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Letter to the editor: Sometimes taking a stand might mean pleading guilty

Editor’s note. The writer is a Monkton resident who was a longtime opponent of the Vermont Gas Systems natural gas pipeline, which originally was slated to cross her property but in the end was routed around it.
Early this month in Addison County Court, 12 people were arraigned who were arrested back in September because they walked onto a construction site of the Vermont fracked gas pipeline and refused to leave when asked by the police.
The dozen cited for trespassing ranged in age from in their 20s all the way up into their late 70s. All were individuals whom, I suspect, decided to remain against police orders for their own individual reasons. During the arraignment process, some decided to refuse a trial, the court diversion program offered, or the right to appeal their sentence, by pleading guilty. Why?
 On listening to their reasons, what struck me was the eloquence and determination that emitted from those who stood before Judge Hoar that day. What also struck me was a realization that our judicial system is ill-equipped to deal with those who choose to commit a non-violent crime in the name of a greater good. Yes, these people trespassed. But they did it standing up for their beliefs, and they did not try to evade arrest or “get away” with their so called “crimes.”
Offering a chance to redeem themselves through court diversion seemed pointless and ill advised. Clearly people had thought long and hard about what they were going to do before they committed “the crime” and some may intend to do it again if they feel it is necessary. For these protesters, the larger crime being committed is the build out of fossil fuel infrastructure at a time when our society is committed, for good reasons, to weaning ourselves off of fossil fuel.
One of the elder “arrestees” pleaded guilty to trespassing and at first refused court diversion. The judge was baffled by her choice and his comments to her implied she was making the wrong decision. After noting that she had no previous record, the judge asked her if having a criminal conviction was something on her bucket list, something she felt she had to do before she left this earth. The defendant calmly and emphatically responded by admonishing the judge for being condescending. She then explained that at 77 years of age, a criminal conviction is not a deterrent for trying to stop the fracked gas pipeline or for standing in solidarity with others that are trying to stop a pipeline elsewhere.
Another defendant who was offered court diversion, instead pleaded guilty and requested to be sentenced immediately. The judge asked if he wanted to possibly go to jail. The defendant replied no, jail was not something he wanted to do, but he was prepared to go if that was what his punishment was for trespassing. Brave soul.
My impression was that the court was intent on “processing” the offenders in the most expedient way possible. Court diversion is the shortest route to what the court assumed would be the goal of those arrested … to put their lawlessness behind them.
Getting arrested that fine day in September was not a lapse in judgment. It was not a poor choice made in the heat of the moment. People who stayed past their welcome on that bucolic farm in New Haven being slashed and bisected by the pipeline construction, did so because they felt it was the right thing to do and the only remaining way to pressure our government officials to also do the right thing.
Once you have committed the act, and have actually been arrested, you have a few options on how to navigate your way through this ill-fitting judicial system. Do you plead guilty and take your punishment? That proves that you are responsible for your actions, but ultimately, how does that help prove your point? Are you actually admitting guilt when you plead guilty? Or are you being literal in your plea? (It was right to trespass and stand up for what you believe in but indeed you are guilty of breaking the law.) Does this make you “lawless”?
Once you cross that line will you, in the future, not be able to discern the difference between unlawful trespass against a morally corrupt project and say … shoplifting? Is it a slippery slope where 77-year-olds will suddenly toss away a lifetime of abiding the law to embrace a wild rampage of law breaking, that could escalate to include acts even more harmful than trespassing on a pipeline construction site? Or do you argue that you are innocent and the act of trespassing was something you HAD to do because of your convictions?
So, why did those 12 people do it? What was the final straw that made these law abiding citizens cross that line and end up standing before that judge in his long black robe? From experience, I can say with authority that there is no financial gain to be had from protesting and getting arrested. Between court fees and fines and missed work and having to travel to court, the costs add up quickly. Further, if you do end up getting a conviction, having a criminal record means you will be forever saddled with that bit of branding the courts bestow upon you. But the question is, are you guilty? If so, of what? Standing up against a dirty and destructive project? Obeying your moral compass?
I was arrested earlier, back in July 2014. Along with four of my comrades (four of us landowners being forced to host the pipeline), I went to the Vermont Gas headquarters to speak with the CEO at the time, and make some reasonable demands. We were ignored and VGS employees kept trying to get us out of the building. The tables were turned and we were persistent in remaining on VGS property, much the same as the company had done on our land. But the difference was, VGS called the cops and I was arrested by the South Burlington Police. I was handcuffed and transported to the police department so I could be fingerprinted and have my mug shot taken. It was a frightening experience but in the end, Vermont Gas ended up dropping the charges and my case was dismissed. The company admitted they had gone too far in having me arrested.
I was, however, prepared to argue to any judge or jury why I had broken the law by refusing to leave when told to. It was my choice to remain once I had been warned that if I stayed any longer, I would be arrested. I am an older white woman and am therefore privileged. The chances of me being physically abused or incarcerated illegally were much less than if I had been younger, of color or a man. I felt I HAD to make a stand. I HAD to disobey the police in order to make my point.
If I had left when told to, there would have been no photo of me in my sundress and sunhat, being handcuffed and placed in a police cruiser. Folks that read the articles about the action and saw photos of the overabundance of police officers there to arrest just one “diminutive” woman were outraged. Vermont Gas ended up looking like the bullies they are for not speaking with landowners in the first place and then for using excessive police force.
I pushed the envelope on that occasion because I had tried to argue against the viability of this project in lengthy proceedings before the Vermont Public Service Board. To no avail. I, along with many others, was familiar with the arguments for and against the pipeline — from the exorbitant costs, the climate impacts, the destruction of farmland, wetlands, and waterways, and the corporate abuse of the eminent domain process against my neighbors. I knew with every cell of my being that this pipeline should never be built. All along, I was expecting our elected and appointed officials to listen, to learn and realize the facts that were clear as day and abandon the misguided project.
At this point in my life — and this point in the course of humanity — I feel it is no longer an option to sit back and let bad things simply happen. I am absolutely compelled to do whatever I can. My husband and I fought the pipeline before the Public Service Board with everything we could muster. We do not have a lot of money but we give what we can of our time and energy to bring the shortcomings of this project to the public and government’s attention. If that means standing in the freezing rain, or blustery cold, or oppressive heat under the hot sun along with dozens or even hundreds of other people to make a point, that is what we will do. If that means trespassing and getting arrested, taken to court and ending up with a criminal record, so be it.
I will do so because there appears to be no other recourse. I have tried reasoning. I have tried standing up to the army of lawyers that were being paid to get this pipeline approved. I have tried everything I can think of to do. Yet the power of the corporations over our government officials has rendered facts, reasoning and human decency, all irrelevant. What else is there in the circumstance? I can only hold on to the hope that if we all stand up and say no – even to the point of breaking the law in the process, we will have the collective power to sway the “arc of justice” towards the right outcomes.
Our government is there to serve us, we the people, not corporations or those with the most cash in hand. This is OUR country and our future and so far as I can see, to maintain our rights to a decent future, we will all have to step out of our comfort zones. We need to do whatever we can to make sure this environmentally and financially disastrous, unsafe and unnecessary gas pipeline doesn’t get completed.
Jane Palmer
Monkton

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