4 Declare Emergency Supporters Face Trial In D.C.
On Friday, January 19th, four courageous people faced trial in the nation’s capital for having blocked traffic on a D.C. highway on August 26th, 2023. Declare Emergency is a nonviolent civil resistance group which is demanding that President Biden declare a climate emergency, followed by slashing the military's carbon footprint. A full list of their demands is found here.
The trial opened with the testimony of Callie J., one of those arrested in August of last year. Her testimony involved discussion of the possibility of improper police procedure during the demonstration, according to the police code of the District of Columbia, which should have gotten the case dismissed.
Several of those arrested in August of last year had decided to demonstrate in the road up to but just before the point of arrest. In D.C. code 5-331.07, “Police handling and response to First Amendment assemblies”, section E-1, police officers are required to issue at least 3 clear orders to disperse using an amplification system, with 2-minute intervals in between if there is no imminent danger of injury or damage to property. If there is an imminent danger, one clear dispersal order is to be made with an amplification device. On August 26th, after arriving, police provided one order to disperse, then immediately placed all of the Declare Emergency (D.E.) supporters on the scene under arrest, even as they were obeying the order and getting to their feet to clear the roadway. Most of them spent several days in jail following the action.
When questioned by one of the demonstrators as to why they were being arrested right away, the Lieutenant cited “exigent conditions,” meaning he believed there was an imminent threat of harm to persons or property. (During the trial, reference was made to a driver who apparently threatened to run the resistors over while police were present.) However, the D.C. code in question does not provide provision for police to arrest demonstrators who are following police orders.
The trial included discussion on whether or not it was necessary to take the action on that day in August, an approach known as a “necessity defense.” There are several factors which must apply to the case for the necessity defense to be valid:
- The defendant must believe there is an imminent threat which demands immediate action. The facts must bear this out, and this should be explored in depth during the trial.
- The defendant must have reasonably tried every other method of action they could think of before taking the action which led them to trial.
- The action taken by the defendant must cause less harm than the situation being avoided.
- The defendant cannot have caused the threat or situation they were seeking to avoid.
During the trial, the prosecution said repeatedly that the resistors had not ruled out all alternative methods of action before coming to the roadway, making the necessity defense invalid. The judge seems to have agreed with this assessment.
Troy Horton, a committed activist and D.E. supporter who has successfully used the necessity defense in trial for climate civil disobedience twice, writes: “My understanding is that a person does not have to ‘rule out all alternatives’ but that they must have tried ‘reasonable alternatives.’. Here is where the defendants should be able to testify about all the other alternatives they have tried. Rallies, communicating with elected officials, signed petitions, etc.”
However, it seems the defense was not given this opportunity. Neither were they given the opportunity to cover in detail and at length the facts about the climate crisis, and how and why it's an imminent threat demanding immediate action.
About civil disobedience, Troy says: "It should not be illegal to act to prevent a greater harm than you caused.”
After closing arguments, the defendants were sentenced to 30 days jail time, suspended (they will serve the 30 days if arrested again), 2 years of unsupervised probation, a $100 fine and an order to stay away from D.C. for 2 years.
Fergus Marshall, the last defendant to testify at the trial, ended up not being able to. He says the trial was repeatedly delayed and he needed to travel back home to take care of his grandson, so he made the decision to revoke his testimony. He had this to say: “We were promised two consecutive days for the trial, then got one. Then we were told we would have the whole day for the trial, but it didn’t start until 12.”
Reflecting on the action and the sentence, he says: “I never had any fear we would be harmed by the drivers. There are other actions I’ve been at that’ve been more intense. We complied with everything the police wanted us to do. During the trial I felt like we were being heard with a presumption of guilt, instead of being listened to with a presumption of innocence. They wanted us to be out of DC. Because we can’t go back for two years, we’re being denied our first amendment right to assemble.”
The defendants wrote a statement together before the trial, which in part reads: “We are here because we believe the science which tells us that continuing on our present course will put 1 billion people in the same position that the people huddled in a corner of Gaza are in today.
As it happens, we four defendants before you today, your Honor, came of age during the 1960’s. One of the major influences on the course of each of our lives was the civil rights movement. The people who risked everything to nonviolently disrupt business-as-usual under Jim Crow are our teachers. We aspire to act in ways to make ourselves worthy of their example… We sit in the road, not as a first choice, but in desperation. The powers arrayed against us are great. We may have already lost. But we cannot forget Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words warning us that all that is necessary in order for evil to triumph is for good people to fail to act.”
In this writer’s opinion, both the immediate arrests and the trial were good examples of repression and political theater. Case in point: the drivers cheered loudly for the police as they arrested the activists. As the video shows, the arrests almost seem to have been made for the benefit of the crowd, to satisfy their sense of justice in this case.
During the civil rights movement, many people in the South felt that their government: their mayor, their judges, their sheriffs, their police, their governors, were working for their benefit by continuing to enforce segregation and to repress and imprison peaceful civil resistors. That did not stop the Freedom Riders from riding into Alabama. That did not stop thousands of children from blocking roads and marching in the streets in Birmingham. Today, it's a truism that the civil rights movement presented a leap forward in our moral conscience as a nation, and that it was necessary at the time.
While the public today may cheer the repression of those acting to stop the collapse of our societies from the release of murderous gasses, it won’t stop people from rising up in resistance to the forces enabling the collapse. While unpopular today, in the future the wider public may very well celebrate the courage of these resistors, if there is a future to be had for humanity.
Declare Emergency is a member of the global A22 network for civil resistance.
Join DE This Sunday for a talk about how you can join this exciting group - and start making headlines of your own! Or at least help others do the same.
“What are our responsibilities at this time? Because of the fossil fuel industry, we are facing horrors of a magnitude never before experienced in our existence. Our government continues to lead us to the edge of no return. We must stand up and defend ourselves. No one else is going to do it. It must be us, if we want to live.
Our methods must be disruptive, and they must be nonviolent. Our actions are evidence-based, credible, and we have a plan. The only thing missing at this point in time is YOU!”
Register now at declareemergency.org/events
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