While public workers were building a gas pipeline in West Roxbury in 2016, several environmental activists stood in the way of its construction, burrowing themselves in the hollowed spaces of where the pipeline would be placed. All 13 protesters, who felt compelled to take action against a measure that would harm the environment, were arrested for civil disobedience — the standard protocol for getting in the way of public projects.
On Tuesday, Judge Mary Ann Driscoll deemed this action was a “legal necessity” and proclaimed the activists are “not responsible” for their actions — which is the equivalent of granting them a not guilty verdict. These defendants are now avoiding trials and will be dismissed of their criminal charges. This decision, of course, comes as an unprecedented one in the course of legal history for climate-related issues.
This decree seems like it’s in favor of civil disobedience, if only for a just and noble cause. In fact, granting these activists legal leverage is a way to encourage civic responsibility and foster activism, specifically amongst the environmental justice community.
In October of 2017, Boston city councilors voted for further deliberation of the pipeline in an effort to halt construction. This was declared a huge victory for environmentalists, who had been protesting and raising awareness about the projects for months. Perhaps this earlier action also swayed councilors to vote against the measure, as they heard from the communities whom a pipe like this would affect.
There have been relatively few instances where major governmental institutions, including the court and judicial system, that have stood in support of protesters, especially when they cause turmoil and make it difficult for the government to do its job. A decision like this suggests that the tide might be shifting toward helping activists and granting them a platform to have a voice.
The judge’s decision raises concerns for setting a precedent that promotes civil disobedience. Many people may construe the verdict as the judge siding with civil disobedience. But that is not necessarily the case. The judge simply stated that these activists were legally compelled to take illegal action. They were acting responsibly in the face of the environmental consequences of fracking, which include pollutants being released into the air and even heightened seismic activity (meaning more earthquakes). The possibility of oil leaking or even bursting through the pipes poses a huge environmental danger and puts people who live near the pipeline at an increased risk. By halting construction, these protestors were not only saving their environments, but their communities and homes as well.
Thus, the decision does not dilute civil disobedience, but rather prompts civic responsibility. It would be completely wrong and unfair for a judge to give a pass to all those who have committed civil disobedience. Laws against these actions exist to maintain peace and order, and so that people don’t go to the extremes. But it’s good to recognize when negligence pushes people to the point of causing necessary unrest. Judge Driscoll made the decision after listening to the defendants’ explanations about what they did that day. Only after realizing these protests were acting responsibly on behalf of the environment did she declare them “not responsible.”
An effective protest like this leads to tangible results, with the proposed pipeline looking unlikely to be constructed in the foreseeable future. Therefore, people who were a part of the opposing side should not be punished for doing something that yielded promising results for the environment.
Fracking has been breaking national headlines for a reason. This news coincides with Trump’s plans for offshore drilling, which holds the same, potentially more severe, environmental consequences. In the beginning of this year, Trump decided to expand offshore drilling as part of his promise to making America self-sustainable by tapping into otherwise untouchable energy resources. In effect, Trump reversed years of resistance against the environmentally dangerous action and welcomed oil companies to create mechanisms that could destroy coastlines and harm marine wildlife.
Harming the environment does not seem to bother the Trump administration at all, and this decision is more important than ever to resist environmental degradation and maintain protections that preserved our planet.
In the context of the current political climate, our president seems to be the one least concerned about activists standing up for what they believe in. During the March For Our Lives rally, President Trump was notably away on vacation at his Mar-a-Lago resort. While he did post several tweets that day, the president did not say anything to the millions fighting for gun control laws.
It becomes the job of others to support activists’ causes and do the president’s job. Activism is important in this country and is a sign of our democracy working. With a legal precedent in place to support them, it’s hard not to feel like this signals rebirth of political efficacy and responsibility.