Can civil disobedience be seen as ‘good behavior’ in a time of climate crisis?

“Criminal justice is deterring bad behavior.”

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SOURCEWaging Nonviolence
Image Credit: Twitter/Emma Shapiro-Weiss

Dozens of climate activists filled the second floor lobby of the Concord, New Hampshire District Court on Feb. 14 — only they weren’t there to protest. Instead, spreading out into a circle, they listened to their attorney, Kira Kelley, as she prepared them for a pre-trial hearing.

“This court has never seen this many people in a situation like this,” she said, referring to the 65 people currently facing trespassing charges stemming from a September arrest in Bow, New Hampshire. As part of an action dubbed “Bucket by Bucket,” activists with the #NoCoalNoGas campaign were trying to remove coal from Merrimack Station — New England’s last major coal-fired power plant without a shut-down date.

With discussions of plea bargains ongoing, when and whether any trials will take place is uncertain, but the #NoCoalNoGas campaign is nevertheless preparing for a legal fight.

In addition to the hearing, which will continue later next month, the state also charged 18 of the defendants with violating the terms of their bail by participating in blockades of trains delivering coal to Bow in recent months. Following the Concord hearing, the group drove to Bow’s police station, where the newly charged activists turned themselves in. They were released once again, on their own recognizance, and told to return to court in March. Nevertheless, the activists perceived the state’s punitive action as an escalation, with Prosecutor Tracy Connolly on the side of the fossil fuel industry.

Speaking to the circle of activists before the hearing, Emma Schoenberg of the Climate Disobedience Center reminded the group of their shared goals: building community, showing that active resistance is possible and shutting down the coal plant.

“Almost a year ago we hatched this hare-brained scheme to shut down a coal plant and, being that we couldn’t do it alone, we knew the moment had to be transformational,” Schoenberg said. “So, here we get to create a new world, and we get to invite other people into it.”

One participant in the September action accepted a plea agreement offered by Prosecutor Connolly. Discussions about possible plea deals for the rest appear to be ongoing, with Connolly determined to deter the activists from taking further steps aimed at shutting down the power plant.

“Criminal justice is deterring bad behavior,” she said. But for the #NoCoalNoGas campaign, it’s Merrimack Station and the fossil fuel industry that’s guilty.

“In 2020, when the high temperature in Antarctica was just measured at 69 degrees Fahrenheit and when the climate crisis is already causing disastrous flooding on New Hampshire’s coast, it is sad that Ms. Connolly is arguing that preventing further catastrophe does not count as ‘good behavior,’” said Alissandra Rodriguez-Murray, who was arrested at the September action and was among those charged with bail violations.

Working with their legal team, the #NoCoalNoGas campaigners are still trying to determine their legal strategy. One option might be using their concept of “good behavior” as a defense before a judge at district court. Another option might be skipping trial altogether and instead accepting a verdict of guilty in order to bring their defense to a jury trial at superior court.

At the same time, if Connolly were to offer a more favorable plea bargain, #NoCoalNoGas activists might be willing accept it — whether it be engaging in community service or committing to “good behavior” for 24 hours, like activists with the Poor People’s Campaign did last year. Such discussions with the prosecution will continue at the next hearing, March 30, which is also when schedules for trials could be set.

In the meantime, the campaign will be turning its attention to ISO New England — the entity that manages the regional power grid and just agreed to keep subsidy payments flowing to Merrimack Station for another year. As far as the climate activists are concerned, the campaign to shut down Merrimack Station won’t end at the courthouse.

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