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Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.
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Marching in a climate change protest. (Photo: Michael Gwyther-Jones/Flickr)

Marching in a climate change protest. (Photo: Michael Gwyther-Jones/Flickr)

Last month, climate change protesters Ken Ward and Jay O’Hara faced two years in prison for blocking a coal delivery to the Brayton Point power plant in Somerset, Massachusetts. In defense of their 2013 “Lobster Boat Blockade,” the pair intended to put climate change itself on trial, calling famous experts like climatologist James Hansen and environmental writer Bill McKibben to the stand.

They never got the chance. Minutes before the start of their trial was set to begin (they were charged with conspiracy, disorderly conduct, and motor boat violations), Bristol County District Attorney Sam Sutter dropped the charges against Ward and O’Hara. The defendants were only required to pay $2,000 each in restitution to the local government and police force.

“I was in a dilemma,” Sutter told me. “I have a duty to go forward to some extent with this case and to follow the applicable case law, but ... I do believe they’re right, that we’re at a crisis point with climate change.”

"When I think about the applause that I received outside the courthouse, or the lady who brought wildflowers for me to my office the other day, or some of the phone calls that we've received literally from around the country—I think it's clear that the message that I was hoping to deliver was delivered and has resonated."

The decision set off a media frenzy. Sutter-philes celebrated a bold action on behalf of the environment, while critics argued that he had set a dangerous precedent of not prosecuting lawbreakers. On the following Sunday, Sutter took part in the People’s Climate March in New York City, days after his name hit the headlines. Then on Monday, Sutter's decision seemed to become even more relevant, as the New York Police Department arrested more than 100 protesters during a Flood Wall Street sit-in.

Before Sutter left for New York, we discussed his decision to drop the charges, his newfound activism, and whether the blockade case sets a precedent for future climate protests.

Your decision not to prosecute the Brayton Point protesters sent a message about the urgency of climate change. But what does it say about the protesters’ actions? Do you believe they were justified?

While I agree with their position on climate change, I do not agree with the action that they took, because it was unlawful. I was able to come up with a resolution of the case [the $2,000 fine] that both upheld my duty to enforce the laws and took into account the cost to the taxpayers in Somerset. Above all, I considered the children of Somerset, Bristol County, and beyond.

The defendants wanted their trial to bring public attention to climate change. Now that you’ve seen the big media response, do you feel your refusal to prosecute was even more effective at building climate awareness than the trial would have been?

My director of communications told me how many—and I hope I'm using the right terminology—hashtags there were on the Twitter feed [#ClimateTrial]. When I think about that kind of response, or the applause that I received outside the courthouse, or the lady who brought wildflowers for me to my office the other day, or some of the phone calls that we've received literally from around the country—I think it's clear that the message that I was hoping to deliver was delivered and has resonated. I'm fairly heartened by that.

Did you receive any pushback from the police over your decision?

Absolutely none from the police, but a little pushback from the right. [laughs.] There was an editorial in the Boston Herald, which wasn't a particularly good one. Jeff Jacoby, a conservative Republican writer whose op‑ed pieces appear in theBoston Globe, criticized me. There was also a [negative] blog on theWall Street Journal.

But no pushback from the police, no pushback from other law enforcement agencies in Bristol County, and no negative commentary from any of my colleagues in the District Attorneys Association.

Is this a one-time amnesty of sorts, or are you committed to not prosecuting other acts of civil disobedience in the name of climate change?

It's a case‑by‑case basis. I took an action. That action does set a precedent of sorts within Bristol County. On the other hand, that was the disposition for first‑time offenders. I'm stating publicly, I disagree with the action. The action was unlawful. Each case is different. We would just have to see what happens next time. I am definitely discouraging anybody from doing this again. I am encouraging lawful protest, lawful demonstrations, lawful public statements, but I am discouraging unlawful actions.

Did you consult anyone before making this decision? Not just law enforcement and other attorneys—was there anyone you talked to about the morality and principles involved in this dilemma?

I kept the discussions within my office. There was a team of four. Robert Kidd, a senior prosecutor and a supervisor of the Fall River District Court. He agrees wholeheartedly with me about the crisis point that we've reached with climate change and is more knowledgeable about the science, frankly, than I am. There was Roger Michael, who's the deputy chief of my appellate unit, and then there was Gregg Miliote, who is the director of communications and who was also very well‑versed in the science of climate change and the urgency of this situation.

As far as what has informed my view on climate change, well, I've been reading articles and watching news programs for quite a long time. That formed the basis of my own views.

You were carrying an article by Bill McKibben outside the courthouse. Have you spoken to him about this case, either before or since your decision?

I've been a big admirer of Bill McKibben since I read a review of his second book [Hope, Human and Wild] in Time magazine. What a lyrical writer he is. The short article I was carrying from Rolling Stone is a very powerful piece of writing. I was moved by it. When I raised it up in front of the approximately 100 sympathizers and the two individuals who were charged, it felt at the time like just the right thing to do. Especially the way he begins the article, his first two paragraphs, and the title, "A Call to Arms."

I was extremely touched by his comments in theBoston Globe. [McKibben said of Sutter’s decision: “I was moved in a way that I can’t remember being moved by a public official in a long time. It’s easy to get cynical about politicians, and then one of them shows a real maturity and grace.”] My assistant told me yesterday that he set up a meeting between myself and Professor McKibben in New York. I'm very excited about that.

You say you considered all of our children in making this decision. Did you talk to your own children about it? What did they tell you?

One of my sons is very involved in, informed about, and sensitive to this issue. I didn’t speak to him specifically about this case, but we have had a long-running dialogue about climate change and the environment. I'm hoping that Cliff will join me in New York for the People’s Climate March.

This post originally appeared on OnEarth as “Civil Disobedience” and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.