On a sunny May morning back in 2013, Jay O’Hara and Ken Ward used a 32-foot lobster boat – plus a 200 lb anchor – to prevent a barge from delivering 40,000 tons of coal to New England’s largest fossil-fuel burning power plant – the Brayton Point Power Station in Somerset, Massachusetts. The two were subsequently arraigned on four criminal charges, including conspiracy and negligent operation of a motor vehicle.
Their trial was due to start September 8th. They weren’t planning to dispute the facts. Instead, they planned to argue that the government’s failure to address climate change justified their actions. It’s known as a necessity defense, and it would have been the first time a climate-related necessity defense had gone to trial.
Bristol County District Attorney Sam Sutter didn’t think Ward and O’Hara would be able to meet the legal standard for a necessity defense but sympathized with the argument. So, he took matters into his own hands. The morning the trial was due to get under way, he announced that he was dismissing the conspiracy charge, and downgrading the remaining three charges to civil infractions. He left the courthouse waving a copy of an article by Bill McKibben, the environmental author and founder of 350.org. On the courthouse steps, he declared climate change “one of the greatest crises our planet has ever faced” and vowed to take personal action and professional leadership on the issue.
The day after the case was dismissed, we sat down the O’Hara and Ward – the Lobster Boat Blockaders – to talk about why they did what they did, and how they’re feeling about the surprise outcome of their non-trial. You can listen to the whole conversation:
Here are a few lightly edited excerpts:
First of all, are congratulations in order?
O’Hara: Maybe it’s not congratulations, but at least “atta boy.” It’s kind of a strange, unexpected position to be in where the person who was prosecuting you all of a sudden is standing out in front of the courthouse saying essetnaily we need to do direct action and civil disobedience beause the climate issue isn’t at the forefront of the political discussion.
Are you at all disappointed that the trial didn’t go forward?
Ward: I think so on one level, but this is really kind of an extraordinary event to have DA Sutter take the stance that he did. And so it’s really hard to compare the two, it’s sort of an apples and oranges thing. I think the thing we’d say we’re disappointed about is that the [Brayton Point Power] Plant is still burning coal. But as a matter of politics, this is really an important step.
Brayton Point Power Station is slated to close in 2017. I take it that’s not soon enough for you?
Ward: No. We need to take the obvious steps. And the very first of those, the one that Dr. James Hansen lays out – he’s the person we think you should turn to when you’re looking for a ‘well, what should we be doing here’ – the very first step is to stop burning coal.
O’Hara: Dr. Hansen has laid out that globally we need to stop burning coal by 2030 entirely and if we have any hope and expectation of doing that, states like Massachusetts and countries like the United States have to stand up and take moral leadership.
What made the Lobster Boat Blockade different from other climate protests?
Ward: First of all, it was a direct action not just a symbolic protest. A direct action means trying to put yourself – your body - at the point of the insult or the injury and prevent it. So we were literally placing ourselves between the coal tanker and pier, and that’s different than just a symbolic protest that’s at a government site or maybe just holding a placard somewhere.
Ken Ward, you have a fourteen year old son. Does he share your concern about climate change and the future into which he’s growing up?
Ward: My experience of not so much talking to Eli as listening to Eli and his friends talk, I think we have a generation that’s got an underlying sense of being terribly wrong. They can talk about climate, they know what the information is, but it’s more of a sense – and it’s very sad to listen to this – the sense that something’s going amiss before they’re even grown up.
O’Hara: Almost all of my peers have that same underlying sense of something that’s desperately wrong, but we’re all struggling to find what our point of agency in this is. Where is it that our daily lives can meet this crisis? And it’s a crisis not only of the physical nature of the planet, but of the fact that our political and economic systems aren’t equipped to deal with a problem of this magnitude. Well, if that’s the case, how am I supposed to live my life? And we don’t have easy answers yet.
Jay O’Hara, what does your daily life look like at this point?
In general, my daily life is – and this is a longstanding Quaker tradition and a longstanding tradition in many faiths – that in order to focus on what is most important, we need to clear away the clutter and free our lives to follow where we are led. One of my guiding principles comes from a poem by Mary Oliver called wild geese in which she says:
“You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.”
And for me, that kind of giving over, that confessional nature of a life trying to align with what we know in our hearts to be true is at the center. And I can’t allow myself to get hung up on the day-to-day. I have to, as the civil rights movement said, keep my eyes on the prize.