.
The statement we made acknowledges the existence and importance of a higher moral conscious that is not always in alignment with our laws and justice system, as well as the critical need to take direct action to safeguard our planet for those yet to come.
The group on March 18, standing outside the courtroom and reading the dismissal statement out loud. I am pictured in the middle, standing beside Martha Ferger, 90, the oldest Seneca Lake Defender.
I accepted my dismissal in the interest of justice with a sigh of relief, the worry of going to jail in the middle of a semester and damaging my grades and schoolwork taken off my shoulders. With my rights to continue acting as my conscience dictates reserved, this was something I felt good about.
And yet, I know this is only one victory in a much larger and more prolonged battle, and I see our dismissals as one rung in the climb to justice. Although punishment of peaceful citizens taking action for a just cause has been dropped, we have yet to see any consequences for Crestwood, and by extension, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which approved this ill-fated project with little consideration to potential environmental and community damages.
Until all of the world’s Crestwoods are held accountable and as a human race we make the necessary changes to our society and cultures to create a peaceful and sustainable future, justice has only been half-served. And I will continue to defend my right to act as my conscience dictates to make that future a reality.