Great Barrington — A series of peaceful protests started earlier this year against the Tennessee Gas Company’s Connecticut Expansion Project in the Otis State Forest have turned violent in recent days, with protesters acting more provocatively and police using tactics normally reserved for confrontations.
One recent incident occurred Wednesday, October 25, during a planned “Earth Dance” event involving members of the anti-pipeline Sugar Shack Alliance and a group of indigenous “water protectors,” so called because they travel the country to fight against pipeline projects that hinder access to water such as the Standing Rock, an Native American reservation in North Dakota where there were protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline during which police attacked peaceful protesters.
After the incident in Sandisfield on October 25, one protester, Karla Colon-Aponte, was charged two days later with assault and battery on a police officer after a confrontation in the state forest with Massachusetts State Police Trooper Jeff McDonald, who violently shoved Colon-Aponte to the ground and pinned her there with his knee on her chest.
McDonald maintains that Colon-Aponte swung her arm at him in an effort to push him away as he was trying to move her out of a security perimeter the police were trying to establish. However, in the video, there was no indication that Colon-Aponte had done so in the seconds before she was pushed to the ground.
“I started moving backwards and he kept shoving me,” Colon-Aponte said in an interview. “There was no need.”
Colon-Aponte insists she was not rude to McDonald and that as she tried to exit the scene as directed, the trooper kept shoving her as she was walking away. She added that, “It felt to me that no matter how far I went, it wouldn’t be enough.”
“I don’t remember hitting his hand. If I did, it wasn’t on purpose,” Colon-Aponte said. “He said there is body cam footage. I’d like to look at it.”
McDonald could not be reached for comment but Massachusetts State Police spokesman David Procopio sent the Edge the following statement:
“We will review the entire record of our interaction with Ms. Colon-Aponte that day, including not only the events depicted on the video but also any actions, interaction and conduct, by anyone involved, prior to and after what is seen on the video. We additionally will review written reports and the offenses with which she is charged. We will provide an update once that review is completed.”
Asked whether she was afraid or felt violated by the incident, Colon-Aponte replied, “I was water cannoned in 20-degree weather at Standing Rock. I’ve been through worse.”
Four other water protectors were charged along with Colon-Aponte for lesser offenses than hers. The charges ranged from disorderly conduct to resisting arrest. Not-guilty pleas were entered for the defendants in Southern Berkshire District Court Oct. 26 by Judge William Rota. Colon-Aponte said she has been told to reappear in court Thursday, Dec. 7, to face the charges. She plans to have an attorney at that time.
On Monday morning (Oct. 23), scores of activists turned out to kick off a “week of resistance” to the Connecticut Expansion Pipeline in the Otis State Forest in Sandisfield.
In solidarity with Divest the Globe, indigenous Water Protectors and Sugar Shack Alliance activists and others conducted a resistance week in advance of the flow of fracked gas through the pipeline, which energy giant Kinder Morgan began Nov. 1.
The groups hosted what they call a “divestment action” at the Great Barrington TD Bank branch on Main Street. Click here to see filmmaker Ben Hillman’s Edgecast of that event.
Yesterday there was another confrontation near the pipeline construction area on Beech Plain Road in Sandisfield between police and protesters in which three more arrests were made. Sugar Shack said police brought dogs and used a stun gun.
Police vehicles were there along with an ambulance. Some of the protesters wore zombie outfits and sported signs saying “Poison Gas,” “People Over Pipelines” and “Fracked Gas Kills.”
This afternoon, State Police issued a news release (below in italics) on yesterday’s incident. It has been edited for clarity and style:
Three people were arrested yesterday at the site of the Tennessee Gas pipeline project in the Otis State Forest in Sandisfield, two for refusing orders to move out of the way of construction vehicles and the third for assaulting two troopers who attempted to apprehend him after he trespassed on private property.
Arrested were: Jacob Renner, 24, of Sharon, Conn., charged with two counts of assault and battery on a police officer, trespassing, resisting arrest and disorderly conduct; Max S. Bambery, 31, of Lenox, charged with disorderly conduct; and Priscilla A. Lynch, 65, of Conway, charged with disorderly conduct.
At approximately 1 p.m. yesterday Renner and another man trespassed onto 114 South Beech Plain Road, private property near the project site that was clearly marked No Trespassing. The owner of the property has previously made clear that he does not want protestors on his property.
When asked to leave the property by a private security officer, Renner and the other man refused. Troopers responded to the location and observed the men walking down the driveway on the property, behind the no trespassing signs. Troopers observed that Renner had his hands in his pockets. He refused to remove his hands from his pockets despite being asked to do so several times, raising concerns that he may have had a weapon.
A trooper then instructed another trooper on-scene to place Renner under arrest, at which point he ran along South Beach Road in an attempt to flee. When troopers ran after him and attempted to cut him off, he shoved two of them, knocking one off balance and the other to the ground, and then continued to struggle with them in an attempt to get free.
As a trooper drew his issued electronic control weapon and, as Renner continued to struggle, the trooper deployed one set of probes into the suspect’s back and buttocks in accordance with departmental policy. The deployment of the probes momentarily ended the struggle, but after several seconds the suspect regained mobility, pulled the probes free, and continued to struggle.
Troopers then got the suspect under control and placed him in custody. During a search of Renner, a trooper located a knife on his belt. Renner initially refused to give his name and date of birth despite several requests to do so. He was evaluated by an ambulance crew and refused treatment. After being transported to the Berkshire County jail for processing, Renner was given his Miranda rights. He continued to refuse to provide his identity for several hours.
The other man who had trespassed onto the property with Renner fled into the woods and was not located.
At approximately 1:50 p.m., troopers responded to South Beech Plain Road near the project site where 30 to 40 protesters were blocking the road, shouting, and chanting. The protesters were blocking the path of a large, heavy-load dump truck. A trooper in her cruiser attempted to escort the truck through the protestors. Many of them moved out of the way, but several of them – some dressed in black robes and white masks – cut between the cruiser and the truck. The trooper got out of her cruiser and asked these protestors to move out of the road, and the all refused. The trooper believed these protestors were putting themselves in danger given their proximity to the huge Euclid model dump truck.
Other MSP personnel responded and instructed the protestors to allow vehicles to move freely on the road, and noted that if they did not do so, they risked being arrested. Eventually, most protestors walked out of the road, but Bambery and Lynch refused to do so and were arrested. They were also brought to the Berkshire County jail, advised of their Miranda rights, and booked.
All three defendants had court appearances today.