On a sunny, late summer morning, a brisk wind blew across the waters of Mount Hope Bay. It blew against the two broad towers of the Brayton Point power plant, which squat on the bay’s west side. It blew through the streets of Fall River, an old mill city on the east side of the bay. Like the creative, Spirit-filled wind that swept over the face of the deep at the beginning of time, like the breath that God blew into the nostrils of the first human beings to give them life, like the healing and liberating spirit that Jesus breathed into his startled, grateful friends – on a sunny, late summer morning in 2014, a wind blew across Mount Hope Bay and made its secret way into Fall River’s Bristol County Courthouse. It breezed past the security guards, swept up the stairs, and slipped soundlessly into a fifth-floor courtroom.
I didn’t notice that wind at first. After all, I was packed tightly into a seat at the back, squashed hip-to-hip, thigh-to-thigh with an overflow crowd of clergy and other people of faith. We had come to support Jay O’Hara and Ken Ward as they stood trial for using a small lobster boat to block the shipment of 40,000 tons of coal to the Brayton Point power plant, the largest coal plant in the state. There wasn’t any breeze to speak of in the courtroom, for the air was thick with suspense and uncertainty.
We stood when the judge entered the room; we listened as the district attorney and the defense attorney took turns speaking; we watched the backs of Jay and Ken, willing them strength, praying for their protection and freedom. And then the air began to move. An instruction from the judge was being repeated in whispers around the room: No clapping or cheering. No clapping or cheering.
“How about booing and hissing?” I murmured wryly in the ear of my friend Fred Small, who was sitting beside me. I hardly dared to hope.
But to our amazement, the district attorney was explaining that they had reached an agreement: the Commonwealth of Massachusetts was reducing the criminal charges against the two defendants to civil infractions, and the two men would simply pay restitution of $2,000 apiece to the City of Somerset. That was it.
“This ends the matter, as far as Bristol County is concerned.”
As directed, we refrained from cheering or applause, but a lively wind blew through the room and drew us outside. We gathered as a crowd in front of the courthouse, exultant and marveling. Jay, who is a Quaker, explained to the TV cameras and radio crew that the climate crisis demands action, and that we must immediately stop burning coal. He described the moment as “bittersweet,” for he had wanted Bill McKibben and NASA’s James Hansen to mount their “necessity defense” and to put climate change on trial. A reporter asked: Are you satisfied that your action reached enough people? Sometimes, Jay quietly replied, there are actions we need to take, even if no one is looking. What will you do next? Another reporter asked. Sail down the Atlantic coast, he replied, to join the People’s Climate March in New York City.
Ken added a few fierce words of his own: the West Antarctic ice sheet is melting irreversibly. We need not just a handful of people blockading the delivery of coal, but everyone’s action, everyone’s help.
I felt the Spirit in their moral conviction and clarity: there comes a time when business as usual must give way to a more life-giving path. If business as usual is taking down life on this planet, then business as usual must be stopped. Business as usual must be challenged and transformed, even if doing so violates the law of the land. Protests and acts of non-violent civil disobedience may be essential to creating a path forward.
But the Spirit was not done with us yet. For here was District Attorney Sam Sutter, standing with us on the plaza, beginning to speak. Climate change, he told the reporters and the crowd, was “one of the greatest crises our planet has ever faced. In my humble opinion, the political leadership on this issue has been sorely lacking.”
The DA understood the position of the defendants. To emphasize his point, he waved in the air a copy of Bill McKibben’s recent article in Rolling Stone, “A Call to Arms”. He announced that he agreed with McKibben and that he was answering the call; he, too, was coming to the march in Manhattan on September 21.
I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who felt it: the wind was blowing. And everyone clapped and cheered.
The reporters were quick to pepper him with questions: Was the District Attorney inviting other people to blockade shipments of coal? Was he encouraging other acts of civil disobedience to protest climate change? No, the DA replied; every case had to be taken separately and addressed one by one. But in this case, he said, the decision was just. This is what Bristol County stood for.
I don’t know what historians or legal scholars will make of this moment, but on that sunny, late summer morning at Fall River Justice Center, it seemed to me that, when even the people who enforce the law recognize the justice of breaking the law, then surely it’s time to change our laws. If burning fossil fuels is laying waste to the land, causing flooding, drought, and severe storms, then we must challenge the law of the land. We can no longer allow fossil fuels to be relentlessly and ceaselessly extracted, mined, and burned, even if the law allows it. The DA of Bristol County took a brave step in making that clear. In his own way, he seemed to be following in the footsteps of Jay O’Hara and Ken Ward. I wonder how many other ordinary citizens will be inspired to join them, breaking laws that perpetuate injustice and lobbying for laws that create a sustainable, just, and low-carbon future.
When I left Fall River, I drove over the bridge that rises beside Mount Hope Bay. Glancing across that vast expanse of water, I could see that the wind was blowing.
NOTE: The Boston Globe wrote a front-page article about the decision, “DA drops charges in case of blocked coal shipment,” on September, 8, 2014.
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