Great Barrington — More than a dozen pipeline protesters and indigenous “water protectors” who were arrested and arraigned after incidents over the last several weeks at the site of the Connecticut Expansion pipeline in Sandisfield saw their criminal charges either dropped or converted to less serious civil charges at Southern Berkshire District Court Thursday morning.
The charges, consisting mostly of trespassing and disorderly conduct, were minor in nature, with the exception of a young man and woman accused of assaulting a state trooper. That charge against the woman, Karla Colon-Aponte, was dismissed by Judge Paul Vrabel.
Colon-Aponte was charged with assault and battery on a police officer after a confrontation in the state forest Oct. 24 with State Police Trooper Jeff McDonald, who wound up violently shoving Colon-Aponte to the ground. Click here to see video of the confrontation shot by water protector Eliot Bender.
During the morning court session, Vrabel breezed through the charges, not only dismissing Colon-Aponte’s assault charge but converting the trespassing and disorderly conduct charges of more than a dozen others to civil offenses. They were all ordered to appear on Jan. 30 for hearings.
“I have to leave here by 12:30,” Vrabel said at one point.
Another protester, Jacob Renner, of Sharon, Conn., stands charged with two criminal counts of assault and battery on a police officer, trespassing, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct. As of Thursday, Renner’s charges, which stem from a Nov. 1 incident, still stand.
Renner was told to appear for a pretrial hearing on Jan. 11, though Renner’s court-appointed attorney is still negotiating with prosecutors, according to Vivienne Simon of the nonprofit anti-fossil-fuel group, the Sugar Shack Alliance, which has been heavily involved in the protests and held a joint news conference with the water protectors in front of the courthouse Thursday after court concluded.
Simon read a statement excoriating fossil fuel companies, including Kinder Morgan, whose subsidiary Tennessee Gas Pipeline, cleared almost 30 acres of publicly owned forest in Sandisfield to make room for a controversial natural gas pipeline expansion to Connecticut that many of its detractors insist is unnecessary and environmentally destructive.
See video below of Vivienne Simon, Fergus Marshall and Micah L. Carpenter-Lott speaking at the news conference:
Simon said Sugar Shack believes in its mission and has recently called on Gov. Charlie Baker to make Massachusetts a leader in clean energy and block the construction of any new fossil fuel infrastructure projects in the commonwealth.
“If the governor doesn’t think it’s his job too, then we’ll elect one who does,” Simon said to scattered applause on the sunny but chilly morning.
Sugar Shack and its allies have engaged in civil disobedience and have largely accepted the consequences of their actions but Fergus Marshall, one of the Sugar Shack defendants, appeared to signal a change in strategy when he asserted that police actions might be unconstitutional, or perhaps even fraudulent.
“I believe the State Police and the courts are suppressing our First Amendment rights by ordering people to court who may be coming from far away, creating hardship for their families — all on trumped up charges by the State Police.”
Indigenous water protector Micah L. Carpenter-Lott spoke at length about protecting natural resources and what he called the “illegal” pipeline project, so labeled because of its presumed violation of Article 97 of the state constitution and a controversial decision on the part of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which approved the project and gave the go-ahead for tree clearing and construction on April 12.
Carpenter-Lott added that through the hiring of “current and retired” officers, the State Police were paid nearly $1 million by Kinder Morgan to provide security at the Otis State Forest site.
“Corporations should not be allowed to purchase State Police,” Carpenter-Lott said. “How can the State Police remain unbiased when they are paid directly from fossil fuel hands?”
Sugar Shack Alliance activist Corey Flanders suggested the State Police were biased and favored white protestors over “our brothers and sisters and allied groups.”
Sugar Shack activist Corey Flanders speaks at the news conference outside the Southern Berkshire District Court in Great Barrington:
“We are extremely concerned and dismayed to see our fellow indigenous-led water protectors being spoken to disrespectfully, shoved to the ground, tased, treated with excessive force and charged by the State Police with more serious infractions than any of the white protestors from the Sugar Shack Alliance,” Flanders said. “We condemn this behavior.”
After the news conference, the activists marched to a familiar site: The TD Bank office in Great Barrington, where they staged another colorful protest. The activists have targeted TD Bank (formerly Toronto Dominion Bank) since they claim it’s the top funder of the Trans Mountain Pipeline. Click here to see a response from TD Bank.
This time on Main Street, there were no incidents of business disruption inside the bank. Two state troopers and a Great Barrington police officer stood guard at the bank entrance. TD Bank actually locked its doors for the protest. No one was allowed in, including customers. There was a sign on the door that said “Please use drive-in window.”
At the bank parking lot, indigenous water protector Benji Buffalo from the Blackfeet Indian Nation in Montana led the protesters in an American Indian Movement unity song.
Buffalo is a veteran activist who also attended the infamous protest last year at Standing Rock, an Indian reservation in North Dakota, where large protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline were marked by violence.