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The Risk of Climate Catastrophe Is So Severe, We Had to Break the Law, Say Activists

Eleven climate change activists are refusing a plea deal in New York court and asserting a "necessity defense," hoping to bring attention to the role of Wall Street in financing fossil fuel interests.
Photo by Seth Wenig/AP

Eleven activists who took part in a peaceful sit-in against climate change in New York City's Financial District last fall have decided to move their protest into Manhattan's criminal court, refusing to pay fines for charges of disorderly conduct. The trial begins Monday and the group plans to argue in its defense that Wall Street, through its investments in fossil fuels, is the real harbinger of disorder.


Dubbed "Flood Wall Street" by organizers, several thousand people participated in the direct action on September 22, 2014 that shut down Broadway for eight hours, from its intersection with Wall Street down to Battery Park at the tip of Manhattan. The protest led to the arrest of one hundred and two people.

John Tarleton, editor of the monthly Indypendent newspaper, called the direct action "an exclamation mark" on the People's Climate March, a demonstration that drew an estimated 400,000 people and was the largest public protest expressing concern for climate change. Tarleton is one of the #Flood11 — an internet hashtag adopted by the activists.

Both gatherings occurred ahead of the UN Climate Summit on September 23rd, in which world leaders, including President Obama, referenced the mass protests. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, asked by reporters why he had allowed Flood Wall Street demonstrators — who did not possess a permit — to shut down such a large section of the city, said "the First Amendment is a little more important than traffic."

Going a step further, the #Flood11 contend that the threat of climate change is also more important than traffic.

"In the last year we've seen reports from the UN, the White House, the New York City Panel on Climate Change, and from business leaders including former-Mayor Michael Bloomberg warning of climate change," said Tarleton. "Even though we're taking an unconventional path to combat the problem, there's broad concern out there. Where we part ways from the establishment is emphasizing the need to take action immediately and in identifying its underlying source: Wall Street in particular and capitalism more broadly."


Related: Flood Wall Street. Watch the VICE News documentary

The world's largest commercial and investment banks have pumped billions into the fossil fuel industry over the years, even as 2014 marked the warmest year on record.

Seven financial institutions, including JPMorgan Chase and CitiGroup, have together put $7 billion towards TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline. Though President Obama vetoed last week a Congressional bill which would have approved the project's final leg, its fate is still up in the air pending a State Department review. The pipeline has long been a central object of concern among environmentalists who argue it will lead to further extraction of tar sands oil at a time when atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have already reached levels not seen on Earth for at least 800,000 years.

"We can't make incremental changes; we need radical solutions to address this crisis," #Flood11 member Susan Heitker, who worries what the future holds for her five-year-old son, told VICE News. "I don't want to prepare my child for the world. I want to prepare the world for my child."

In the courtroom, the #Flood11 and their attorney Martin Stolar, plan to utilize what is commonly referred to as the "necessity defense" — or in New York penal law, defense of justification, which states that transgressing the law is justified in order to avoid imminent harm.

"The public was and is facing imminent injury and something had to be done," said Stolar. "It's not like somebody was holding a gun, but if we don't do something about climate change now, then we're screwed."


The Manhattan District Attorney's Office has offered Flood Wall Street arrestees a plea deal that would see charges of blocking traffic and disobeying a lawful order dropped, provided the activists do not get in trouble with the law for six months. Ninety-one of the protesters have taken the deal but the #Flood11 have decided to go to trial and enter a plea of not guilty. Risking fifteen days in jail and a $500 fine, they will use the legal proceeding as an opportunity to take a stand against climate change and push the justice system to take a stand as well.

Judge Robert Mandelbaum of the Manhattan's Criminal Court will preside over the trial. All eleven Flood Wall Street activists plan to testify on their own behalf. Hoping to garner public support, the #Flood11 are circulating a petition calling for a not-guilty verdict and are asking those attending their trial this week to wear blue as a sign of support.

Related: 2014 was the hottest year ever recorded

At least two climate activists have sought to apply the necessity defense previously. Last September, Bristol County, Massachusetts District Attorney C. Samuel Sutter dropped charges of conspiracy to commit a crime, disorderly conduct, and multiple water law violations, for two men who used a lobster boat to block a shipment of coal to the Brayton Point power plant near Long Island. The men, Ken Ward and Jay O'Hara, contended the threat posed by climate change necessitated their actions. They faced up to two years in prison, but were ultimately levied a $2000 fine.

John Tarleton, however, hopes that when it is time to make his ruling, Judge Mandelbaum will think outside the box and recognize their necessity defense. "It would be a powerful precedent," he said, "a recognition that it is justified for people to take direct action to confront this situation."

Not only is the #Flood11 trial taking place just blocks from Wall Street, Tarleton noted, but also beside where the floodwaters of Superstorm Sandy inundated the city three years earlier. "Its not hard to imagine a future when these floodwaters will be lapping up on the steps of the courthouse," he said.

Follow Peter Rugh on Twitter: @JohnReedsTomb