in court, cove point defenders vow to fight on
February 24, 2015
Steve Norris, a retired professor from North Carolina, is stuck in the Calvert County Detention Center for the next few days. That is not his chief concern, though. And he’s expressed no remorse for his crime.
Norris was found guilty Monday of trespass on Dec. 3 for putting a bike lock around his neck and through door handles at the offices of IHI/Kiewit, a construction contractor for Dominion’s planned fracked-gas liquefaction and export facility in Lusby. Before sentencing at his District Court trial, Norris told Judge Michelle R. Saunders that he is “extremely, extremely worried” about what the future holds for his five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Another grandchild will be born this summer, a child who will be Norris’ age in 2086. Continuing to put carbon into the atmosphere will be a “disaster for the planet and a disaster for my grandchild,” he said. “I’m doing everything — in a nonviolent way,” he said. “We’ve been losing this battle,” he said, because Dominion has millions
and “we are lucky to have $10,000.”
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved the $3.8 billion facility in September, and Dominion began construction while an appeal is in the works.
Norris was the only defendant jailed among the 20 people sentenced Monday for charges related to actions in November and December designed to raise awareness of the threat to public safety from Dominion’s planned facility in Lusby and its connection to climate change. Most —including Clarke Herbert, who also locked his neck to door handles at Kiewit — received 20-day suspended jail sentences, some with credit given for time served; three years of unsupervised probation, during which they must obey all laws; and $157.50 in fees ($100 fine and $57.50 in court costs). Norris, who had several similar prior charges in other jurisdictions, was taken directly to jail from the courtroom and will be released Thursday at 6 a.m.
Tracey Eno, a co-founder of Calvert Citizens for a Healthy Community and a defendant as well as a witness in two cases, said she feels “satisfied” with the results. “Everyone was very professional and prepared. Our attorney, Mark Goldstone, is to credit for this. He held numerous conference calls with us in advance. I feel we got our points across: The democratic process has failed; this is a life or death situation; we are opposed to climate change and will do what it takes to create a public spectacle, increase awareness and create pressure for change.”
Early in the afternoon, Goldstone started arguing a “necessity defense,” explaining that the defendants’ actions were to prevent a greater harm. “We’re not getting into that,” Judge Saunders said. And yet with each pre-sentencing statement and some testimony, the defendants “got into that,” creating a court record of all that is at stake.
Many wore red cloth bands around their arms or neck. The cases involved the Dec. 3 lock-in at Kiewit; a Nov. 4 group dash to the top of a pile of dirt at a Dominion construction site and the unfurling of a banner that said “WE > DOMINION PROFITS”; and a Dec. 1 action outside Dominion’s construction site when protesters linked arms and sat in front of a gate. As Eno testified about the Dec. 1 action, the actions were all designed to publicize the “dangerous gas refinery in my neighborhood.” Signs and red T-shirts often say “We are Cove Point” because, Eno said, “Dominion has stolen our community’s name, which is Cove Point. We — the people — are Cove Point.”
Some of the defendants told Judge Saunders that they preferred jail time, but she stuck with the suspended sentences and lengthy probation. Several said they would not likely be able to stay on the sidelines.
“I dedicate my life to this struggle,” said Charles Chandler, who had walked and camped from Ithaca, N.Y., to Cove Point —360 miles over 27 days — and who wore a bright orange jacket with his website in large block letters on the back: PeaceWalker.net. “You’ll probably see me again. I plan to participate in unlawful, peaceful protest. If we just hold signs on the sidewalk, the corporations will just keep rolling on over us. … We’re condemning our children and future generations to a garbage planet.” Without climate justice, there is no peace, he said.
As a public school teacher in North Carolina, Greg Yost said, he tries to weigh his responsibility to his students against the knowledge that his students “face climate change throughout their lives.”
“We are aware of the science, that three years is the time frame” before climate tipping points are reached, if they have not already been passed, Yost said. “I have work to do with my students. I have work to do with climate change. Nonviolent protest is all we can do. I will be back in front of you. I have work to do.”
“I care about the community,” Michael Clark said. “We are experts on living through human-induced climate change. I did what I did in celebration and defense of life. And I refuse to pay the fine.”
“I can’t sit passively while [Dominion’s facility] is built,” Kelsey Erickson said.
Elizabeth Conover said her state, Pennsylvania, is being destroyed by fracking, and the infrastructure for fracking “is creeping south … and Cove Point is the terminus.”
Dr. Margaret Flowers, a co-director of Popular Resistance who for 15 years was a practicing pediatrician, called on Judge Saunders to help expose the secrecy around Dominion’s project. She said the company lied about the number of people nearby, about the families across the street and the 2,365 homes, 19 home day-care centers and two elementary schools within 2 miles that have no evacuation route.
“There’s nothing I can do about that,” Judge Saunders said, and those concerns “are not for this forum.”
“I disagree,” said Flowers, who was acting as her own attorney. “You could allow the necessity defense” and call in experts to testify. “I appeal to you as a leader in the community to not allow this severe lack of democracy to take place. … I see the truth. … I ask you to bring that truth to light.”
At that, several spectators applauded but were immediately told to be quiet.
The only other break from courtroom decorum came during one of the brief recesses. A group of half a dozen or so people started singing “We shall not be moved,” prompting evictions from the courtroom of several people — including Norris, whose case had yet to be heard.
The defendants fell mostly into two camps. They were retired and feared for the future of their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Or they were young adults, facing a decidedly bleak future — unless they and others intervened.
“I’m motivated by this really serious fear of what the future holds,” said 20-year-old Elias Weston-Farber, who is often the videographer at civil disobedience actions. “Science is telling really important things about our economy and our way of getting energy,” he said.
Berenice Tompkins said she acted to prevent far greater crimes: “the theft of my future and of future generations to thrive on this Earth.” Many people have urged her not to have children, she said. “My children, your children will not be safe as a result of what Dominion is doing,” Tompkins said. “I implore you to consider that … I am acting out of love. This is the only way I can act to express that love.”
“I’m terrified by what I’m seeing,” Deborah Wagner told the judge. The people of Cove Point have gone unheard; even Gov. Martin O’Malley fell asleep at a Board of Public works hearing regarding a Dominion permit, said Wagner, a grandmother with a background in science and nursing. “This isn’t right. I’m really afraid for future generations. I can’t not be there.”
Some charges were dropped along the way. When prosecutor Michael Gerst, assistant state’s attorney, argued during the case of the dirt pile that “protest does by its nature draw attention and that is the definition of disturbance of the peace,” the judge indicated that Goldstone needn’t bother to counter: “You’re going to win that,” she told the defense attorney.
In the bike lock cases at Kiewit, Kevin Zeese, an attorney and co-founder of Popular Resistance, testified for the defendants that his role at that action was as police liaison to prevent escalation. The goal was to get an image of Norris and Herbert locked to the doors, “to let the world know Kiewit is involved in this dangerous project.” The action lasted perhaps 20 minutes, until police cut the locks. Only two doors were blocked, so no one was trapped in the building, he said. Passersby were handed literature and were watching and interested. Gerst, the prosecuting attorney, argued that people and businesses “stopping their normal daily activity” was a disturbance to the peace. But Goldstone, who wore a “We the People” tie with writing from the U.S. Constitution, successfully argued that protests are designed to create an informed electorate. “It’s not a crime for people to speak out or for people to stop and find out what is going on.” Norris, who was acting as his own attorney in the case, said Gerst’s claim was similar to “blaming civil rights’ protesters for the violence [committed] by the people who didn’t like it.” Judge Saunders dropped all but the trespass charge in that case.
Cases against three defendants — Tracey Eno, Leslie Garcia and Martine Zundmanis — were put on a ‘stet’ docket; in return for no verdict, they agreed to obey all laws, stay off Dominion property, have no contact with Dominion employees and periodically discuss plans for protests and “escalation” with the sheriff’s office. While the other trials were in progress, Eno said, she was attending one of these meetings with the sheriff’s department and a Dominion official. They asked her if she had heard rumors about explosions. Eno said she “explained that the [Calvert Citizens for a Healthy Community] vision is to protect the health, safety and quality of life of the citizens of Calvert County. Many of our members practice yoga and meditation.”
This morning, Eno spoke at the Calvert County Commissioners’ meeting, her 19th presentation to the officials about the hazards of the Dominion project.
— elisabeth hoffman
UPDATE: Steve Norris was released from jail Wednesday morning, a day early. He reports that he had great conversations with his fellow inmates about Cove Point.