The group of protestors called the Flood Wall Street 11 may soon be able to argue in court that their acts of civil disobedience were legally justified due to the imminent threat that global warming poses to the safety of the planet.
During the first day of the trial in Manhattan criminal court on Monday, the judge signaled that he might consider hearing their argument. The group plans to use the necessity defense, which provides justification for breaking the law in order to avoid imminent harm.
The defendants pled not guilty to charges of disorderly conduct for participating in the Flood Wall Street demonstrations that occurred in Lower Manhattan on September 22, the day after the historic People’s Climate March. Thousands of people occupied the intersection of Broadway and Wall Street to protest the financial institutions bankrolling projects that contribute to global warming.
More than 100 demonstrators, including a polar bear and two Captain Planets, were arrested for refusing to comply with the NYPD’s order to disperse.
The Manhattan District Attorney’s office offered a plea deal to those who were arrested. The charges would be dropped if the protestors stayed out of trouble for six months. But 11 of the protestors, including The Indypendent’s executive editor John Tarleton, decided to battle the charges in court and have been given the name The Flood Wall Street 11.
One member of the group was recently forced to opt out of the trial due to a medical emergency and will appear in court at a later date. The rest face a maximum penalty of 15 days in jail and a $500 fine.
Flood Wall Street was the third time that Alexander Stewart, one of the defendants, was arrested during a protest. The previous arrests occurred during Occupy Wall Street and in both cases he plead not guilty and the charges were eventually dropped.
He said that he always pleads not guilty as a matter of principle.
“I think that the New York City court system and many court systems in America rely on coercion and deal making to get the vast majority of people facing criminal charges to take a plea deal, largely to legitimize the practice of the justice system,” he said.
Support has been pouring in for the Flood Wall Street 11. More than 900 people have signed an online petition calling on the judge to accept the necessity defense. Meanwhile, environmental and social justice groups, as well as several prominent activists and authors have issued statements in support of the group.
When the court adjourned for lunch, the group held a press conference outside where Patrick Robbins, the communications coordinator for environmental group the Sane Energy Project, said that the Flood Wall Street 11 were meeting a legal and moral obligation to protect the public from a financial system that favors profits over the health and safety of communities.
“It’s ultimately a very simple story—the rich get richer while poor communities are asked to shoulder all of the risks,” said Robbins.
There are already legal precedents in New York State for using the necessity defense to justify civil disobedience. In 1991, six bicycle activists won an acquittal by a judge after they used the necessity defense to justify blocking traffic to protest the harm caused by automobile pollution. That same year, a court supported a similar argument for a needle-exchange protest during the AIDS crisis because the action “was intended to help avert a very real emergency”. Both cases were cited in a brief filed Sunday by the defense lawyers, Martin Stolar and Jonathan Wallace.
Unfortunately, most of the trial on Monday was dominated by police testimony from the officers who arrested the defendants during the protests. The Flood Wall Street 11 will most likely have to wait until Tuesday, after the prosecution finishes presenting their case, before they take the witness stand and begin their necessity defense.
Many of the defendants pointed to Wall Street’s influence in government as one of the main reasons why civil disobedience must be taken to avert a climate disaster.
During the press conference, Flood Wall Street 11 member Susan Heitker spoke about a study by the Center for Responsive Politics. It that revealed Senators who supported the Keystone XL pipeline were given seven times more campaign contribution money from the oil and gas industry than those who did not.
“We have to stop this,” she said. “That’s why it’s necessary for us to get out in the streets and speak out against climate change and the role that capitalism plays in perpetuating climate change.”